BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 11:59 UK

The only woman in the French Foreign Legion

A British tennis-playing socialite became the only woman in the French Foreign Legion, leading a daring, wartime, desert escape. She would have been 100 this week and her story remains inspirational, writes biographer and friend Wendy Holden.

When I first met Susan Travers in a Paris nursing home in 1999, she was a papery-skinned 90-year-old who spoke with a cut-glass English accent. Unable to walk, she insisted that before we began I wheel her to a local restaurant for lunch.

Susan Travers
Travers began her career as a nurse

There can have been few in the suburban restaurant who gave this frail old lady a second glance as she ate her omelette and drank a glass of champagne. Unless, that is, they noticed the small coloured ribbons pinned to the lapel of her tweed suit.

One defined her as a recipient of the Legion d'Honneur, a French honour established by Napoleon, others were for the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. But the last red and blue ribbon was unique - it identified Travers as the only woman in the French Foreign Legion.

Born in southern England as the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, but raised as a young tennis-playing socialite in the south of France, Travers was among thousands of women who joined the French Red Cross at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Trained as a nurse, she spurned that as being "far too messy" for the more exciting role of ambulance driver, joining the French expeditionary force to Finland to help in the Winter War against the Russians.

Love affair

When France fell to the Nazis she made her way to London and signed up with General De Gaulle's Free French and was attached to the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Legion Etrangere, which sailed for Africa. Volunteering as a driver to the brigade's senior officers, she exhibited such nerves of steel in negotiating minefields and enemy attacks that she earned the affectionate nickname "La Miss" from her thousand male comrades.

Susan Travers and Wendy Holden
Travers and Holden remained friends

After an affair with a White Russian prince who was later killed, she was assigned as the driver to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, and the greatest love affair of her life began.

Attached to the 8th Army and despatched to hold the desolate desert fort of Bir Hakeim in Libya in 1942, Koenig's forces were almost pounded to dust by Rommel's Afrika Korps in what became one of the greatest sieges in the history of the Western Desert campaign.

With Stuka planes, Panzer tanks and heavy artillery at their disposal, the Germans expected to take the fort in 15 minutes. In what became a symbol of resistance across the world, the Free French held it for 15 days.

Refusing to leave her lover's side when all female personnel were ordered to escape, Susan stayed on in Bir Hakeim, the only woman among more than 3,500 men. Her fellow soldiers dug her into a coffin-sized hole in the desert floor, where she lay in temperatures of 51C for more than 15 days, listening to the cries of the dying and wounded.

When all water, food and ammunition had run out, Koenig decided to lead a breakout through the minefields and three concentric rings of German tanks.

It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark
Susan Travers

As his driver, Travers was ordered to take the wheel of his Ford and lead the midnight flight across the desert. The convoy of vehicles and men was only discovered when a mine exploded beneath one of their trucks. Under heavy fire, she was told by Koenig: "If we go, the rest will follow." She floored the accelerator and bumped her vehicle across the barren landscape.

"It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark," she said later. "My main concern was that the engine would stall."

Under heavy machine gun fire, she finally burst through enemy lines, creating a path for the rest to follow. Only stopping when she reached Allied lines several hours later, she noted 11 bullet holes and severe shrapnel damage to the vehicle.

Almost 2,500 troops had escaped with her. Koenig was promoted to the rank of general by de Gaulle. Hardly even saying goodbye, he left Travers to return to his wife and a life of high office.

Travers stayed on with the Legion seeing action in Italy, Germany and France driving a self-propelled anti-tank gun. She was wounded after driving over a mine.

Proudest moment

After the war, she wanted no other life and applied formally to the Legion to become an official member, omitting her gender on the application form.

The man who rubber-stamped her admission had known her in Bir Hakeim. After creating her own uniform, Travers became the first and only woman ever to serve with the Legion, and was posted to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War.

It was there that she met and married a fellow legionnaire, Nicholas Schlegelmilch, who had also been at Bir Hakeim. They had two sons and lived a quiet life on the outskirts of Paris until their deaths.

Marie-Pierre Koenig
Her former lover Koenig gave her the Medaille Militaire

When I met her in the last years of her life, she was finally ready to tell her story only because "everyone was gone and I was left alone with my medals". What she wanted, she said, was for her grandchildren to know how "wicked" she had been.

