Pearl Witherington was an agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British wartime organization that secretly trained and sent agents into Nazi-occupied countries during WWII. Immediately following the war, the British public was shocked to learn that female agents had worked behind enemy lines for the SOE, risking their lives and in some instances, losing them, in the fight against the Nazis. Books were written and films produced about these women for a fascinated public who couldn’t seem to get enough. Pearl became very distrustful of such endeavors after a British author wrote about her in such a way as to romanticize her wartime work, making it seem more dramatic than it had been. When the stories of other agents were deliberately altered in a similar way in book and film, Pearl refused to give any interviews for many years.
Toward the end of her life, however, she began to feel that her story might be inspiring to others, especially young people in difficult circumstances, since her own childhood had been enormously challenging. A French journalist named Hervé Larroque approached her in 1994 with the idea of writing her memoir, and as their acquaintance progressed she felt she could trust him to handle her story properly. He conducted multiple interviews, some with Pearl alone and others including Pearl’s husband Henri, from December, 1994 through June of 1995. The transcript of those interviews was published in French in 1997 with the title Pauline, one of Pearl’s wartime code names.
Since Pauline was the only full-length Pearl Witherington biography available when I was writing Women Heroes of World War II and since I was determined to include her story in the book, my husband John, who is French-literate, obtained a copy of the memoir from M. Larroque, wrote a lengthy synopsis of it in English which I in turn used as source material for my chapter.
During John’s continued correspondence with M. Larroque, we learned that Pauline had already been translated into English but that it was waiting for a publisher. M. Larroque appreciated what I had done with Pearl’s story in Women Heroes and agreed to have me edit the English translation of Pauline – originally in a Q&A format -- into a straight narrative for publication by the Chicago Review Press.
Introductory material has been added for two reasons. One, Pearl had obviously told her story with a European audience in mind, an audience that would be somewhat familiar with the French Resistance and Britain’s Special Operations Executive, more so than American readers who might appreciate some background material with which to place Pearl’s narrative within its historical framework. Secondly, the Chicago Review Press felt strongly that this book, like Women Heroes should be geared towards a young adult audience who might be more interested in pursuing the study of an SOE agent if some background material was provided.
Because Pearl was adamant that her story not be altered, I have taken great care during the editing process to change as little as possible. In most instances, M. Larroque’s brief questions are simply incorporated into the text. What remains is Pearl’s story in her own choice of words and her style of speaking.
Because Pearl’s husband Henri was present during some of the interviews, there is specific material – enlightening comments by Henri, humorous interchanges between him and Pearl -- which would be lost if converted into a narrative. There are other sections where keeping the text in its original dialogue format provides more clarity. A selection of these can be found in the appendices section.
I am very honored to present Pearl Witherington’s memoir to the English-reading public at last. May the memory of her courage and determination in the face of great difficulty continue to inspire future generations.