Your browser is not supported. For the best experience, you should upgrade to a modern browser with improved speed and security.

The Real 'Charlotte Gray': The French Resistance Leader with a Million-Franc Bounty on Her Head

With a one million franc bounty on her head, Witherington presided over the surrender of more than 18,000 German troops.

On the night of September 22, 1943, a 29-year-old British Special Operations Executive agent parachuted into occupied France. It sounds like the beginning of a spy movie, but it’s actually the real-life story of Pearl Witherington, one of World War II’s little-known female heroes! Witherington led a network of thousands of French Maquis resistance fighters in battle against the Nazis, and even presided over the surrender of 18,000 German troops at the end of the war.

Born on June 24, 1914 to British parents in France, Witherington's peaceful life there — which included a job at the British embassy and a French fiancé — was shattered when Germany invaded in May of 1940. She escaped to Britain with her mother and sisters that December, but was determined to find a way to fight back. She began working with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, then in June 1943, eager to take a more active role in the war effort, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which had been formed to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in occupied Europe. "Deep down inside me I'm a very shy person but I've always had a lot of responsibilities ever since I was quite small," she later reflected. "So I thought, 'Well, this is something I feel I can do.'"

Witherington excelled at SOE training: her instructors found her “cool and resourceful and extremely determined” and were astounded at her natural ability with a firearm, with one of them calling her "probably the best shot (male or female) we have yet had." Her commander praised her as "very capable [and] completely brave." By September, her superiors felt that she was ready to go operational. She parachuted into occupied France and connected with the French Resistance, including her fiancé, Henri Cornioley, who had escaped from a German prison camp. Witherington spent eight months working as a courier for Maurice Southgate, leader of the SOE Stationer Network, under the code name Marie, often posing as a traveling cosmetics saleswoman.

After Southgate was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in May 1944, the SOE ordered Stationer to be divided into two separate networks; Witherington became the leader of the new Wrestler Network under the code name "Pauline." Her command of Wrestler, which grew to include over 3,500 French Resistance Maquis fighters at its peak, was so effective that the Nazis put a one million franc bounty on her head. At one point, in an effort to break the network, the Germans ordered 2,000 troops with artillery to attack Witherington when approximately 140 Maquis were gathered. She reported that the battle raged for 14 hours and the Germans lost 86 men while the Maquis lost 24 "including civilians who were shot and the injured who were finished off."

After the battle, Witherington quickly regrouped, and her network launched large scale guerrilla attacks which wreaked havoc on the German columns marching to the front. Among other successes, her force disrupted a key railroad line between the south of France and Normandy over 800 times, all the while suffering only a few casualties. In the second half of 1944, with the German military being pushed back out of France, Witherington presided over the surrender of more than 18,000 German troops.

After the war, Witherington was recommended for Britain’s Military Cross, but was deemed ineligible because she was a woman. Instead, she was offered the civil division of the award of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), which she declined, stating “there was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did. I didn't sit behind a desk all day.... I do consider it to be most unjust to be given a civilian decoration. Our training, which we did with the men, was purely military and as women we were expected to replace them in the field." In 1945, her contributions to the war effort were appropriately honored when she received a military MBE. She was also awarded France’s Legion d’honneur for her work with the French Resistance. More than half a century later, in 2004, she was made a Commander of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), receiving her insignia from Queen Elizabeth II during a state visit to France.

Pearl Witherington (far right) with other French Resistance leaders after D-Day.

Witherington received what she considered her greatest honor in 2006, at the age of 92: her Royal Air Force parachute wings. She had completed three training jumps, plus one operational jump, "but the chaps did four training jumps, and the fifth was operational — and you only got your wings after a total of five jumps," she said. "So I was not entitled — and for 63 years I have been moaning to anybody who would listen because I thought it was an injustice." After hearing her in a television interview, RAF parachute instructor Squadron Leader Rhys Cowsill agreed, and took up the cause of getting Witherington her wings. On April 11, 2006, Cowsill and Major Jack Lemmon of the Parachute Regiment traveled to her retirement home in France and officially granted her parachute wings.

In 1997, Witherington wrote a memoir with Hervé Larroque, where she shared many of the strange but true stories of her time as an SOE agent — everything from diving into a cornfield to avoid German fire, to nearly being killed by a Resistance leader who doubted her identity, to keeping a pet rabbit that came with her to so many dangerous places that it became oblivious to machine gun fire. That book has since been adapted into the young adult memoir, Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, and her story was also recently told in the adult biography She Landed By Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington.

