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Photo: Unknown Source. Susan Travers in North Africa. Travers was an Englishwoman and the only woman to serve officially with the French Foreign Legion.

Photo: Unknown Source.
Susan Travers in North Africa. Travers was an Englishwoman and the only woman to serve officially with the French Foreign Legion.

‘I Think Actually They Thought I was a Man’

She was the Mistress of a French General; she led 4,000 troops to safety; and she was the only Woman to join the Foreign Legion.

As a well-bred Englishwoman educated in the nuances of understatement, Susan Travers seemed unimpressed that she was the only woman ever to join the French Foreign Legion.?She had spent World War II as a volunteer driver with Free French legionnaires who were fighting in North Africa and Europe. But in the summer of 1945, she faced demobilization and did not relish the prospect.

”I shall leave all my friends — I shall go back and live with my family, and it will be dull,” she recalled telling the legion’s recruiting officer, who happened to be a friend. He promptly invited her to sign up and passed her an application form. ”I didn’t say I was a woman,” she said, although her nickname was ”La Miss.” ”I didn’t have to pass a medical. I put down that I was a warrant officer in logistics. That was all.”

Indeed, it was pretty straightforward in comparison with her life leading up to that moment. It seemed far more unusual that a free-spirited young woman who spent the 1930’s playing tennis and partying around Europe should end up in the early 1940’s on the front line of the North African campaign carrying on a clandestine love affair with a married man who happened to be the top French military commander in the region.

For this, too, though, Ms. Travers had a simple explanation. ”My family was very dull,” she said of her reason for socializing in Europe. ”England was very dull.” As for becoming a military driver in combat zones, she said, ”I wanted adventure. I wanted more action.” And her romance with Gen. Marie-Pierre Koenig, a man who became such a war hero that a Paris square carries his name? ”It was a relationship between a man and a woman,” she said.

Susan Travers was the mistress of the best-known Free French General after Charles de Gaulle, Marie-Pierre Koenig. She led the Free French forces to safety during the thrilling midnight breakout that ended Erwin Rommel’s great siege of Bir Hakeim, a turning point in the Second World War.

Her wartime heroism won her an astonishing collection of 12 medals – including the L?gion d’Honneur. But, even more importantly, Travers is the only woman to have served in the French Foreign Legion.

Somehow Travers’s application slipped through amid the hundreds of thousands of forms the legion’s recruiters were processing in those chaotic post-war months, from men desperate for whatever unspoken reason to bury their former selves and stand a fighting chance, at the end of their service, of landing a French passport.

“I think actually they thought I was a man,” she says archly. “Though of course they all knew me because I’d driven an ambulance for them, I was La Miss. But anyway they took me in. I had to make my own uniform because there wasn’t one for a woman. I was sent to Tunisia where I had to go to buy a barrel of red wine for the mess every day, and bring it back on the back of a mule.”

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.

She fell in love instantly with France, although it was a stint at a finishing school in Florence that gave her first glimpse of a world beyond the strict Victorian confines of her family. Being a girl, she had been more or less ignored by her father and her only brother, and by her late teens had developed a craving for male company: “Most of all,” she wrote later, “I wanted to be wicked.” Sent to a finishing school in Florence, she succumbed at 17 for the first time to the blandishments of a man, a hotel manager named Hannibal, yes that actually was his name, she said. She never really looked back.

“I had a very good time after that,” she said. “I enjoyed myself. The pound went bust and my family moved back to England, but I decided to stay on. It was a wonderful time to be on the Riviera. Parties and champagne, and tangos and Charlestons, Vienna and Budapest and all sorts of places. I had lots and lots of friends. Lots and lots of young men. Well, lovers, really.”

With her gamine figure, striking features and blue eyes, she was a constant and willing object of male attention, heedless of her father’s reproach that she was “une fille facile.?

A monthly allowance from an aged aunt allowed Travers to live the grand life, floating between chateaux, country houses, and smart hotels. She was staying in the luxurious Poitiers retreat of an American divorcee when, weeks before her 30th birthday, Britain declared war on Germany.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Susan, along with thousands of other women, joined the Croix Rouge (French Red Cross). Somewhat put out to learn that one actually required a nursing diploma to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, she buckled down, passed the necessary tests (“I think they must really have been jolly desperate”) and joined De Gaulle’s Free French forces in England as a nurse.

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 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. Her dash and pluck quickly endeared her to the legionnaires, who nicknamed her “La Miss.? For her part, she admired the Legion’s code of “honneur et fidelite”, and formed good friendships with many of her comrades, among them Pierre Mesmer, later Prime Minister of France.

Then, in June 1941, her world was transformed. The cause was Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, her commanding officer, whose new driver she became. She was assigned as his regular driver and the two became lovers, reportedly the greatest love affair of her life. She said to him: “Wherever you go, I’ll go”

French General Pierre-Marie Koenig- "She was exceptionally brave."

French General Pierre-Marie Koenig- “She was exceptionally brave.”

So, their affair began, and within months they were living together, trying to maintain the fiction that the General needed his driver to be at his constant call.

”I always called him General, he always wanted people to think we didn’t have a relationship. I don’t know why, because we shared a house. I’d have thought everybody knew.”

Still, in the desert, they lived separately. ”He said, ‘What the men can’t have, I can’t have.

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.

Susan Travers French military identification card, mentioning she is the only woman serving in the French Foreign Legion.

Susan Travers French military identification card, mentioning she is the only woman serving in the French Foreign Legion.

Under heavy fire, 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”.

Travers later confided after driving an officer’s staff car through minefields and?Afrika Corps?machine gun fire, she said,?“It’s a delightful feeling, getting shot at while 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 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.

After the battle was over, Koenig was promoted by Charles de Gaulle. The couple were able to resume their love affair, but things grew complicated when Koenig’s wife arrived in the region. Then, at the end of 1943, the general was reassigned to join de Gaulle in Tunisia, and Ms. Travers was distraught. Astonishingly, at least for someone who seems to frown on sentimentality, she thought of killing herself.?Then, she recalled her family motto — ”Neither Afraid Nor Timid” — and put away her pistol.

He left shortly after, without hardly saying goodbye. His affair with Susan over, 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: Legion NCO, Nicholas Schlegelmilch, they got married.

She resigned her commission in 1947 to bring up her children from her marriage to Schlegelmilch. He contracted an illness in the tropics in 1949 and, after spending 18 months in hospital, was never the same person as before. Nevertheless, they remained together; after his death in 1995 she continued to live in France.

The last time Travers met her General (“Never a particularly handsome man, but gosh, did he look like a General”) was in Paris, nearly just over a decade after the war.

It was after the end of World War II, in 1956, she was honoured 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.

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.

Strangely perhaps, proud as she is of having been in the war, she does not think women are made for combat. And when she joined the Foreign Legion, she said, she had no intention of becoming a soldier. ”I think women are different,” she said. ”A brave man is always brave. A brave woman, there are times when she doesn’t feel like being brave. War is a serious matter — people being killed whom you know.”

Travers, on the other hand, seemed to handle war better than she did a broken heart. ”I just happen to be a person who is not frightened,” she said softly. ”I am not afraid.”

“All I did was take every opportunity for adventure that ever presented itself, and fall in love with someone different wherever I went. That’s not so remarkable really, is it? I expect quite a lot of people are like me really.

Susan Mary Gillian Travers,?died in Paris aged 94, in 2003, and is survived by two sons and four grandchildren.

Susan Travers of the French Foreign?Legion

Lady Of The Legion ..

The only woman in the French Foreign Legion

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.

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