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Brave: Eileen ‘Didi Nearne operated as an undercover agent called ‘Rose’ in Occupied France and was caught and tortured by the Nazis.

Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne

The Spy Who Took Her Secret With Her To The Grave—Almost

Eileen Nearne — known as Didi — was, in fact, one of the bravest secret agents of World War II. When caught, she showed exceptional courage, withstanding torture and incarceration in concentration camps. Didi was a modest woman who seldom spoke about her wartime exploits. Her latter years were solitary and reclusive. Keeping quiet was one of Nearne’s great strengths, and she saved many lives (including her own) through silence, bluff and determination in the face of what must have seemed a hopeless situation. Buried deep in Eileen Nearne’s secret World War II file, released by the National Archives, is the secrecy agreement she signed on Sept. 4, 1942. It was a commitment she honoured until her death.

The death of an eccentric recluse is rarely an event to be given more than a few lines in a local newspaper. But when, in September 2010, police were called to a tiny, cluttered flat in Torquay and discovered the body of local ‘cat lady’ Eileen Nearne, they also found a small bundle of possessions that told an amazing story.

It transpired that the eccentric old lady who fed stray cats had once been one of the most successful agents of Special Operations Executive (SOE), as had her sister, Jacqueline, who had died many years before.

After Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne died in 2 September 2010 (date body found) a frail 89-year-old alone in a flat in the British seaside town of Torquay, Eileen Nearne, her body undiscovered for several days, was listed by local officials as a candidate for what is known in Britain as a council burial, or what in the past was called a pauper’s grave.

But after the police looked through her possessions, including a Croix de Guerre medal awarded to her by the French government after World War II, the obscurity Ms. Nearne had cultivated for decades began to slip away.

Known to her neighbours as an insistently private woman who loved cats and revealed almost nothing about her past, she has emerged as a heroine in the tortured story of Nazi-occupied France, one of the secret agents who helped prepare the French resistance for the D-Day landings in June 1944.

Nearne was arrested and tortured by the Nazis after having been flown into France to aid the French Resistance movement. She escaped from a labour camp and, in a confrontation with the Gestapo, managed to convince them that she was a Nazi. The British stood strong against the Germans and their allies for six years.

For Eileen Nearne had been an agent for the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, going undercover in Nazi-occupied France to send wireless messages of crucial importance to the Allies. Astonishingly, Eileen was not the only special agent in the family – her sister Jacqueline had also been an SOE. Rarely had two members of the same family sacrificed so much to such dangerous work.

Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne MBE, Croix de Guerre was a member of the UK’s Special Operations Executive during World War II.

The SOE ranged from girls barely out of high school to mature mothers, from working-class women to aristocrats, from the plain to the beautiful, from the prim and proper to wild high-lifers. The only women from the Western Allies to bear arms in action during the Second World War, they suffered torture, the misery of the concentration camps, and death at the hands of Nazi butchers. They were a band of sisters such as has not been seen before or since, and the only thing they had in common was language—they all spoke French. Now, years after peace broke out in Europe, all but one or two are dead. They are the women agents of the Special Operations Executive, the special force founded on the explicit orders of Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze.”

Eileen Nearne’s role as an SOE agent operating in wartime France was revealed only after her death in 2010.

Known as Churchill’s Secret Army, the SOE was set up in 1940 to encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. Two years later Winston Churchill gave his approval for women to be sent to Europe after it was argued that they would be less conspicuous than men.

Yet files released by the National Archives revealed that the young Miss Nearne’s superiors were anything but impressed with her after her two-week training course.

As with many women agents, her SOE trainer was dismissive, doubting whether she could be useful in any capacity.

In a scathing report just weeks before her deployment, they wrote: “She is not very intelligent or practical and is lacking in shrewdness and cunning. She has a bad memory, is inaccurate and scatterbrained. She seems keen but her work was handicapped by lack of the power to concentrate.

Ironic that these were the very traits which allowed her to survive.

