Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Violette Szabo Museum
"Cartref", Wormelow, Herefordshire
24th June 2000
Well Steve's got the silly grin of sheer bliss on his face again !!
I've spent this last weekend down near Hereford for the opening of the Violette Szabo Museum.
For those few who might not know the name, Violette's story was told in the film Carve Her Name With Pride (1958). She was an agent of SOE (Special Operations Executive) and was sent into occupied France twice. The first time she returned safely (after helping to regroup the resistance in one area after it had been "blown" and most of the resistance people captured).
On her second mission, the day after D-Day, she was to help organise all the resistance groups in the Limoge area so that they could stop (or hinder) the Das Reich Panzer Division that was rushing up from the South of France to try to force the allies off the Normandy beaches.
Violette (only aged 23) was travelling between two groups when she & the leader of one of the groups, ran into an advance column from the panzer division. Violette held them at bay allowing the Frenchman to escape. She was captured and tortured for her codes, but she didn't reveal anything. So they threw her in Ravensbruck concentration camp. Sometime in 1944 she was taken out and shot !!
Violette was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross, the highest civilian award for bravery, usually regarded as the equivalent to the Victoria Cross. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.
The film is probably best known for the famous poem
The life that I have
Is all that I have,
And the life that I have
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
In the film they say that it was written by Violette's husband, Etienne. But we know that it was really written by Leo Marks and given to Violette to use as a code poem. Leo was the head of agents codes at SOE, even though he was only 22 !!
My involvement started when a Canadian lady emailed me because I'd written a plot summary for the film on the IMDB. This lady, Corie Johnson, is writing a book about Violette, Odette & Noor Inayat Khan, the three wartime SOE ladies who were awarded the GC.
Corie asked me to find her a copy of the film so I made a copy from the one I've got & also sent her copies of the 1951 film Odette starring Anna Neagle and a few documentaries I had on the subject (The film Odette (1951) has Marius Goring as the German intelligence officer who captured Odette & Peter Churchill and it also stars Peter Ustinov as their radio operator, Arnauld)
So Corie & I became friends and when she was told about the museum she asked me along as her escort. Corie had also been in touch with Graham, a second hand bookseller who specialises in WWII books and we'd both got to know him quite well over the last year. Well we made sure he was invited and he very kindly offered to pay for us to stay in Herefordshire.
Corie had also (with my help) tracked down an email address for Violette's daughter Tania. You may remember the sweet little girl who played Tania in the film. Well the real Tania now lives in Jersey & is a languages teacher and yes, she said she'd be delighted to come. So I volunteered to pick Tania up from Gatwick Airport & drive her, her partner Paul (another story in himself, ex Special Forces sniper & Military Intelligence) and Corie to Hereford.
Oh, a word about the person who had done all the REALLY hard work. Rosemary Rigby MBE is a fundraiser for the RNIB (The Royal National Institute for the Blind) and she had moved into Cartref, a Herefordshire farmhouse. When Rosemary discovered that it was once owned by Violette's aunt and that Violette had often gone there as a child and had also gone there to rest up between her two missions, she decided to start the museum started. Rosemary raised a HUGE amount of money and organised everything to make a wonderful weekend.
I always had a thought in the back of my mind "Wouldn't it be nice if Leo Marks turned up". I heard from Rosemary a few days before we went that he WAS due to turn up. Deepest joy :)
Corie flew in from Vancouver on Wednesday of last week & I met her on Thursday (after she'd recovered from the jet lag). This was the first time we'd met. We'd only emailed & spoken on the phone before. I took her out for a meal at Rules (the best restaurant in London, established in 1798) and then to the theatre.
We decided that as Corie had to bring her luggage for the weekend, rather than her getting the tube or cab to my place, she would get a cab down to Gatwick, pick up Tania & Paul and bring them back to my place.
They arrived at midday & we had a cup of tea while we all got aquainted. For a lady who had such a TERRIBLE start in life Tania is wonderful - mind you, I think she's wonderful by any standards, even ignoring her potentially traumatic childhood. (Tania never saw her Father, he was killed in North Africa when she was one. Her Mother went on her second mission when Tania was two. When she was four she went to meet the King and then the French president to be presented with all the medals that her parents had been awarded)
So we set off for Hereford. A lovely journey "across country" (ignoring the motorways).
We got to the hotel, unpacked & came down for dinner. There we met Graham & Rosemary and were introduced to two of the agents who had parachuted in with Violette on her second mission !!
