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.
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.
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 military 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Full article and photos: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8271773.stm