More about ... The SOE

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The true story of Pearl Witherington, an SOE agent parachuted into France in 1943. Published in France by the society Par Exemple.
An English version of the book has not yet been published.

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This is the true story of Pearl Witherington, codename Pauline, who volunteered to join a British secret service, the SOE, in 1943 to help the resistance movement in France. After several months of intensive training, she was parachuted into France on the night of 22 September 1943. From then on she was to lead a strange life. Acting as a “Courier”, she travelled around France, mainly on unheated night trains, carrying messages that she rarely understood.
This extremely solitary work was obviously very dangerous and she had a few hair-raising incidents. In May 44, the head of her network was captured by the Germans so she had to change where and how she lived. The Indre department became her home and here she organised a small resistance outfit, or Maquis, with her fiancé Henri Cornioley. They were nearly captured or killed on 11 June. Within weeks the Maquis expanded. In July 1944 it had 1500 members. The head of the Maquis, whom few knew personally, was called Pauline.
For Pauline and Henri, the war stopped in September. They left for England, returning the money that remained from the parachute drops - to the great surprise of the military establishment. A few weeks later they were married in the most private of ceremonies.
Pauline, with contributions by Henri, relates the most memorable moments, related issues and surprising or funny anecdotes of her life during the five years of war. She also tells of her troubled childhood, “I don’t reproach life for having imposed on me this difficult childhood,” she claims, “because it gave me a fighting force for the rest of my life.” Not in the least embittered, she still has an open mind to new ideas and a strong interest in people. .

( Extract from foreword)

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Authors : Mrs Pearl Cornioley, with Hervé Larroque

For many years, “Pauline”, Mrs Pearl Cornioley, refused to give an account of her life for the publication of a book. She was afraid her life would be distorted into a romantic story. Hervé Larroque, a journalist for the regional daily “La Nouvelle République” in Romorantin, Loir-et-Cher (he is now journalist in Châteauroux, Indre), had known about Pauline for several years and tried in vain to contact her for an article. He finally met her in 1992 at an exhibition about deportation and resistance that was being held in the municipal library in Romorantin. Pauline is not an easy person to approach. “When I first took the liberty of talking to her” explained Hervé Larroque, “she looked at me as if she had machine-guns instead of eyes. I had no other choice but to counter-attack so I asked her why she hadn’t replied to my request for an interview. We discussed the matter, then very quickly we got on well together.”
He wrote an initial article in the newspaper, then another. The more he listened to Pauline, the more he found her life enthralling and felt that it deserved more than just a few articles. The project for the book stemmed from there. Her life would not be romanticized. This was a fundamental principle on which both the former resistance worker and journalist fully agreed.
Late 1994 to early 1995, a series of interviews were taped and notes taken. Hervé Larroque also gathered witness accounts from Monique Bled, Henri Diacono and Raymond Billard which are published in the appendix.

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A Message to Youngsters

Pearl Cornioley, born Pearl Witherington, signed up voluntarily at the age of 29 to work for a British secret service organisation, the Special Operations Executive. She was in the French section helping the resistance movement in France. She was dropped by parachute into the Indre department in September 1943. Pauline carried out clandestine work until D-day; then she founded and ran a maquis, or undercover force, of some 1500 men. This discreet heroin never accepted to tell her life story because she feared it would be distorted and romanticized. When she finally decided to do so, it was to help young people in an age when they lose hope too quickly.
By producing this precise account, Pearl Cornioley wants to encourage them to believe in their destiny, as she believed in hers when she jumped out of the plane at night. .

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Results of past editions

One thousand copies of “Pauline” were first published in December 1995. Slightly more than two hundred were sold by subscriptions. The majority of copies of the first edition were sold within three months, mainly in the departments of Indre and Cher where Pauline worked for the resistance. A second edition of one thousand copies was published in April 1996.
A regional distributor and Hervé Larroque distributed the book at a total of approximately 150 sales points. A third edition of two hundred copies was made at the beginning of 2008. The book can be purchased by mail (18.00 euros, postage and packing free) and in a few shops. See section “How to buy the French book”. Description of the book: 200 pages, featherweight paper 80g, format 150 x 198 mm, quadri-chrome cover by Francis Bordet, price 18.00 euros TTC, ISBN 2-9513746-0-7, Publisher number 2-9513746.

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Publications Par Exemple

To publish this book we first looked for a publisher, but this was in vain. We therefore decided to publish the book ourselves, a decision we never regretted. The non-profit making society or association was thus created. The work needed to prepare and distribute the book was carried out benevolently by members of the association, who along with the authors never sought payment. The association is directed by the following people (2004):
Hervé Larroque, born 1 September 1949, living in Châteauroux (Indre), President. Mr Gaëtan Ravineau, born 11 May 1921, living in Mennetou-sur-Cher (Loir-et-Cher), Vice President. Mr Raymond Billard, born 10 February 1920, living in Chabris (Indre), Secretary. Mrs Yvonne Larroque, born 5 September 1943, living in Châteauroux (Indre), Treasurer.

