- A three-minute video, narrated by Kathryn J. Atwood, featuring British Pathé footage and Code Name Pauline, Pearl Witherington’s English-language memoir, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Video was originally featured in BBC article ‘Pearl Witherington: British Spy who fought the Nazis’ (29.08.2013).
Following-on from my previous article featuring Women Heroes of World War One by American authoress Kathryn J. Atwood, I am delighted to introduce to you another fascinating book in Kathryn’s canon, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, published by Chicago Review Press (2013). I actually read this book some month’s ago but due to a number of factors, including a hectic Summer period, it has taken a lot longer than I would have wished to finalise this post.
Edited by Kathryn, Code Name Pauline is a fascinating memoir of World War II Special Operations Executive (SOE), Pearl Witherington Cornioley CBE (1914-2008). I do hope that you enjoy this feature article about Code Name Pauline, it has been a pleasure to write this review, it is an excellent book and fitting tribute to a remarkable heroine of World War II.
The SOE was officially disbanded on January 15th, 1946 on orders from the new prime minister, Clement Attlee (1883-1967). All personnel files were sealed until 2004, 4 years before Pearl’s death and less than 10 years before the publication of Code Name Pauline.
I don’t like blowing my own trumpet. I find it really difficult, but at the same time I want people to know what really happened.
(Pearl Witherington Cornioley)
What you hold in your hand is not a history book. It is a piece of history. History books are often written by people who were not there. This is the testimony of someone who not only was there but who actively participated in what happened… Pearl Witherington was an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British wartime organization that secretly trained and sent agents into Nazi-occupied countries during World War II.
Toward the end of her life, however, she [Pearl] began to feel that her story might be inspiring to young people in difficult circumstances. French journalist Hervé Larroque approached her in 1994 with the idea of writing her memoir, and as their acquaintance progressed she felt she could trust him to handle her story properly. He conducted multiple interviews, some with Pearl alone and others including Pearl’s husband, Henri Cornioley, from December 1994 through June 1995. The transcript of those interviews was published in French by Editions par exemple in December 1995, with the title Pauline, one of Pearl’s wartime code names….Pearl was adamant that her story not be altered, I have taken great care to change as little of her own wording as possible.
(The above extract was written by Kathryn J. Atwood, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Chicago Review Press, 2013. ‘Editor’s Note’, pp. xi-ii)
Born Cécile Pearl Witherington in Paris on 24th June, 1914, the eldest of four daughters of an expatriate English couple. Pearl had a difficult childhood and limited early education, not attending school until she was 13. Sadly, Pearl’s father succumbed to drink and in order to support her family, she went out to work as a secretary.
When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Pearl was employed as a shorthand typist to the attaché at the British Embassy. She wanted her family to be safe and decided to escort them back to England, arriving in Liverpool, July 1941. Now living in England, Pearl joined The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (the WAAF) but found her role in the Air Ministry rather pedestrian.
I knew I could help in the war effort, even if I didn’t know exactly how things were going to work out. But I thought that I could be much more useful in France, pushing the Germans out, than in England doing paperwork. I applied to the Inter-Services Research Bureau via the head of the air attaché, who was a friend and my former boss at the British Embassy in Paris.
(Pearl Witherington Cornioley, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Chicago Review Press, 2013, p.33)
In 1943, Pearl managed to persuade the SOE(F) (the division for French operations) to take her on, after all she had many of the qualities required for the role, a fluent French-speaker, plenty of common sense, could think on her feet and as it turned out, was rather handy with a gun!
Pearl’s timing in joining the SOE was fortuitous. From June 1943, SOE’s recruiting system changed to a more comprehensive, largely psychological, assessment process. Methods used were based on War Office and Air Ministry experience in acquiring officers well after the first rush of volunteers had passed. Therefore, under the new system, Pearl’s character, practical skills and varied life experiences, took on greater importance and this only served to strengthen her application. Both male and female applicants were always treated equally in the SOE.
The process of initial tête–à-tête was scrapped. Instead, candidates went before a students’ assessment board composed largely of psychologists, with whom they stayed for several days while their characters and capacities were thoroughly probed….
After the board, candidates were either sent on to paramilitary training or politely returned to the places whence they had come…Both private interviewers, such as Jepson, and the official board were prepared to treat women on a perfect equality with men. This was usual in SOE. The organisation was far in advance of the recent fashion; for clandestine purposes, there were several tasks that women would perform a good deal better than men.
