This Puts Extreme Sport Into PerspectiveMay 13, 2008
This is a story of extreme courage and the life of an un-sung heroine.
I know I’m going off at a tangent here, but I had to divert a little from extreme sport to the example of extreme courage shown by Pearl Witherington who died in March at the age of 93.
Back when Pearl was a ‘pretty young thing’ extreme sports had not even been thought of, but who needed it with the Second World War on their doorstep.
Pearl was born in Paris to British parents and accustomed to hardship from an early age. Her father died of drink when she was barely into her teens and at the age of 14 she was shouldering much of the responsibility for raising her siblings. Still in her teens she fell in love with, and got engaged to, a young Frenchman called Henri Cornioley – to the despair of his parents who thought she was far too poor and ‘lowly’ for him.
However, the Germans invaded in 1940 and she had to flee, with her mother and sisters, through Portugal to Gibralter and from there to the safety of England. In London she worked as a secretary at the Air Ministery but found the routine excessively dull and a year later applied to the SOE (Special Operations Executive) which had finally begun taking female recruits.
“This student, although a woman, has leader’s qualities,” noted her end of training report, “cool, resourceful, and extremely determined. Very capable, completely brave.” It was also observed that she was “the best shot, male or female, we have yet had.”
In September 1943, Pearl was dropped into central France where she began work as a courrier, taking messages from one Resistance group to another. She always travelled with a case of beauty products so that if she was questioned she could claim, in her fluent French, to be employed by a cosmetics company. Her work was incredibly dangerous, said the Guardian, and, as she put it herself, “terribly, terribly, terribly tiring”. On one occasion she cycled 50 miles to deliver a message, only to find a bridge heavily guarded by German soldiers. Undeterred she waded across the freezing river carrying her bicycle over her head.
In May 1944 the leader of her unit was caught by the Gestapo and Pearl was put in charge of around 1,500 Maquis fighters. By then she had been joined by her fiancé, Henri, and together they set up HQ in the gatehouse of a chateau near the woods where their Resistance friends were hiding. From here they organised sallies against the enemy who were making their way north to fight the Allies after the D-Day landings. However, the Germans soon learned their whereabouts and attacked the gatehouse, forcing Pearl to hide in a wheat field which the Germans would periodically pepper with bullets. She remained concealed there all day.
After the war she was recommended for the MC for bravery, but since, in those days, the award was not open to women, she was offered an MBE (Civil Division). She rejected this with an icy note pointing out that “there was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did. I didn’t sit behind a desk all day.”
In old age, Pearl and Henri moved into a home near Bourges which was specifically for people who had made a significant contribution to French life. Fittingly, it was in the area where they had helped take 18,000 Germans prisoner in the last stages of the war.
In 2004 the Queen presented her with a CBE telling her “We should have done this a long time ago,” but the award she valued the most was her Parachute Wings, which she received last year. “I was tickled pink, because I was somewhat miffed when no-one thought to give me them all those years ago,” she said. “But I don’t consider myself a heroine. Not at all. I am just an ordinary person who did her job during the War.”