Violette Szabo. By Susan Ottaway. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2002. ISBN 1-55750-499-7. Photographs. Appendixes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 194. $32.95.
Britain's Special Operations Executive, famously charged by Winston Churchill in the dark days of 1940 to "set Europe ablaze," has given rise to an extensive literature ranging from memoir to monograph, from the sensational [End Page 268] to the scholarly. A number of books have been written about individual agents among the four hundred who were sent into occupied France, thirty-nine of whom were women. Thirteen of the latter did not return. One of those was Violette Szabo, who had grown up in France and was living in England when war broke out. French-speaking and eager to help defeat the Nazis, she joined the Auxiliary Transport Service and in due course was recruited by SOE. Her short career in the organization carrying out sabotage and subversion in occupied Europe ended with her capture, imprisonment in Ravensbruck, and execution there at the age of twenty-three. By all accounts she had fought bravely when cornered and behaved with dignity under interrogation and imprisonment. Awarded the George Cross posthumously, she became the heroine of a 1958 bestseller, Carve Her Name with Pride, characterized by breathless prose and less than scrupulous accuracy, and of a film based on the book.
Supplementing well-known information about SOE's French Section with interviews with family members and childhood friends, Susan Ottaway has retold Violette Szabo's story. (The subtitle, "The life that I have. . ." is from a poignant poem on which Szabo's wireless coding in the field was based.) While this book avoids the excesses of the hagiographic tone of the earlier account of Szabo's life and corrects some of its misinformation, it presents problems of its own. Like many hard-working biographers, the author includes every piece of information she has unearthed, however trivial. Is it really worth devoting space to such questions as which of two roofs it was that the young Violette climbed?
The fact is that many of the young women SOE sent to France lived very ordinary lives until then. That makes their accomplishments in the field all the more admirable, but it does not follow that covering their early lives in minute detail makes for particularly interesting or enlightening reading.
While the book's descriptions of the recruitment and training of the women SOE agents and the difficulties and risks they encountered once dropped onto French soil will be familiar to those who have read any of the many books about SOE's French Section, one aspect to which Ottaway has contributed something more is the paramilitary training. A former security officer of the Scottish training schools provided her with details about the commando course in the rugged highlands where the women participated in rigorous toughening exercises right alongside the men with no distinction made between the sexes, an innovation in its time.
While this book has little to offer those already familiar with SOE,
it might well serve the general reader to whom the subject is new as
an introduction to the works of historians such as M. R. D. Foot and
New York, New York