Monday, March 17, 2008


Last month the world marked the death of 93 year old Pearl Cornioley, f/k/a Pearl Witherington, whose wartime exploits were the stuff of legend, but who lived out her years relatively quietly in England.  Her younger days were anything but that.

Born and raised in Paris to English parents, she spoke both English and French fluently.  She was the eldest of 4 daughters of an alcoholic father.  When the Germans invaded and occupied France in 1940, her family was in danger, and the 26 year old Pearl arranged their move into unoccupied France, Spain, Gibraltar, and eventually to England.

In England, she worked for the Air Ministry, but she found the desk job boring.  She longed to get into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the secret group commissioned by Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze."  She talked her way into the job, and after a few weeks of training, she parachuted into occupied France one night in September, 1943, landing in the dark between two small lakes.  Thus began her mission to work with the French underground, the Maquis.   Her fluency in unaccented French was invaluable for the mission.  She posed as a representative for a cosmetics company with the codename "Marie".  The mission required her and the other women in the operation to appear inconspicuous.  They wore no makeup and dressed conservatively. 

As Capt. Selwyn Jepson, SOE's senior recruiting officer said in an interview:

I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition.  I may say, from the powers that be, in my view, women were very much better than men for the work.  Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.  Men usually want a mate with them.  Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men.  There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war.  He growled at me, "What are you doing?".  I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you"  That was my authority.

For the first 8 months of the mission, Pearl worked as a courier, delivering coded messages by bicycle to radio operators in the Southern Loire region.  Her work was extremely dangerous, and, needless to say, Workers Compensation was not an option.   On one occasion, after a 50 mile bike ride, she had to cross a bridge which she found to be heavily guarded by German soldiers.  So she went down the river and waded through waist deep freezing water holding the bicycle over her head to get to the other side.  After her squadron leader Maurice Southgate was captured by the Germans in May, 1944, Pearl found herself in charge of 1500 Resistance fighters, known as the "Wrestler" network, which she reorganized with deadly efficiency.  She had to change identities, and her new codename was "Pauline."

With the help of an old friend, local operative Henri Cornioley, who had escaped from a German POW camp, she built it up to over 2,000 men whom she trained and armed.  In one battle, her group held off 2,500 German troops with only 150 men.  Pearl escaped through a cornfield.  By and large the locals were accommodating to her, sometimes getting her out of tough scrapes with the Germans.  But whenever she requested a glass of water, they insisted on serving her wine.

Her "wrestler" network became so successful that the Germans put a 1 million franc bounty on her head.  Her group blew up 800 stretches of the railway line, disrupting German supply routes to Paris shortly after D-Day.  After D-Day, and the Allies were advancing, 18,000 German troops gave themselves up as POW's to her network.

The Germans were turning up the heat, and Pearl and Henri escaped to England while the going was good.  They got married shortly thereafter in October, 1944 and lived happily ever after until Henri's death in 1999.

Because of the wonders of bureaucracy, Pearl was declared ineligible for the Military Cross medal because women were not eligible for the medal.  She was instead awarded the civil MBE (Member of British Empire).  The feisty Pearl returned the medal with a note saying she did not deserve it as she had done nothing civil.  "Why should secret agents who risked their lives be treated like someone who sat behind a desk during the war."  Sixty years later, in 2004, at the British Embassy in Paris, justice was done, and the Queen presented Pearl with a CBE (Commander British Empire) which is an even more prestigious award than she had hoped for.

One other bureaucratic problem:  in WWII, Parachute Wings (insignia of the Parachute Regiment) were given to soldiers after 4 training jumps and one operational one.  The women of the SOE completed 3 training jumps before being parachuted into France.  So she didn't get that medal either--"sorry you didn't do 5 jumps!"  That part had a happy ending, however.  She finally got that award in 2006 when she was 92.  But she had to jump out of an airplane again.  Actually, I was just kidding about that part.

In 1946, Pearl was invited to travel to the U.S. to give a series of speeches about England's role during WWII.  In Columbus, Ohio, there was a large German community, but nobody had warned her.  While she was speaking, she could feel some discomfort.  After the talk, one man asked her, "Do you think all Germans are like that?'  To get out of it she said, "I don't know.  I only saw Nazis!"

The definitive biography of Ms. Witherington was called Pauline and was written by a Frenchman, Herve Larroque.  Unfortunately, the book is available only in French.  Since I don't speak French, I relied on English translations of bits and pieces.  Pearl's parting conclusion in the book was:

I hope this testimony will help young people get over problems and difficulties that happen in any life.  Never lose hope, never give in, because life will not make things easy, but it knows how to reward those who approach it conscientiously, bravely and with determination. 

Words well spoken by a true hero.




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