Saturday, February 07, 2009

Susan Travers and stuff...

So far the James Holland book "Together We Stand: North Africa 1942-1943, Turning the Tide in the West" that I told you about a few posts ago, has not quite lived up to the high expectations I had - don't get me wrong, it's eminently readable and I am enjoying it, just not quite as much as I hoped to...

Why not?? Well part of the reason is that I really enjoy my military history when it includes lots of personal insight/experience from those actually on the ground - this book is sold on the grounds that it has that in spades, weeeeeellllll, not quite - there is personal experience, but from a fairly small cross selection of participants. Having said that it is readable!

Here's one of the interesting snippets I picked up - at Bir Hacheim where the Free French held the flank of the Allied line during the Gazala battles, they had a woman serving with them. Susan Travers is to this day the only woman to have ever officially served with the French Foreign Legion! At the time she was a driver (and lover!) to the French general Koenig and served throughout the battle..

An amazing woman with an astonishing life.. when war had come in 1939 she was living in the South of France and joined the Croix Rouge, the French Red Cross. Up to then she had been what we'd now call a jet setter doing pretty much nothing at all all day so it was quite a jump, especially when she later confessed she had a dislike of blood and illness - either way she qualified as an ambulance driver. In 1940 she was with the French expeditionary force sent to help the Finns in the Winter War against the Russians. France fell while she was was still in Scandinavia so she made her way to London. She then volunteered as a nurse with General de Gaulle's Free French forces, attached to the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Legion Etrangere, she accompanied them to West Africa where she was in the abortive attack on Dakar. She was then posted to Eritrea and took on the hazardous job of driving for senior officers - surviving mines, enemy attack and crashes - she was also wounded by shellfire. She got the nickname "La Miss" from the Legionnaires, and appears to have had the time for a number of affairs! In June 1941, she became the driver for Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, commanding officer of the 13th and they soon fell for each other (though it was secret as Koenig was married). In the spring of 1942 the 13th were attached to 8th Army and ordered to hold Bir Hacheim.

"At the start of May, Italian and German forces attacked in strength, Rommel having told his men that it would take them 15 minutes to crush any opposition; the 8th Army hoped the fort would last a week. Instead, under Koenig's command, the 1,000 legionnaires and 1,500 other Allied troops held out for 15 days, and Bir Hakeim became for all Frenchmen who resisted the Nazis a symbol of hope and defiance." (from the Telegraph obituary for Susan Travers)

When the ammunition ran out, Koenig ordered a breakout at night - Travers drove him through the minefields and three concentric cordons of German panzers that encircled them. They were discovered when a mine went off, but she just accelerated to maximum leading the other vehicles out of the German lines - the car was hit by a score of bullets, and at one time during the night she drove into a German camp full of parked tanks, she got back to the British lines. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Ordre du Corps d'Arme for that.

The affair with Koenig ended (his career was taking off so it wouldn't do would it....) but she remained with the Legion through Italy and France until the end of the war acting as both a driver and a nurse to the wounded and the dying.

In May 1945 she applied to join the Legion officially, lying on the form about her gender - her application was accepted and she was appointed an officer in the logistics division and so became the only woman ever to serve with the Legion.

After the war she served for a time in Indo-China, and married a legionnaire. She resigned her commission in '47 (she'd had children and wanted to look after them) but in 1956, she was awarded the Medaille Militaire in recognition of her bravery at Bir Hacheim (I'd like to have seen that as the medal was pinned on by Koenig who was minister of defence by then!) Forty years later, in 1996, she was given the Legion's highest award, the Legion d'Honneur, in recognition of her unique part in the force's history.

Susan Travers died on December 18 2003 aged 94 and is survived by her two sons, her husband having died in 1995.

Like I said - an amazing woman - hope you enjoyed that!

Next post, back to some more wargaming stuff.....


  1. Another brave woman, Genevieve de Galard, also was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Legion d'Honneur on 29th April 1954. Though not serving in the Legion she was made an honorary "legionnaire de 1ere classe" the next day. She was a flight nurse who was stranded at Dien Bien Phu when her Dakota was destroyed whilst being repaired. She tended many hundreds of wounded legionnaires and allies of the French until her release on 24th May 1954

  2. I've always thought that the siege of Bir Hakim would make a brilliant small scale siege scenario, but I've never really cracked how you'd do it.

  3. Thanks for showcasing that one..I must get it!

  4. Thanks Steve - an inspiring story. It almost reads like a Douglas Reeman novel but with a female in the lead role.

    Do you know if any film has been made of her "adventures"?


  5. Gaz - not to my knowledge, but the story would make classic Hollywood!