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Susan Travers


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#1 Kuno

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 09:40 AM

Text submitted by J. Gurney, NZ:

Susan Travers 1909-2003

Susan Travers, who died 2003 in Paris aged 94, was the only woman to
have joined the French Foreign Legion; English by birth, she came to
regard the Legion as her true family and played a key part in the
breakout by its troops from Rommel's siege of the desert fortress of
Bir Hakeim in 1942.

When war came in 1939, Susan Travers was living in the South of
France, where she had grown up, and she joined the Croix Rouge, the
French Red Cross. Hitherto she had led the rather inconsequential life
of a socialite, but the challenges that now faced her gave her a
purpose for the first time. Although her dislike of blood and illness
made her a less than ideal nurse, she soon realized her ambition to
become an ambulance driver, and in 1940 accompanied the French
expeditionary force sent to help the Finns in the Winter War against
the Russians.

France fell to the Nazis while she was in Scandinavia, and so she made
her way to London, where she volunteered as a nurse with General de
Gaulle's Free French forces. She was attached to the 13th Demi-Brigade
of the Legion Etrangere (about half the Legion had stayed loyal, the
others throwing in their lot with Vichy) and sailed for West Africa,
where she witnessed the abortive attack on Dakar.

She was then posted to Eritrea and took on the hazardous job of
driving for senior officers. The desert roads were often mined and
subject to enemy attack, and she survived a number of crashes, as well
as being wounded by shellfire.

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.

She also enjoyed several romantic liaisons, notably with a tall White
Russian prince, Colonel Dimitri Amilakvari, but none of these proved
lasting. Then, in June 1941, her world was transformed. The cause was
Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, her commanding officer, whose new driver
she became.

Although he was married, they quickly fell for each other - he wooing
her with roses when she was in hospital with jaundice - and although
it was impossible to show affection for one another in public, they
enjoyed a happy few months together while posted to Beirut.

This idyll was ended when their unit was attached to the 8th Army and,
in the spring of 1942, sent to hold the bleak fort of Bir Hakeim, at
the southern tip of the Allies' defensive line in the Western Desert.
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.

With all ammunition and - in temperatures of 51 C - all water
exhausted, Koenig resolved to lead a breakout at night through the
minefields and three concentric cordons of German panzers that
encircled Bir Hakeim. Susan Travers was to drive both him and
Amilakvari.

The attempt was swiftly discovered, however, when a mine exploded, and
with tracer lighting up the night sky and tank shells hurtling towards
her, Susan Travers took the lead. Determined to get both her
passengers to safety, she pressed the accelerator of her Ford to the
floor and burst through the German lines, blazing a trail for the
other Allied vehicles to follow. Although her car was struck by a
score of bullets, and on one occasion she drove into a laager of
parked panzers, she reached the British lines.

Of the 3,700 Allied troops who had been at Bir Hakeim, more than 2,400
escaped with her, including 650 legionnaires and Koenig became the
hero of France. Susan Travers was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the
Ordre du Corps d'Arme for her feat.

With Koenig's career in the ascendant, he ended his affair with Susan
Travers soon afterwards, much to her grief. Nevertheless, she remained
with the Legion through the fighting in Italy and France until the end
of the war, acting as both a driver and a nurse to the wounded and the
dying. By May 1945 "I had become the person I'd always wanted to be"
and, not wanting any other life, applied to join the Legion officially.

She took care to omit her sex from the form, and her application was
accepted. She was appointed an officer in the logistics division, and
so became the only woman ever to serve with the Legion.

Susan Travers was born in London on September 23 1909. Her father, a
naval officer, had married her mother for her money and the union was
not an especially happy one. Susan's childhood was comfortable but
over-strict, and she had her most enjoyable times away from her
parents with her grandmother in Devon.

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.

The Riviera was starting to become fashionable, and Susan quickly took
to the way of life there. Inspired by the deeds of a neighbour,
Suzanne Lenglen, she also became a fine tennis player.

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.

