Thursday, September 24, 2009

The only woman in the French Foreign Legion

The BBC has published a fascinating article about a woman who served during and after World War II with the French Army, including as a Legionnaire. Here's an extract.

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, [Susan] 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There's more at the link.

Intrigued, I did an Internet search on her name. Wikipedia has an article about her, and she's featured in a World War II database. The Telegraph has her obituary, dating from 2003.

Susan Travers' book, 'Tomorrow To Be Brave', is still available. Based on what I've learned of her so far, I've added it to my 'Books To Buy' list. Dare I say it's highly appropriate that her book is available from a store named 'Amazon'?

What a woman! I'd have loved to have met her in person.


1 comment:

Peripatetic Engineer said...

I have crossed this bridge and read the memorial plaque but never knew the full story. Thanks for the history lesson.