“In character, she is very ‘feminine’ and immature; she seems to lack all experience of the world and would probably be easily influenced by others.

“She is lively and amusing and has considerable charm and social gifts. She talks a lot and is anxious to draw attention to herself, but was generally liked by the other students.”

The report, dated 26 January 1944, continues: “It is doubtful whether this student is suitable for employment in any capacity on account of her lack of experience.”

Yet Nearne defied all expectations, managing to send back key information via the Wizard network. In another newly released filed she wrote of her arrest at Bourg-la-Reine on 25 July: “I had just sent a message when through the window I saw the Gestapo arrive.

According to her file, seventeen officers in seven cars surrounded the house where she was receiving a message from London.

I had just time to burn the message and to hide the radio set. They searched the house and found the set. They also found the one-time-pad. They asked me questions about my code. I told them lies….They put me in a cold bath and tried to make me speak but I stuck to the story.”

By her own account, she managed to burn the message – but the radio was evidence enough.

She told them lies – gave them false names, false addresses for contacts, and was consistent. She said she was an ordinary member of the French resistance.

Had she admitted being a foreign agent, she would have been shot – instead, she was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Heroine: Didi’s sister Jacqueline also served as an SOE agent during World War II but returned to Britain exhausted in 1944.

Didi was born in London in 1923 to Jack Nearne, a doctor-turned-chemist, and Mariquita, a French-Spanish aristocrat, who already had three children, Francis, Jacqueline and Frederick.

When Didi was two, the family moved to France, eventually settling in Nice where the girls attended a convent school. In 1940, the German army marched into France and the family’s well-to-do life was turned upside down.

The pro-German Vichy authorities forced the family to leave Nice — as British citizens, they were not allowed to live near the coast — they moved to a village near Grenoble. Frederick, keen to fight the Nazis, soon left for Britain to join the RAF.

Two years later, Jacqueline decided to follow her brother and join the war effort. Didi insisted on going, too, and the two girls made the perilous journey via Spain and Portugal, arriving in London in May 1942.

At first, they were rejected for war work. But their applications, mentioning their fluent French, reached the desk of Captain Selwyn Jepson, the recruiting officer for F section — the French section — of SOE.

Jepson believed women were suited to undercover work because they had ‘a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men’.

But did these two unworldly convent girls have the nerve and ability to become SOE operatives in enemy territory, carrying out Churchill’s command to ‘set Europe ablaze’?

It seemed unlikely at first. Jepson judged that, at 21, Didi was too young to be an agent. He put her to work as a wireless operator in England.

Jacqueline was sent for SOE  training, but her instructors were unimpressed. ‘Mentally slow and not very intelligent,’ they sneered. ‘She could not be recommended.’

However, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE’s French section, overruled them. ‘One of the best,’ he wrote in her file. She was also, he noted, a beauty, with her dark hair and eyes, slim figure and air of Parisian chic.

In January 1943, Jacqueline — codename Designer — and her network chief, Maurice Southgate, parachuted into Occupied France. Before leaving, she had made Buckmaster promise that Didi would never be sent on a mission to France.

Jacqueline became the courier for a large network of resistance groups, delivering messages and weapons across France and organising sabotage operations, including blowing up a Luftwaffe aircraft engine factory, setting fire to 27 new trucks bound for Germany, damaging railway lines and stealing 30,000 litres of German petrol.

Whenever Southgate was away, Jacqueline took charge of the network, with 600 men under her command.

It was risky work. Often she had to stay in hotels, and once a plainclothes policeman banged on her door, searching for members of her network. Jacqueline appeared to be so drowsy and confused that the man apologised and left.

He returned a few hours later, but by then Jacqueline had fled.

She was one of SOE’s most successful agents, but after nearly a  year-and-a-half of constant operations, she was exhausted. In April 1944, despite her protests, Southgate sent her back to Britain.

Arriving in London, she learned that Didi had pestered Buckmaster into sending her to France as a wireless operator two months earlier.

