Hodder & Stoughton, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: She Landed by Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington, By Carole Seymour-Jones

A daring agent, who not only spied but led a fighting force, was sidelined after the war. Guess why?

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.

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

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'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum