Monday, March 5, 2018

Susan Travers a woman in French Foreign Legion


Susan Travers was born into a wealthy English family and spent most of her youth in southern France. After she finished school, she led the life of a socialite, travelling around the world as a semi-professional tennis player.

When World War 2 broke out, she wanted to contribute to the war effort. Being able to drive a car, she ended up as an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force on their way to Finland. After the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, she escaped back to England, where she joined de Gaulle’s Free French. During the Syrian campaign, she worked as a driver for a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Légion Étrangère. From there, she accompanied the Foreign Legion to Dahomey and the Congo to finally end up in the Western Desert campaign in North Africa.

Having formed friendly relations with officers of the Foreign Legion, she was assigned as the driver of General Pierre Koenig. Over and over again, she proved her skills at the steering wheel, chauffeuring Koenig when he led the so-called ‘Jock Columns’, two- or three-day long reconnaissance missions with a motorized convoy of troop transports, cannons and Bren Carriers. In her autobiography, she describes the dangers of such missions: “More than once we nearly got caught and I had to drive the general to safety, fleeing from enemy fire at great speed or hiding in a dried-out wadi as the German or Italian tanks rolled by.”

When Koenig was tasked to occupy and hold Bir Hakeim, a desolate former oasis in the middle of nowhere, Travers refused to leave the area with the other women and stayed for what was to become one of the most dramatic actions of the Desert War. The attack was planned by Rommel, who estimated that it would take about 15 minutes to overrun the position of the 1st Free French Brigade. In the end, the defenders held out for almost four weeks against attacks from Italian and German forces. When the situation finally became untenable and ammunition was running out, Koenig decided to make a daring sortie and lead his troops through the German cordon back to the British lines.

On 10 June, Travers drove Koenig’s staff car, her trusty Ford Utility, with Koenig and Lieutenant Colonel Dimitri Amilakhvari of the Foreign Legion in the passenger seats. She headed through mine fields and German gun emplacements, dodging potholes, mines and bullets. “Avoiding a car burning fiercely in front of me, I roared on across the minefield, heading straight for the tracer fire, not having time to think or even be afraid. In fact, by this time I was exhilarated. It was an amazing feeling, going as fast as I could in the dark towards what looked like a mass display of beautifully coloured fireworks dancing towards me, bringing what seemed like almost certain death. This was what I had come for – to feel what it was like to be a man, in the very heat of battle. […] The stalled convoy, seeing us get through, followed my lead, jerking their engines into life again. I drove at the tracer fire ahead of us as if the car were the bow of a great ship, parting a sea of bullets.”

When Travers later inspected her car, she found 11 bullet holes and severe shrapnel damage. Koenig’s manoeuvre succeeded: He managed to get 2.500 of his men out of the German encirclement and into the safety of the British positions. The Battle of Bir Hakeim was hailed as a great coup and signalled the combat readiness of the Free French Forces. Susan Travers went on to work as a driver for the rest of the war, conducting ambulances, trucks and even a tractor for anti-tank guns. “The vehicle was much easier to handle, but its cargo meant it was far more dangerous to drive. It was my job to manoeuvre it into position, unhook it, turn round and go back for the next. There was a fair amount of shelling whenever I appeared because the Germans were very keen to knock me out before I got the cannon into position.”

After the war, Travers officially joined the French Foreign Legion and served as an Adjutant-Chef in Vietnam. She was decorated with the Légion d’honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire.

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