Susan Travers - Adjutant-Chef, Legion Etranger; Legion d'Honneur, Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre.
Travers was born in Southern England, the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, but grew up in the south of France, where she was a semi-professional tennis player.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Travers joined the French Red Cross as a nurse, but later became an ambulance driver with the French Expeditionary Force in Finland. With the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, she retreated from Denmark through to Finland. She then escaped by ship to Iceland and returned from there to England where she joined General De Gaulle's Free French forces.
By 1941, she was the chauffeur for a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, during the Syrian campaign in which Vichy French legionnaires fought Free French legionnaires. She was nicknamed "La Miss" by the legionnaires. She then traveled to North Africa via Dahomey and the Congo. During that journey, she had a brief affair with Georgian nobleman and Foreign Legion officer Dimitri Amilakhvari. She was then assigned as driver to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig and also became his lover.
In late May 1942,
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.
The Luftwaffe flew 1,400 sorties against the defences of Bir Hakeim, whilst four German/Italian divisions attacked on the ground. During the bombing, a piece of shrapnel tore a hole in Koenig's car and Travers (with the assistance of a Vietnamese driver) carried the part to a field workshop where mechanics fixed it.
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.
On 10 June, Travers drove Koenig's staff car during the retreat. The retreating column ran into minefields and German machine gun fire. Koenig ordered Travers to drive at the front of the column. Travers stated: "He said, 'We have to get in front. If we go the rest will follow.' It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark. My main concern was that the engine would stall."
At 10:30, on 11 June, the column entered British lines. Travers' vehicle had been hit by eleven bullets, with a shock absorber destroyed, and the brakes were unserviceable. Her affair with Koenig ended after this battle, when he returned to his wife.
General Marie-Pierre Koenig - "She was exceptionally brave."
The rest of World War II
Travers went on to serve in Italy, France, and Germany, where she respectively drove an ambulance, lorry, and a self-propelled anti-tank gun. Later in the war, she was wounded when she drove over a mine.
After the war she was formally enrolled in the Légion Étrangère, as an Adjutant-Chef (chief adjutant; similar to a warrant officer, often same responsibilities as the lieutenant). Travers served in Vietnam, during the First Indochina War. She married Adjutant-Chef Nicolas Schlegelmilch, who had fought at Bir Hakeim with the 13th Demi-Brigade, and they had two sons. In retirement, they lived on the outskirts of Paris.
Image courtesy Jim Hackworth ProArtShirts.Com