Many women worked undercover during the world wars, but we know the names of only a few. Like men in the secret intelligence services, many went to their graves never revealing their roles. This blog series highlights a few that inspired me while writing At the Table of Wolves.
This amazing World War II operative rose to the highest ranks of the French resistance and was deemed the best shot British intelligence had seen, male or female.
Cornioley was 29 when she was sent to France as part of Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Her flawless French and determination to fight the Nazis brought her quickly to prominent leadership in the resistance. She began as a courier between the British and the French resistance and rose to command 3,000 underground fighters, the only woman to serve as a network leader. At one point she presided over the surrender of 18,000 German troops. As cover, she often had a suitcase of cosmetics to deflect suspicion during her travels in occupied France.
Cecile Pearl Witherington was raised in France by expat British parents. When the Germans invaded France, her family escaped to England where she found a job in the British Air Ministry. She never forgot the brutal invasion and was determined to assist in the fight against the Nazis. She joined the SOE in June, 1943 and parachuted into France. She was soon the leader of the Wrestler Network in the Valencay-Issoudun-Chateauroux triangle, reorganizing the group with the help of her fiance, Henri Cornioley. This network had over 1,500 members of the Maquis. By this time, the Germans had put a million franc reward on her head.
This group played a major role in fighting the Germany Army during the D-Day landings. Incredibly, she and her network endured a concerted artillery attack in a 14-hour battle, and were attacked by 2,000 Germans. Despite the onslaught, her forces lost only 24; these included civilians who were injured and then executed. With her network broken, she then launched effective guerilla assaults that disrupted German columns trying to get to the battlefront.
Cornioley died in France in 2008 at the age of 93. She received many honors, but there was one she refused. This was the Order of the British Empire, the M.B.E., the civil version rather than the military one. In her letter of refusal, her acerbic comment was, “I did nothing civil.”