Jacqueline was horrified. Surely her naive little sister could not survive in such a solitary, dangerous role?

The Nearne sisters are just one example of the exceptional sacrifice made to defend Europe from the tyranny of Nazism.

EileenNearne told how she was flown to France for her first mission.

She said that when she was flown into France at the start of her assignment in March 1944, “It was bitterly cold,” she said. “I was with the head of my circuit and he suddenly said, ‘Look, there are the lights of the reception committee.’

“When we landed everything happened so quickly.

She encountered two male agents who were flying back to England in the plane’s return trip.

“They said ‘oh, a young girl – go back, go back, it is extremely dangerous’. But she had no intention of going back.”…

The sisters were supposed to keep their roles secret from one another but were unsuccessful. Eileen was given a false identity — Jacqueline du Tertre, a dizzy shop girl — and the codename Rose.

In March 1944, Eileen Didi Nearne followed her sister in parachuting into France, remaining there, under the code name Agent Rose, after her sister was airlifted back to Britain.

She was flown by a Lysander aircraft to a field near Les Lagnys, Saint-Valentin in Indre, France, in the late hours of 2 March and the early hours of 3 March 1944 with Jean Savy to work as a wireless operator for the Wizard network as part of Operation Mitchel. Her cover story was that she was Mademoiselle du Tort (also using the aliases Jacqueline Duterte and Alice Wood). Using the code name “Rose”, she was given the mission of helping Savy set up a network in Paris called “Wizard”; its aim, unlike the networks dedicated to sabotaging, was to organise sources of finance for the Resistance. Nearne’s role was to maintain a wireless link to London.

Savy had returned to London with important information about German V1 rockets, leaving Nearne on her own. Although she did not know it at the time, the same aircraft which took Savy home also carried her sister, Jacqueline, who had just completed 15 months in the field. Nearne then worked for the “Spiritualist” network.

Jacqueline Nearne (1916-1982), sister of Eileen Nearne.

She may well have been the most anonymous spy in history. The sleepy town of Torquay in southwestern England became alarmed on September 2, 2010, when the elderly Eileen Nearne failed to appear after several days. The 89-year-old woman lived the life of a hermit, with hardly any contact with the outside world. When police entered Nearne’s home, they discovered that she had died of a heart attack. Since she was penniless and had no known family, the town prepared to have her body cremated and the ashes buried in a municipal cemetery.

But then workers who were cleaning her home discovered piles of discontinued French banknotes, yellowed letters written in French, and a treasure of French and English medals and decorations for valour. To the utter shock of all her neighbours, it was revealed that Nearne had been a heroic British spy.

She served her country bravely and even refused to divulge the names of her cohorts when she was tortured by her captors.

The news shook the entire country and left many people enraged. How could such a national hero have been forgotten about for so long?

Eileen Nearne was born in England on March 15, 1921, to a family of mixed English-Spanish ancestry. Her family later moved to France, where she was raised and learned to speak French fluently. When the Nazis occupied France in May 1940, Nearne and her two siblings escaped. They fled first to Barcelona, Spain, then to Madrid, from there to Lisbon, Portugal, and next to Gibraltar. They finally reached England in 1942 – harbouring a deep-seated hatred for the Nazis who had turned their lives upside-down. Determined to do whatever they could to help resist the Germans, Eileen and her older sister Jacqueline volunteered for the armed forces, where they served as nurses.

In time, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British espionage organisation, a.k.a. “Churchill’s secret army,” discovered that the two Nearne sisters spoke French fluently. (Churchill’s secret army recruited more than 14,000 agents to conduct espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines.) This, in addition to their gender, made them very valuable as spies. The two sisters were recruited and trained to operate behind enemy lines, they gathered critical information and sent back coded messages.

