Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Pearl Cornioley Honoured

There is an amazing article in The Telegraph about one of France's wartime heroines. The following is an extract - please read the main article.

"Pearl Cornioley, who died on February 23 aged 93, was a wartime agent in France with the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

By the time the Germans invaded France in 1940 she was employed as a shorthand typist to the air attaché at the British Embassy, but she decided to evacuate her family, shepherding them south through Spain to Gibraltar, from where they took ship to Liverpool, arriving in July 1941.

Pearl Witherington joined the WAAF, but became increasingly frustrated by her pen-pushing post at the Air Ministry, and presented herself at the SOE headquarters in Baker Street, London, demanding a job.

She was taken on, and embarked on seven weeks' training in armed, and unarmed, combat and sabotage - "Having been in the Girl Guides proved very helpful," she recalled. "We learned to use explosives and did a lot of firearms training. I was quite a good shot."

She was not so proficient, however, at mastering Morse and at one point feared that this weakness would result in her dismissal.

Having parachuted from an RAF Halifax on September 22 1943, Pearl Witherington landed near Chateauroux, in the southern Loire, where she was to join the Resistance group known as "Stationer".

SOE gave all its agents a trade as a codename, and Pearl Witherington was referred to as "Wrestler"; her nom de guerre in France was "Pauline"; in wireless transmissions to Britain she was called "Marie".

Her specific role was to act as a courier carrying coded messages. Once she cycled 50 miles to deliver a message, only to find that a bridge she had to cross was heavily guarded. Carrying her bicycle on her shoulders, she waded across the freezing river Cher.

There were some narrow escapes, as when a German soldier on a train took an unhealthy interest in her papers, or when the Gestapo came to the house from which her team was transmitting by wireless (she was out enjoying a picnic at the time).

Pearl Witherington's work in occupied France was also a chance to rekindle her relationship with Henri Cornioley, a young Frenchman to whom she had become close before the war.

On May 1 1944 the leader of Pearl Witherington's network, Maurice Southgate, was captured, and she assumed control of 1,500 résistants (this number later swelled to 3,000) operating in the Sologne area of the Loire valley, which they were to hold in the Allied interest. Henri Cornioley was part of this group, which harassed the Germans in the run-up to D-Day.

The network blew up railway lines and disrupted supply routes. "It was our job to stop the Germans getting from the south to the north of France where the landings were happening," Pearl Witherington explained later.

"Our second task was to stop them trying to get back to Germany. Over 18,000 Germans gave themselves up on our territory." So effective was she that the Germans put a price of one million francs on her head.

It was during this period that she came closest to being captured or killed. On June 11 she and Cornioley were in the guard house of a chateau at Les Souches when it came under attack from the Germans. The pair fled, splitting up as they came under fire.

Pearl Witherington was recommended for a Military Cross but, as a woman, she was deemed ineligible. Instead she was offered a civil MBE, which she refused ("There was nothing civil about what I did, I didn't sit behind a desk all day"). She was then, in 1945, appointed a military MBE.

Much later in life there was further recognition: in 2004, at the British Embassy in Paris, the Queen presented her with a CBE.

Two years later, and six decades after she had jumped from the Halifax to begin her life as an SOE agent in France, Pearl Witherington was awarded her Parachute Wings, the insignia of the Parachute Regiment.

She was the principal driving force behind the creation of a large monument to the SOE's "F" Section, situated on a roundabout at Valençay, that was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in May 1991."

Further Information ~~~ Women of the SOE

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