Pearl Cornioley, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to work as a courier between the British and the French resistance and rose to command 3,000 underground fighters, died on Feb. 24 in the Loire Valley of France. She was 93.
Ms. Cornioley, who was 29 when she was sent to
in 1943, commanded troops who killed 1,000 German soldiers and wounded many more — while suffering only a tiny number of casualties themselves. She presided over the surrender of 18,000 German troops. France
Her unit interrupted a railway line that connected the south of
to France more than 800 times in June 1944, the month of D-Day. It also regularly attacked German convoys. Normandy
Sometimes carrying a case of cosmetics to pose as a traveling saleswoman, she had many brushes with danger. She hid in a cornfield as German troops fired random shots into the field. She was almost killed by a resistance leader who doubted her identity. The Germans offered a million-franc reward for her capture.
Pearl Witherington, as she was known at the time of her wartime exploits, was British by birth and French by upbringing. Her code name was Wrestler, her nom de guerre was Pauline, and in wireless transmissions to
, she was “Marie.” Britain
Ms. Cornioley was an operative of the Special Operations Executive, which the British formed to support and coordinate resistance in the occupied countries of
Europe. Agents from many walks of life, from business to journalism to academia, joined what was essentially a by-invitation-only club. Women were welcome because they might be viewed as less suspicious, and many proved to be excellent agents.
‘The girls who served as secret agents in Churchill’s Special Operations Executive were young, beautiful and brave,” Marcus Binney wrote in his book “The Women Who Lived for Danger: The Agents of the Special Operations Executive” (2002).
“At a time when women in the armed forces were restricted to a strictly noncombatant role in warfare, the women of S.O.E. trained and served alongside the men,” he continued. “They fought not in the front line but well behind it.”
Ms. Cornioley stood out. In his book “Set Europe Ablaze” (1966), E. H. Cookridge called her “one of the main pillars of the network” of the S.O.E. and the resistance fighters they supported. She was the only woman to become a network leader.
Cecile Pearl Witherington was born in
on Paris June 24, 1914. A great-grandfather was a chemist who introduced the recipe for Worcestershire sauce to Lea & Perrins, and a grandfather was an architect in , according to Mr. Binney. Her father traveled the world for a Swedish company that supplied paper for banknotes. London
Her father’s heavy drinking and spendthrift habits shattered the family, obituaries in British newspapers said. As the eldest of four daughters, Ms. Cornioley started working at 17 as a secretary and made extra money by teaching English at night.
When the Germans invaded
in 1940, she was working for the air attaché at the British Embassy. The family left France in December and followed a circuitous route to Paris . There, Ms. Cornioley got a job at the Air Ministry. London
But she burned with anger over
’s defeat and began searching for a way to fight back. Luckily, her French was superb. France
“And anyway I didn’t like the Germans,” she was quoted as saying in an obituary in The Independent. “Never did. I’m a baby of the 1914-18 war.”
Through an acquaintance, she found her way to the S.O.E., which she joined on
June 8, 1943. In training, she was recognized as the best shot, male or female, the service had seen. The commander wrote, “Very capable, completely brave.”
On the night of Sept. 22-23, she parachuted into
, near Châteauroux. Her two suitcases landed in a lake, where they were lost. Within hours, she was reunited with her French fiancé, Henri Cornioley, who had escaped from a German prison camp and joined the resistance. The two then worked closely. France
This mix of love and war has caused many to see Ms. Cornioley as the inspiration for Sebastian Faulks’s popular 1998 novel, “Charlotte Gray.” In 2001, the book was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Cate Blanchett.
Ms. Cornioley insisted that romance was not her motivation for going to war. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2002, she said: “There was a job to be done. I didn’t put my life at risk just so I could be with Henri.”
But in October 1944, after being separated and almost killed, the couple made it to
, where they married. They moved to London , where Mr. Cornioley worked as a pharmacist and Ms. Cornioley as a secretary for the World Bank. Paris
He died in 1999. Ms. Cornioley is survived by their daughter, Claire.
In 1995, Ms. Cornioley published her memoirs, which she wrote with Hervé Larroque. One tale concerned a “really cute” rabbit she took everywhere with her. The rabbit was oblivious to machine-gun fire.
Ms. Cornioley received many honors, but the one that stuck in her mind was the one she turned down. That was Member of the
British Empire, or M.B.E. She had been offered the civil version, not the military one.
She sent an icy note saying she had had done nothing remotely “civil.”
Thursday, March 13, 2008
I'm doing a full cut and paste on this one. I can't bear to cut out a single word. My favourite line is at the very end - "not even remotely civil"