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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
War heroine honoured 63 years on
Pearl Cornioley after receiving her wings
Pearl Cornioley said her 'wings' outstripped her CBE and MBE
A female secret service agent has been honoured by the Royal Air Force - 63 years after first complaining at the "injustice" of not getting her "wings".

Pearl Cornioley, formerly Witherington, became the leader of 1,500 French freedom fighters during World War II.

She was recommended for the Military Cross but, as a woman, was not allowed to receive it. She turned down an MBE, saying it was a "civil decoration".

Now 92, she has received her Parachute Wings at her retirement home in France.

The highly-regarded award was presented to her by Squadron Leader and Major Jack Lemmon of the Parachute Regiment at a ceremony on Tuesday.

Mrs Cornioley said: "This is more important to me than receiving the CBE or MBE."

'63-year injustice'

Her wings finally materialised when she raised the issue with Squadron Leader Rhys Cowsill, a Parachute jump instructor from RAF Cranwell, who visited Mrs Cornioley in Chateauvieux, near Tours, to interview her about her wartime service.

Mrs Cornioley said that as a woman she had carried out three parachute training jumps, with the fourth jump operational.

"But the chaps did four training jumps, and the fifth was operational - and you only got your wings after a total of five jumps," she said.

"So I was not entitled - and for 63 years I have been moaning to anybody who would listen because I thought it was an injustice."

Born to British parents in Paris, Pearl Witherington had already escaped occupied France with her mother and three sisters when she returned under cover of darkness aged 29.

She was parachuted into France from 300ft (91 metres) on the third attempt - regarded as an extremely low jumping point. Other attempts had been abandoned because the situation on the ground was considered too dangerous.

At the time, Mrs Cornioley said, she was "delighted to be in one piece and back on French soil" after finally making the jump.

Sqn Ldr Cowsill, who has completed nearly 1,000 jumps, said: "If I was to jump at 300ft it would be without exception the most frightening experience I would ever undertake."

It is a tale which mirrors that of Charlotte Gray, the Sebastian Faulks novel later turned into a film.

I was not a military person, I was supposed to be a courier, but I ended up having to use whatever sense I had
Pearl Cornioley

After working as a secretary in the Air Ministry, she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1943 and was sent to work as a courier for a resistance group a few months later.

She explained her move, saying: "We'd got back to England in July 1941 and I was working in the Air Ministry. I was stuck fiddling about with papers, while things were going on in France," she said.

She said her decision to join SOE stemmed from her "fury" about what was happening in France.

In May 1944, her leader Maurice Southgate was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp.

With the help of her fiance Henri Cornioley and under her code-name "Pauline" she reorganised the new "Wrestler network" with the aim of frustrating German movements in the run-up to the D-Day landings.

Close shave

The 1,500-strong network covered 300 square miles between Toulouse and Orleans.

"It was a complete accident that I ended up leading 1,500 resistance fighters. I was not a military person, I was supposed to be a courier, but I ended up having to use whatever sense I had - but I certainly didn't do this on my own," she said.

They were so effective, the Nazi regime put a 1 million franc (500,000 today) bounty on her head.

Her closest shave came on 11 June 1944 when, holed up in an attic in Valencay with Mr Cornioley, they were woken by German troops.

They managed to escape under gunfire, hiding in a wheat field.

The couple eventually made it to Britain and married in Kensington Register office on 26 October, 1944.

They spent their post-war married life in France. Mr Cornioley died in 1999.

Hear Pearl describing her experiences

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