(SOE: The Special Operations Executive 1940-46 by M.R.D. Food, 1984, p.60)
Pearl completed her seven weeks’ training in armed, and unarmed combat and sabotage and was soon on active operations in France. Pearl recalls:
….I spent seven weeks shut up in one of the special SOE schools. Training focused on the life of a secret agent and the necessary skills for surviving in France. We started the day with physical training at 7 am and worked until late in the evening. When they had finished with me I was exhausted…. Our training was very good on the whole. We were also sent to Manchester, in the north of England, to learn how to parachute. One of boys said to me, “You’ll see, it’s an extraordinary experience. you feel the whole world belongs to you.” But it’s not true! I was quickly back on the ground and second time I fell more heavily than the first, as if I had fallen 10 feet.
(Pearl Witherington Cornioley, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Chicago Review Press, 2013. pp. 34-35)
Following her training and on the night of September 22nd/23rd, 1943, Pearl had to put her new skills to use when was “parachuted in” to France from an RAF Halifax, landing near Chateauroux, in the southern Loire. She was 29 years old.
After that, she [Pearl] lived an unusual life for seven months. Most of the time, traveling on night trains, she went to deliver messages, the content of which she rarely understood. She accompanied people as a guide, transported materials, and communicated back to London via coded radio messages. She was what was called a “courier.”
( Hervé Larroque, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Chicago Review Press, 2013, extract from the ‘Preface’, p.xv)
As an SOE agent Pearl was referred to as “Wrestler”; her nom de guerre in France was “Pauline”; in wireless transmissions to Britain she was called “Marie”. Her false papers declared her to be the representative of a cosmetics firm, Isabelle Lancray, her backstory being that this was the firm that her future father-in-law had established with a partner. She joined the Resistance group known as “Stationer”. Her role was to act as a courier carrying coded messages.
The Stationer network was large and Pearl’s vital work with them cannot be underestimated. Throughout Code Name Pauline, Kathryn has written detailed text panels which help the reader contextualise Pearl’s memoir. These are very useful inclusions for the reader, particularly due to the nature of some of the historical intricacies contained in Pearl’s story.
Kathryn’s explanation of the Stationer network is particularly useful. Clearly written, the text cuts through the various complex strands of this subject and sets-out the key facts of this important movement in the history of French resistance. Kathryn writes:
The area covered by Stationer was large partly because it worked close and cooperated – liaised – with several nearby Resistance networks. Sometimes Pearl’s courier work overlapped with liaise work within these networks on behalf of Stationer. The Stationer network had liaised most closely with the Headmaster network, and a few months before Pearl’s arrival, Headmaster’s leaders had been arrested. Stationer filled in the gap, making the work of the already large network even larger and the trips for its couriers longer.
Although all SOE agents entering occupied countries acquired new identities – including a new name, a new personal history, and pretense of new employment- that they had to memorize until the details were second nature, couriers perhaps had an especial need of them since they were constantly out in public.
(Kathryn Atwood, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Chicago Review Press, 2013, pp.49-50)
Whilst working in occupied France, Pearl reconnected with an old flame, Henri Cornioley, a Frenchman she had met before the war and they became engaged. They went on to work together in the Resistance and after narrowly escaping death in the summer of 1944, they both made it to England, marrying later that year on 26th October. They had a daughter together, Claire.
In 1945 pearl was appointed a military MBE and in 2004, at the British Embassy in Paris, the Queen presented her with a CBE. In 2006 Pearl was awarded her Parachute Wings, the insignia of the Parachute Regiment. Henry Cornioley died in 1999 and Pearl died on 23rd February, 2008.
Although aimed at young adults, Code Name Pauline is an inspirational book for anyone interested in reading more about a shrewd, intelligent, selfless and remarkable individual who served her country during World War II. Code Name Pauline also provides a brilliant, first-hand glimpse into a secret world rarely spoken about in public by those who were there.
I don’t consider I did anything extraordinary. Even today when people say, “You know, you did some incredible things, they weren’t easy,” I still don’t believe it’s true. I did it because I wanted to, because it was useful, because it had to be done.
(Pearl Witherington Cornioley, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. Chicago Review Press, 2013, p.153)
Kathryn J. Atwood – Resources
- Kathryn J. Atwood – author’s page on ‘goodreads’ ; Twitter – @ ;
- Kathryn J. Atwood – author’s website (click here);
- Chicago Review Press (Kathryn J. Atwood’s Page);
- Code Name Pauline – blog (click here);
- Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of A World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley with Hervé Larroque, edited by Kathryn J. Atwood. (2015, paperback version) – UK Amazon & US Amazon.
- Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics – UK Amazon & US Amazon . For my feature article on this book, click here;
- Women Heroes of World War II (2011) – UK Amazon & US Amazon ;