Revealed: The Story of the Spy Who Led the French Resistance

Article excerpt

Pearl Cornioley's training officer in Britain's wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE) had plenty of doubts about her potential as a secret agent. In 1943, he wrote: "She is so cautious that she seems to lack initiative and drive. She is loyal but has not the personality to act as a leader, nor is she temperamentally suited to work alone."

The officer could not have been more wrong about a woman who would later become known as Agent Wrestler. Within 18 months, Ms Cornioley, then aged 29, was in sole command of 1,500 Resistance fighters in western France. In that role she masterminded a campaign of sabotage and guerrilla warfare so effective that the German military put a price on her head of Fr1m (equivalent to 500,000 today).

The full story of Agent Wrestler has been revealed in government documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London. They detail her transformation from the daughter of an alcoholic who did not go to school until she was 13 into one of Britain's most formidable operatives behind enemy lines at the height of the Second World War. After her discharge, she rejected the award of a civilian MBE in disgust, describing it as "puny" and pointing out her male colleagues in SOE had been given military honours.

Ms Cornioley, who was born in Paris before escaping to Britain with her mother and sisters in 1941, became bored of her wartime desk job and persuaded commanders at the SOE to train her and send her back to France.

After parachuting into the Loire region in September 1943, she worked as a courier for one of the British-backed networks of "maquis" (Resistance fighters), while posing as a cosmetics saleswoman, before assuming command of fighters in the Indre region when a senior SOE officer was arrested by the Gestapo.

By the end of her service following the liberation of France in 1944, Major General Colin Gubbins, who led SOE, wrote: "Her control over the maquis group to which she was attached, complicated by political disagreements among the French, was accomplished through her remarkable personality, her courage, steadfastness and tact. …