The Women in the Spark of Resistance

The Mata Hari of World War 2: Mathilde Carré

Mathilde was born on June 30, 1908 to Arséne Narcisse Joseph Belard and Jeanne Belard. “Lily,” as her family called her, pursued a law degree at the Sorbonne, an unusual feat for a woman at the time. There she met Maurice Henri-Claude Carré, a schoolteacher. Maurice hailed from a lower class than the Belards, and Mathilde’s parents did not necessarily approve of the match.

Nevertheless, the two were married on May 19, 1933 and then moved to Algeria, where Mathilde took a job teaching. Six years into their marriage, Mathilde was confronted with two facts about her husband. One was that he was impotent, as revealed by her mother-in-law, due to a childhood bout with illness. The other was that Maurice’s father had died in a mental institution and not during the Great War as he had originally told her.

Mathilde filed for divorce the same month that the war broke out. She left North Africa for Paris, where she joined L’union des Femmes de France, a precursor to the French Red Cross. She trained as a nurse in a surgical hospital outside of Paris. Maurice was sent to Syria. He was killed shortly after their last meeting (as detailed in the novel).

Despite almost fainting the first time she assisted with surgery, Mathilde excelled at being a nurse. She worked long hours, often accompanying doctors to the front to treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield.  She was relocated to Toulouse after the Armistice. One night in October 1940, she met a handsome man who introduced himself as Armand. He was really Roman Czerniawksi, a Polish Air Force captain and intelligence officer.  He had been captured by the Germans after France surrendered, but had managed to escape with the help of a widow, Reneé Borni, who hid him in her home and supplied him with her late husbands’ clothing and French passport.

Mathilde and Roman bonded over their hatred for the Germans. He called her “Lily”, her childhood nickname, and she called him “Toto” for reasons unknown. He confided of his Polish intelligence connections.

Read more of Mathilde’s story in The Spark of Resistance: Women Spies in WWII

Violette Szabo

Violette Szabo was born Violette Reine Elizabeth Bushell on 26 June 1921 in Paris, France. Her father, Charles George Bushell, met her mother,  Reine Blanche Leroyl, a dressmaker, during WWI when he was employed as a driver with the British Army. When Violette was around three, the family moved to England to live with Charles’ family. Charles took a job as a used car dealer, but times were hard and Violette went back to France to stay with an aunt for a while. When they returned to England, Violette had three new younger brothers, in addition to her older brother, Roy. 

With so many boys in the family, Violette became a “tom-boy”. Roy described her as having a “devil-may-care attitude” and “pretty smart and pig-headed.”  

When war came, Violette joined the Women’s Land Army (WLA) as a Land Girl. The British government established the WLA in order to have fresh crops. The Land Girls took care of these crops —Violette picked strawberries.

After the German army’s Occupation of Paris, many French citizens poured into London to rally under the exiled General Charles de Gaulle. By Bastille Day, July 14, in 1940, Violette had had enough of picking strawberries. Her mother sent her to the parade given by the Free French with the instructions to find a homesick Frenchman to bring back for a homecooked meal. As simple as it sounded, the beautiful Violette was not exactly eager to approach a complete stranger and invite him back to her mother’s house. She got her chance when a legionnaire approached her. He introduced himself as Major Etienne Michel René Szabo, from the French Foreign Legion. He eagerly accepted Violette’s invitation and they soon became a couple. Soon Etienne was asking Mr. Bushell for Violette’s hand in marriage via broken English and an array of hand gestures (despite having a French wife and bilingual children, Charles Bushell did not speak much French). Violette was only 19 while Etienne was 30 and her parents worried both about the age difference and how quickly the relationship had progressed. Still, both parents approved of Etienne and eventually consented to the marriage. They were married on August 21, 1940, a mere five weeks after their first meeting. Etienne left for West Africa a week after the wedding. 

Etienne didn’t want Violette to have a job, but she was anxious to fill her long days with something and took a job as a telephone operator. The exchange where she worked was bombed by the Luftwaffe, but luckily Violette was not there at the time. Once again she became restless and set her sights on joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). When Etienne returned home in the summer of 1941, he agreed to let his wife join the non-combatant women’s branch of the British Army since he could tell she would never be satisfied waiting for him at home. 

After she completed her basic ATS training, Viollete was assigned to the 137 HAA Regiment, at the 481 HAA Battery. She became a predictor, which meant trying to determine where a target would be in the sky when a fired missile reached it. She was only there for a few weeks when she found out she was pregnant. 

Etienne was predictably excited when her letter informing him of the pregnancy reached him. Viollete moved back home with her parents, but found living with her father to be difficult. She ended up moving to a flat in Notting Hill. Tania Damaris Désirée Szabo was born on June 8, 1942. Two months later Etienne was killed in action in North Africa. 

Sometime in the spring of 1943, Violette received a letter from Captain Selwyn Jepson of the SOE, asking for an interview. It is not clear how the SOE found out about Violette, but most likely it was through the ATS. Like Odette, Didi, and Jackie, Violette spoke fluent French. Violette eagerly accepted the opportunity  to avenge Etienne’s death at the hands of the Germans and was sent to Winterfield House for training. 

She then went to the Scottish highlands for field training, followed by finishing school at Beaulieu and parachute training at Ringway Airport. She injured her ankle during her first try at parachuting and went home to recuperate. Like Odette, her departure to France was delayed several times, and during one extension, the SOE decided to send her to Leo Marks to brush up on her coding. It was then that Marks gave her the original poem he had written, The Life that I Have, to use as her code. 

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