Page last updated at 19:59 GMT, Sunday, 4 October 2009 20:59 UK

Secret agents' memorial unveiled

By Paul Moss
BBC News


The memorial will recognise the work of the Special Operations Executives

A memorial to honour secret agents who worked for the Allies in World War II is unveiled in London, featuring a sculpture of captured and executed Violette Szabo.

They came from all generations of the military - veterans of World War II, serving men and women, and young military cadets - all gathered on London's South Bank to see the new memorial officially unveiled.

The bust gazing out across the Thames depicts Violette Szabo, one of Britain's more extraordinary under-cover agents.

Daughter of a French mother and English father, Violette grew up in Brixton, South London.

But when her husband was killed fighting in North Africa, she volunteered for under-cover operations in France.

'Absolutely fearless'

The first mission was a complete success, organising resistance and sending back intelligence from behind enemy lines.

But when she returned again, shortly after D-day, Szabo was captured by the Germans, tortured and killed.

"She was young and absolutely fearless," Lord Selborne said at today's ceremony.

He had been invited because his grandfather was in overall charge of her mission.

We had lots of friends who never knew that we won the war, because they were killed along the way
Joachim Ronneberg
Telemark raid leader

"When it came to a shoot-out, there she was, leading from the front. And once she was captured, she gave absolutely nothing away in the concentration camp where she was tortured - a remarkable story."

But it was not only Szabo's story that was remembered today.

The memorial commemorates all members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the wartime unit of which she was a member.

It was wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill who dreamed up the SOE, a collection of agents from various countries which would, he promised "set Europe ablaze".

With this mission statement, it carried out reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and outright sabotage across the continent.

Sombre mood

It was the SOE that carried out one of WWII's most famous commando operations, the raid on Telemark.

This destroyed a factory in Norway where the Germans were trying to produce heavy water, an essential ingredient in atomic bombs.

Guest of honour at today's ceremony was the man who led that raid, Joachim Ronneberg. He was in a sombre mood.

"I am privileged to be here," he said. "We had lots of friends who never knew that we won the war, because they were killed along the way.

"It's with great respect that you stand at a memorial like this."

Bust of Violette Szabo
Violette Szabo gave nothing away under torture

But if members of the SOE faced fierce opposition in the countries where they operated, they also came under attack back in Britain.

Many in the military establishment resented what they regarded as an upstart unit, not under the control either of the generals or of the regular intelligence agencies.

Their methods too were controversial, described euphemistically as "unorthodox," but condemned by some as downright brutal.

And in some places where the SOE had acted, there were appalling reprisals on the local population.

Some came to doubt whether this civilian death-toll could be justified.

Sensitive papers

When the war ended, the SOE was wound up, its operations subsumed into other departments.

And it was not until the new bust of Szabo was made that the SOE had a dedicated public memorial.

There was some mention of this controversial history at Sunday's ceremony.

One speaker complained that official papers on the SOE are still being withheld on grounds of sensitivity.

But there was also gratitude from many people who attended, glad that the memorial had finally been built.

It was a sign, one said, that the Special Operations Executive was finally being given the recognition it deserved.

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