Susan Mary Gillian Travers (23 September 1909 – 18 December 2003) was an Englishwoman who served in the French Red Cross as a nurse and ambulance driver during Second World War. She later became the only woman to officially join the French Foreign Legion, and served in Vietnam, during the First Indochina War. She was awarded the Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire by the French government.
Travers was born in London and spent her early years in England, the daughter of Francis Eaton Travers a Royal Navy admiral and his wife Eleanor Catherine (née Turnbull), until they moved to Cannes in the south of France. Never able to feel truly at home anywhere, Ms Travers had a lonely home life, feeling as though she lived in a gilded cage (privileged but trapped), with her unhappily married parents and brother. She became what we would now call a semi-professional tennis player and whilst she did not earn from her playing, she was invited to play at tournaments with all expenses covered. Her wealthy, free-spirited maiden aunt, Hilda, who had lost her love in World War I and of whom she was very fond, provided her with a monthly allowance at first, facilitating her independence from her ever-distant and disapproving parents.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Travers joined the French Red Cross as a nurse, but later became an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force to Finland's Winter War. With the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, she retreated from Denmark to Finland. She then escaped by ship to Iceland and returned from there to England where she joined General Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces.
By 1941, she was the chauffeur for a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, during the Syrian campaign in which Vichy French legionnaires fought Free French legionnaires. She was nicknamed "la Miss" by the legionnaires. She then travelled to North Africa via Dahomey and the Congo. During that journey, she had a brief affair with Georgian nobleman and Foreign Legion officer Dimitri Amilakhvari. She was then assigned as driver to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig and also became his lover.
In late May 1942, as the Afrika Korps prepared to attack Bir Hakeim, Koenig ordered Travers and other women out of the area. The Germans attacked on 26 May. Not long after, Travers joined a convoy into the rear area and Koenig agreed to her requests to return to Bir Hakeim, since he felt the German attack was a failure. However, during the following fortnight, the Luftwaffe flew 1,400 sorties against the defences of Bir Hakeim, whilst four German/Italian divisions attacked on the ground.
On 10 June, Travers drove Koenig's staff car during the retreat. The column ran into minefields and German machine gun fire. Koenig ordered Travers to drive at the front of the column. Travers stated:
He said, "We have to get in front. If we go the rest will follow." It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark. My main concern was that the engine would stall.
At 10:30 on 11 June, the column entered British lines. Travers' vehicle had been hit by eleven bullets, with a shock absorber destroyed and the brakes unserviceable. Her affair with Koenig ended after this battle, when he returned to his wife.
The rest of the Second World War
Travers went on to serve in Italy, France, and Germany, where she respectively drove an ambulance, lorry, and a self-propelled anti-tank gun. Later in the war, she was wounded when Koenig drove over a mine whilst revisiting Bir Hakeim in a vehicle in which she was a passenger.
After the war she applied to and was formally enrolled in the Légion Étrangère, as an Adjutant-Chef.
Travers served in Vietnam, during the First Indochina War. She married Adjutant-Chef Nicolas Schlegelmilch, who had fought at Bir Hakeim with the 13th Demi-Brigade. They had two sons. In retirement, they lived on the outskirts of Paris.
In 2000, aged 91, assisted by Wendy Holden, she wrote her autobiography, Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion (ISBN 0552148148), having waited for all the other principals in her life story to die before writing it.
Susan Travers died at the age of 94. She was survived by two sons, Francois and Thomas, and grandchildren, including two granddaughters, Adela and Eleanor.
- "She was exceptionally brave." - General Marie-Pierre Koenig
- "Tomorrow to be Brave" The Free Press ISBN 0-7432-0001-2, page 249