Pearl Witherington was one of thirty nine women who parachuted into France to work for the Special Operations Executive, the group tasked by Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Witherington, once in France, was in constant danger, as was any member of SOE. However, the work Witherington did was of great value to the Allies – so much value, that the Germans placed a huge reward on her head.
Pearl Witherington was born on June 24th, 1914, to English parents who were living in Paris. She was the eldest of four daughters. Pearl did not start school until aged thirteen but she had to start work at an early age to financially support her family as a result of her father’s drinking. After the German invasion of Western Europe in the spring of 1940, it would have been very likely that the family would have been held as internees. As a result, Pearl organised the escape of her family to England in 1941. Once in England, Pearl started to work in the Air Ministry. She found the work tedious and tried to get into the Special Operations Executive. The fact that she could speak fluent French was a major benefit and she was accepted for training.
After just three weeks training, Pearl returned to France on September 22nd ,1943, posing as a representative for a cosmetics company and with the codename ‘Marie’. She was just one of thirty-nine women who were parachuted into France to help the French Resistance. Once in France she was in the ‘Stationer Network’ led by Maurice Southgate and linked up with Henri Cornioley. Witherington spent eight months working primarily as a courier delivering coded messages to radio operators. Her work, as with any SOE operative, could be very arduous and dangerous. On one occasion she had to wade waist-deep with her bike slung across her back through a freezing river as a bridge she needed to cross was unexpectedly being guarded. Her fluency in French was also a great help in avoiding trouble.
Pearl’s greatest challenge came when the leader of SOE in the area she operated in, Squadron Leader Maurice Southgate, was captured. She suddenly found herself in charge of 1,500 Resistance fighters, known as the ‘Wrestler’ network. This unit operated in the Valencay-Issoudun-Chateauroux triangle
Added by Henri Cornioley, whom she later married, Pearl reorganised ‘Wrestler’ to great effect. In the lead up to D-Day in an effort to disrupt the Germans as much as was physically possible, ‘Wrestler’ blew up 800 stretches of railway lines and supply routes and as the Allies advanced out of Normandy, 18,000 Germans gave themselves up as POW’s to ‘Wrestler’. The Nazis put a one million franc bounty on her (about £500,000 in today’s money) such was her success.
Pearl Witherington and Henri Cornioley both escaped to London in September 1944 and married the following month. Witherington’s name was put forward for a Military Cross but women were not eligible for the medal and she never received it.
Henri Cornioley died in 1999 while Pearl is still alive having just been awarded her parachute wings in April 2006. In World War Two, parachute wings were given after four training jumps and one operational one. However, women completed three training jumps before being parachuted into France to complete work for the SOE. Therefore, Pearl Witherington did four jumps and not the five required. Aged 91, she was awarded her wings by Squadron Leader Rhys Cowsill at her home near Tours.