Witherington was born in Paris to British parents. She parachuted into France in September 1943 as a courier for the SOE Stationer Network and, in May 1944, became head of the SOE Wrestler Network in the Indre region in central France. She was the only woman to lead
an SOE network and associated resistance groups, called maquis, in France.
Witherington escaped from occupied France with her mother and three sisters in December 1940. The family arrived in London in July 1941 where she found work with the Air Ministry, specifically
the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Determined to fight back against the German occupation of France, and wanting a more active role in the fight, she joined Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) on 8 June 1943. In training she emerged as the "best shot" the service
had ever seen. Despite her prowess with firearms, she never carried a gun during her mission in France.
Given the code name "Marie", Witherington was dropped by parachute into occupied France on 22 September 1943, landing near Tendu in Indre Department.There she joined Maurice Southgate, leader of the SOE Stationer Network and Jacqueline Nearne, Southgate's courier,
and reunited with her fiancé. Over the next eight months, posing as a cosmetics saleswoman, Witherington also worked as a courier.[7]: 187  The Stationer network covered a large area in central France and Witherington was effectively homeless, spending nights sleeping on
trains as she traveled from one place to another delivering messages and undergoing frequent checks of her (false) identity cards by the Gestapo and French police. Rheumatism put her out of action for a few weeks
An exhausted Jacqueline Nearne returned to Great Britain in April 1944 and the Gestapo arrested Southgate on 1 May 1944 and deported him to Buchenwald concentration camp. Witherington was fortunate not to be arrested with him. Witherington and Southgate's wireless operator,
Amidee Maingard were with Southgate the day he was arrested, but Witherington said that Maingard was worn out and that he needed to take the afternoon off. While the two of them were picnicking, Southgate was arrested. Survival as an SOE agent was often luck
With Southgate a prisoner of the Germans, Witherington formed and became leader of a new SOE network, Wrestler, under the new code-name "Pauline", in the Valençay–Issoudun–Châteauroux triangle. She organised the network with the help of her fiancé, Henri Cornioley.
Witherington did not attempt to issue orders to the maquis groups directly, but found a willing French colonel to do so. Witherington worked closely with the adjoining SOE Shipwright network, headed by her former colleague Amédée Maingard. Together, their networks caused more
than 800 interruptions of railway lines in June 1944 focused on cutting the main railroad line between Paris and Bordeaux. Putting those lines out of operation hindered the German effort to transport men and material to the battle front in Normandy.
On the morning of 11 June 1944, German soldiers attacked Witherington at the Les Souches château, her headquarters near the village of Dun-le-Poëlier. Only a few maquis and non-combatants were present when the Germans arrived. Under fire, Witherington hid the tin
where she kept a large amount of money and fled to a wheat field where she hid until nightfall. Her fiancé, Henri Cornioley, also hiding in a wheat field, counted 56 truckloads of Germans participating in the operation. According to Witherington, the Germans didn't try to find
the hidden maquis and the SOE agents, confining themselves to destroying the weapons they found in the chateau. The attack on Witherington's headquarters was part of a larger operation in which 32 maquis were killed.
The attack left Witherington in "a hopeless state—we had nothing left, no weapons and no radio." She bicycled to Saint-Viâtre to meet an SOE operative, Philippe de Vomécourt, nom de guerre "Saint Paul," and radioed London requesting resupply.
On 24 June, three planes air-dropped supplies and Witherington was back in operation. The number of maquis in her region quickly ballooned to as many as 3,500 as the Normandy invasion emboldened young men to join the resistance. She and Cornioley divided the
maquis into four subsections, each with its leader. SOE in Great Britain supported the maquis groups by parachuting 60 planeloads of arms and material to them. Witherington had long requested a military commander to help her and on 25 July Captain Francois Perdriset
arrived to assist in the military operations of the maquis in Witherington's sector. She objected to characterizations of her work as "bang-bang-bang, she blew up trains." She said, "It's just not true. All I did was to visit and arm the resisters.
In late August 1944, the four groups of maquis in Witherington's Wrestler network were ordered by French authorities, now asserting their control of the maquis as the Germans were being pushed out of France, to move to the Forest of Gatine near the town of Valençay.
The objective was to stop the German army in southern France from linking up with German forces in northern France. Witherington opposed the movement, but nevertheless accompanied the Wrestler maquis. On 9–10 September, in a battle more than 19,000 German soldiers
under the command of General Botho Elster were threatened by French maquis. Fearing retribution, Elster didn't want to surrender to the maquis, but instead to a "regular army" and negotiated a surrender with American General Robert C. Macon. The French maquis who had
harassed the Germans were not invited to attend or participate in the surrender on 11 September at Issoudun or the formal surrender on 16 September at Beaugency bridge. "Thus," said historian Robert Gildea, "the most tangible contribution of the FFI (French Forces of the
Interior) was not even registered."[10] Witherington was furious. She said that after the surrender ceremony the Americans showered the German soldiers with "oranges, chocolate, the whole works. But that's an old story, you know, soldiers were welcoming other soldiers.
On 21 September 1944, Witherington and the British personnel under her command were ordered to return to the United Kingdom, their mission completed. She returned with an "extraordinary—and probably unique—breakdown of her expenditure in the field:
amounting to several million francs, it listed in meticulous detail every expenditure, even including entries for purchases of cigarettes and razor blades.
After the war, Witherington was recommended for the Military Cross, but as a woman, she was ineligible[1][12] and instead was offered a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Civil Division. Witherington rejected the medal with an icy
note pointing out that "there was nothing remotely 'civil' about what I did. I didn't sit behind a desk all day". She accepted a military MBE and many years later was advanced to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). She was also a recipient of the Legion of Honour.
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