Born in Paris, June 24, 1914, into a very troubled family, Cécile Pearl Cornioley’s father drank heavily, and her mother barely spoke French, so her mother looked to Pearl to handle a lot of the family’s business.
Her bleak childhood toughened Pearl into a strong woman, willing to fight for anything in life. Pearl didn’t start attending school until age thirteen and then went to a bilingual school where she studied entirely in French in the morning and in English in the afternoon.
Once she left school, she worked in the British Embassy in Paris. Her father had died, and her embassy job provided the only means of financial support for her family. What complicated her life was that shortly after leaving school, Pearl had fallen in love.
Henri Cornioley had started courting Pearl, and she eventually accepted his proposal of marriage. Once engaged, they struggled to obtain the blessings of their families, but neither of their families supported the union. Pearl’s mother didn’t want to lose her only means of financial support. Henri’s father didn’t want his son saddled with Pearl’s financially dependent family.
Pearl worked at the Embassy for seven years all the way up until the war started. Henri had been called into French military service in 1939. As fate would have it, Henri was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940. Miraculously, he later escaped from a prisoner of war camp and made his way back to his beloved Pearl.
When the Germans invaded France, Pearl and her family fled to Normandy. Her family was British, but despite promises from the British Embassy where she had toiled for seven long years, they received no help in getting transportation to Great Britain. In the winter of 1940, they found out that the Nazis had begun to arrest British citizens, and they, again, fled Paris. They had a harrowing journey, many times on foot, from Paris to Spain to Gibraltar to neutral Scotland, then at long last to London, arriving on July 14, 1941. Pearl’s two sisters joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) while she worked for two years for the director of Allied Air Forces and Foreign Liaison.
Ultimately, Pearl joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and trained as a courier. She specifically asked to be attached to the “Stationer network,” which was run by an old school friend. Their mission: harass the enemy, exhaust them, impede them by destroying communications and transportation lines, bring a halt to munitions production, and anything else they could do to hurt the enemy’s mission.
On September 22, 1943, Pearl parachuted into Occupied France. She was not yet thirty years old. She assumed the identity of a French national named Pauline and the codename, Wrestler. In wireless transmissions back to England, she was “Marie.” In Occupied France, she worked as a courier for Maurice Southgate. She often traveled by train, and as a way to disguise her intent, carried with her “pro-Nazi” French magazines. Henri’s father owned a cosmetics company named Isabelle Lancray, and Pearl had paperwork that provided a cover story of a cosmetic saleswoman to help explain why she traveled so much.
One of her team’s secret missions was to recruit and train smaller teams all throughout France so that on D-Day, the Allies would have local help everywhere. They organized over 1500 members. This drew attention, and the Gestapo arrested Maurice on May 1, 1944. On May 2, Pearl and her team arrived at an estate in Indre. They had supplies parachuted in and accomplished two more missions in that month. On July 11, 1944, just five days after the D-Day Normandy invasion, three German garrisons—roughly 2,000 soldiers—surrounded and attacked the estate. During the battle, Pearl lost twenty-four men.
She ran from the house and hid in a wheat field, crawling on her hands and knees while Germans shot at her. She hid in the field until 10:30 that night. Then she hid in a house while the Germans searched farms, estates, and houses, killing some people, arresting a few, terrorizing others. They burned down houses and barns and searched for Pearl’s team, whom they called “terrorists.” This became known as the Battle of Les Souches, which was a small part of a larger battle in which thirty-two French patriots lost their lives.
After losing her that night, the Germans put a ƒ1,000,000 price on her head.
Pearl reorganized after Les Souches, and Henri, who had returned to France and reunited with her after his harrowing escape from the Nazi-run prisoner of war camp, became her second in command. They lived in the woods, organizing the flood of volunteers who suddenly foresaw a positive outcome to the war after the successful D-Day invasion. Their constant acts of sabotage often prevented German troops and munitions from reaching the Normandy coast. They also provided the RAF with intelligence that led to the bombing of a German train carrying 60 tankers of gasoline. This raid seriously handicapped the German army.
Pearl rose to command more than 3,000 underground fighters who killed more than 1,000 Nazi troops and injured countless more. In September 1944, France was finally liberated. Pearl and Henri presided over the surrender of more than 18,000 German troops.
Within months, the couple returned to London, where they finally, at long last, married, thus ending their protracted eleven-year engagement. They went on to have one daughter, Claire Cornioley.
After the war, Pearl was nominated for an MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. However, there are two categories of the MBE: the military and the civil. Pearl had been nominated for the civil award, which she rejected with an icy note that stated, “There was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did.”
Though she had completed airborne training and became one of only a handful of women to jump into enemy territory during the war, she was never awarded her parachutist badge, a fact she felt was a grave injustice for her entire life. In September 1946, Great Britain finally awarded her the military MBE. Much more recently, she was also awarded the CBE, the order of Chivalry known as the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and the French Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur or the National Order of the Legion of Honour.
Henri died in 1999. Pearl joined him in eternity in 2008 at the age of ninety-three.
Read about Muriel Tolson, my character inspired by Cécile Pearl Cornioley in A Parcel for Prudence, part 4 of the Virtues and Valor series.
A Parcel for Prudence
A Parcel for Prudence is exciting and suspenseful part 4 of the Virtues and Valorseries by best-selling inspirational novelist, Hallee Bridgeman. Code-named PRUDENCE, royal blooded MURIEL TOLSON speaks French like any native, allowing her to infiltrate Occupied France where she works as a courier, carrying messages, money, and sometimes people through the secret resistance network, aiding the allies to accomplish very dangerous missions behind enemy lines.