Witherington died in 2008 at the age of 93, still living in France. For her, fighting the Nazis to protect her adopted homeland had never been in question: "I just thought, This is impossible. Imagine that someone comes into your home — someone you don’t like — he settles down, gives orders: 'Here we are, we’re at home now; you must obey.' To me that was unbearable."

Books About Pearl Witherington And Other Female Spies of WWII

The Whispering Town

The Whispering Town

Written by: Jennifer Elvgren
Illustrated by: Fabio Santomauro
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

In Denmark, the Resistance successfully saved nearly the entire Jewish population across the sea to safety in Sweden, and this picture book captures the suspense and heroism of this incredibly brave act. Anett's family lives in a small Danish fishing village, and they're concealing Carl and his aging mama, the last pair they need to get aboard a fishing boat and to safety. But with the occupying soldiers getting suspicious, and a cloudy sky that will prevent Carl from seeing which way is safe from patrols, it takes Anett's clever idea of a chain of whispers to smuggle them safely to the harbor.

Making Bombs for Hitler

Making Bombs for Hitler

Recommended Age: 10 and up

At first, Lida believes that she and her family are safe from the Nazi regime, since they aren't Jewish — but her perception doesn't last. Nazi soldiers send Lida to a work camp, where she and other Ukrainian children will be worked making munitions until they drop. Lida comes up with a daring plan: sabotage the bombs. She and the other children set to work, but if they are discovered, their deaths will come that much sooner... Based on the real-life experience of countless Ukrainian and other Central and Eastern European children who were used as slave labor in Nazi work camps, this historical fiction novel captures the realities of the camps and the courage of those who resisted without being too graphic for younger readers. For another gripping historical fiction novel by the same author, this one about the Nazis' Lebensborn program, check out Stolen Girl.

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent

Recommended Age: 12 and up

Her name was Pearl Witherington, but in her role as the leader of a Resistance network in occupied France, she was code named Pauline. In this biography, author Kathryn J. Atwood adapts Witherington's 1997 autobiography Pauline for young adult audiences. From a difficult childhood to a harrowing escape after the Nazi invasion to the details of her work as a Resistance courier, saboteur, and commander, Witherington tells the thrilling real-life story of her work as a World War II spy. This volume from the Women of Action biography series also includes unedited interview transcripts and never-published photographs for a fascinating look at this daring young woman's wartime exploits.

Women Heroes of World War II

26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue

Women Heroes of World War II

26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue

Written by: Kathryn J. Atwood
Recommended Age: 12 and up

During World War II, women around the world stood up to protect those they could, doing everything from transmitting radio messages from occupied France, to hiding Jewish families or smuggling them out of dangerous territory, to conducting sabotage missions throughout Europe. Kathryn J. Atwood tells some of their stories in this book, showing how these women, from many nations and backgrounds, each took tremendous risks to fight the battles that they were not permitted to fight on the front. A companion book, Women Heroes of World War II: The Pacific Theater, tells the stories of women's contributions in China, Japan, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.

The Lady Is A Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance
New!

The Lady Is A Spy: Virginia Hall, World War II Hero of the French Resistance
New!

Written by: Don Mitchell
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Virginia Hall always wanted adventure, but many people thought that she would spend her life behind a desk after she lost her leg in an accident. Instead, when World War II broke out, she wanted to serve: first as part of a French ambulance unit, then as an undercover agent for the British Special Operations Executive. She was such an effective spy that the Gestapo declared "the Limping Lady" to be among the most dangerous spies they pursued. This is the true story of a woman who refused to let anything — or anyone — hold her back.

Resistance

Resistance

Written by: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Recommended Age: 12 and up

In 1942 Nazi-occupied Poland, Jewish teenager Chaya Lindner is determined to fight the evil destroying her life... even in the face of overwhelming odds. She escapes the Kraków Ghetto where her family is imprisoned and joins the Jewish resistance as a courier. She learns about a planned uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto to fight Nazis' efforts to transport the remaining survivors of the ghetto to death camps. Like her fellow resisters, Chaya knows that there is no possibility that they will 'win' this fight, but they hope to save as many lives as possible, and to live — or die — on their own terms. This powerful historical fiction novel by the author of A Night Divided about the largest single revolt by Jews during WWII explores the Holocaust from the rarely-discussed perspective of Jewish resistance fighters through the story of one heroic young woman.

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity

Written by: Elizabeth Wein
Recommended Age: 13 and up

In World War II England, two young women become unlikely friends. One is a pilot, a new member of Britain's Air Transport Auxiliary; one is a spy, destined to assist the resistance in France. When one woman has to eject from their malfunctioning plane and is captured by the Gestapo, she steels herself for the brutality of an interrogation. But do they have the pilot, or the spy? And will Verity manage to keep Britain's secrets, or does her capture risk everything? Readers will devour this suspenseful and richly detailed book... and then go back to the beginning to look for the hints and clues they missed on the first read. Fans of this book will want to check out the companion novel, Rose Under Fire, and the prequel, The Pearl Thief.

