Pearl Witherington

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Pearl Cornioley
Pearl Witherington Cornioley.jpg
Nickname(s) Agent Wrestler, Marie, Pauline[1]
Born (1914-06-24)24 June 1914
Died 24 February 2008(2008-02-24)
Allegiance United Kingdom, France
Service/branch Special Operations Executive, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
Years of service 1940–1944 / 1943–1944 (SOE)
Unit Wrestler
Awards MBE, CBE, Legion d'honneur

Cecile Pearl Witherington Cornioley CBE (24 June 1914 – 24 February 2008) was a World War II SOE agent born in Paris to British parents.

Wartime service[edit]

Pearl Witherington was born and raised in France but was a British subject. She was employed at the British embassy in Paris and engaged to Henri Cornioley (1910–1999) when the Germans invaded in May 1940. She escaped from occupied France with her mother and three sisters in December 1940 and eventually arrived in London where she found work with the Air Ministry. Determined to fight back against the German occupation of France, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) on 8 June 1943. In training she emerged as the "best shot" the service had ever seen.[2]

Given the code name "Marie", Witherington was dropped by parachute into occupied France on 22 September 1943, where she joined Maurice Southgate, leader of the Stationer Network. Over the next eight months, she worked as Southgate's courier.

After the Gestapo arrested Southgate in May 1944 who was subsequently deported to Buchenwald, she became leader of the new Wrestler Network, under a new code-name "Pauline", in the ValencayIssoudunChâteauroux triangle. She reorganised the network with the help of her fiancé, Henri Cornioley, and it fielded over 1,500 members of the Maquis; they played an important role fighting the German Army during the D-Day landings. They were so effective that the Nazi regime put a ƒ1,000,000 bounty on her head. The Germans even ordered 2,000 men to attack her force with artillery in a 14 hour long battle. Cornioley states:

"We were attacked by 2,000 Germans on the 11th June [1944] at 8 o'clock in the morning and the small maquis, comprising approximately 40 men, badly armed and untrained, put up a terrific fight, with the neighbouring communist maquis which numbered approximately 100 men."[3]

She records that the battle raged for 14 hours and the Germans lost 86 men while the Maquis lost 24 "including civilians who were shot and the injured who were finished off".[4] She fled to a cornfield until the Germans left the area. While the Germans succeeded in breaking up her group, she quickly regrouped and launched large scale guerilla assaults that wreaked havoc among German columns travelling to the battlefront through her area of operations.[5] The force she commanded ultimately killed 1,000 German soldiers while suffering few casualties of its own and disrupted a key railway line connecting the south of France to Normandy more than 800 times. She would ultimately preside over the surrender of 18,000 German troops.[2]

Honours[edit]

After the war, Witherington was recommended for the Military Cross, but as a woman, she was ineligible[6] and instead was offered an MBE (Civil Division). Witherington rejected the medal with an icy note pointing out that 'there was nothing remotely "civil" about what I did. I didn't sit behind a desk all day.' She accepted a military MBE and in recent years was awarded the CBE. She was also a recipient of the Légion d'honneur.[7]

In April 2006, after a six-decade wait, Witherington was awarded her parachute wings, which she considered a greater honour than either the MBE or the CBE. She had completed three parachute jumps, with the fourth operational.

"But the chaps did four training jumps, and the fifth was operational - and you only got your wings after a total of five jumps", Witherington said. "So I was not entitled - and for 63 years I have been moaning to anybody who would listen because I thought it was an injustice."[8]

Private life[edit]

In September 1944, Witherington returned to England where she married Henri Cornioley in Kensington Register Office on 26 October 1944; they had a daughter, Claire.

With the help of journalist Hervé Larroque, Witherington's autobiography, Pauline, was published in 1997 (ISBN 978-2-9513746-0-7). The interviews that comprised Pauline were edited by Kathryn J. Atwood into a straight narrative in 2013 and published as Code Name Pauline. Much of her wartime service is also included in the book Behind Enemy Lines with the SAS (published in 2007 by Pen and Sword Publ., England).

Her story has been cited as the inspiration for the Sebastian Faulks novel Charlotte Gray,[2] that was made into a film of the same name starring Cate Blanchett in 2001, although Faulks denied this in an interview with The Guardian.[9]

However, Ken Follett specifically refers to Witherington at the end of his fictional novel, Jackdaws.[10]

She died, aged 93, in a retirement home in the Loire Valley of France.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Pearl Cornioley, obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2008
  2. ^ a b c Martin, Douglas, "Pearl Cornioley, Resistance Fighter Who Opposed the Nazis, Is Dead at 93", New York Times, 11 March 2008
  3. ^ Sharpshooter, paratrooper, hero: the woman who set France ablaze
  4. ^ Pallister, David (1 April 2008). "Sharpshooter, paratrooper, hero: the woman who set France ablaze". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  5. ^ ‘Too cautious’ - how Army rated freedom fighter Pearl Cornioley, The Times, 1 April 2008
  6. ^ "Pearl Cornioley". The Daily Telegraph (London). 26 February 2008. 
  7. ^ "War heroine 'not classed leader'". BBC News Online. 1 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-01. 
  8. ^ BBC
  9. ^ David Pallister (1 April 2008). "Sharpshooter, paratrooper, hero: the woman who set France ablaze". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-04-01. 
  10. ^ Follett, Ken (9 April 2008). Jackdaws. Pan Books. ISBN 0333783026. 

External links[edit]