Four women have been directly awarded the George Cross, as distinct from exchanging a discontinued Albert, Edward or Empire Gallantry Medal.
Three of the four George Cross awards to women were for service in the resistance in enemy occupied territory during World War Two. The fourth award, made posthumously to Miss Harrison, was for her bravery in a incident at Heathrow Airport.
BARBARA JANE HARRISON
Barbara Jane Harrison was born on 24 May 1945 in Bradford, Yorkshire. Miss Harrison was a Stewardess with British Overseas Airways Corporation (now part of the modern British Airways company).
The citation for her award of the George Cross was published in the London Gazette 7 August 1969:
On April 8th 1968, soon after take-off from Heathrow Airport, No. 2 engine of B.O.A.C. Boeing 707 G-ARWE caught fire and subsequently fell from the aircraft, leaving a fierce fire burning at No. 2 engine position. About two and a half minutes later the aircraft made an emergency landing at the airport and the fire on the port wing intensified.
Miss Harrison was one of the stewardesses in this aircraft and the duties assigned to her in an emergency were to help the steward at the aft station to open the appropriate rear door and inflate the escape chute and then to assist the passengers at the rear of the aircraft to leave in an orderly manner.
When the aircraft landed Miss Harrison and the steward concerned opened the rear galley door and inflated the chute, which unfortunately became twisted on the way down so that the steward had to climb down it to straighten it before it could be used. Once out of the aircraft he was unable to return; hence Miss Harrison was left alone to the task of shepherding passengers to the rear door and helping them out of the aircraft. She encouraged some passengers to jump from the machine and pushed out others. With flames and explosions all around her and escape from the tail of the machine impossible she directed her passengers to another exit while she remained at her post. She was finally overcome while trying to save an elderly cripple who was seated in one of the last rows and whose body was found close to that of the stewardess.
Miss Harrison was a very brave young lady who gave her-life in her utter devotion to duty.
Miss Harrison buried at Fulford Cemetery, York.
Noor Inayat-Khan was born on 1 January 1914, in Moscow. She became a Assistant Section Officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, seconded to the Women’s Transport Service.
Inayat-Khan was the first women radio operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France, on 16 June 1943. During the weeks immediately following her arrival, the Gestapo made mass arrests in the Paris Resistance Groups to which she had been detailed, but although given the opportunity to return to England, she refused to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France. She was a wireless operator and did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group.
The Gestapo did their utmost to catch her and so break the last remaining link with London. After three and a half months she was betrayed, taken to Gestapo Headquarters in the Avenue Foch and asked to co-operate. She refused to give them information of any kind and was imprisoned in the Gestapo HQ, remaining there for several weeks, and making two unsuccessful attempts to escape during that time. She was asked to sign a declaration that she would make no further attempts but refused, so was sent to Germany for ‘safe custody’.
She was imprisoned at Karlsruhe in November 1943 and later at Pforsheim, where her cell was apart from the main prison as she was considered a particularly dangerous and unco-operative prisoner. She still refused to give any information about either her work or comrades.
On 12 September 1944 Noor (together with Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman and Madeleine Damerment) were taken to Dachau Concentration Camp and shot on the following day.
Noor Inayat Khan’s George Cross was published in the London Gazette on 5 April 1949:
Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN was the first woman operator to be infiltrated into enemy occupied France, and was landed by Lysander aircraft on 16th June, 1943.
During the weeks immediately following her arrival, the Gestapo made mass arrests in the Paris Resistance groups to which she had been detailed. She refused however to abandon what had become the principal and most dangerous post in France, although given the opportunity to return to England, because she did not wish to leave her French comrades without communications and she hoped also to rebuild her group. She remained at her post therefore and did the excellent work which earned her a posthumous Mention in Despatches.
The Gestapo had a full description of her, but knew only her code name “Madeleine”. They deployed considerable forces in their effort to catch her and so break the last remaining link with London. After 3 months she was betrayed to the Gestapo and taken to their H.Q. in the Avenue Foch. The Gestapo had found her codes and messages and were now in a position to work back to London. They asked her to co-operate, but she refused and gave them no information of any kind. She was imprisoned in one of the cells on the 5th floor of the Gestapo H.Q. and remained there for several weeks during which time she made two unsuccessful attempts at escape. She was asked to sign a declaration that she would make no further attempts but she refused and the Chief of the Gestapo obtained permission from Berlin to send her to Germany for “safe custody”. She was the first agent to be sent to Germany.
Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN was sent to Karlsruhe in November; 1943, and then to Pforsheim where her cell was apart from the main prison. She was considered to be a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner. The Director of the prison has also been interrogated and has confirmed that Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN, when interrogated by the Karlsruhe Gestapo, refused to give any information whatsoever, either as to her work or her colleagues.
She was taken with three others to Dachau Camp on the 12th September, 1944. On arrival, she was taken to the crematorium and shot. Assistant Section Officer INAYAT-KHAN displayed the most conspicuous courage, both moral and physical over a period of more than 12 months.
Noor Inayat-Khan is commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, Panel Number 243.
ODETTE MARIE CELINE SANSOM
Odette Marie Céline Sansom (later Churchill, then Hallowes) was born on 28 April 1912.
Mrs. Sansom was infiltrated into enemy occupied France in October 1942 and worked with great courage and distinction until April 1943 when she and her commanding officer were arrested. On their way to Fresnes Prison they managed to talk together and agreed that for their mutual protection they should maintain that they were married. She stuck to this story and even succeeded in convincing her captors, in spite of considerable contrary evidence and through at least 14 interrogations. She also drew Gestapo attention from her commanding officer (Captain Peter Churchill) to herself, saying that he had only come to France on her insistence and even agreed that it should be herself and hot her commanding officer who should be shot.