She Landed By Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington

She Landed By Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington

Written by: Carole Seymour-Jones
Recommended Age: Adults

Pearl Witherington's story seems like it leaped out of a war movie: forced to leave her beloved country but never abandoning it, Witherington returned to France and became one of the greatest maquisard commanders of the war, whose troops regularly called her "Ma Mère" — Mother. From her courageous service during the war to her refusal to accept a civil award for her wartime service, this book captures Witherington's remarkable determination and grit in the face of all obstacles. By the time you're done reading, you'll not only agree with the author's assessment that Witherington deserved more recognition for her service... you'll also wonder why spy movies aren't as exciting as her real-life tale.

A Woman Of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
New!

A Woman Of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
New!

Written by: Sonia Purnell
Recommended Age: Adults

In 1942 France, a mysterious spy known as the "Limping Lady" was a linchpin for the French Resistance – the Gestapo called her "the most dangerous of all Allied spies." Her name, unknown to the Germans, was Virginia Hall. She was the daughter of a well-off Baltimore family turned Special Operations Executive agent, and her distinctive limp was from a prosthetic leg that most people believed would trap her behind a secretary's desk. Author Sonia Purnell explores the full story behind Hall's life, illuminating her determination and her wartime heroism. Fast-paced, thrilling, and meticulously researched, this biography of Hall is better than any fictional spy story. For another fascinating biography of Hall, check out The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy.

Code Name: Lise
New!

The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy

Code Name: Lise
New!

The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII's Most Highly Decorated Spy

Written by: Larry Loftis
Recommended Age: Adults

After Odette Sansom decides to become an SOE agent in the midst of World War II, she parachutes into occupied France and meets her commanding officer, Captain Peter Churchill. The indomitable pair discover soul mates in one another, falling in love as they race to evade Hugo Bleicher, the German secret police sergeant who pursues them at every turn. When Bleicher finally captures them, they face prison in Paris, then torture in concentration camps in Germany, but their courage — and love — sustains them through seemingly unbeatable horror. Full of thrilling twists and turns and a heart-pounding romance, Sansom's true story is a tribute to the human capacity to overcome.

Madame Fourcade's Secret War
New!

The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Madame Fourcade's Secret War
New!

The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Written by: Lynne Olson
Recommended Age: Adults

In 1941, 31-year-old Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, a young, privileged mother of two, was also the head of a critical French spy network, Alliance. It seemed like a role she was born to play: she was notoriously strong-willed and rebellious, willing to defy her country's patriarchal rules before the war — and the Nazi occupiers during it. Fourcade would be the war's only female chef de résistance; she held together thousands of agents despite relentless pursuit by the Gestapo. Thanks to her ferocious conviction, Alliance became the longest-lasting resistance network in France, supplying key information, including an enormous map of the beaches where the Allies landed on D-Day. This tale of a courageous woman who refused to give in is suspenseful and thrilling.

Nancy Wake: SOE's Greatest Heroine

Nancy Wake: SOE's Greatest Heroine

Written by: Russell Braddon
Recommended Age: Adults

From the moment the German army invaded France in World War II, Nancy Wake was part of the resistance movement. By 1943, she was on the Gestapo’s most wanted list, nicknamed the White Mouse for how easily she evaded their traps. And when she was forced to flee France for safety in Britain, she immediately joined the British Special Operations Executive’s elite group of female agents, soon to be parachuted back into France to lead a 7,000 member branch of the Maquis fighting force. This thrilling true story of one of World War II’s most remarkable heroines will top any fictional spy story!

D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
New!

D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
New!

Written by: Sarah Rose
Recommended Age: Adults

In the midst of World War II, it appeared that the Nazis were unstoppable — especially with almost every man in England already fighting on the front. So the Special Operations Executive took a bold step and recruited women as spies. Thirty-nine women answered their call, including Andrée Borrel, Odette Sansom, and Lise de Baissac. In D-Day Girls author Sarah Rose draws on recently declassified documents, diaries, and more to create a compelling portrait of these three women and their motivations for risking everything in order to make the D-Day invasion possible — and pave the way for the Allied victory.

You May Also Like

Help keep A Mighty Girl growing in the years ahead!

If you discover books or other resources via this post that you would like to purchase, please use the "Buy at Amazon" and other links found on every A Mighty Girl product page. By doing so, at no added cost to you, you help to support the site and allow us to continue providing you with wonderful girl-empowering resources. We appreciate your support!