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Who is Pearl Cornioley?

Great Britain used Pearl Cornioley as a secret agent.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 June 2014
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Pearl Cornioley nee Witherington was a British secret agent who played a major role in the French Resistance during the Second World War. It is estimated that the Resistance troops which she commanded killed as many as 1,000 enemy soldiers, and at the close of the war, she personally supervised the surrender of 18,000 German troops. This brave, fiery woman who went by the code name “Marie” was offered many awards and honors during her lifetime.

She was born to British parents in 1914, a “child of the 1914-1918 war,” as she described herself, in France. She lived in France until the outbreak of war, at which point her family relocated to Britain, and she got a job as a secretary. Pearl Cornioley, however, wanted to see action in the war, and she ended up joining the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British agency which was designed to train people who could assist Resistance movements in countries occupied by the Germans.

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In 1943, Pearl Cornioley parachuted into France, where she posed as a harmless traveling saleswoman while organizing the Resistance. She served as a major avenue of communication between Great Britain and the French Resistance, helping to arm the Resistance, organize troops, and oppose the Germans. The men under Cornioley's command regularly made a nuisance of themselves, disrupting German convoys, sabotaging German trains, and engaging in other acts of rebellion. After the war, she returned to England, ultimately marrying a member of the French Resistance. She died in France at the age of 93.

Pearl Cornioley is widely regarded today as a major war heroine of the Second World War. Many people are surprised to learn about her role in the war, as information about her involvement only became widely available in 1995, with the release of her autobiography, and again in the early 21st century, when the British government declassified documents about her activities in the Second World War.

Throughout her lifetime, Pearl Cornioley chafed at the inequality of honors awarded after the war, with men receiving military honors while women who fought bravely during the war were often ignored. She famously refused the civil version of one of Britain's highest honors, the Member of the British Empire, arguing that there was “nothing civil” about what she had done. It wasn't until 2006 that she received her parachute wings, in a much-publicized event.

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