On the Saturday we went off to the museum quite early. Or we thought we would be early, but Rosemary was organising all of her helpers (the ladies of the local WI, the boy scouts etc) and there were already a couple of hundred of "just ordinary people" (i.e. not helpers) there. We managed to have a quick look around the museum but there wasn't much time because the crowds soon increased. We reckon there were about 1500 - 2000 people there altogether for the main ceremony !!
I had a bit of time to wander round and see who else was there. There was a group from the Special Forces Association and I chatted to some of the airborne troops who had landed at Arnhem. I met the ex-army radio operators who had set up a radio net to amateurs all over the world telling them about the event. I even sampled a special beer brewed to commemorate the occasion :)
Then, as everyone was beginning to congregate in front of the museum for the official opening someone told me that Leo had turned up !!
A few others had recognised him and they produced copies of either the book of the poem that was published just a while ago, or copies of his autobiography Between Silk and Cyanide for him to sign. But I was the only one who had a copy of the Peeping Tom book !! (I had the other two as well but thought this would be a better introduction). I told him of our email group and the worldwide interest in the works of P&P saying that people are beginning to realise how wonderful they were. Leo agreed saying that at the time sometimes even Powell didn't realise how good they were :) I mentioned having met Columba (who, of course, was in PT) and Leo asked after him. I said how much I'd love to chat about his work with Powell but today was Violette's day, so I just left him my card and he said he'd be in touch - here's hoping !! [Sadly Leo died in January 2001 so I never was able to meet him again. I've met his widow since then though]
He's now 80 and he's a lovely man. He's physically very small but it's that powerful mind that I'm fascinated by.
I saw him often throughout the day and he often seemed lost or overwhelmed by the number of people. However I refrained from anything further because I got the impression that he was there for the memory of Violette and didn't really want to have any attention drawn to him. Later on everyone involved said a few words, even the local builder. I suspect that Leo had been asked but declined.
The official opening ceremony was very moving. Virginia McKenna did the honours and made a wonderfully moving speech. There were a couple of prayers & hymns and Virginia read out the poem. The British Legion did a march past with all the surviving WWII special forces they could muster (quite a lot) and when they played The Last Post and then two old soldiers came forward to speak the lines of first
They shall not grow old
As we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them
We WILL remember them
When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
it must have been very windy because there wasn't a dry eye in the place !! :)
Then Virginia officially opened the museum. It's only a small building of local stone but Rosemary had organised things in it from all over the place. Someone had made some lovely panels telling Violette's life story, there were copies of lots of the books about SOE, uniforms, radio sets, a sten gun (made safe) and loads of other things.
Corie & I managed to get some tea but Tania & Virginia spent the rest of the day (from 1pm until about 5pm) signing things and talking to people.
As I had been in the general crowd I'd often overhear people saying things like "I hear that Violette's daughter is here" so I'd tell them that yes, she was and point Tania out. Then, when they got out their copy of the Carve Her Name with Pride book by R.J. Minney I'd tell them that I was sure she & Virginia would be delighted to sign them. And they were. I told them both afterwards that they'd made a lot of people very happy.
Oh yes, I had a word with Virginia, lovely woman and she signed my copy of the book of the poem.
We met so many people and there were so many others we didn't meet but who probably had some amazing tales to tell.
There was the little old French lady who had been thrown into Ravensbruck and experimented on. She had been injected with gangrene and was very sick, lying on the floor when Violette saw her and gave up her bunk for her. It was wonderful to see her when she met Tania.
The media were there, but fairly discreet. Did anyone see us on Sky News or the local TV?
An ex-BBC camera crew were doing an official documentary of the day which will be for sale later in the year (all proceeds to the museum). I know they interviewed Tania & Leo and probably lots of other people as well as recording the event itself.
On the Sunday morning we went back thinking that at last Tania might get a chance to see everything (she'd been so busy signing and talking to everyone on Saturday). But when we got there a lot of other people had had the same idea :)
Not quite as many as on the Saturday (only about 100) so we did manage to have a good look around.
Then a nice drive back, drop Tania & Paul off at Gatwick for their flight back to Jersey, into London to drop Corie off at her hotel, and home to a nice soak in the bath to ease the aching muscles.
But a fabulous weekend !!
I've just got the photos back (I rushed them through on the 1 hour service) and will scan them in (especially the one of Leo with a great impish smile).
The web site for the museum is at http://www.violette-szabo-museum.co.uk/foyer.htm so if you're ever in the area (between Hereford, Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth) do drop in.
There's another great site about the women of SOE (including some information on Leo) at http://www.64-baker-street.org.
Oh, one last comment. On the door to the museum there is now a little sign that says"Violette Szabo. Her Name Carved With Pride"[Pause while Steve sheds a tear]
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