Pearl Witherington

Pearl Witherington

Pearl Witherington was born in Paris on 24th June, 1914. During the Second World War she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Given the code name "Marie" Witherington was dropped by parachute into occupied France on 22nd September 1943, where she joined Maurice Southgate, leader of the Stationer Network. Over the next eight months worked as Southgate's courier.

After the Gestapo arrested Southgate in May 1944, Witherington reorganized the group. She now became leader of the new Wrestler Network in the Valencay-Issoudun-Chateauroux triangle. With the help of a local man, Henri Cornioley, she organized over 1,500 members of the Maquis and they played an important role fighting the German Army during the D-Day landings.

In September 1944, Witherington returned to England where she married Henri Cornioley (1910-1999). After the war Witherington was recommended for the Military Cross. As she was a woman she was ineligible and was awarded the civil MBE. Witherington returned the medal with a note saying that she did not deserve it as she had done nothing civil.

With the help of the journalist, Herve Larroque, Witherington's autobiography, Pauline, was published in 1997 (ISBN 2-9513746-0-7). For further details contact [email protected].

Primary Sources

(1) Captain Selwyn Jepson was SOE's senior recruiting officer. He was interviewed by the Imperial War Museum for its Sound Archive.

I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don't work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, "What are you doing?" I told him and he said, "I see you are using women to do this," and I said, "Yes, don't you think it is a very sensible thing to do?" and he said, "Yes, good luck to you'" That was my authority!

(2) Maurice Buckmaster, Specially Employed (1952)

In all, during the period March 1941 to July 1944, we recruited over 460 male and 40 female officers for work in the field. It has always seemed to me surprising that there were so many British or Dominion subjects, whose French was faultless, willing and anxious to undertake such supremely dangerous work. They were in no way conspicuous; the last thing we wanted in them was eccentricity. We denied them glamour, in their own interests; we made them look as homely and unremarkable as we could. In the words of one of them, they were 'just ordinary people, not particularly brave'.