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Pauline's life

Pauline, born 24 June 1914 in Paris, lived for many years in this city accompanied by Henri, born 12 October 1910. In 1998, they moved into a retirement home in Loir-et-Cher. Henri died 3 June 1999, at the age of 89 keeping his lucidity and sense of humour until the end. His ashes were laid to rest at the commemorative monument for the battle of Souches in La Chapelle-Montmartin (Loir-et-Cher), during a moving ceremony attended by family and many of the couple’s friends. These mainly came from the Indre and Loir-et-Cher departments, where Pauline and Henri carried out most of their work for the resistance, as well as from Paris.
Pauline regularly visits Valençay, returning every year since 1991 for the ceremony of the inauguration of the monument dedicated to agents of the French SOE who sacrificed their life.
She died on February 24th, in Blois hospital, with courage and dignity.

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How to get the French book

Title: "Pauline", parachutée en 1943. Author : Pearl Cornioley. ISBN 2-9513746-0-7

1 °) By mail:
Write to : "Par exemple" editions, at H. and Y. Larroque, 18 avenue du Général Ruby, 36000 Châteauroux, France. Enclose a cheque for euros 18.00 (including postage and packing) made payable to Association Par Exemple.
For any information : e-mail hlarroque

2 °) The book can be purchased in France:
Boutique Mémorial, Esplanade du Général Eisenhower 14000 Caen - Tel. (33)2 31 06 06 44
La Poterne, 41 rue Moyenne 18000 Bourges - Tel. (33)2 48 65 09 65
Office de Tourisme, 2 Avenue de la Résistance 36600 Valençay - Tel. (33)2 54 00 04 42
Musée Résistance et déportation, 1 pl. de Grève 41000 Blois - Tel. (33)2 54 56 07 02
Maison de la Presse, 43 rue Georges-Clemenceau 41200 Romorantin - Tel. (33)2 54 76 13 09
Musée de la Résistance bretonne, Hardys Béhelec 56140 St Marcel - Tel. (33)2 97 75 16 90

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Contents of the book

   . Testimony of Raymond BILLARD, "Gaspard", ancient lieutenant of Pauline
   . Testimony of Monique Bled, "Martine", ancient courier, at the age of 17
   . Henri Diacono's testimony, ancient S.O.E. ( F ) radio
   . "Double transposition" coding technique, by Henri Diacono
   . Coded message to young people...
   . Landmarks

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17 short extracts

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The big jump

When the red light came on, well, off I went. The crew, in the plane, took care of my luggage which was dropped through the same hole. Because of the wind, I landed in some bushes. I thought, "That's it, I've been blown off course by the wind, I'm not where I should be." And the parachute would not collapse because of the wind.

During our training, we had been told that if this happened, we had to move round the parachute to collapse it. But I couldn't do it, I ended up twisting my ankles -- it was awful -- so I took the device holding the harness, I turned the clasp and gave it a thump, the parachute then came off and got tangled in the bushes. I thought, "Right, now I must sort myself out." (...)

I tried to get my bearings in the dark. Moving forward, I saw something through the bushes. It was smooth and flat and at ground level. I thought it must be the landing strip, but no, it was water. I was horrified to see water so near.

In fact, I had landed between two lakes. I realised much later, when we returned, that there were two lakes and several electricity pylons and cables.

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Demarcation line

One morning, at the beginning of December, some of my sisters' friends arrived in a panic the Germans were rounding up all the English in the 16th arrondissement. We lived in the 9th arrondissement. Mummy said, "I don't want to be taken by the Germans, we're leaving." So my mother, two sisters and I took refuge in two French families, whilst I tried to find a way of crossing the demarcation line.

We managed to get some rather vague information. I told the police station where we had to sign on as British citizens, "We're leaving Paris." The policeman said he would put the register aside for a couple of days to give us time to get away. We left on 9 December 1940. We took the train to Vichy where there was an American Embassy in the unoccupied zone (there was another in occupied Paris). The Americans were not yet at war.

We had to cross the demarcation line clandestinely, because we weren't allowed a pass. I was looking for any possible solution when I heard a traveller, in the train compartment, saying that he was taking horses across the line. I thought, "There's our answer." When he stood up, I followed him down the corridor and asked him if he would accept to take four English women across. He agreed straightaway. We changed our route to follow him to Montceau-les-Mines, then we took a country lane, we had to hide in a ditch when a German patrol went past. He paid for everything -- the extra train fare and even our 'coffee' (grilled barely drink) in the station ‘café’.

