British resistance fighter Pearl Witherington (1914–2008) was one of the rare women known to have handled weapons and explosives in an official military capacity in a combat arena during World War II. A member of Britain's fabled Special Operations Executive (SOE), she infiltrated German-occupied France and lived below the radar. Known only by her code name Pauline, Witherington trained French Resistance fighters and narrowly escaped a firefight with Nazi troops after the landing of Allied forces in June of 1944.
Born in Paris in 1914, Cécile Pearl Witherington descended from respectable English parentage on both sides. As she recalled in interviews for the posthumously published Codename Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, her mother and father were ill-equipped for the financial and emotional responsibilities of parenthood. “He was probably very lazy,” she recalled of her father, Wallace Witherington, adding that “he was never at home. He was a dreamer who couldn't cope; he just drifted along.” Of her mother Gertrude, known as “Gee,” Witherington described her as semi-resourceful but “never wanted for anything when she was younger, so she wasn't prepared for coping with difficulties. So I eventually started to work to meet my family's needs.” As the eldest of four daughters, Witherington scrounged for food in nighttime Paris; by day she cared for her younger sisters and made the rounds of her father's favorite bars to plead for cash handouts to buy food for the family.
Nazi Germany formally initiated a war with France when it invaded neighboring Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France allied with the Poles, but in the spring of 1940 Germany's superior military offensive overran several more countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands. With a massive assault on France now underway, Witherington, her mother and her sisters embarked on a long and perilous attempt to reach England. Over several stressful months, they fled round-ups of British nationals as Paris fell to Nazi forces, sneaked through the border zone with Vichy France (the area in southern France that had capitulated to Germany), and subsisted on sardines for days while aboard a ship anchored off the coast of Gibraltar.
Witherington arrived in London in the summer of 1941 and began working at the Royal Air Ministry. She also enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), but was dismayed by the tedium of her desk job and eager to aid the war effort in a more meaningful role. Via her network of contacts, she had learned that Cornioley, to whom she was now engaged, had been captured by the Germans but escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp. They managed to write one another via diplomatic pouches and the help of a sympathetic friend in Switzerland until 1942.
In June of 1943, Witherington joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a military unit authorized by Britain's Ministry of War to carry out guerrilla-combat missions in Nazi-occupied lands. She was one of 39 female agents who passed muster and served in with the SOE's F-Section, with “F” designating the potentially fruitful opportunity presented by infiltrating France as a way to vanquish the Nazi threat. Witherington's verbal fluency in French made her the ideal candidate, but her seven weeks of training also included sharpshooting, explosive handling, and parachute jumps.
Telling her family that she had enlisted in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), Witherington vanished under cover of wartime secrecy. As she later recalled in Code-name Pauline, one of her first tests was to travel to Birmingham, the industrial city in England's Midlands, and attempt to recruit others into a secret network. “Like everywhere in England, all the sign posts had been taken down to prevent any German parachutists finding their way,” she remembered, referring to the real threat of invasion facing Britons at the time. “From the second night on, I had to find a room on my own.”
Witherington jumped out of a plane on the night of September 22–23, 1943, which was her third attempt to infiltrate occupied France. “The hole I jumped through was like a downward chimney,” she recalled in Codename Pauline. “I was wearing overalls, a padded helmet, and there were bandages around my ankles,” these to reduce the risk of fracture. The crew of the bomber plane dropped Witherington's luggage, too, but it landed in a nearby lake.
Witherington's SOE contact was Maurice Southgate, a fellow Brit whom she remembered from her Paris embassy job. Southgate was in charge of the Stationer circuit of the French Resistance network. Comprised of friendly civilians who objected to the German occupation, the Resistance movement also included a smaller subset of draft-eligible men who had managed to elude military service and were in hiding but ready to take part in guerrilla warfare. This second group was known as Maquisards, or Maquis, after a particularly tenacious shrub found in the Mediterranean region. Members of the French Resistance were loyal to the French government-in-exile in Great Britain and SOE were sent in to help them undermine the Nazi occupation and engage in acts of sabotage.
Witherington was provided with a false French identity, forged papers giving her a new name and listing her profession as a traveling sales representative for a cosmetics brand. For weeks she served as a courier for Southgate, shuttling on trains between Châteauroux, Périgueux, and Montluçon. She rendezvoused with other SOE agents and passed messages she had memorized, often catching just a few hours’ sleep on overnight trains.
Being in France gave Witherington the chance to reunite with Cornioley, who had joined the French Resistance and was now part of the Stationer circuit. They worked jointly to arrange acts of sabotage at factories that produced war materiel for the German military and blew up strategic lines of railway tracks. Explosives came from British air drops that flew under the cover of night, which Witherington also coordinated with Southgate and others.
Southgate was arrested by the Gestapo in Montluçon in early May of 1944, just a few weeks before the planned Allied invasion of France. This was to be a massive surprise deployment on the beaches of Normandy, and its success on June 6, 1944, was partially attributable to the fieldwork done in advance by the Maquis and SOE agents. Their mission was to delay and deter the German response. After Southgate's capture, Witherington's London superiors sent instructions to split the Stationer circuit in two, and she was given charge of the northern zone, the circuit codenamed Wrestler. This made her the only woman to run her an SOE network in German-occupied France.
Ultimately, Witherington was able to reconnoiter with the Maquis and coordinate several attacks on rail lines and convoy routes. “It was our job to stop the Germans getting from the south to the north of France where the landings were happening,” she recalled, according to a 2008 Telegraph article. “Our second task was to stop them trying to get back to Germany. Over 18,000 Germans gave themselves up on our territory.” She and Cornioley eventually retreated to safety and were evacuated to England in September of 1944. They wed several weeks later in London, and when the war ended they traveled to the United States as part of a lecture tour revealing the critical wartime effort carried out by the SOE and members of the French Resistance. They had one child, a daughter named Claire, who was born after the couple settled in France.
Despite her varied accomplishments in wartime, Witherington was technically ineligible for formal military recognition because of her gender. A London Times notice printed in September of 1946 mentioned her name as one of several SOE women recently designated a member of the British Empire (MBE), an award for civilian service during the war while parachuting into occupied France in 1943. Years later Witherington's letter rejecting the MBE was quoted in several British newspapers, including the London Independent. “The work which I undertook was of a purely military nature in enemy occupied country,” she tersely stated in her letter to the War Office. “I spent a year in the field and had I been caught I would have been shot, or worse still, sent to a concentration camp. I consider it most unjust to be given a civilian decoration. The men received military decorations.” That oversight was remedied decades later when she was honored with a military badge for completing training and carrying out missions as a wartime parachutist. In 2004, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Withierington by naming her a commander of the British Empire (CBE).
Witherington returned to secretarial work while Cornioley became a chemist, and he died in 1999. Before her death at age 93 on February 24, 2008, Witherington was one of the last surviving members of the SOE F Section. Her final years were spent in a retirement home in Châteauvieux, the town that was part of the original Stationer circuit. “Everyone helped me,” she once told journalist Cassandra Jardine for the London Telegraph in recalling her wartime service. “The Resistance were the cream of France. I found the war enriching.”
Cornioley, Pearl Witherington, with Hervé Larroque and Kathryn J. Atwood, Codename Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, Chicago Review Press, 2013.
Seymour-Jones, Carole, She Landed by Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington, ‘The Real Charlotte Gray,’ Hodder & Stoughton, 2013.
Independent (London, England), February 27, 2008; March 31, 2008.
Telegraph (London, England), February 14, 2002; February 26, 2008.
Times (London, England), September 7, 1946.❑