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
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
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
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
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
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
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."