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My insistance to join SOE

But I thought that I could be much more useful in France than in England. I applied via the head of the Air Attachés, who was a friend and my former boss at the British Embassy in Paris. It wasn't easy. The regular army, led by professional officers, didn't like the S.O.E. at all -- to them we were just a bunch of amateurs. My former boss said to me one day, "You are not going to work with those people!" And he stopped me from entering the S.O.E. I thought, "What a nerve!" I had decided that it was what I wanted to do.

I explained my problem to a friend from the Embassy in Paris who I had met again in London. She said, "don't worry". I knew that she worked for the Foreign Office but I didn't know that she the Minister's secretary!

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Difficult childhood

Do you think there is a direct link between all that and your commitment later in life ?

P. Definitely. First because of the sense of responsibility that I had to have very young. In fact, I didn't really have any childhood. We were never unhappy at home with Mummy -- except when she argued with my father. I can't stand rows at any price. If I end up in an argument with someone, it means that I have been really pushed to my limits. Rows make me ill!

But the way I lived during my childhood and as a teenager gave me the strength to fight for things in life.

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A SOE woman

Maurice introduced me to the young courier for the Auvergne network. Something quite funny happened when we met. I’m sure Maurice did it on purpose. He must have told him, “Tomorrow morning we have a meeting with an agent who has just arrived.” We met in Clermont-Ferrand park. You should have seen his expression when he saw me! (laughing). On the spur of the moment I didn’t understand why. Later, when I was wondering why he looked so surprised to see me there, the penny dropped -- he must have been expecting a man not a woman!

I had a lot do with him because, during the clandestine period, I worked a lot in Auvergne. That was before I moved north to the Indre department and the Cher valley, on the demarcation line (frontier between occupied and unoccupied France).

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Arming Resistance fighters

Our work consisted of forming small groups all over the place, so that on D-day the groups could expand and help the Allies. That’s what happened in the north of Indre and the Cher valley.

By sabotages ?

P. Sabotage and guerrilla war.

Sabotaging train tracks, telephone lines, roads and persecuting the Germans to hold them back or create a climate of uncertainty ?

P. (nodding) When I became head of the network, my role was to help resisters. But one thing that really makes my blood boil is hearing people say, “She was in the war, bang-bang-bang, she blew up trains and all sorts...” It’s just not true. All I did was to organise and arm the resisters.

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Henri and his rabbit

We left the next day and I took my rabbit with me. He was quite small. We continued retreating to Verdun and I still had my rabbit. He was completely spoilt because we were in a horse regiment and had as much oat as we needed for the horses. You can imagine how he stuffed himself. There was no shortage of grass either.

We were in the machine-gun section therefore every time we stationed somewhere we had to take up positions outside the station area, in a field or on a hill -- supposedly to attack German planes. I’d take the rabbit every time. He was completely tame. He never tried to escape. He would stay with me even when we were firing the machine-gun. He was used to it. . . he was really cute my little rabbit.

The other lads in the section teased me. Every time we had to move on, they’d say, “Hey Cornioley, don’t forget the rabbit.”

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Hidden in the wheat field

I didn’t want to be caught in a house. I fled into a corn-field. Almost immediately I saw flames shooting out of the barn. The Germans had set fire to it in retaliation. I lay down very scared lest the corn caught fire. I was hoping to reach the underwood when they saw me and started shooting, but I wasn’t hit. (...)

There was a moment when the German snooper plane flew over, so I curled up in a ball hoping they would think I was just a bag or something.

I was still lying in the field at about 10.30 P.M. I could no longer hear the lorries. I looked up and saw the farmer’s wife putting out the fire. I stood up and waved, but Madame Sabassier and her daughter were so frightened that when they saw me on the other side of the field, they rushed back indoors. I went to join them. They hadn’t any food to give me because they had been feeding and wining the Germans all day. They managed to find two eggs, which I ate then I made my way to the Trochet’s house. I had been awfully hot in the blazing sun and frightened.

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Two nazi prisoners

Pauline - When we were there, a few Germans passed through our territory. All the maquis in France, wherever they were, had been told to stop the Germans returning to Germany.

H. We ended up having two wounded German soldiers with us a youngster and an officer who was wounded in his leg. They were in a lorry and we took the youngster to the hospital run by nuns in Valençay. The officer was 100% Hitlerite and had decided he wanted to be shot. We let him write a letter to his family. It wasn’t easy killing him, in such a situation. But we couldn’t keep them prisoners we had nowhere to put them.

Who took the decision to kill him ?

P. I don’t know. I think it was the maquis leaders who decided between them, maybe with those in Châteauroux. Personally, I think, whether he was for Hitler or not, he was a human being. After all he was fighting in a war.

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Farmers do not drinks water...

P - When I arrived in a farm during my various cycling visits and asked for a glass of water, the farmers would always refuse and insist on pouring me a glass of wine. The first time it happened I let myself be badgered into it, but when I left the farm I could hardly peddle. After that, every time I went to a farm and asked for a drink of water there was an argument. They would always absolutely insist on giving me wine.