The Gestapo were most determined to discover the location of a wireless operator and another British Officer whose lives were of the greatest value to the Resistance organisation. Mrs. Sansom was the only person who had this information but although she was subjected to every sort of indignity and cruelty, she never gave anything away and by her bravery and determination not only saved the lives of the two officers but also enabled them to carry on their most valuable work.
She was in solitary confinement for 2 years and whilst in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp was kept in complete darkness for 3 months and 11 days, as a punishment for the Allied landings in the south of France.
Ultimately, she was taken by the German Camp Commandant to the nearest American unit in May 1945.
Odette returned to England in 1945, although her health had been badly affected by her period of imprisonment and torture. A medical report produced, in 1945, by the doctor treating her stated that “… she was in a state of high nervous tension due to maltreatment received in German captivity. Some nails on her toes were missing; there was on her back a rounded scar of about half an inch diameter, the result of a burn deliberately inflicted in the concentration camp”.
Her award of the George Cross was published in the London Gazette on 20 August 1946:
Mrs. Sansom was infiltrated into enemy occupied France and worked with great courage and distinction until April, 1943, when she was arrested with her Commanding Officer. Between Marseilles and Paris on the way to the prison at Fresnes, she succeeded in speaking to her Commanding Officer and for mutual protection they agreed to maintain that they were married.
She adhered to this story and even succeeded in convincing her captors in spite of considerable contrary evidence and through at least fourteen interrogations. She also drew Gestapo attention from her Commanding Officer on to herself saying that he had only come to France on her insistence. She took full responsibility and agreed that it should be herself and not her Commanding Officer who should be shot.
By this action she caused the Gestapo to cease paying attention to her Commanding Officer after only two interrogations. In addition the Gestapo were most determined to discover the whereabouts of a wireless operator and of another British officer whose lives were of the greatest value to the Resistance Organisation. Mrs. Sansom was the only person who knew of their whereabouts. The Gestapo tortured her most brutally to try to make her giveaway this information. They seared her back with a red hot iron and, when, that failed, they pulled out all her toe-nails.
Mrs. Sansom, however, continually refused to speak and by her bravery and determination, she not only saved the lives of the two officers but also enabled them to carry on their most valuable work. During the period of over two years in which she was in enemy hands, she displayed courage and endurance.
Before her capture, Odette had met and fallen in love with another SOE man: Captain Peter Churchill. They were captured together, but both survived and married in 1947. The couple divorced in 1953 and Odette became Mrs Geoffrey Hallowes in 1956.
Odette Hallowes died on 13 March 1995 at her Walton-on-Thames home aged 82.
VIOLETTE REINE ELIZABETH SZABO
Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo was born on 26 June 1921 in the British Military Hospital in Paris of an English father and a French mother. She went to school in both England and France. Her family seat in France was a little village called Pont Remy, not far from Abbeville and right on the Somme. She boarded for a time in Abbeville right next to a park now contains Abbeville’s library.
During World War II, Violette Szabo lived, together with her parents and daughter in Burnley Road, Stockwell, London SW9. She was an Ensign in the Women’s Transport Service (FANY).
Violette Szabo volunteered for a particularly dangerous mission in France during April 1944, when she acted as a courier to a Frenchman who had survived the break-up of his circuit based on Rouen and was trying to reconstitute a group in this strategically important area. She had to travel from Paris to Rouen, contacting certain people believed to have remained unmolested and report back to her chief in Paris. She accomplished this dangerous task successfully and after about 6 weeks returned to England.
On D-Day plus one, 7 June 1944, she was dropped into France again.
Soon after her parachute landing, Szabo and her French guide were ambushed by a German patrol and wounded. Szabo insisted that her guide should escape while he could, and she herself was captured and taken first to Limoges and then to Paris. After brutal interrogations over several weeks when she divulged nothing, she was put on a train for Germany. On the journey while an air raid was in progress and the guards ran for shelter, she managed, despite being chained by the ankle to another prisoner, to carry a bottle of water to badly wounded British officers in a cattle truck. Unknown to each other, this group of officers included Yeo-Thomas.
Imprisonment at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp followed and then two spells in labour camps, working under impossible conditions.
Between 25 January and 5 February 1945, Violette Szabo was returned to Ravensbrück and shot together with two other agents: Lilian Rolfe and Danielle Block. The execution scene was later described in an April 1946 interrogation of one of the German onlookers, the second-in-command at Ravensbrück.
Violette Szabo’s award of the George Cross was published in the London Gazette on 17 December 1946:
Madame Szabo volunteered to undertake a particularly dangerous mission in France. She was parachuted into France in April, 1944, and undertook the task with enthusiasm. In her execution of the delicate researches entailed she showed great presence of mind and astuteness.
She was twice arrested by the German security authorities but each time managed to get away. Eventually, however, with other members of her group, she was surrounded by the Gestapo in a house in the south west of France. Resistance appeared hopeless but Madame Szabo, seizing a Sten-gun and as much ammunition as she could carry, barricaded herself in part of the house and, exchanging shot for shot with the enemy, killed or wounded several of them. By constant movement, she avoided being cornered and fought until she dropped exhausted.
She was arrested and had to undergo solitary confinement. She was then continuously and atrociously tortured. But never by word or deed gave away any of her acquaintances or told the enemy anything of any value. She was ultimately executed. Madame Szabo gave a magnificent example of courage and steadfastness.
Violette Szabo was also awarded the Croix de Guerre (France). Her husband, Lieutenant Etienne Szabo (Free French Forces), was killed in action at El Alamein on 24 October 1942.
Violette Szabo is commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial on Panel 26, Column 3.
In 1981 a Blue Plaque commemorating Violette’s life was unveiled at the house in Stockwell (London), which had been occupied by Violette Szabo, her parents and daughter.