Susan Travers

Susan Travers was an Englishwoman who served in the French Red Cross during WWII. She was the daughter of Eleanor Catherine and Francis Eaton Travers, a Royal Naval Admiral. Not much is known about her life. Anything we do know comes directly from her. Susan Travers was not a person whose legacy was written down in history books. Instead, only those that personally knew her knew of her significance.

At the Second World War outbreak, Susan Travers joined the French Red Cross as a nurse. She then became an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force in 1940. However, her work with the Force did not last long.

France fell to the Nazis in June of 1940. Whatever the circumstances were, Travers was able to escape, go to London, and there she joined the Free French Division. Susan traveled to Syria and Lebanon during the war to aid in Operation Exporter, the British Invasion of Vichy French, Syria and Lebanon in June and July of 1941. During this mission, she negotiated minefields, enemy attacks, and earned the nickname “La Miss” from her thousand male comrades. She supposedly also had an affair with a White Russian prince.

Travers was eventually assigned to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig as his driver. She would call their affair the most extraordinary love affair of her life. In 1942, Koenig’s forces were assigned to Bir Hakeim. The battle of Bir Hakeim took place on an oasis in the Libyan desert. All women were ordered to leave, but Susan Travers refused to leave Koenig’s side.

The Afrika Korps, also known as the German Africa Corps, almost destroyed Koenig’s forces. The Germans expected to win the battle in fifteen minutes. Yet, the Free French Division held onto it for an impressive fifteen days. This battle of Bir Hakeim became a symbol of resistance across the world. During this battle, Susan was the only woman surrounded by more than three thousand men. For fifteen days, she listened to war’s cries from a coffin-sized hole dug into the desert floor.

When all of the supplies ran out Koenig decided they needed to escape. Travers was his driver and thus was ordered to take the wheel and help lead the flight. Author Wendy Holden, on behalf of Susan Travers, wrote, “Under heavy machine gun fire, she finally burst through enemy lines, creating a path for the rest, to follow. Only stopping when she reached Allied lines several hours later, she noted eleven bullet holes and severe shrapnel damage to the vehicle.” Susan Travers helped lead two thousand and five hundred men to safety, and thanks to her bravery, Koenig was promoted to the rank of General. Without really saying goodbye, Koenig took his new post, returned to his wife, and started living the life of a high official.

Travers applied to join the Legion after the war, omitting her gender on the application. The man who accepted her application knew precisely who she was and was happy to make her the first female in the French Foreign Legion. She would be sent to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War, where she would meet and marry her fellow legionnaire, Nicholas Schlegelmilch. They would go on to have two sons and live quietly outside Paris.

Right before she passed, Travers wrote her autobiography with the help of author Wendy Holden. She waited until all the major characters, except for her, died before she told her story. She did not want to subject those with whom she shared her life to unwanted attention.

Susan Travers passed away on December 18, 2003, at the age of ninety-four.[1]

The book that Travers wrote is the only book that records the story of who Susan Travers was. Despite being the only woman in the French Foreign Legion, her story has largely been forgotten.

[1] Susan Travers and Wendy Holden, Tomorrow to Be Brave (New York, New York: The Free Press, 2001).

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