By her own admission, she spent the next decade in a rather vapid, if
enjoyable, round of skiing and tennis parties all over Europe,
thinking nothing of travelling to Budapest or Belgrade for a week's
entertainment.

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". It was a careless
approach to life brought to an abrupt halt by the onset of conflict in
1939.

After the war she served for a time in Indo-China, but resigned her
commission in 1947 to bring up her children from her marriage that
year to a Legion NCO, Nicholas 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.

In 1956, Susan Travers was awarded the Medaille Militaire in
recognition of her bravery at Bir Hakeim. The medal was pinned on her
by Koenig, by then Minister of Defence.

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.

She published a memoir, Tomorrow To Be Brave, in 2000.

Susan Travers died on December 18, 2003. She is survived by two sons.

Obviously no one had to suggest to Susan Travers, "Get a Life."



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#2 Owen

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 09:47 AM

Cheers, never heard of her before.
Her book here.
Amazon.com: Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion: Susan Travers, Wendy Holden: Books

Photos of the Real 13th Demi Brigade of The French Foreign Legion
Posted Image

Koenig's driver was Susan Travers, a young Englishwoman later admitted as the only woman to serve in with the Legion, as a legionnaire. At Bir Hakeim she won a Croix de Guerre after driving through a minefield and three concentric rings of enemy machine-gun fire. Her only anxiety: that the car would break down and she would be blamed. Among others, she was also Colonel Amilkhvari's lover.
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#3 Kuno

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 09:54 AM

Book is ordered and I hope it is in my PO box when I pay a visit to Europe the next time :-)
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#4 von Poop

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 11:45 AM

Fascinating.
seems you might be a man to ask for a reccomendation of a good general Foreign Legion history Kuno?
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Cake?

 

Any questions about life, the Universe and everything else; ask Owen, he loves all that stuff.


#5 Kuno

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 11:55 AM

@ von Poop; above is not my text - was sent to me by a friend from NZ :-)
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#6 Peter Clare

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Posted 15 November 2008 - 12:17 PM

Kuno

Thanks for posting, an interesting lady.
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In remembrance of my father Sgt S. Clare R.A.F Missing from operations 13th August 1942. Never Known, Forever Loved.


#7 Peter Clare

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Posted 24 September 2009 - 10:23 PM

BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | The only woman in the French Foreign Legion

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 and her story remains inspirational, writes biographer and friend Wendy Holden.
<!-- E SF -->
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.
<!-- S IIMA --> <table align="right" border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="226"> <tbody><tr><td> Posted Image Travers began her career as a nurse

</td></tr> </tbody></table> <!-- E IIMA --> 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.


Love affair
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.
<!-- S IIMA --> <table align="right" border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="226"> <tbody><tr><td> Posted Image Travers and Holden remained friends

</td></tr> </tbody></table> <!-- E IIMA --> 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.
<!-- S IBOX --> <table align="right" border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="231"> <tbody><tr> <td width="5">Posted Image</td> <td class="sibtbg"> Posted Image It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark Posted Image


Susan Travers

</td> </tr> </tbody></table> <!-- E IBOX --> 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.



Proudest moment
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.
<!-- S IIMA --> <table align="right" border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="226"> <tbody><tr><td> Posted Image Her former lover Koenig gave her the Medaille Militaire

</td></tr> </tbody></table> <!-- E IIMA --> 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.



Promise kept
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.
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In remembrance of my father Sgt S. Clare R.A.F Missing from operations 13th August 1942. Never Known, Forever Loved.


#8 Recce_Mitch

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Posted 25 September 2009 - 01:20 AM

A fasinating piece of history which Ive never heard about.

Cheers
Paul
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:poppy: In memory of all those of the Recce Regiments who lost their lives in World War 2 :poppy:


#9 militarycross

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Posted 25 September 2009 - 02:02 AM

Likewise, a new story, a fascinating story, to me as well. Great post. Thanks.

cheers,
phil
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:poppy: The face of Sacrifice is a Mother's Face -- streaked with tears.




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