The subtitle of Carole Seymour-Jones’s quietly moving biography of the brilliant SOE agent Pearl Witherington is ‘the real Charlotte Gray’. As quickly becomes evident, the real thing was more than a shade superior.
Like the fictional Gray, Witherington had determined to serve behind enemy lines in France with the dual aims of fighting the Nazi occupation of her adopted country, and being reunited with the man she loved, in Witherington’s case her fiancé, the escaped French POW Henri Cornioley. Unlike Gray, however, Witherington would quickly achieve both her public and private missions, meeting up with Henri within just days of her arrival. ‘Her story is a true romance,’ one wing commander later wrote, but as Seymour-Jones’s book makes clear, it was much more than that.
Witherington’s aims may have been in part romantic, but her modus operandi was entirely practical; she threw herself into her work for the SOE-backed resistance with steely determination and excellent results. The poverty of her childhood in Paris, when at times she had to steal food for her family, had taught her how to survive. It also taught her the value of self-discipline; she did not drink, wear make-up or go back on her word.
Although slim and engaging, there was no glamour to her — so it is ironic that her cover story had her as a travelling sales rep for a beauty company. As a courier, Witherington regularly moved information, wireless batteries and money between resistance cells, sometimes flashing a smile (and once her suspenders) to potentially difficult German soldiers. After her identity papers were discovered by the Gestapo, who put a million-franc bounty on her head, she relied solely on a broad-brimmed hat to shade her face. She was, SOE reported, ‘very brave, completely capable’.
Eventually, after several colleagues had been arrested, tortured, sent to concentration camps or simply shot, Witherington took over as chief of her resistance circuit, with over 2,000 men under her command. In this role she organised over 20 parachute drops of arms and supplies, and co-
ordinated sabotage to blow up bridges, block roads and railway lines, and cut the enemy’s communications, as well as supplying intelligence to the Allies ahead of D-Day. Thereafter her army prevented the retreat of the German columns in her region. ‘We liberated France south of the Loire,’ she later wrote succinctly.
What makes her story exceptional is that she achieved all this as a woman in the 1940s. When the 52 women who served as special agents in the second world war were recruited, their mobilisation was kept secret for fear of adverse public reaction. Even SOE did not always seem to grasp the reality of the situation for the women they had sent in. When Witherington asked for clothes because her bags had been lost when she parachuted in, she was surprised to receive a parcel containing ‘several silk negligées and nightdresses in pink and peach satin’. Sleeping in a dripping tent surrounded by soldiers, she quickly organised some pyjamas instead.
But even the redoubtable Witherington was loath to kill anyone herself, believing a woman’s job was to give life rather than take it. It is testament to her abilities that although the Maquis initially resisted her leadership, sending the message that they ‘don’t want a woman’, she was soon venerated by her troops. ‘She was for us what De Gaulle was for France,’ one of her lieutenants wrote. ‘She became our symbol.’ She was also their arms supplier, demolition instructor and military commander. And yet, as a woman, she did not qualify for military honours, and after the war was awarded only the MBE (Civil), prompting her famous retort that ‘there was nothing civil about what I did’.
Carol Seymour-Jones has done an excellent job in bringing Witherington’s courage, commitment and ability to light, sensibly focusing on her war years when she lived to her full potential. So it seems a shame that this no-nonsense woman’s story should be slightly dressed in romance. ‘Pearl shivers with anticipation,’ Seymour-Jones writes in one of her disquieting shifts into the present tense. ‘Could her love be waiting for her on the landing ground?’
Although ever in her shadow, Henri’s ‘solidity and unquestioning devotion’ did prove a great source of strength for Witherington, and at one point she made him her second-in-command. It was a role that he maintained after the war when they finally tied the knot, both wearing ‘fresh uniform’.
Witherington’s loyalty to her French beau feels like a metaphor for her commitment to France. The romance in this story is of a very measured kind: strong, loyal and courageous. What gives Witherington’s story an edge is that she not only had all these virtues in spades, she was also extremely effective.
Clare Mulley is the author of The Spy Who Loved: The Secret Lives of Christine Granville.