Eileen Nearne

The SOE recruited the two sisters separately, and each one was told to keep her new job a secret even from her closest friends and family. Still, it was only a matter of time until they discovered each other’s clandestine activities. “Didi,” as Eileen was known, was first given a task with little risk to her safety: a desk job at SOE headquarters where she received the secret dispatches arriving from agents in occupied France. Her task was to decipher and translate the messages and pass them on to the appropriate official. Meanwhile, her sister Jacqueline was parachuted behind enemy lines in France to begin her dangerous work there.

Soon enough, Eileen became bored at her desk job. She hoped to participate directly in the war. Consequently, she requested to follow in her sister’s footsteps and be parachuted into France. On May 2, 1944, at the age of 23, her request was granted and she was parachuted into France, becoming one of 39 women sent by England’s military as spies during the course of the war.

The SOE preferred to use women as spies because men were far more likely to attract attention. This was especially true because under the German occupation much of France’s male population had been shipped for forced labour in Germany. In fact, it was this policy on the part of the Germans as much as anything else that created a powerful partisan movement among young French men.

Women, on the other hand, were constantly on the move throughout France, trying to sell whatever valuables they still possessed in exchange for food and other necessities. Similarly, many women had taken over the men’s positions in French industries. The French partisans, known as the Maquis, had received a dispatch from the British that a special agent was on her way to France. Code named “Agent Rose,” she would be able to relay their requests to London and arrange shipments of supplies for the French partisans. Two French partisans were sent to greet Nearne. They were furious when they discovered that the British had “tricked” them: “Special Agent Rose” was a young girl! “Go back home,” one of the two Frenchmen told her bitterly. “The work is too dangerous.”

Harrowing tale: Jacqueline Nearne spoke about her experiences on a television programme Distant Guns: With the French Resistance

The Maquis were in for a surprise, however. The young girl turned out to be a courageous spy. Using the pseudonym Mademoiselle du Tort, she acted the part of a girl who worked in a store. With the help of a local partisan named Jean Savy, she set up a secret network known as “Wizard.” Unlike the Maquis, whose primary goal was sabotage, Wizard was expressly intended to gather information, pass it to the appropriate authorities and provide the French underground with financial support.

When she parachuted into France, Nearne brought with her a special wireless telegraph to send dispatches to England. Eileen found a safe house in a suburb of Paris from where to transmit her messages. The first time she set out, carrying the cumbersome 18kg wireless, a German soldier on the train asked what was in her suitcase.

‘Just a gramophone,’ she replied, praying that he would not ask to see it. She got off at the next stop and walked the rest of the way. She was kept busy transmitting messages for her network chief about double agents, German communications, the distribution of weapons for the Resistance and the launch sites of V1 rockets aimed at Britain.

After D-Day, Didi noticed more Germans and more sinister detection vans combing the streets near her safe house. She found a new location but decided to send one more, urgent message from the old one. It proved to be her last.

Hunched over a wireless set, alone in a safe house in a Parisian suburb on a rainy morning in July 1944, Didi Nearne tapped out a Morse Code message. It contained urgent information from the leader of her Resistance network to intelligence chiefs back in London.

A month earlier, Allied armies had landed in Normandy and the battle for France was raging fiercely. Agents of SOE — the Special Operations Executive — played a vital role sabotaging German communications and relaying information about troop movements and weapons back to Britain.

Furious, the Germans redoubled their efforts to catch SOE agents. Their radio-detecting vans combed the streets, seeking out signals that would lead them to the wireless operators laboriously tapping out their messages.

The average SOE wireless operator in Occupied France lasted for just six weeks before being arrested. Didi had survived for five months, making an astonishing 105 transmissions.

If caught, she faced imprisonment, perhaps torture and execution. Four female SOE agents had been put to death in a concentration camp by lethal injection that month. They were cremated, but evidence emerged later that some of them were still alive when they went into the ovens.

Nearne was stationed in Paris, a fact which made her work that much more dangerous. The capital was bustling with Nazi officials who would have loved nothing more than to capture a British spy. For the next five months, she sent back over 100 messages. These included critical information that the British needed in order to make plans for D-Day. She kept the SOE in contact with the French underground and arranged airdrops of vital supplies to keep the fighters going.

