Book review: Memoirs – “Code Name Pauline”

Pearl Witherington Cornioley and Hervé Larroque’s short book aims to tell Pauline’s story to young adults. It is part of a series called “Women of Action” But though aimed at young adults, it does not mean the book may only appeal to this specific age group.

For the woman whose code name was Pauline is one of a group of women who played an active role during WWII – and survived to tell the tale. The book starts with an explanation how these memoirs were created.

code-name-paulineDuring the first few years after WWII, Pauline – or Pearl – witnessed how journalists, films, the media distorted or misrepresented real events and real lives. She therefore decided not to give interviews, nor talk to journalists and bury her story. Nevertheless, towards the end of her life, French journalist Hervé Larroque, managed to convince her and interviewed her several times. These interviews form the basis of the memoirs.

The first twenty or so introductory pages are taken up with the editor’s note, a preface by Hervé Larroque and an introduction. Pauline-Pearl Witherington Cornioley’s memoirs start on page 3 of the middle part of the book. The memoirs have 13 chapters. These are followed by a conclusion, an epilogue by “Caspard”, acknowledgments, a list of key figures, an appendix, explanatory notes, a short bibliography.

Years later, when asked by a German, why she joined the SOE and returned to occupied France to join the resistance, Pauline-Pearl answers: “… out of anger!” One of the things which fed her anger were the daily announcements of executed people. As she remarks: “… Imagine that someone comes into your home – someone you don’t like – he settles down, gives orders:”… you must obey.” To me that was unbearable.” (p. 3)

One might conclude she was a French national. Chapter 1 “A difficult childhood” explains her parents, she and sisters were all British, though Pauline-Pearl was born in Paris. Her parents’ marriage ended with her father leaving the family to fend for themselves in France once the First World War broke out. This ensured Pauline-Pearl grew up bi-lingual.

As a young adult, Pauline-Pearl works to help support her family. She falls in love with a brother of one of her French friends. Though his family forbids all contact, Pauline-Pearl’s mother is more sympathetic. But in 1939, war breaks out again and Henry and Pauline-Pearl will not meet till 1943.

As British citizens, Pauline-Pearl’s mother, she herself, as well as her sisters are enemies. Aware what this means, they try to flee occupied France. After several attempts, they end up in the UK and Pauline-Pearl travels to London.

For this independent, strong-willed woman determined to help the war effort, a desk job is too tame. Chapter four goes into the training of female SOE recruits. It ends with Pauline-Pearl asking Vera Atkins for an interview with Colonel Buckmaster. Pauline-Pearl worries who will look after her mother in case Pauline-Pearl dies. She receives an unhelpful answer and arranges things herself. Towards the end of her memoirs, Pauline-Pearl mentions how Vera Atkins tried to find out what happened to the many SOE women who did not survive.

In 1943, Pauline–Pearl is back in France and joins a resistance network in the Auvergne. The next few chapters go into various resistance roles, cooperation between networks, as well as arrests, torture, acts of war.

Maurice Southgate, the head of Pauline-Pearl’s network, is arrested in 1944. He ends up in a concentration camp, but is one of the few SOE agents who survives – though heavily traumatized.

Shortly after Southgate’s arrest, D-Day starts. By then, Pauline-Pearl and Henri are together again. Southgate’s network is split up, with Pauline-Pearl and Amédée Maingard as new leaders. Right up till the French liberation, Pauline-Pearl will command a resistance network which grows to over 1,500 fighters.

The last two chapters go into Pauline-Pearl’s life after WWII. One of the revelations was to read that de Gaulle gave British SOE agents 48 hours to get out of France – once he returned there. Fortunately, Pauline-Pearl and Henri were able to remain. They returned to London in the autumn of 1944 and married there.

One would expect Pauline-Pearl, with her background and leadership experience as well as obvious talents, to end up in a senior job. The pettiness of de Gaulle and others, the fact she was a woman, ensured she ended up in badly paid and lowly jobs. She honestly describes how difficult  this was.

Each chapter starts with a short summary. Some chapters contain maps and in the middle of the paperback are photos. But what makes this such a special read, is the fact it was based on interviews. This ensures Pauline-Pearl’s voice and personality shine through. The memoirs’ “voice” is slightly pert, irresistible, practical, honest, no-nonsense, courageous.

What perhaps sums up Pauline-Pearl best, is her message to (young) readers: “… 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. …” (p 121). According to Hervé Larroque Pauline-Pearl stuck to this credo till the very end of her life.

“Code Name Pauline”, Pearl Witherington Cornioley & Hervé Larroque, 220 pp, 2015 paperback edition of the “Women in Action”-series, Chicago Review Press Inc, US. Story first published 1997; paperback available through Amazon.

“A Life in Secrets, Vera Atkins and the lost agents of the SOE”, Sarah Helm, first published 2005 is also available through Amazon.


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