Forest Park historian and author Kathryn Atwood published a new book, Code Name Pauline, in June about one of the most celebrated — and most private — female secret agents during the French Resistance of World War II.
Pearl Witherington Cornioley, who died in France in 2008 at age 94, was honored in her day for leading as many as 3,500 French Resistance fighters to sabotage the maneuvers of Nazi German soldiers before and after the D-Day landing at Normandy, in June 1944.
But Pearl, an English citizen who grew up in Paris, refused to let her story be told, for fear it would be blown out of proportion.
“Other people had sensationalized her story right after the war,” Atwood said. “The British were simultaneously horrified and fascinated to learn that women had been behind enemy lines with the Special Operations Executive (SOE).”
In the 1980s, Pearl agreed to tell her tale to a French journalist, Hervé Larroque, who published the book in French.
When Atwood was writing her previous young-adult book, Women Heroes of World War II, published May, 2012, she kept running across references to Pearl’s memoir, titled Pauline, but was unable to locate a copy.
That’s where her Francophone husband, John, came in handy. John struck up a correspondence with Larroque and acquired a copy of Pauline. There was even an English version of the manuscript, yet unpublished, but approved by Pearl.
Atwood ran the project past her editor at Chicago Review Press, who approved the book. Atwood lightly edited the manuscript, changing it from its original Q&A format by writing transitional paragraphs. She acquired never-before published photographs of Pearl and her husband, Henri Cornioley, a fellow resistance fighter.
Pearl Witherington grew up in France and had a tough childhood.
“She was forced to take responsibility at a young age with an alcoholic father,” Atwood said. “She learned to function in the midst of dysfunction.”
Her Parisian accent made her a valuable spy when she walked into the SES offices in London and volunteered. Her supervisors at the time assessed her as “cool, resourceful, extremely determined,” and “very capable and completely brave,” according to her obituary in the Independent. Her code name was “Pauline” in radio transmissions to England.
Pearl parachuted into a field in France in the dead of night in September 1943 and began a dangerous career as a courier. She traveled with false papers, masquerading as a cosmetics saleswoman.
Sometimes she delivered messages, and sometimes weapons, delivered in nighttime drops by British Air Force pilots to her undercover comrades in the north of France. Their goal: to assist with the upcoming invasion of France by English and American forces.
“They had an inkling it was coming. When D-Day finally arrived, their goal was to sabotage communication lines, cut transportation and blow up trains,” Atwood said.
Her commander was Squadron Leader Maurice Southgate, a fellow British citizen and old school friend from Paris. But in May, a month before D-Day, Southgate was ambushed in a Gestapo trap and was arrested. He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which he managed to survive.
Pearl suddenly was promoted to squadron leader and found herself in charge of slowing down and thwarting the Germans as they traveled toward Normandy to fight the Allies and then to impede their escape as they fled the beaches and headed west.
“Pearl herself radioed specific information to the Royal Air Force to target a train loaded with petrol headed toward Normandy,” Atwood said. “They bombed the German train and that slowed a huge group of Germans from reaching Normandy coast.”
According to her obituary, she arranged weapons drops, distributed explosives and escorted teams setting out to attack German targets. At one point, the Germans offered a 1 million franc bounty for her capture.
She and Henri narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis as they hid on the grounds of a Chateau. They survived the war and were married and had a child.
Atwood is a writer and musician who also performs in the History Singers with husband John. The group just performed their Mark Twain’s Music Box program at the DuPage County Historical Society.
Code Name Pauline is a perfect fit for Atwood, whose previous books have been written for younger readers. And she gets a kick out of watching young people find out about the history of World War II.
“I loved it!” a 10-year-old fan wrote on her Goodreads page. “I didn’t even eat or drink from when I started to when I finished it.”
Atwood is confident that her release is just what Pearl would have wanted.
“Pearl wanted young people to know that in spite of a difficult childhood, the skills she learned growing up were able to help her keep her head in a crisis. She wanted to be an example to other children growing up in harsh conditions.”