Cecile Witherington

Cecile Pearl Witherington, generally known as Pearl, was born on June 24, 1914. Although she was born and raised in France, Pearl was a British subject with British parents. Pearl’s father had been born into money, but he, unfortunately, drank most of it away. During her childhood, she usually had to negotiate with his creditors to save the family from destitution.[1]

As a young adult, she works for the British embassy in Paris. She was also engaged to Henri Cornioley, who joined the British Army in February 1940. She did not see him for three and a half years.[2]

Germany invaded France in May 1940. In December of that year, Witherington, her mother, and her three sisters escaped occupied France. They arrived in London in July 1941, where she started working with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Wanting a more active role, on June 8, 1943, she joined Britain Special Operations Executive (SOE). During training, she was seen as the best shot the service had seen. However, she never carried a gun during her mission in France.[3]

Pearl’s code name was “Marie.” She was dropped in occupied France on September 22, 1943. There, she joined the leader of the SOE Stationer Network, Maurice Southgate, and reunited with her fiance. She posed as a cosmetic saleswoman and courier for eight months. She spent her nights sleeping on trains as she traveled from one place to another, delivering messages and frequently being checked by the Gestapo and French police. While in France, she also worked with Jacqueline Nearne.[4]

Nearne returned to Great Britain and April 1944. On May 1, 1944, Southgate was arrested and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Pearl got lucky and was not caught. Through sheer luck, she and a fellow co-worker were picnicking at the time, trying to get some much needed relaxation.[5]

After Southgate’s arrest, Witherington became the head of a new SOE unit, Wrestler; and her code name was changed to “Pauline.” Together, she and her fiance organized the network. With the help of others, they caused more than eight hundred interruptions in railway lines in June 1944 alone. They focused on cutting the main road line between Paris and Bordeaux, hoping that it would hinder the German effort to transport men and material to Normandy.[6]

On June 11, 1944, Pearl was attacked by German soldiers. Only a few people were at their headquarters when the Germans arrived. As they were being bombarded, she hid the tin she kept the money in and fled to hide in the nearby wheat field. Her fiance, who was also hiding in a wheatfield at the time, would count fifty-six truckloads of Germans participating in overtaking their chateau. The Germans mainly focused on destroying the weapons they found and did not go searching for the agents. The raid was part of a more extensive operation that killed thirty-two operators.[7]

On June 24, three planes airdrop supplies, and they were back in business. Thanks to the Germans, and people’s hatred for them, the operation rapidly grew and had as many as thirty-five hundred operatives. It is thought that the Normandy invasion emboldened young men to join the resistance.[8]

In August 1944, Witherington and her operatives were ordered to take part in the effort to stop the German army in southern France from linking up with German forces in northern France. Although she opposed the movement, she relented and went with her people anyway. The resulting battle took place between September 9 and 10. French operatives threatened more than nineteen thousand German soldiers. However, the German and command, General Botho Elster, refused to surrender to the resistance because they were not a regular army. Instead, it was negotiated that he would surrender to American General Robert C. Macon. The Germans surrendered, and American troops got the credit. Historian Robert Gildea wrote, ” thus, the most tangible contribution of the FII (French Forces of the Interior) was not even registered.” Witherington and her people were furious.[9]

After the surrender, Witherington later said that American troops showered German soldiers with “oranges, chocolate, the whole works. But that’s an old story, you know, soldiers were welcoming other soldiers. We weren’t soldiers.” Even French men and women in the area were furious since they were starving while Americans distributed rations and other luxuries to Germans. In response, American flags in the area were torn down, and disgruntled letters were published in newspapers.[10]

On September 21, 1944, Witherington and her operatives were ordered to return to England now that their mission was complete.

To add insult to injury, after the war, Witherington was recommended for the Military Cross. Nevertheless, she was ineligible because she was a female. Instead, she was offered a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Civil Division. She rejected the offer saying that “there was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did. I didn’t sit behind a desk all day.”[11]

Pearl Witherington and Henri Cornioley married on October 26, 1944. Together, they would have a daughter named Claire.[12]

In April 2006, Witherington was awarded her parachute wings, which she had waited six decades to receive. She passed away on February 24, 2008, at the age of ninety-three.[13]

[1] Nigel Perrin, “SOE Agent Profile – Pearl Witherington”.
[2] Pearl Witherington Cornioley and Hervé Larroque, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, ed. Kathryn J Atwood (Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2013), p. 18.
[3] Douglas Martin, “Pearl Cornioley, Resistance Fighter Who Opposed the Nazis, Is Dead at 93”, The New York Times, March 11, 2008.
[4] Kathryn J. Atwood, Women Heroes of World War II, Chicago Review Press, 2011, p.187.
[5] M. R. D. Foot, SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1966, p. 122.
[6] M. R. D. Foot, SOE in France: An Account of the Work of the British Special Operations Executive in France 1940-1944, p. 381-389.
[7] Pearl Witherington Cornioley and Hervé Larroque, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, ed. Kathryn J Atwood, p. 73-79.
[8] Ibid, p. 81-88.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Roger Ford, Steel From the Sky : Behind Enemy Lines in German-Occupied France, (New York, NY: Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2004), p. 39.
[11] “War heroine ‘not classed leader'”, BBC News Online, 1 April 2008.
[12] Douglas Martin, “Pearl Cornioley, Resistance Fighter Who Opposed the Nazis, Is Dead at 93”.
[13] Ibid.

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