Her work also contributed to the British effort during Operation Crossbow, a major bomber attack targeting a store of 2,000 V-1 rockets, which were devastating England. To send a message through Nearne, the partisans had to choose some phrase that was to be kept secret. Then, when Nearne sent a message from that particular partisan leader, it was also accompanied by that individual’s identifying code phrase. That way the SOE knew that the message was reliable and that the dispatcher was not acting under duress after having been captured by the Germans. Nearne lived in constant danger. By 1944, the Nazis had infiltrated a number of espionage and sabotage networks in France, eliminating many of their enemies. Gestapo agents in plain clothes and collaborators were everywhere. Nearne got into the habit of looking at her reflection in the shop windows to see if she was being followed.

She was captured by the Nazis in July 1944 after spending months undercover in Paris sending messages back to Britain in preparation for D-Day.

Still using her wartime code name “Rose” and wearing a wig while speaking fluent French, she told a BBC documentary in 1997 that she was caught because she had to send a vital message.

“I preferred to use the old house from where I knew I could get through, but I shouldn’t have done it,” she said. “That’s how I got myself arrested.”

Didi knew the risks. ‘There were Gestapo in plain clothes everywhere. I always looked at my reflection in the shop windows to see if I was being followed,’ she recalled later.

But she had to send this latest message. It was only as she finished tapping it out that she became aware of shouting outside.

Peering through the rain-misted window, she was horrified to see several cars parked in the street below and Germans pouring from them. They had tracked down the wireless signal.

Didi knew she had only minutes. Hastily, she took the wireless set apart and hid the pieces in a cupboard. She hid her pistol, too. She snatched up her codes and the paper on which she had encrypted the message, shoved them into the kitchen stove and set light to them, poking them until just ashes were left.

Only then did she think of saving herself.

It was too late. There was a loud banging on the door. Taking a deep breath, Didi opened it and found a gun pointing directly at her. The man holding it began shouting at her in German, while other men started searching the house.

Displaying extraordinary nerve, Didi shouted back indignantly, denying any knowledge of a wireless set. But the search team soon uncovered it.

Didi was handcuffed, bundled into a car and driven through the Paris streets to an address that made every SOE agent shudder with fear: 11 Rue des Saussaies — Gestapo headquarters. This was where agents were interrogated, often tortured and then sent to concentration camps. Or executed.

The questioning began. What was she doing with a wireless set? Didi had her answer ready: she was a simple French girl and had been sending coded messages for her boss, a businessman. She had no idea what they were about.

The Gestapo men were puzzled. Could this seemingly stupid girl really be an innocent dupe of a Resistance agent? Or was she a brilliant actress?

On the morning of July 22, 1944, she was caught — and so began her horrific ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo.

Didi was terrified but determined that they would not extract the truth from her. At first, one man questioned her gently while the other shouted vile abuse.

‘You are a spy, you lying, dirty b***h,’ he yelled, hitting her face so hard that she nearly fell off her chair. Boldly she yelled back, insisting that she had no idea what they were talking about. Eventually, she was hauled to her feet and marched down a corridor to another room.

Inside was a bath filled with water. Didi knew that she was about to face the dreaded ‘baignoire’ — the Nazi version of waterboarding.

Her interrogators held her arms tightly and questioned her about her wireless broadcasts. She refused to answer. Without warning, they plunged her into the bath, holding her head under the icy water.

She began to choke and struggle for breath as her mouth and nose filled with water. Suddenly she was pulled up, coughing and spluttering. They began shouting at her again. Who was she working for? Where was she sending her messages?

Didi remained defiantly silent.

Again she was thrust into the water, a hand holding her head under. Just at the point, she felt her lungs would burst, she was pulled out, gasping.

A third time she was held under so long that she felt sure she would die. She began to feel calm and her body went limp. Abruptly, her torturers pulled her out, thumping her on the back. Didi spewed out water, then took deep, rasping breaths.

