WWII Female Agents Behind Enemy Lines – Part 1

In this series of three articles, I’ll talk about a few of the female agents who were sent to France by F Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during WWII. F Section (French Section) was part of SOE, set up as a clandestine organization “to set Europe ablaze”, as Winston Churchill once said.


WWII: The SOE and MI6

SOE and the other main organisation working overseas, MI6, had a deep mistrust of each other, and operated independently, although there were times when they needed each other. SOE was based in Baker Street, London, and F Section was run by Maurice Buckmaster and his assistant, Romanian-born, Vera Atkinson, an extremely efficient woman who had quite a secret past herself.

Vera Atkins

Vera Atkins

Violette Szabo

Of the 1,800 agents dispatched to France, only 41 were women and not all made it back. A monument stands by the bank of the River Thames commemorating the work of the SOE agents. A part of it reads:




The wording is similar to the 1958 film -“Carve Her Name with Pride”, the story of Violette Szabo, an SOE agent in France, and stars Virginia McKenna and Paul Schofield. At the time it was released, the British public became aware of the role of SOE and the female agents. Although much of what they had done was still guarded as the women had signed the Official Secrets Act.

It wasn’t until years later that their true acts of bravery came to be known. In fact, unlike the French, these women did not receive their rightful accolades as they were told that as FANYs (Female Auxiliary Nursing Yeoman, the “special” contract under which they were recruited), they were only entitled to civilian medals. A few even rejected their medals.

Violette Szabo

Violette Szabo

So, I think it is only fitting that we begin with Violette Szabo herself. Violette – code name “Louise”, was born in France. Her mother was French, her father, English. At the outbreak of WWII, she moved to London and married Etienne Szabo, a non-commissioned officer of Hungarian descent with the Foreign Legion.

When Etienne returned to North Africa, in 1941 Violette enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and was sent to work in the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. She returned to London to give birth to her daughter, Tania, and it was around this time that she discovered Etienne had been killed at El Alamein.

Violette Szabo and husband Etienne

Violette Szabo and husband Etienne

On hearing this, she immediately accepted SOE’s offer to be a field agent and flew to France twice. During her second mission, she was sent to work with the Maquis of Correze and Dordogne. There, she helped to sabotage infrastructure and spied on industrial plants the Germans were using. Due to poor intelligence, in June 1944, she was unaware of the 2nd SS Panzer Division heading to Normandy, and after setting out with a friend in a Citroën, even though after the Allied Landing it was forbidden for the French to be driving cars, the car alerted suspicion and she was caught after twisting her ankle when she tried to flee.

She was taken to Limoges, then to the notorious Fresnes Prison in Paris, and finally sent to Ravensbrück Camp in Germany. With her were two other SOE agents, Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolf.

Leo Marks, in charge of coding at SOE HQ, Baker St., (the same Leo Marks whose parents had the bookshop, 64 Charing Cross Rd.) remembered her as “a dark-eyed slip of mischief”, and although she was the deadliest shot at her training school, she could not remember the various codes she tried.

“Porquois, pourquois, pourquois?” she would say anxiously. So, it was Marks who wrote the code poem for her, one that he had written in memory of his girlfriend, Ruth, who had just died in a plane crash in Canada. In exchange, Violette gave him a miniature chess set, saying she looked forward to playing a game when she returned.

Violette’s Code Poem
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours

Unfortunately, Violette would never get to play that game with Leo. She was executed at Ravensbrück on February 5, 1945, aged 23. Tania, her daughter, was just three years old.

Much later, Tania travelled extensively giving talks about her mother and the other female agents in SOE.

Violette Szabo was the second woman to be awarded the George Cross, posthumously awarded on December 17 th, 1946, and Tania, then aged four, collected it. Violette was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government in 1947, along with La Medaille de la Resistance in 1973. She’s also listed on the Valençay SOE Memorial as one of the agents who died liberating France. Violette and Etienne are the most decorated married couple of World War II.

In Part Two, we will talk about three more brave SOE heroines.

Image Credits:
1. SOE plaque Wikipedia
2. Vera Atkins Wikipedia
3. Carve her name with Pride – Original film poster via Wikipedia.
4. Violette image via Wikipedia
5. Violette Szabo and her husband Etienne via Pinterest
6. Image from the newspaper with her daughter 


About the Contributor

Kathryn Gauci

I am a textile designer and author of historical fiction living in Melbourne, Australia. I am also a Francophile and visit France frequently for pleasure and research. My interests range from history to the arts, food, & of course, the French way of life.

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