I hold all the women in my Heroines of the SOE series in the greatest respect, but I must admit that I hold a special admiration for Pearl Witherington possibly because her upbringing mirrored that of my modern-day detective, Sam Smith. Also, Pearl is the main inspiration for my character Mimi Duchamp in Eve’s War. As such, I feel that she deserves a blog post of her own.
Cecile Pearl Witherington Cornioley was born on 24 June 1914. She served the SOE under the code names Marie and Pauline. Born in Paris to British parents, she parachuted into France in September 1943 as a courier for the Stationer network. However, due to circumstances and her immense ability by May 1944 she was head of the Wrestler network in central France. She was the only woman to lead an SOE network in France.
Pearl’s network, which expanded to over 2,000 Maquisard fighters after D-Day, was especially efficient in sabotaging railroads and telephone lines.
Pearl’s father, born into money, succumbed to alcohol and lost his way. Her mother, who was partially deaf and possessed a limited range of French, relied on Pearl to negotiate with tradesmen and creditors – without her father’s income the family slid into debt. She did this at an early age, forgoing most of her schooling. Indeed, she only enjoyed four years in school. Often, she walked miles across Paris to deal with family business and scavenge food then studied in the evenings.
After school, Pearl found employment at the British Embassy, where she impressed and excelled. She fell in love with Henri Cornioley (1910–1999), the son of well-to-do parents. Initially, Henri’s parents rejected Pearl because of her impoverished background. The loving couple couldn’t enjoy each other’s company at home, so they met in cinemas and parks. In February 1940, Henri joined the British Army and Pearl did not see him again for three and a half years.
Pearl escaped from occupied France with her mother and three sisters in December 1940. After a long and perilous journey, the family arrived in London in July 1941. Through her Embassy contacts, she found work in the Air Ministry.
Determined to fight back against Hitler’s occupation of France, Pearl joined the SOE on 8 June 1943. In training she emerged as the ‘best shot’ the service had ever seen, male or female.
When Pearl parachuted into occupied France on 22 September 1943, she joined Maurice Southgate, leader of the Stationer network, and courier Jacqueline Nearne. Southgate also reunited Pearl with her fiancé, Henri, who had escaped from a Nazi prisoner of war camp.
Over the next eight months, posing as a cosmetics saleswoman, Pearl performed her duties as a courier. Covering a vast area, she was constantly on the move, sleeping on trains when the opportunity arose. Frequently, she encountered Gestapo checkpoints where the French police examined her (false) identity papers. Her cover was based on Marie Jeanne Marthe Verges, a woman who had disappeared.
The Gestapo arrested Maurice Southgate on 1 May 1944. With Southgate a Gestapo prisoner, Pearl formed and became leader of a new SOE network, Wrestler. With the help of her fiancé, Henri, and a neighbouring network, Pearl’s group attacked the railway infrastructure 800 times in June 1944 alone. Their main focal points were the railway lines between Paris and Bordeaux. By disrupting these lines, Pearl hindered the Nazis efforts to transport men and artillery to the battle front in Normandy.
On the morning of 11 June 1944, Nazi soldiers attacked Pearl at the Les Souches chateau, her headquarters near the village of Dun-le-Poëlier. Under fire, Pearl hid the tin where she kept a large amount of money and fled to a wheat field where she hid until nightfall. Henri also hid in the wheat field where he counted fifty-six truckloads of Nazi soldiers participating in the operation. By this time, the towns and countryside were full of ‘Wanted’ posters with Pearl carrying a million franc reward on her head.
The Nazis destroyed everything of value to the SOE in the chateau, including their weapons and radio. Therefore, through a neighbouring network, Pearl requested fresh supplies from Britain, which duly arrived on her birthday, 24 June, via a three-plane air-drop.
Rearmed and reconnected, Pearl went from strength-to-strength. The number of Maquis in her region doubled to nearly 4,000 as the D-Day invasion took effect. Pearl and Henri organised their men into four subsections. Sixty planeloads of arms also arrived, along with Captain Francis Perdiset who, on Pearl’s request, assisted in the military operations. Throughout, Pearl’s men held her in the highest respect, often referring to her as ‘Lieutenant Pauline’.
In late August 1944, Pearl’s men moved to the Forest of Gatines near Valencay. Their objective was to stop the Nazi army in southern France from linking up with battalions in northern France.
After a battle on September 9-10, more than 19,000 Nazis surrendered. They surrendered to the advancing Americans; they were too frightened to surrender to Pearl’s men.
On 21 September 1944, Pearl returned to Britain. There, she offered an extraordinary and unique breakdown of her expenditure in the field, which amounted to several million francs. Her accounts listed everything, from cigarettes to razor blades.
Pearl married Henri Cornioley in Kensington Register Office on 26 October 1944. The couple remained together for life and produced a daughter, Claire. Pearl published her autobiography, Pauline, in 1997.
After the war, Pearl worked for the World Bank. In 1991, with Henri’s assistance, she established the Valencay SOE memorial, which commemorates the 104 SOE agents who died in the line of duty. The couple retired to Valencay, one of the places she frequented during the war.
One of the most extraordinary women of her age, Pearl died, in the Loire Valley, aged 93.