June 24th in (Feminist) History

24895814_137062805730On this day in 1914 was the birth of Pearl Witherington, a French-born British citizen who was an SOE agent in World War 2. Though she was born in Paris and raised in France, she was technically a British subject. When the Germans invaded France in May of 1940, she was employed at the Paris British Embassy. She felt from occupied France along with her mother and three sisters, eventually making it to London where she joined Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). She was said during her training to have been the “best shot” ever seen in the service.

Codenamed “Marie”, she was dropped into occupied France by parachute on September 22, 1943, where she joined the SOE Stationer Network, lead by Maurice Southgate, for whom she worked as a courier. In May of 1944 however, Southgate was caught by the Gestapo and brought to the Buchenwald concentration camp, so Pearl, under the new code-name “Pauline”, took over as the leader of the newly formed SOE Wrestler Network. With the help of her fiance, Henri Cornioley, she reorganized the entire network and its 1,500 members of the Maquis (French guerrilla resistance troops).

Pearl and her troops were so effective that the Nazi regime put a bounty of ƒ1,000,000 on her head, and ordered 2,000 men to attack her and her force with artillery. The battle lasted 14 hours, during which time the Germans lost 86 men and the Maquis lost 24 (including civilians). Pearl fled as the Germans broke up her unit, but quickly returned and regrouped her troop, launching into a series of large-scale guerrilla attacks that devastated the German forces who traveled through her area on their way to the battlefronts. All in all, her force eventually killed over 1,000 German soldiers, presided over the surrender of 18,000 German troops, and disrupted an important railway line (which connected the south of France with Normandy) over 800 times.

Despite everything she had accomplished, when she was recommended for the Military Cross following the battle, she was declared ineligible because she was a woman. The government attempted to offer her a “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (MBE) in the Civil Division, to which she icily responded, “there was nothing remotely “civil” about what I did. I didn’t sit behind a desk all day.” Eventually she accepted a military MBE, though in recent years she was also awarded a CBE and was a recipient of the French military’s Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor). In April of 2006, after waiting for 60 years, she was awarded her parachute wings, which she had been fighting to earn despite having only done four parachute jumps instead of the required five. As she stated: “The chaps did four training jumps, and the fifth was operational – and you only got your wings after a total of five jumps. 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.”

Following the war she returned to England and married Henri Cornioley, with whom she had a daughter named Claire. Her autobiography, Pauline was published in 1997, with the help of journalist Hervé Larroque. The interviews in that autobiography were edited by Kathryn J. Atwood and published in 2013 as the book Code Name Pauline. She died at the age of 93, in a retirement home in the Loire Valley in France.

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