In 1956, on a bitterly cold day, in front of Les Invalides in Paris, Susan Travers stood to attention in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion, the only woman every to have been accepted into the elite corps. A lone general, Marie-Pierre Koenig, strode across the vast parade ground and stood before her. Their eyes locked together. Susan’s hands clenched tight. Both were fighting back their emotions. “I hope this will remind you of many things”, he said as he pinned the Médaille Militaire to her lapel, “Well done, La Miss”, then with a brisk salute he marched away. She hadn’t seen him since the siege of Bir Hakeim. She was never to see him again. He had been the greatest love of her life.
She had been starved of love as a child. Her father, a British admiral in the Royal Navy, had married an heiress for her wealth and social standing. While he was cold and aloof, she was cowed and nervous. Her wealth, however, allowed their young family to settle in the fashionable resort of Cannes. Susan grew up speaking French and identified with her adoptive country, though she longed to escape from the oppressive formality of her home.
With all the advantages of her social class, she was trained as a semi-professional tennis player and sent to finishing school in Florence. It was here that she finally broke free. Athletic and tall with long black hair and piercing blue-grey eyes, she soon attracted the attentions of young men and plunged into the social whirl and sexual licence of continental Europe in the nineteen-thirties. She even found time to play tennis at Wimbledon.
When war was declared, she was thirty, without any intention of marrying but gnawed by a restless craving for a greater purpose and more exciting adventure. While France and Britain hesitated throughout the phoney war of inaction and suspense, she signed up with the Red Cross and accompanied the French Expeditionary Force to Finland which was struggling to defend its territorial integrity from a Russian attack.
As Susan was passing through Sweden on her way to Finland, France collapsed under the onslaught of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. She immediately transferred to London and volunteered as a nurse with De Gaulle’s Free French forces. She was attached to the Foreign Legion and sailed for West Africa where she watched the Allied fleet bombard Dakar in a futile attempt to persuade the French garrison to abandon the Vichy regime and join De Gaulle.
With the failure of the West Africa expedition, the Free French brigade was transferred to Eritrea where she became a driver for senior officers and soon gained a reputation for courage under fire. She became endeared to her comrades and was nicknamed “La Miss”.
She was then assigned as driver to the Brigade’s commander, Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, a man of such patriotic fervour, determination and grit that she fell truly in love for the first time in her life. He too was smitten, and although married, wooed her with roses and attended her in hospital when she had jaundice. They became secret lovers and stole some time together in Beirut before the brigade was sent to reinforce the Allied defences in North Africa.
Koenig told her, “There’ll be no dishonour if you want to stay behind, La Miss. Life in the desert is no picnic and there’ll be few opportunities for us to be together”, but Susan was adamant. “Wherever you go, I’ll go too,” she replied.
The Allies were holding a line in Libya just west of Tobruk. It was 40 miles long, protected by a line of minefields and barbed wire and defended by infantry and armoured divisions. The Free French held the southernmost flank, a simple crossing of Bedouin trails with a water-hole known as Bir Hakeim. It was a desolate spot and isolated by a good 15 miles from the next defensive position held by the 150th Brigade.
When Rommel struck, he swept round Bir Hakeim and outflanked the Allies. Bir Hakeim was isolated before the battle had started.
Rommel thought he could finish off the French with a detachment of Italians but they were beaten back. A delay ensued as Rommel secured his position by destroying the 150th Brigade north of Bir Hakeim and opened up his supply lines to the west. The Allies were severely mauled and soon in retreat, but before pursuing them, Rommel needed to destroy the Free French to prevent his divisions being harried on their southern flank and his supply lines being cut off. In anticipation of a grim battle, Koenig evacuated all the nurses. Susan was the only woman to remain. She dug a slit trench and hunkered down.
Rommel offered them surrender conditions but the French replied with an artillery barrage. The siege of Bir Hakeim had commenced. Pummelled by artillery, strafed and bombed by Stukas, the Free French held out for two weeks until they had no food, water or ammunition left, but rather than surrender, Koenig made a decision to break out through the German minefields and tank positions. Susan was told to prepare the car.
The break-out started at midnight. Koenig told Susan, “You’re to do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you, for both our sakes”. They crept forward while the path in front was cleared by sappers. Total silence prevailed except for the low rumble of vehicles. And then a Bren carrier hit a mine. Suddenly, the sky was lit up by Axis flares and shells began falling. “Drive straight ahead as fast as you can”, Koenig shouted, “With us in front the rest will follow.” Susan did as she was told, steering round burning vehices until forced to enter the uncleared minefield while the rest of the convoy followed. She remembers no fear but only the excitement of driving fast through the dark with the man she loved.
With the first light of dawn, Susan found herself driving through an empty desert towards the Allied lines. Her car had been hit by 11 bullets, the shock absorber destroyed and the breaks were unserviceable, but she had led the convoy out successfully through the minefield and past the German divisions. Out of a garrison of 3700 men, over 2500 men had succeeded in escaping.
The two week siege of Bir Hakeim had delayed Rommel just long enough to allow time for the Allied forces to regroup around El Alamein, a position they would hold until they were finally able to push the Germans out of North Africa.
Sadly, the fierce sense of duty that drove Koenig to defend the honour of France at all costs, that made him military governor of Paris after the Liberation and Minister of Defence under post-war governments, forced him to end his liaison with Susan and return to his wife. No man was ever to replace him in her affections, though she was to stay with the brigade through Italy, France and Germany and later married another legionnaire.
It was only at the end of her life, after the deaths of her husband and Koenig, that Susan was able to relive those intense moments again by writing her memoires, titled with a quote from a poem that Koenig once read to her, “Distrust yourself, and sleep before you fight, ‘Tis not too late tomorrow to be brave.”
In addition to the Médaille Militaire, Susan received the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur, first instituted by Napoleon and France’s highest honour.