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(2008-02-24)24 February 2008 (aged 93)
AllegianceUnited Kingdom/France
Service/branchSpecial Operations Executive, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
Years of service1940–1944 / 1943–1944 (SOE)
AwardsMBE, CBE, Legion d'honneur

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]

Cecile Pearl Witherington was born and raised in France by British expatriate parents, and was a British subject. Her father had been born into money but drank most of it away, and Pearl often had to negotiate with his creditors to save them from destitution. She was employed at the British embassy in Paris and engaged to Henri Cornioley (1910–1999) when the Germans invaded in May 1940.[2]

She escaped from occupied France with her mother and three sisters in December 1940. She eventually arrived in London, where she found work with the Air Ministry, specifically the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.[3] Determined to fight back against the German occupation of France, and wanting a more active role in the fight, she joined Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) on 8 June 1943. In training she emerged as the "best shot" the service had ever seen.[4][3]

Given the code name "Marie", Witherington was dropped by parachute into occupied France on 22 September 1943. There she joined Maurice Southgate, leader of the SOE Stationer Network. Over the next eight months, posing as a cosmetics saleswoman, she worked as Southgate's courier.[5]

After the Gestapo arrested Southgate in May 1944 and deported him to Buchenwald concentration camp, Witherington became leader of the new SOE Wrestler Network, under the 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.[6]

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 Witherington's head. The Germans even ordered 2,000 men to attack her force with artillery in a 14-hour battle. Cornioley reported, "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."[6]

Witherington records that the battle raged for 14 hours and that the Germans lost 86 men, while the Maquis lost 24 "including civilians who were shot and the injured who were finished off".[6]

Witherington fled to a cornfield until the Germans left the area. Although the Germans broke up Witherington's unit, she quickly regrouped and launched large-scale guerrilla assaults that wreaked havoc among German columns travelling to the battlefront through her area of operations.[7]

The force she commanded ultimately killed 1,000 German soldiers while suffering few casualties, and disrupted a key railway line connecting the south of France with Normandy more than 800 times. She would ultimately preside over the surrender of 18,000 German troops.[4] Witherington was one of only a few women to lead a maquis during the war.[8]


After the war, Witherington was recommended for the Military Cross, but as a woman, she was ineligible[9] 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 aka Commander of the Order of the British Empire.[10] She was also a recipient of the Légion d'honneur.[11]

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 training 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."[12]

Wings badge.JPG

Order of the British Empire (Civil) Ribbon.png Order of the British Empire (Military) Ribbon.png

Ribbon - Defence Medal.png

Commander of the Order of the British Empire Member of the Order of the British Empire 1939–1945 Star France and Germany Star
Defence Medal War Medal Légion d'honneur

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 Codename Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent. Much of her wartime service is also included in the book Behind Enemy Lines with the SAS.[4]

Her story has been cited as the inspiration for the Sebastian Faulks novel Charlotte Gray,[4] 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.[13]

On the other hand, Ken Follett specifically refers to Witherington at the end of his fictional novel, Jackdaws.[14]


Pearl Witherington Cornioley died, aged 93, in a retirement home in the Loire Valley of France.[4]

See also[edit]

  • Binney, Marcus. The Women Who Lived For Danger: The Women Agents of SOE in the Second World War, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2002 (Chap. 7)
  • Witherington, Pearl, with Hervé Larroque, ed. Atwood, Kathryn J., Codename Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, Chicago Review Press, 2015


  1. ^ Pearl Cornioley, obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 26 February 2008
  2. ^ SOE agent profile of Pearl Witherington,; accessed 4 September 2017.
  3. ^ a b Atwood, Kathryn J. (2011). Women Heroes of World War II. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. p. 186. ISBN 9781556529610. OCLC 988003271.
  4. ^ a b c d e Martin, Douglas (11 March 2008). "Pearl Cornioley, Resistance Fighter Who Opposed the Nazis, Is Dead at 93". International New York Times. Retrieved 12 May 2016.
  5. ^ Atwood, Kathryn J. (2011). Women Heroes of World War II. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. p. 187. ISBN 9781556529610.
  6. ^ a b c Pallister, David (1 April 2008). "Sharpshooter, Paratrooper, Hero: The Woman Who Set France Ablaze". The Guardian. London, UK. Retrieved 12 May 2016.
  7. ^ "Too Cautious: How Army Rated Freedom Fighter Pearl Cornioley". The Times. 1 April 2008.
  8. ^ Atwood, Kathryn J. (2011). Women Heroes of World War II. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. p. 190. ISBN 9781556529610.
  9. ^ "Pearl Cornioley profile". The Daily Telegraph. London, UK. 26 February 2008.
  10. ^ "War herione". cbeinternational]] Online. 11 June 2019. Retrieved 11 June 2019.
  11. ^ "War heroine 'not classed leader'". BBC News Online. 1 April 2008. Retrieved 1 April 2008.
  12. ^ "BBC NEWS - UK - War heroine honoured 63 years on". Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  13. ^ David Pallister (1 April 2008). "Sharpshooter, paratrooper, hero: the woman who set France ablaze". London, UK: The Guardian. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  14. ^ Follett, Ken (9 April 2008). Jackdaws. Pan Books. ISBN 0333783026. OCLC 440897819.

External links[edit]