When Pearl Witherington learned in the fall of 1945 that she was going to be awarded the honor of Member of the British Empire (Civil Division) by a grateful nation, she promptly dashed off a blistering riposte to the War Office. “I am honoured that the British Government should wish to decorate me,” she wrote, “but I consider the MBE as inappropriate and do not wish to accept it. 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 do consider it most unjust to be given a civilian decoration.”
Or, as she later put it: “I hadn’t done anything remotely civil.”
That was an understatement. Dropped into occupied France as a courier for the French Resistance, she found herself just months later in charge of 1,500 men after her network’s leader fell into the hands of the Gestapo. In the weeks before and after D-Day, the Resistance fighters of her unit carried out hundreds of attacks on the Paris–Bordeaux railway line, killing 1,000 German soldiers.
Posters were soon everywhere, bearing her picture and offering one million francs for her capture. Five days after D-Day, she was with a group of 40 Resistance men when 2,000 Germans attacked them; the fight raged for 14 hours. Witherington managed to crawl into a field, where she lay hidden throughout the battle, barely escaping death.
Witherington owed her fluent French and her steely nerves to an arduous child hood. Born in Paris to British parents, she began work as a secretary at an early age to help support the family: her father, who had grown up in privilege and luxury, insisted on keeping up an extravagant lifestyle even as his life fell apart from heavy drinking. “I didn’t really have any childhood,” she later said, but added, “I don’t reproach life for giving me this difficult childhood, because it gave me a fighting force for the rest of my life.”
When the Germans rolled into Paris she and her mother and sisters fled first to Vichy, then to Spain and Gibraltar, finally making their way to Britain where Witherington enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force—and was assigned a desk job at the Air Ministry in London.
Bored to tears, burning to do something, and separated from her French fiancé, in 1943 she badgered her way into the Special Operations Executive (SOE)— the underground army Churchill created to “set Europe ablaze.” Her toughness was apparent from the start of the rigorous seven-week training course. “Probably the best shot (male or female) we have yet had,” stated one report. “Physically much stronger than she looked.”
But overall the SOE brass remained unimpressed with women. Useful as inconspicuous messengers—Witherington was given the cover identity of Geneviève Touzalin, a traveling cosmetics sales woman—they were not fit for command. “She is loyal and reliable but has not the personality to act as a leader,” concluded her final training evaluation.
Her arrival in France was certainly inauspicious; she got tangled in her para chute, her equipment landed in a lake, and she was almost shot by a French Resistance leader who doubted her identity. But she quickly began to assert herself, sending back tough reports demanding better supplies and organization, drilling the Resistance men in firearms, and keeping one step ahead of the Germans. Incredibly, she was also reunited almost at once with her fiancé, who had escaped a German POW camp and joined the Resistance. They would be married in England in October 1944, and after the war spent the rest of their lives together quietly in Paris.
Witherington later said she wasn’t as rankled over the civil MBE as the fact that she was never given her parachute wings, the insignia awarded after completing five jumps. Male SOE agents were required to do four practice jumps, so they all qualified after they jumped into enemy territory; female agents only had to do three practice jumps—so they didn’t. In 2006, two years before her death at age 93, the Royal Air Force rectified the omission at a special ceremony in the retirement home where she was living in France. “I was miffed when no one thought to give me them all those years ago,” she said, her bluntness undimmed to the end.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.