The book was named Tomorrow to be Brave, after a line from a poem Koenig once read to her which went: "Distrust yourself, and sleep before you fight. 'Tis not too late tomorrow to be brave." She died three years later.

She had witnessed several more wars and watched women routinely join the armed forces and go off to the front lines, surprised that it still raised eyebrows in some quarters.

Her greatest regret, she said, was not to have been born a boy, although she admitted that as such she would never have done half the things she'd done or enjoyed the life she led subsequently.

Susan only ever showed emotion once, when she spoke of her proudest moment. It was in 1956, 11 years after the war. The Legion invited her to Paris to receive the Medaille Militaire for her role at Bir Hakeim.

Promise kept

On a bitterly cold day at Les Invalides, with her husband and two young sons watching, Susan took her place in the middle of the square along with dozens of other Legionnaires, as hundreds looked on.

Standing to attention, she felt her heart lurch as she saw a lone general in full military uniform walking towards her. It was Pierre Koenig, the lover she hadn't seen since the days immediately after Bir Hakeim.

Her hands clenched into fists, she watched as he pinned her medal to the lapel of her coat. Their eyes locked, each one struggling with their emotions, he told her: "I hope this will remind you of many things. Well done, La Miss."

Stepping back, he gave her a brisk salute before marching away. It was the last time she ever saw him. Koenig died in 1970 and Travers waited almost 30 years until her own husband died, to tell their story of love and heroism.

"Wherever you will go, I will go too," she had once told Koenig at Bir Hakeim. It was a promise she kept.

Wendy Holden co-wrote Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of The Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion with Susan Travers.

A selection of your comments appears below.

Tremendously inspiring story - yet shrouded in the mist of another age. This could never be replicated in the 21st Century, where patriotism (to whichever nation one chooses/happens to live in) is deemed to be anathema in the UK. Furthermore, health and safety regulations, backed up by the Poltroons who govern us, would never allow anyone, let alone a woman, to repeat these glorious feats of bravery and daring. Yet without this selfsame courage , we would all be saluting Hitler today. Clearly this woman was imbued with the same esprit that drove Paddy Blair Mayne to defy his superiors and fight on, and was cast from the same mould as Winston Churchill.
David Hilbert, Paris, France

She was lucky enough to grow up in a world where values and integrity still meant something. She knew that life as it then was, was worth preserving and fighting for, and had the sheer guts to go out and do it!

But for people with her great courage and determination the world would be a poorer place. Bravo!
Susan Browne, Wallisellen, near Zürich, Switzerland

Tomorrow to be Brave proudly sits on my bookshelf. It captures the essence of a woman who never shirked responsibility; hid her fears and did her duty as she knew it to be. The book is an epic account of love, love; bravery and a sense of wanting to belong. Susan Travers should be honoured by the UK government and all of us for what she was prepared to sacrifice.
Bill Nuttall, Brentwood, Essex, UK

Kicked the lads out of bed this morning at 5am for a run in full kit and got some serious grumbles and black looks from them. Found this this article this afternoon and held it up to them as an example that they should all live up to. Suddenly there were some very embarassed faces as to their grumbling over the past few weeks. Well done Ms Travers, you're inspiring troops today, and am sure you will for generations to come. Three cheers from the Old and the Bold up North.
Captain William Majors, Durham, UK

Mother Evolution severely limits the number of wildly brave and courageous souls like Ms. Travers. Shame, too: we could use her in every political post, and not just here in the US... On every front line of every war, battle and skirmish... in every executive position of every major corporation. The world is a lesser place because of her passing. My wish for all of us is that a thousand - no! a million! - women of her bent suddenly march over the horizon. We need that kind of saving now, this world of ours....
William Dean A. Garner, Sarasota, Florida, USA

This is a tremendous story. Surely (if not already done) a perfect film?
Tony Mulhearn, Warrington, England

What an amazing story about an amazing, unique and inspirational woman! I think if more women of today were imbued with that kind of courage and will, we could overcome the horrible ravages of war, poverty and injustice worldwide. which nightly fill our newscasts. I cannot wait to read this book!
Tina Hanson, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

What a wonderful woman! A real inspiration to the young women of today. I shall be putting the book on my list of birthday wishes and, when I have read it, will be lending it to my daughters and 14 years old grand-daughter.
Elizabeth Rogers-Ross, ELY, Cambridgshire, UK

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific