In my previous post about the Indian Princess, Noor Inayat Khan, I said that I had two favourite SOE agents. One was Noor, and the other is the subject of this post. Pearl Witherington was a British subject, born and raised in Paris. Of the thirty-nine women sent to occupied France by SOE, Pearl is the most unusual in that she was the only one to actually hold a position of command. Her thirty-eight female colleagues served as wireless operators, couriers (delivering messages and equipment to other circuits and members of the Resistance) or organisers. Pearl not only commanded her own circuit when its’ leader was captured by the Gestapo, but she also lead a group of French Resistance fighters, sometimes in actual combat. She is an anomaly, and a point of great fascination to me.
When the Second World War broke out and the Germans invaded France, Pearl took her mother and sisters across the demarcation line into the unoccupied section of the country they had called home for many years. This was illegal, and Pearl’s intelligence and bravery were all that got them out of the occupied area. Eventually, when the Germans occupied all of France, Pearl smuggled her family to Britain, where they settled down. Repulsed by the actions of the Nazis, Pearl immediately volunteered for war work, and was commissioned into the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Bilingual in French and English, she was determined to play an active role in the fight against Nazi Germany. On 8th June 1943, she was invited to join the Special Operations Executive. During her training she acquired guerrilla and sabotage skills, and was especially good with explosives. Pearl was unusual in that she was one of the only SOE women to receive positive training reports before deployment. Her personal file at the National Archives includes these training reports, one of which reads, ‘This student, though a woman, has definitely got leaders qualities and is an excellent student for the job – probably the best shot, male or female, we have had yet’.
On the night of 22nd September 1943, Pearl was parachuted into occupied France. Code-named ‘Marie’, she posed as a cosmetics saleswoman for eight months whilst secretly working as a courier for the SOE STATIONER network, which covered a large area of central France. During this time she traveled a lot, often by foot or bicycle, delivering weapons, messages and helping the French Resistance to prepare for the impending D-Day landings. On May 1st 1944, the STATIONER circuit organiser fell into a Gestapo trap, which Pearl managed to avoid. He was arrested, leaving Pearl in charge of the circuit. Due to its’ huge size, STATIONER was split into two smaller circuits, and Pearl was given command of the half in the Sologne, named WRESTLER. This was unusual in itself – women in France could not vote in 1944, so for her to be given a position of command was unorthodox to say the least. Despite being a woman and a foreigner, she reached the point where she was in charge of almost three thousand resistance fighters as well as the running of her own circuit. In addition to being SOE’s only female commander, Pearl was also one of their most successful agents in terms of sabotage – so much so that the Germans put a bounty of one million Francs on her head. Her circuit was tasked with extensive sabotage which would aid the D-Day landings by preventing the Germans from being able to access supplies and troops, and to keep them from being able to call for re-enforcements during the invasion. Under Pearl’s command, WRESTLER brought rail traffic in the area to a standstill by blowing up tracks and trains (in all around eight hundred explosions were carried out on rail targets), ambushed road convoys heading for the front, blew up factories to prevent the Germans from manufacturing tires and munitions and put nearly all of the main telephone cables in France out of action on D-Day (which would force the Germans to communicate via wireless, making vital intelligence easier for the Allies to intercept). Pearl personally resided over the surrender of around eighteen-thousand German troops who were trying to retreat from France back into Germany, and around one thousand German troops were killed under her command. On one occasion, Pearl and around forty of her men were attacked by seven thousand Germans. A neighbouring group of French Resistance (around 120 in number) came to Pearl’s aid, and the fighting lasted from ten o’clock in the morning to eleven o’clock in the evening. Pearl lost twenty men, and the Germans lost eighty-six. Pearl’s men fought so ferociously that the Germans assumed that there were around three thousand of them. Major Bourne-Patterson, himself of the SOE, wrote in his reports on Pearl’s activities that she and her men fought ‘like lions’.
The sabotage wrought by Pearl’s men and the intelligence which they provided to the Allies was of vital importance to the D-Day landings. Her success is beyond doubt, and her career is a bold example of how SOE’s women proved that women could fulfil combat roles as successfully as male agents. M.R.D. Foot, SOE’s official historian, calls Pearl a woman of ‘unusual strength of character, courage and directness of speech’. She overcame the negative attitudes she faced, lived in the woods for months without clean water, a bed, or a uniform that fit her properly, led thousands of men into battles and sabotage missions on hundreds of occasions and did so despite the fact that many of them were totally unaccustomed to taking orders from women. Most of them had some level of genuine respect for her. There is an amusing audio interview in the Imperial War Museum online archive with one Don A. Farrington, one of the men under Pearl’s command. He explains Pearl was constantly trying to keep people from doing ‘silly things’. One day, some colleagues of his kidnapped a German officer and brought him back to the camp. Farrington recalls how Pearl, now code-named Pauline, was ‘absolutely livid’ and ‘didn’t half lay into them’. When the same men later asked his advice, he replied, ‘you do nothing at all – you see Pauline!’ His respect for Pearl is obvious, and was shared by many of his colleagues.
A citation in Pearl’s personal file (National Archives file no. HS/9/356) states how she took charge of her circuit and, ‘with colossal bravery led it into action and generally arranged its organisation with extreme devotion’. It is infuriating to me that despite this recognised ‘colossal bravery’, Pearl was only offered a civilian MBE after the war. Apparently it was infuriating to her too, because she sent it back, refusing to accept it on the grounds that she had done absolutely nothing civil. I was lucky enough to be able to interview a former SOE female staff member, and when I asked her what she thought about this, she said, ‘I don’t blame her, good on her’. I think most of us would agree with this sentiment, especially when it is explained. Women were eligible for the Victoria Cross, which is the highest military honour available to British soldiers. It is awarded for ‘gallantry in the face of the enemy’. Despite their eligibility (since 1921), no women have ever received it. Pearl’s frustration with a civil MBE is understandable, because if anyone fought with gallantry in the face of the enemy, she did. She was eventually granted a military MBE by the air ministry, as well as the French Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre.
I recently interviewed a few ladies who are currently serving with the US Air Force. They loved Pearl’s story, and one of them asked me why no-one had made it into a film. A couple of the SOE ladies did have films made about them, but Pearl was not one of them. I went away and thought about it, and it struck me that Pearl’s life really does have everything a film would need. There is action, suspense, a battle between the good guys and the bad guys (and the good guys win in the end, warranting a happy ending), a strong protagonist with whopping great character (none of which would need to be invented), and even romance. One of my favourite things about Pearl is her pragmatism. Though she certainly wanted to help the Allies in the War, she had her own personal reasons for wanting to be in war-torn France. Once she had secured her family’s safety, she trained with the SOE and offered them her services, but she mostly wanted to return to France to rescue the man she loved. Henri Charles Willy Cornioley, to whom Pearl had become engaged before the War, had been caught and imprisoned by the Germans in France. Pearl intended to find him and break him out. As it was, he escaped by his own efforts, and joined Pearl in her Resistance work. The two of them fought side by side, were married, and lived happily ever after. You couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s Hollywood worthy.
Pearl Witherington was a trailblazer. I hope that someday someone has cause to say that I did something with the kind of ‘colossal bravery’ she possessed. I can think of no better source of inspiration than this bold, courageous lady and her band of brave lions.