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Alcoholic father

You can’t imagine the misery caused by people who drink heavily. It was definitely the cause of many of our problems. After the first World War, my father never found it in him to control his life . He had a “society” streak. He was brought up in a very wealthy environment, before starting his life of socialising. He never managed to get on top of things and do what had to be done. There’s also the question of destiny. We were in that situation and we had to cope with it. I keep coming back to “coping”. (...) But I didn’t even realise he was drifting! You know a child doesn’t analyse adult behaviour. He just puts up with the life he leads.

Yes but he suffers...

P. The only thing I suffered from during my childhood was my parents rowing. I really suffered from those because I just didn’t understand them.

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Office life

I had a boss who had no idea of time. (...) On three occasions when I was given a salary rise, he said, “You’d better organise your life so you can give all your time to the bank.”

Did he want 24 hours a day ?

P. Yes. Then I worked for John Miller for 12 years, they were the happiest because we worked together like clockwork. I was in the European office of the World Bank where I worked for 28 years.

So in fact you had a hard time of it for 14 years ?

P. I had a hard time yes, but I put up with it because I had no choice. How did I calm down and relax? Do you know what I did?


P. I cried all weekend.


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The US tour

In February 1946, I went to the States to participate in a series of conferences to explain to Americans England’s role during the war from 1939 to 1945. I think the S.O.E. designated me. Other conferences had been given with the same objective in mind, by politicians and military leaders. The speaker who preceded me was Constance Babington-Smith, the W.A.A.F. who located Peenemunde research station for V1s and V2s on the Baltic coast, by examining aerial photos taken by the R.A.F. Douglas Colyer must have thought that it would be a good idea to send a W.A.A.F. who had been in field work. Anyway, I was sent on this tour by the British Information Service, mainly in the north-east of the U.S.A. New York, Washington, Colombiana, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo and Philadelphia. The conferences were held in schools, clubs, etc. there are lots over there. I spoke about the role of the resistance and the S.O.E. etc.

In Colombiana in Ohio there was a large German community, but nobody had warned me. Whilst I was talking I could feel there was some discomfort. After the talk, I saw an American make a move, he said, “Do you think all Germans are like that?” To get out of it I said, “I don’t know, I only saw Nazis!”

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Believing one's destiny

One thing leads to another in a very strange way. It has happened several times in my life. When I started training as a courier, I think I was probably destined to do it. Similarly, for the memorial at Valençay, one thing just led to another. (...) I believe in destiny.

What do you mean by that?

P. There’s no doubt about it, your destiny is written, mapped out -- call it what you like. There are certain things you have to face -- they may come when you are young, middle-aged or elderly. (...)

Do you think you are born with a plan for your life ?

P. I’m sure.

There are ordeals to get through, things to take advantage of, help that may come your way --

P. Unfortunately, we don’t know what they are from the start, but it’s certain they are there.

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Religious disappointment

When I was sixteen the only person I could confide in was the vicar. Mummy must have seen him on several occasions about our financial problems. One day, I went to see him to talk to him about my troubles with Mummy, I needed his advice. He must have thought I was coming about money problems because he hadn’t time to see me.

I took it very badly. I thought if I cannot find help in religion, who else is going to help me. It was a turning point for me. I didn’t want anything to do with religion (...) I am a believer but I don’t practice. I go to church on my own, when and where I can, and also find one open.

What do you do when you’re in a church?

P. Usually I think of all my friends, my family. I don’t ask for anything for myself, except for patience because sometimes I do get impatient.

I would be very happy to discuss religion one day with a theologian. But for me, religion is something really personal! Apparently that’s not how it should be perceived. It should be viewed collectively as something universal.

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The Oxford street clairvoyant

It was to keep her quiet more than anything else. At lunch time we both went to see the clairvoyant.

She was in Oxford Street in a sort of amusement arcade. She was in a small hut and she looked into a crystal ball. I’d never experienced that. First she gave me the “virgin” ball, she made me hold it for a while, then without touching it, she put it in a purple handkerchief, no violet. She turned the ball round inside and told me all about my past life, but in every little detail! I was a very taken aback.

She continued, continued then suddenly, with urgency she said

“You want to change jobs, what do you want to do, what do you want to do?”

“I want to change jobs, that’s all I can say.”

“Give me your hand.”

I gave her my hand, she said “You will pull through it all right.”

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Pauline's conclusion

Nothing is completed easily in life and this book took a lot of time and dedication from both Henri and myself. We wanted to tell our story as it happened and as we experienced it.

I hope this testimony will help young people get over problems and difficulties that happen in any life. Never lose hope, never give in, because life will not make things easy but it knows how to reward those who approach it conscientiously, bravely and with determination.

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