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Women of extraordinary destiny : Susan Travers (World War II)
There is a fair chance you never heard of Susan Travers. I came across her story myself by pure chance and just recently. I have, to say the least, a strong interest in older cars, particularly of British manufacture. One day, I found myself browsing through the internet, looking for always interesting "car stuff', when I came across the website of a Welsh company, and started drooling over an absolutely not affordable 1937 Rolls Royce. A snippet, under the description and numerous pictures of the vehicle, gave a brief account of the history of the car.
My attention was drawn to the fact that, in September of 1945, that particular Rolls-Royce became registered to one General Pierre-Marie Koenig (1898-1970) who was the former Commander in Chief of the French Occupation Forces in Germany after the end of Word War II. The same General Koenig who had become a French war hero (yes, there is such a thing!) by distinguishing himself during the infamous battle of Bir-Hakeim (Libya). During 16 days, from May 26th to June 11th 1942, the 1st Free French Brigade, commanded by Koenig, resisted the repeated attacks of the combined Italian and German forces (Afrika Korps led by General Rommel). By preventing the Italo-German forces to reach El Alamein (Egypt), Koenig and his 3700 men allowed the English forces, then in a delicate position, to wait for fresh reinforcement troops. This would later lead to the Allies to gain the upper hand in the battle of El Alamein, definitely putting an end to the advance of German forces towards Egypt and the Suez Canal.
General Koenig was not a man afraid of scandal! During his postings in Africa and the Middle East, he, although being married, conducted an affair with a woman who also happened to be his chauffeur : Susan Travers. This alone, considering the context and the time, would make her a woman of extraordinary destiny. But there is more to the story...
The daughter of British Royal Navy admiral Francis Eaton Travers and his wife, Eleanor Catherine Turnbull, Susan Travers was born in London, England on September 23rd 1909. She was sent to school at St Mary's, Wantage - an experience which she did not remember fondly - but during the First World War her father had been put in charge of marine transport at Marseilles (where his own father had once been British Consul), and in 1921 he decided to move the family to Cannes, and that's where she grew up as a socialite, playing tennis at a semi-professional level
With the outbreak of the second World War, Susan, along with thousands of other women, joined the Croix Rouge (French Red Cross). Trained as a nurse, a line of work which she found "way too messy" she later became an ambulance driver for the French Expeditionary Force in Finland, and participated in the winter war against the Russian army. When the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway, she retreated to Finland, and escaped by the way of a ship to Iceland. From there, she managed to reach England, where she joined the Free French Forces of General Charles de Gaulle.
She became attached to the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion, a unit that would eventually find its way to North Africa, via Dahomey and the Congo to become involved in the Syrian campaign in which Vichy French Foreign Legion soldiers fought Free French legionnaires . Susan volunteered to become a chauffeur for the Brigade's senior officers. She received the affectionate nickname of "La Miss" from her comrades in arms. as she gained recognition and respect for displaying a tremendous courage under enemy attacks and her "nerves of steel" ability to drive through minefields. During the trip to Libya, she became romantically involved with a Georgian prince, Dimitri Zedguinidze-Amilakhvari, who served in the French Foreign Legion as lieutenant-colonel. He was killed in action during the second battle of El Alamein in October 1942. Around that time, she was assigned as the regular driver of General Pierre-Marie Koenig and the two became lovers, reportedly the greatest love affair of her life. She said to him : "Wherever you go, I'll go"
Becoming part of the 8th Army, General Koenig's 1st Free French Division was ordered to defend the fort of Bir-Hakeim, an oasis located in a desolate part of the Libyan desert. The unit had the luxury of three months time to dig up and prepare for an eventual confrontation with the Italian and German military. Trenches were dug and machine gun nests set up in strategic location. The Italo-German forces attacked on May 26th 1942. Rommel expected to capture or destroy Bir-Hakeim in 15 minutes. Even though he would eventually gain the upper hand at Bir-Hakeim, it did take him 16 days to achieve his objective. The Luftwaffe (German air force) flew 1400 sorties against the French while four divisions attacked on the ground. After the first attack, all women were ordered to the rear and Susan Travers retreated with them, even though she did not want to leave her lover. Koenig, considering the first German attack a failure, allowed her back in the fort of Bir-Hakeim, where she would spend the next two weeks in a coffin size trench dug by her fellow fighters. She was the only woman among over 3500 soldiers.
By June 10th 1942, food, water and ammunition had run out and with outside temperatures reaching 51C, General Koenig, then mostly surrounded by enemy forces, prepared a daring escape plan. He spoke to his men, telling them that they would leave the following night, as the British had enough time to reorganize their troops. A narrow passage was cleared in the minefields surrounding the Southwest of the French position. In the middle of the night, the evacuation began, cars and truck driving at full speed through three concentric circles of German tanks, after all heavy equipment and weaponry had been destroyed. Unfortunately, an illuminating flare spotted the escape of the French forces, prompting the officers to order a massive and speedy flight through the too narrow passage and a number of vehicles were blown away while heavy human losses were sustained.
