Susan Travers died in 2003 aged 94. The daughter of an Admiral in the Royal Navy, she grew up in the south of France, leading a hedonistic life of tennis, socialising and love affairs before joining the French Red Cross at the start of World War Two.
So what makes her different from the thousands of other privileged young women of that era? Susan Travers was the only woman to have served in the French Foreign Legion.
The French Foreign Legion was formed in the 19th century to allow foreigners, who would otherwise be banned from serving in the French army, to fight for the country. Notoriously, many recruits were criminals, revolutionaries or looking for a way to escape a former life. The Legion was instrumental in protecting French colonial interests, were a key force in the Franco-Prussian War and both World Wars amongst other conflicts. Originally based in Algeria until the end of French rule in 1962, the Legion are famed for their tough training regime and their code of honour which includes the maxim, ‘Every legionnaire is your brother-in-arms, regardless of his nationality, race, or religion. You will demonstrate this by strict solidarity which must always unite members of the same family.’
So how did a British socialite come to join this elite military force After she eschewed nursing in 1940 for the more interesting job of driving an ambulance, the die was cast for Travers and a unique and exceptional life was in its embryonic stages. Around this time, France was occupied by the Nazis and Travers’ response was to sail to London from Scandinavia where she had been assisting Finland as part of an expeditionary force and volunteer to join General de Gaulle’s Free French, then being posted to Eritrea. Evidently not considering ambulance driving hazardous enough, Travers took on the highly dangerous job as driver for senior officers in the Legion, dodging minefields and shells to earn herself the nickname of ‘La Miss’ in honour of her fearlessness in the face of the enemy.
In 1942, Travers found herself in Bir Hakeim, Libya, as her then-lover Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig fought a bloody battle with Rommel’s Afrika Korps, managing to hold off the Germans for 15 days in what later became one of the most famous sieges of the war. By this time, all women had been evacuated from Bir Hakeim, all except Susan Travers who had refused to leave. Despite their brave resistance, the Free French ran out of food, water and ammunition and Koenig decided he would initiate a midnight breakout from the surrounding German forces.
Travers was ordered to lead the convoy and they very nearly escaped undetected. Under heavy fire, she committed a tremendous act of courage by putting her foot down, forcing her way through enemy lines and leading 2500 troops to safety. Her Ford was later found to have no less than 11 bullet holes in it. For this extraordinary feat, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Ordre du Corps d’Arme. Travers said later:
“Shells were falling around us like rain and sudden, violent explosions tore the night, showering our car with burning metal. The wounded who could walk were ordered to get out and continue on foot to lessen the weight of the vehicles picking their way through the mines. From starting off as a reasonably well-planned evacuation it had become a shambolic flight.”
Never resting on her laurels, Travers went on to serve in France, Italy and Germany – the latter posting securing her a job driving a self-propelled anti-tank gun, though she was wounded after driving over a landmine.
After the war finished, she gained official acceptance to the Legion by leaving her gender off the application form and was posted to Vietnam as an officer, but resigned her commission in 1947. In 1956, Travers was awarded the Medaille Militaire for her bravery at Bir Hakeim. Ironically, the medal was awarded by her ex-lover Koenig, whose ascending career after their escape through enemy lines led to their break up. It was another 40 years after this that she was awarded the Legion’s highest honour – the Legion d’Honneur.
The memoirs of this extraordinary woman and her fascinating life, a life which she described as ‘wicked’ were published in 2000 and she remains the only woman to have served in the Legion.