Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl's story from the woman herself. And it's quite a story.
Pearl's father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was "never unhappy at home with Mummy", it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents' arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father's debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father's death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.
Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.
Vehemently opposed to the occupation of France, Pearl felt impelled to help the Allied cause and being a fluent French-speaker was able to join the newly-formed SOE (Special Operations Executive). Established specifically to cause disruption and sabotage within Nazi-occupied territories, Winston Churchill hoped that the SOE would "set Europe ablaze".
Like many SOE agents, Pearl was given an honorary rank of second lieutenant in the "vain hope that, if captured, the enemy would treat these `officers' as POWs according to the Geneva Convention". Pearl's SOE trainers were much impressed with her. Her weapons instructor referred to her as "probably the best shot (male or female) we have yet had".
After months of training and preparation, Pearl was parachuted into France in September 1943 disguised as a cosmetics saleswoman. What follows is an account of her work in France, which includes, at one point, being shot at by the Germans. The tone is continually matter-of-fact and the descriptions of her adventures understated. But we know that here is a woman of immense courage, working under the most difficult of situations, fearful of arrest at every turn.
Following France's liberation, Charles de Gaulle, "anxious to not credit the British for their help during the Resistance", ordered Britain's SOE agents to leave France within 48 hours. As French residents, Pearl and Henri did not fall into this bracket but nonetheless an even greater slight awaited them... Pearl was offered an MBE - the civilian version. Indignant, she refused it, stating that she hadn't done "anything remotely `civil' for England during the war". Her obstinacy paid off and in 1946, Pearl was duly awarded the military MBE.
Code Name Pauline is an illuminating read. Atwood introduces each chapter with a summary or explanation written in such a way that, as the reader, you feel you are being gently guided. But at no point does Atwood's commentary detract from the main narrative.
Atwood, who wrote an article especially for History In An Hour on editing Code Name Pauline, finishes with a number of useful appendices, including brief biographies of the key figures, figures from within Pearl's story, and national figures such as de Gaulle and Philippe Petain. Following this are extracts from an interview with Henri Cornioley, who died in 1999, a man who obviously enjoyed telling a story. His story of begging to be allowed back into the POW camp he'd inadvertently escaped from is an amusing highlight. The book has a number of photographs, including Pearl in uniform, beside Henri and in her latter years, including a photo taken in 2004 of Pearl alongside the Queen.
In accidental tandem with Code Name Pauline, is a biography of Pearl called She Landed By Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington: the real Charlotte Gray by Carole Seymour-Jones. (Pearl has often been stated as the source of Sebastian Faulks's eponymous heroine although Faulks denied the connection). Both titles, Atwood's and Seymour-Jones's, were published within a month of each other. She Landed By Moonlight has generally received favourable reviews and no doubt was intended to honour Pearl and her work during the war. But, rather strangely for a biography, it reads as a novel, using imaginary dialogue and imagined thoughts. For a woman who was so down-to-earth and fervently opposed to the romanticism of her story, one wonders what Pearl would have made of it.
Pearl Witherington Cornioley died, aged 93, on 24 February 2008. Kathryn Atwood's finely edited book honours her memory in a manner I imagine Pearl would have thoroughly approved of.