Pearl Witherington – June 24, 1914 – 2008
At midnight on September 22, 1941, a woman posing as a cosmetics sales person parachuted into Nazi occupied France. Operating under the code name “Marie”, Pearl Witherington, a British Special Operations Executive (SOE), and one of less than 40 female SOE agents, helped to undermine the foundation of Germany’s stronghold on the country.
During the years 1943 – 44, Hitler continued to spread his hold on the European continent, the United States joined the conflict and a hint of the changing tide in the Allies favor had appeared. For Ms. Witherington, that time was arduous and exceptionally dangerous. As an SOE agent, her mission was to deliver coded messages to the many radio operators in the field and to assist in sabotage maneuvers; a position made more difficult by the fact that she had no home or headquarters to return to each night. Instead, she sought shelter from the elements and the Gestapo wherever she could often enduring extremely harsh elements that eventually took a significant toll on her health.
In May of 1944, her comrade/ boss, Maurice Southgate, was captured by the Nazi’s leaving Pearl in charge of the suddenly leaderless group of 1,500 men. With their supplies looted, Pearl had to send coded radio messages to London requesting new supplies, which she received in 23 separate air drops. Fully re-stocked, Pearl, now “Pauline”, lead her “Wrestler” group on missions to destroy train tracks, bridges and other German supply routes and eventually were able to assist in the surrender of almost 20,000 German troops to the Allies in 1944.
Though the tides of war were changing liberation had not yet come to France, something that would occur that August. Pearl and her comrade Henri Cornioley escaped to London and were married that Fall. Their daughter, Claire, was born within a year of their marriage.
After the war ended, Pearl toured the United States speaking about her experiences in wartime Europe. Recognized for the hero she was, France decorated her with the Knight of the Legion of Honour, the Croix de Guerre, and the Medaille de la Resistance. Her gender, however, prevented her from attaining significant recognition in Britain, who awarded her with a single “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (MBE) award in 1946, which was upgraded to a “Commander of the Order of the British Empire” (CBE) in 2006. At the age of 92, Ms. Witherington, was decorated with the most coveted Royal Air Force Parachute Wings. She and her husband, Henri, who passed away in 1999, established a memorial in Valency, France, to honor the people with whom they served that did not survive the conflict. It still exists today, as does the memory of this incredible woman. She passed away in 2008.