She Landed By Moonlight
The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington: the 'real Charlotte Gray'
By Carole Seymour-Jones
Seventy years ago, in September 1943, Pearl Witherington's parachute dropped behind enemy lines. This is her incredible story.
On the night of the 22 September 1943 Pearl Witherington, a twenty-nine-year-old British secretary and agent of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was parachuted from a Halifax bomber into Occupied France. Like Sebastian Faulks' heroine, Charlotte Gray, Pearl had a dual mission: in her case, to fight for her beloved, broken France and to find her lost love. Pearl's lover was a Parisian parfumier turned soldier, Henri Cornioley, who had been taken prisoner while serving in the French Logistics Corps and subsequently escaped from his German POW camp.
Agent Pearl Witherington's wartime record is unique and heroic. As the only woman agent in the history of SOEs in France to have run a network, she became a fearless and legendary guerrilla leader organising, arming and training 3,800 Resistance fighters. Probably the greatest female organiser of armed maquisards in France, the woman whom her young troops called 'Ma Mère', Pearl lit the fires of Resistance in Central France so that Churchill's famous order to 'set Europe ablaze', which had brought SOE into being, finally came to pass.
Pearl's story takes us from her harsh, impoverished childhood in Paris, to the lonely forests and farmhouses of the Loir-et-Cher where she would become a true 'warrior queen'.
Shortly before Pearl's death in 2008, the Queen presented her with a CBE in Paris. While male agents and Special Force Jedburghs received the DSO or Military Cross, an ungrateful country had forgotten Pearl. She had been offered a civilian decoration in 1945 which she refused, saying 'There was nothing civil about what I did.' But what pleased her most was to receive her Parachute Wings, for which she had waited over 60 years. Two RAF officers travelled to her old people's home and she was finally able to pin the coveted wings on her lapel. Pearl died in February 2008 aged 93.
Carole Seymour-Jones was born in Wales. She was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize for her biography of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of TS Eliot. Her most recent biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, A Dangerous Liaison, received widespread acclaim. Carole is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Surrey, and former Deputy President and chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN, the writers' charity.
She has three children and lives with her husband in London and Surrey.
- Other details
- Publication date:
04 Jul 2013
- Page count:
Hodder & Stoughton
The truth is that Sebastian Faulk's novel...stands on its own, but so does She Landed by Moonlight, the long-awaited biography that Agent Pearl deserves. — The Times
Dialogue is recreated, scenes are set and we are given a character's thoughts, feelings and reactions. Pearl's story [is] so well-documented and her exploits so extraordinary. — Independent Book of the Week
Quietly moving... Carol Seymour-Jones has done an excellent job in bringing Witherington's courage, commitment and ability to light, sensibly focusing on her war years when she lived to her full potential. — Spectator
It took until 2004 - four years before her death - for her own country to belatedly present her with a CBE. As this biography makes clear, the brave and wholly admirable Pearl Witherington deserved much, much better. — Sunday Times
Carole Seymour-Jones does full justice to a truly remarkable and little-known woman. — Country Life
This biography successfully establishes her in the pantheon of the very bravest and best, up there with such legendary figures as Violette Szabo, Andree Borrel, Madeline Damerment and Nancy Wake. — Sebastian Faulks, Mail on Sunday
Thoroughly researched and perceptive — The Lady