Tag Archives: Violette Szabo

Life or death communications – the use of codes by Britain’s spies in the Second World War

Did you ever write messages in code when you were a child? I remember having fun believing that what I wrote to my friend was unreadable by anyone else – even though we only used a simple code where the letters of the alphabet were transposed a number of places. For instance, if we transposed the letters by two places we could send this message:

UJCNN YG IQ VQ VJG EKPGOC VQOQTTQY – I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to read!*

Communication is vital during war, particularly for agents who may be behind enemy lines, but sending messages can also be very dangerous. For agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War it was always possible that the enemy might decipher their messages or get a fix on the radio when the message was sent – both scenarios which could put the life of the agent in danger. To ensure a transmission was as safe as possible some sort of encryption was needed to keep the message secret.

Samuel Morse

Before learning how to encode a message the SOE agent would first have to learn how to send in Morse code which is a method of transmitting text as a series of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches which are known as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ and are, in effect, a simple binary coding. The code is named after Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in the 1830’s and needed a new electronic system to be able to send messages. Each letter or symbol in Morse code is represented by a series of these dots and dashes and it is the simplest and most versatile method of radio/telegraph communication. The most well-known grouping of letters in Morse code is the universal distress call    . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot), more commonly known as SOS.

But learning Morse code was only the first step for an agent who was preparing to go overseas as it was a universally known code and so the enemy would be able to read any messages that they sent. In the early days of the SOE agents used a simple, and consequently insecure, code known as ‘poem code’ to encrypt their messages. Both the agent and the person receiving the message would have a copy of the same poem. The sender would start his message with five letters to indicate which part of the poem his encryption would be based on; the message would then be written in columns before being transposed and transmitted. These poem codes worked well because they were quite secure but the agent didn’t need to carry a code book as they could memorise the poem. There were, however, weaknesses to this system. For instance, it was relatively easy to make a mistake when encoding; also, if the enemy managed to decode one message they then had all the information they needed to decode other transmissions from that agent in the future, and even ones they had intercepted in the past.

Leo Marks

The SOE knew that they needed to improve their communications system and so Leo Marks was appointed as codes officer. He found that the poems used for encryption had to be easy for agents to remember and so were often famous ones such as ‘Daffodils’ – the problem was that these famous poems would be known by the enemy and so make it easier for them to crack the codes. One of the first changes Marks made was to have original poems written for the agents to use rather than famous ones, these original poems were often comic, satirical or sexual to make them more memorable. Not all fell into these categories though, and one of the most famous of his original poems was, in fact, a love poem written for his girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash; he later gave this poem to agent Violette Szabo to use when she was posted to France. (Violette was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 and her service in the SOE was commemorated in the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’).

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.

Violette Szabo

Another method Marks introduced was to simply use a different poem for each transmission to prevent any sort of pattern which might help the enemy. As it would have been hard for an agent to remember a number of poems correctly these were written on silk rather than memorised.

Leo Marks continued to work on more secure methods of encryption and the poem code was gradually replaced. The Worked-Out Key (WOK) system used a number of codes which were used only once and were written on silk (to be hidden in the agents clothing as described in my article on radio operators). Once a particular key had been used it would be torn off the silk and destroyed, leaving the next key ready for use. Marks went on to develop a One-Time Pad code where the letters of the alphabet were written in a list, the agent encoded his message by using a substitution square (i.e. substituting a different letter for each one in the alphabet). After being used once the list was thrown away and a different one used next time but still using the same substitution square. This was much safer than the poem code as there was no pattern to the listing of the letters of the alphabet and so even if the enemy managed to break the code for one message it wouldn’t help them with future ones. SOE agents liked this method as it was quick and secure.

As well as ensuring the safest possible codes Leo Marks worked on ways of deceiving the enemy through agent’s transmissions. One of these deceptions was Operation Gift-Horse which included key codes from the WOK system at the beginning of each message and fooled the enemy into thinking it was a poem code. The main aim of this operation was to get the Germans to waste their time trying to decipher coded poems when the message was, in fact, a completely different system. ‘Gift-Horse’ was used extensively just before D Day in 1944 at a time when there was already a huge increase in radio messages and so made the chances of the Germans decoding and compiling information about the invasion much more difficult.

So the types of puzzles which we find so enjoyable as a leisure activity had a far more serious role for a secret agent behind enemy lines. Maybe next time you do a puzzle in a magazine or a book you can take a moment to think of those for whom coding was not a simple pass-time but a key part of their work which, if not done correctly, could cost them their life.

*My code de-encrypted: SHALL WE GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW

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The women who spied for Britain

The Invasion of France at the beginning of the Second World War is known as the Blitzkrieg – Lightning War – and it really was like lightning. It was just six short weeks from the start of the invasion on 10th May 1940 to the French signing an armistice with Germany on 22nd June. Yet although Germany had defeated the French army many French citizens were not ready to submit to the conquerors and so the British government set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its instructions from Churchill were to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by helping to fight the Germans behind enemy lines.