Under heavy fire, Susan Travers was ordered to drive Koenig's Ford staff car out of Bir-Hakeim. He said to her :"We have to get in front, if we go, the rest will follow". Susan later confided :"It's a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark. My main concern was that the engine would stall". The column of escapees made contact with the British Forces on June 11th at 10.30. After the escape, the car driven by Susan Travers had 11 bullet holes and important shrapnel damages. Part of the suspension was destroyed and the brakes had become inoperative. Over 2400 men, and one woman had daringly made it through the German lines. Around 900 men, though were captured by the Germans and treated by Rommel as prisoners of war, despite an order expressly given to him on June 6th by Hitler to take no prisoners.
What they said about the battle of Bir-Hakeim
Adolf Hitler : "You hear, Gentlemen? It is a new evidence that I have always been right! The French are, after us, the best soldiers! Even with its current birthrate, France will always be able to mobilize a hundred divisions! After this war, we will have to find allies able to contain a country which is able of military exploits that astonish the world like they are doing right now in Bir-Hakeim!".
Sir Winston Churchill : “Holding back for fifteen days Rommel's offensive, the free French of Bir Hakeim had contributed to save Egypt and the Suez Canal's destinies”.
British General Ian Playfair: "The lengthened defense of the French garrison played a major role in the re-establishment of the British troops in Egypt. The free French gravely disrupted, from the beginning, Rommel's offensive, resulting on a disturbed supply line of the Afrika Korps. The growing Axis troop concentration in the sector, needed to subjugate the fort, saved the British 8th Army from a disaster. The delays in the offensive caused by the relentless French resistance increased the British chances of success and eased the preparation of the counter-offensive. On long term, holding back Rommel allowed the British forces to escape from its meticulously planned annihilation. That's why we can say, without exaggerating, that Bir Hakeim greatly contributed to El-Alamein defensive success".
British Army Commander Field Marshall Claude Auchinleck : "The United Nations need to be filled with admiration and gratitude, in respect of these French troops and their brave General Koenig".
The end of the affair.
After the battle was over, Koenig was promoted by Charles de Gaulle. He left shortly after without hardly saying goodbye. His affair with Susan was over as well, as he went back to his wife and an important military career.
But she went on and spent the rest of the war fighting in Italy, then France and later Germany. She drove trucks, ambulances and even a self-propelled anti-tank gun. She was wounded later in the war when she drove over a mine. When the long conflict was finally over, she couldn't think of anything else to do outside serving in the military, so she applied to join the French Foreign Legion, and she did with the rank of Adjudant-Chef (the highest non-officer rank in the French Army). On her application form, she voluntarily left blank her sex. She had known the man who stamped her application in Bir-Hakeim. With that, she became the first and only woman to serve in the French Foreign Legion. She created her own uniform and was dispatched to Indochina (now Vietnam) during the early 1950s.
During that war, she got reunited with another fellow legionnaire who had also fought at Bir-Hakeim: Nicholas Schlegelmilch. The two eventually got married. They had two sons and when the war was over, they both lived a quiet life in the suburbs of Paris until their deaths.
Eleven years after the end of World War II, in 1956, she was honored by the French Foreign Legion and was awarded the Medaille Militaire in Paris for her actions at Bir-Hakeim. In the presence of her husband and her two young sons, a military ceremony was conducted at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. The man who pinned the medal on her chest was the French Minister of Defence, one General Pierre-Marie Koenig, her former lover and comrade in combat. She hadn't seen him since the days after the battle of Bir-Hakeim. It was, to say the least, an intense emotional moment for both of them. As she was receiving the medal, Koenig said to her : "I hope this will remind you of many things. Well done, La Miss.". They never met again. General Koenig died in 1970. in 1996, she was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the highest French decoration in regard to her role during World War II.
Susan Travers waited nearly 30 years, and after Koenig and her own husband had died, she was free to tell her story to the world without hurting any susceptibility. Her book, co-written with Wendy Holden in 2000 is titled : Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of The Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion.
After a military career any man would be exceptionally proud of, Susan died in Paris on December 18, 2003, at age 94. General Koenig had said of her : " She was exceptionally brave". Born an Englishwoman, she found in the French Foreign Legion her true family and made all her comrades in arms proud.
Well done "La Miss", very well done! You have captured a unique place in history as well as a well deserved one in our hearts. You are a true woman of extraordinary destiny.
Copyright 2013 by Austinhealy, his heirs and assigns for the text. Pictures copyrighted as indicated.
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