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

Despite her posh accent Vera Atkins was actually not native to Britain. She was born in as Vera Maria Rosenberg. Atkins was her mother’s maiden name. Both of her parents were of Jewish descent.

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. 

Buckmaster assigned her to be a courier for Philippe Liewer, head of the Salesman network. Liewer had returned to London, and it seemed that most of the members of his circuit had been arrested in his absence. 

Violette and Liewer arrived in Occupied France on April 6, 1944. Due to the fact that the Germans would arrest Liewer on sight, Violette went to Paris alone, under the cover of being a secretary named Corinne Reine Leroy. There she realized that the Salesman circuit had indeed been blown and even brought back a “Wanted” poster of Liewer. She returned to London by Lysander on April 30th. 

After a short rest in London, Violette again went back to France, this time to help Liewer revive the Salesman network which would now operate between Limoges and Périgueux. They found the Maquis to be poorly organized. Liewer sent Violette to contact another agent for help. As he was located over 50 kilometers (31 miles) away, he arranged for Violette to be driven in a black Citroën, driven by a Maquis leader named Dufour. Violette was armed with a Sten gun.

 The Germans had outlawed the use of cars in the country after D-Day, and they were stopped by a roadblock of German troops. Violette and Dufour jumped out from either side of the car and started shooting. The German soldiers shot back and Violette and Dufour began retreating through a wheat field behind a farmhouse, toward a nearby forest. 

They had been making headway when Violette’s ankle gave out. She insisted Dufour keep going while she covered him. Eventually she ran out of ammunition. A German officer approached her to congratulate her. He placed a cigarette in her mouth, which she immediately spit out. 

They brought her to the German headquarters in Limoges and interrogated her, probably with torture, though Violette declined to give up any names. After six days she was transferred to 84 Avenue Foch, where she underwent shock treatment and cold water baths, but once again she refused to talk. Eventually they stuck her in Fresnes Prison. 

In August she was put on a cattle train bound for Germany, along with other women from F Section. While their guards took cover during an air raid, Violette and Lilian Rolfe (codenamed Nadine) took water from the restroom to give to the men in the compartment behind theirs. SOE officer Yeo Thomas commented, “My God, that girl has guts.” 

The next day they were brought to Ravensbrück. 

In September, Violette, Lilian, and Denise Bloch (codenamed Ambroise) were brought to Torgau, along with Didi Nearne. After the escape attempt/ key incident (as described in The Spark of Resistance), the three Little Paratroopers were brought back to Ravensbrück and Violette was put in the Bunker as punishment. 

In October, the three women were sent to Königsberg, an even harder camp in the cold north, where they were forced to clear swamp land for an airfield. Even Violette’s ever cheerful spirit took a dive due to the harsh conditions and disease that run rampant through the camp. 

A direct order called them back to Ravensbrück in January 1945. Violette first went to the infection block due to the ulcers that had developed on her legs, but she was soon sent back to the Bunker. 

In the evening hours of January 27, Violette was marched outside the crematorium. A sickly Lilian, who had to be carried by her guards, and a frail Denise were also waiting. The following is a statement from Johann Schwarzhuber, the overseer at Ravensbrück:

“I declare that I remember that I had delivered to me towards the end of January 1945 an order from the German Secret Police, countersigned by the Camp Commandant Suhren, instructing me to ascertain the location of the following persons – Lillian Rolfe, Danielle Williams [Denise Bloch)], Violette Szabo. These were at that time in the dependent camp of Königsberg on the Oder and were recalled by me. When they returned to the Camp they were placed in the punishment block and moved from there into the block of cells. 

One evening towards 1900 hours, they were called out and taken to the cemetery yard by the crematorium. Camp Commandant Suhren made these arrangements. He read out the order for their shooting in the presence of the Chief Camp Doctor, Dr. Trommer, SS Sergeant Zappe, SS Lance Corporal Schult, SS Corporal Schenk (the commander of the crematorium), and Dentist Dr. Hellinger. I myself was present. The shooting was done by Schult with a small-calibre gun through the back of the neck. They were brought forward singly by Corporal Schenk. Death was certified by Dr. Trommer. The corpses were removed singly by internees who were employed in the crematorium and burnt. The clothes were burnt with the bodies. I accompanied the three women to the crematorium yard. A female camp overseer was also present and was sent back when we reached the crematorium. Zappe stood guard over them while they were waiting to be shot. All three were very brave and I was deeply moved. Suhren was also impressed by the bearing of these women. He was annoyed that the Gestapo themselves did not carry out these shootings.”

Violette was only twenty-three when she died. She was the second woman (next to Odette) to be awarded England’s prestigious George Cross, which was given to her five-year-old daughter, Tania, by King George VI. 

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