And why Americans should read it…
Code Name Pauline is the autobiography of Pearl Witherington, a woman who gained fame while working for the French section of the Special Operations Executive, a British Second World War organization that organized and supported European Resistance networks. The English translation of Pearl’s originally French memoir is now officially available in English.
That’s quite a variety of geographics but it doesn’t stop there: the tale of how this memoir landed in the hands of a Chicagoan has been told elsewhere (in the memoir’s editor’s preface, to be precise) but as that Chicagoan I’d like to connect the dots for my fellow Americans, giving them a compelling reason as to why they should read Code Name Pauline.
The reason has everything to do with our Greatest Generation. We Americans are rightly proud of them, pausing in awed silence every June 6th to honor the memory of “our boys” who courageously stormed the beaches of Normandy during Operation Overlord, eventually defeating Nazi Germany. It’s an iconic and beloved American image but it’s not nearly the entire picture; there were many other factors that made the success of the landings possible. One of them began three years earlier and another the moment the timing of the landings became known.
Operation Barbarossa, the code name for German invasion of the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, when Hitler myopically opened an entirely new front. By the time the Americans and their allies landed at Normandy three years later, the Russian Front had seriously depleted the German ranks.
If Operation Barbarossa had a gradual effect upon Operation Overlord, the impact of the French Resistance was more immediate. We Americans have certainly heard of the French Resistance — the image of suave armed guys in berets immediately comes to mind — but not many of us realize how this enormous and multi-faceted entity directly affected the Normandy invasion. The invasion commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, was one American who did. In his memoirs, Eisenhower claimed that “without their great assistance the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in Western Europe would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.”
How so? This is where Code Name Pauline comes into the picture. The goal of Pearl Witherington’s London-supported network — and many more like it throughout France — was to organize, train, and arm French Resistance groups who would be ready to hinder — via the sabotage of communication and transportation lines — the intense German rush to wherever the landings would take place. One could argue that this was the finest moment of the French Resistance. And without them the Americans at Normandy might not have had theirs.
Code Name Pauline details the inner workings of a highly successful SOE-sponsored French Resistance group; it’s a close-up view of how it all came about and operated. But it’s more than that. It’s also the story of how a girl, managing to keep her head above water in the midst of a chaotic childhood, grew into a woman who kept one key section of the French Resistance from going under a month prior to D-Day. Because of her personal efforts, thousands of French resisters in one area of central France were able to effectively fight a portion of the German rush to Normandy.
In Her Own Words
And finally, Code Name Pauline is the story of a World War Two heroine in her own words. Pearl didn’t tell her story in sweeping, thrilling strokes as she rightly could have — and as breathless fictionalizers of her story have long attempted to do. The modest, understated tone of her memoir was an attempt on her part to counteract all the sensationalism that had swirled around her in the decades following the war: the ongoing misconception that she had led thousands of men into battle made her “blood boil.”
The inherent drama of Pearl’s story was such that she could have easily left posterity with a few more exciting details but, like everyone who put their lives on the line fighting Fascism during World War Two – whether they jumped off a landing craft at Normandy, sabotaged trains in central France, or kept a Resistance network operating effectively behind enemy lines – Pearl certainly earned the right to tell her own story in her own way. That way is Code Name Pauline, officially available today.
Kathryn is the editor of Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, published by Chicago Review Press.
See History In An Hour’s review of Code Name Pauline.
Also, see Kathryn’s three-minute film on Pearl Witherington’s SOE service on the BBC.