German soldiers in Paris

Recruits to the SOE underwent commando training as well as learning how to use guns and explosives, to effectively sabotage enemy installations and transport, to use wireless radios, to be proficient in silent killing and unarmed combat. They also had to learn how to blend in and live in secret in occupied territory, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Many may find it surprising to know that women were members of the SOE right from the start. At first their role was only to work in the offices producing forged papers for the men who would be going into action (ration cards, passports etc.), or perhaps coding or de-coding messages from agents as well as transmitting these messages via wireless. It wasn’t until April 1942 that Churchill finally gave his approval for women to be sent as agents into Europe. Part of the reasoning for this was that women would be less conspicuous as they were always out and about – shopping or taking children to school etc. – men who were seen on the streets too frequently soon came to the notice of the Gestapo. So the SOE recruited women as wireless operators and couriers and, like the men, these women had to be proficient in the language of the country they were going to, know it’s customs etc. The ideal recruit would have spent some of their formative years in the target country and so would know how to ‘blend in’. In all 431 men and 39 women were sent as SOE agents to France during the Second World War, as well as agents sent to other occupied countries.

Paraset Mk II, 1943

It would be impossible to describe the ‘average’ female SOE agent as there was really no such thing. A recruit could come from an aristocratic background or be working-class, she might have only just left school or be a mature and experienced mother, she might be demure or a little wild; the one unifying factor was that they were prepared to go behind enemy lines as the only women to bear arms during the war. They knew what they were signing up for, the chances that they could be captured and tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed, but that didn’t stop them.

One of the first women to work for SOE was actually an American called Virginia Hall who was living in France when the Germans invaded. Although she was disabled (she had an artificial foot) she managed to escape to England where she was signed up by the SOE and went back to France as a ‘correspondent for the New York Post’ (America had not yet entered the war at this time and so was considered neutral). After some time the Gestapo became too interested in Virginia so she escaped over the Pyrenean mountains to Spain (which could not have been easy with her disability). When she got back to England Virginia joined the newly formed US equivalent of SOE, went back to France prior to D Day and, after the war, served in the CIA.

Virgina Hall

Another famous SOE agent was Noor Inayat Khan who was born in Russia, the daughter of an Indian prince and American. Noor grew up in Paris where she became known as a writer and musician, but when her family fled to England to escape the Germans she trained as a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The SOE couldn’t ignore someone who spoke fluent French and could handle a wireless so they recruited Noor and she was sent to France in 1943. The network which she worked for was infiltrated and her colleagues arrested. Life was hard for Noor as she was forced to keep moving, finding a new place to stay every day in an effort to evade the Germans, carrying the all too conspicuous wireless with her. Noor continued to send reports to the SOE but her luck eventually ran out when she was betrayed and captured in October 1943. After spending months in solitary confinement Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female SOE agents where she was executed. Witnesses say that Noor spoke just one word at the end – liberté.

Noor Inayat Khan

Violette Szabo came from a very different background to Noor Inayat Kahn, a cockney working-class girl who had spent some time growing up in France and spoke the language well. She was married to a member of the French Foreign Legion, Etienne Szabo, who died at El Alamein. Violette had a one year old daughter but didn’t hesitate when the SOE came knocking at her door and immediately agreed to be sent to France, knowing the risks involved. Like Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo was captured and executed (at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945).

Violette Szabo

Although 13 of the women who were sent to France by the SOE were executed by the Germans and 2 others died of natural causes the other 24 survived until the end of the war. One of these was Odette Strugo Garay. Odette had a Czech father and a French mother. She was recruited by the SOE in 1944 after her husband, who was a Finnish RAF pilot, was killed in an accident. After undergoing her training, including four parachute jumps, Odette was sent to France, (she didn’t receive her RAF wings as she had not completed five qualifying jumps). After a time in France Odette returned to England via the route through Spain and on the way met the head of the escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay, who was later to become her husband. After the war Odette and  Santiago moved to Buenos Aires and it was there that she met the Air Attaché Wing Commander Dowling. During conversation she mentioned that although she had worked for the SOE and parachuted into France she had never received her RAF wings. He argued that her jump into France should count as a qualifying fifth jump and  Odette finally received her wings in 2007. She wore the badge every day until her death in 2015, proud of the contribution she had made to the work of the SOE in France.

Monument remembering all women who played a part in winninng the Second World War

The 39 female SOE agents who served in  France were ordinary women who did extraordinary things and, like their male counterparts, those who survived the war never sought the limelight but slipped back into civilian life as though their experiences during the war had never happened. They all felt that they were just doing their duty, no more than any other soldier who fought the Nazis. The women who went into enemy territory as agents of the SOE were pioneers – back at home women were working in the factories, taking over the roles of men who were away at the front, but the women of the SOE showed that not only could women do the work on the Home Front which had been done by men but that they could also fight like the men too. In my novel Heronfield Angeline is a radio operator who is parachuted into France by the SOE, her story is my tribute to the bravery of all women of any nationality who were prepared to put their lives on the line to preserve the freedom of others.