On the night of September 22, 1943, a 29-year-old British Special Operations Executive agent — one of their top agents, renowned as the best shot the service had ever seen — parachuted into occupied France. It sounds like the beginning of a spy movie, but it’s actually the real-life story of Pearl Witherington, one of World War II’s little-known female heroes! Witherington led a network of French Maquis resistance fighters as they fought the Nazis and even presided over the surrender of 18,000 German troops at the end of the war.
Born in 1914 to British parents in France, Witherington was working at the British embassy in Paris when the German army invaded in 1940. She escaped to Britain with her mother and sisters, but was determined to find a way to fight back. She joined the SOE in June 1943; her trainers found her “cool and resourceful and extremely determined” and were astounded at her natural ability with a firearm. After she parachuted back into France, she spent eight months working as a courier for one of the SOE’s networks under the code name Marie, often posing as a traveling cosmetics saleswoman. After the network’s organizer was arrested by the Gestapo, she became the leader of the new Wrestler Network under the code name “Pauline.”
Her command of the resistance network, which grew to include over 3,500 French Resistance fighters at its peak, was so effective that the Nazis put a one million franc bounty on her head. At one point, in an effort to break the network, the Germans ordered thousands of troops with artillery to attack Witherington’s force. She reported that the battle raged for 14 hours and the Germans lost 86 men while the Maquis lost 24 “including civilians who were shot and the injured who were finished off.” After the battle, she quickly regrouped and her network launched large scale guerrilla attacks which wreaked havoc on the German columns marching to the front. Among other successes, her force disrupted a key railroad line between the south of France and Normandy over 800 times, all the while suffering only a few casualties.
After the war, Witherington was recommended for Britain’s Military Cross, but was deemed ineligible because she was a woman. Instead, she was offered the civil division of the award of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), which she declined, stating “there was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did. I didn’t sit behind a desk all day.” She later received a military MBE as well as France’s Legion d’honneur. But what she considered her greatest honor came decades later in 2006: her parachute wings. She had done three training jumps, plus one operational jump, “[b]ut the chaps did four training jumps, and the fifth was operational – and you only got your wings after a total of five jumps,” she said. “So I was not entitled – and for 63 years I have been moaning to anybody who would listen because I thought it was an injustice.”
Witherington died in 2008 at the age of 93, still living in France. For Witherington fighting the Nazis to protect her adopted homeland had never been in question: “I just thought, This is impossible. Imagine that someone comes into your home – someone you don’t like — he settles down, gives orders: ‘Here we are, we’re at home now; you must obey.’ To me that was unbearable.”
For an excellent memoir by Witherington about her experiences during WWII, we highly recommend “Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent,” for teen and adult readers, ages 13 and up, at http://www.amightygirl.com/code-name-pauline
Witherington’s story is also told in an engrossing biography for adult readers, “She Landed by Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington: the Real ‘Charlotte Gray'” at Amazon
She is also one of the 26 women heroes of WWII featured in the highly recommend “Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue,” recommended for teens and adults, ages 13 and up, at http://www.amightygirl.com/women-heroes-of-world-war-ii
For two highly recommended novels about women resistance fighters of WWII, both for ages 13 and up, check out “Code Name Verity” (http://www.amightygirl.com/code-name-verity) and “Rose Under Fire” (http://www.amightygirl.com/rose-under-fire).
For more books for all ages about heroic girls and women living through the WWII period, including numerous stories related to the Holocaust, visit our “WWII & Holocaust” section at http://amgrl.co/1l9UWIe
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