The women who were active members of the Special Operations Executive, created by Churchill in 1940 to spark revolt in Germany's conquered territories, hold an enduring fascination. There have been major biographies of intelligence officers Vera Atkins, Violette Szabo and Christine Granville (a Polish agent) in recent years while Sebastian Faulks's novel and film, Charlotte Gray, helped popularise their image. The interest partly stems from a desire to put women back into history, especially as the accomplishments of these SOE agents who played a leading role in resistance networks was so blatantly hushed up after the war.
But their stories are also emblematic of how women who have proven themselves at the most masculine of tests – engaging in active warfare – are later sidelined. One of the most moving passages in Carole Seymour-Jones's new biography about Pearl Witherington, the Anglo-French agent who commanded a ragged crew of almost 4,000 men in occupied France and who had a million-franc bounty on her head, describes her reaction to being offered an MBE (civil) for her efforts. As Pearl tartly commented, "There was nothing civil about what I did."
Seymour-Jones' s meticulous biography is full of such revelations. Pearl finds herself fighting to be taken seriously by her military superiors, pressing for equal funding and better resources for her "circuit" and, later, for public recognition. That women were recruited into the SOE in 1942 and sent on dangerous missions was kept secret from the British public for fear of an outcry. The women received less pay, lower pensions and were refused proper military recognition. During training, the SOE women made the first parachute jumps alongside the men "to shame the men into not showing their own terror". The men who made the requisite jumps were awarded with RAF parachute wings; Pearl was not.
Such slights rankled for Pearl Witherington, but her childhood taught her tough emotional truths that prepared her well for combat. She was the eldest daughter of four, born to English parents in Paris; her father Wallace, an alcoholic, lost the family's money. From an early age, it was her job to drag him out of bars, negotiate with shopkeepers and dodge debt collectors. Her mother Gee was both hearing impaired and "an inadequate mother", a situation made worse when Wallace died in 1930. Pearl supported the family through secretarial work, landing a post at the British embassy before the war which provided her with valuable contacts. As she would later say, her childhood experiences were "what made me a fighter in my life".
Even before Pearl was recruited into the SOE, she drew on that fighting spirit to get her mother and sisters out of occupied France, a difficult task for the increasingly frail Gee. Once they arrived in London, like many female soldiers before her, Pearl longed to become involved in the action. "I'm a child of the 1914 war," she once said. "I hated the Huns." She approached her boss at the Air Ministry and eventually joined the newly formed "Baker Street Irregulars" who were being dropped into occupied territories to form networks of resistance that would erode the Germans' military and financial power. Her family, who thought she had joined the FANY (a nursing unit), knew nothing of her real job until after the war.
Seymour-Jones suggests that Pearl was also motivated by a longing to be reunited with her fiancé Henri Cornioley, who had been captured while fighting in the French army in 1940. Whatever drove her, Pearl demonstrated enormous moral and physical courage which is illuminated throughout the biography in small, telling detail. When Pearl was dropped into France, her SOE trainers took great care to ensure her authenticity, even scenting her chocolate with garlic and issuing her with a French-bought red Lancome lipstick. When Pearl found it difficult to find accommodation without arousing suspicion as a single woman, she spent her first three months sleeping on unheated, overcrowded trains. Delivering messages across a sprawling network in central France, she could only allow herself the luxury of cat-naps for fear of muttering English words in her sleep.
Despite HQ discriminating against Pearl's "Wrestler" circuit, providing it with less money and fewer arms than those run by male organisers, it proved extremely effective. Venerated by her volunteers, Pearl and her network, working alongside one other, cut the train line running between Paris and Toulouse 800 times. This delayed the German advance to Normandy by a fortnight, which enabled the Allies to secure the Normandy bridgehead on D-Day. She arranged weapons drops, distributed explosives and escorted teams of resistance fighters attacking German targets.
If Pearl's post-war life – in 1943 she was reunited with Henri and they married in 1945 – paled into the pedestrian, she fared better than many other SOE women in the field, who endured torture and concentration camps or were executed. Still, when Pearl was finally made a CBE in 2004, the Queen remarked at the Elysée Palace presentation: "We should have done this a long time ago."
Seymour-Jones has undertaken exhaustive research on Pearl Witherington's life but departs from conventional biographical writing, which sets this work apart from her ground-breaking biographies of Vivienne Eliot and (jointly) Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Dialogue is recreated, scenes are set and we are given a character's thoughts, feelings and reactions. While it's understandable that biographers and other history writers are under increasing pressure to produce colourful narratives, this style dangerously strays into the territory of fiction.
Pearl's story seems so well-documented and her exploits so extraordinary, that perhaps the reader could have been left to visualise her internal world without such prompts. Call me a Luddite, but I would have been happy with a set of extensive footnotes and allowed to imagine the rest.
Julie Wheelwright's books include 'The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the myth of women in espionage'