She was utterly exhausted but quietly triumphant. They had got nothing from her.

Buckmaster had been right. She was a brilliant actress. Others had cracked under torture, revealing codes and the names of fellow agents. Not Didi. She withstood it all: she had won.

‘We are going to give you the benefit of the doubt,’ one of the Gestapo men announced. But then he added cruelly: ‘We are sending you to a concentration camp.’

On August 15, just ten days before the Allies liberated Paris, Didi was put on a train crammed with hundreds of other prisoners in cattle trucks, jolting across France and into Germany for day after day.

Once, the prisoners were made to disembark at a station. Seeing some trees in the distance, Didi seized her chance and started running towards them. But a guard raised his gun, threatening to shoot her. Reluctantly she turned back.

Eventually, the train arrived in Ravensbruck concentration camp, where the Nazis followed a policy of ‘extermination through work’.

Those too weak to work were sent to the gas chambers. Others were selected for horrific medical experiments. Sadistic female guards delighted in beating and whipping prisoners to death.

The relentless physical toil and lack of food took its toll, but Didi was sustained by her strong religious faith and unwavering belief that she would survive.
After Nearne was sent to Ravensbruck, she refused to do prison work despite having her head shaved and being threatened with being shot. She eventually managed to escape during the night in April 1945 as she was being moved from a camp in Markleberg.

She said: “About 11 o’clock we were passing through a forest and I managed to jump out and hide behind a tree and there I met my two French friends.”

After hiding out, evading capture by the Gestapo by convincing them she was a French volunteer and finding shelter in a church in Leipzig she met up with the Americans on 15 April.

They, however, refused to believe she was a British wireless operator and accused of being a German agent.

An American intelligence report marked secret and dated 2 May 945, reveals details of the interrogation and concludes: “Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She is often unable to answer the simplest questions, as though she were impersonating someone else. Her account of what happened to her after her landing near Orleans is held to be invented.”

Yet when she returned home, the glowing recommendation for her MBE stated: “For five-and-a-half months she maintained constant communication with London from this most dangerous area, and, by her cool efficiency, perseverance and willingness to undergo any risk in order to carry out her work, made possible the successful organisation of her group and the delivery of large quantities of arms and equipment.”

Eileen Nearne’s Finishing Report

As she related in postwar debriefings, documented in Britain’s National Archives, the Gestapo tortured her — beating her, stripping her naked, then submerging her repeatedly in a bath of ice-cold water until she began to black out from lack of oxygen. Yet they failed to force her to yield the secrets they sought: her real identity, the names of others working with her in the resistance and the assignments given to her by London. At the time, she was 23.

The account she gave her captors was that she was an innocent and somewhat gullible Frenchwoman named Jacqueline Duterte and that she had been recruited by a local businessman to transmit radio coded messages that she did not understand.

She recalled one interrogator’s attempts to break her will: “He said, ‘Liar! Spy!’ and hit me in the face. He said, ‘We have ways of making people who don’t want to talk, talk. Come with us.’ ”

From Ravensbruck, Nearne was shuttled eastward through an archipelago of Nazi death camps, her head shaved. After first refusing to work in the camps, she changed her mind, seeing the work assignments as the only means of survival.

In December 1944 she was moved to the Markleberg camp, near Leipzig, where she worked on a road-repair gang for 12 hours a day. But while being transferred yet again, she and two Frenchwomen escaped and eventually linked up with American troops.

Even then, her travails were not over. American intelligence officers initially identified her as a Nazi collaborator and held her at a detention centre with captured SS personnel until her account, that she was a British secret agent, was verified by her superiors in London.

Asked by her postwar debriefers how she kept up hope, she replied: “The will to live. Willpower. That’s the most important. You should not let yourself go. It seemed that the end would never come, but I always believed in destiny, and I had a hope.”

“If you are a person who is drowning, you put all your efforts into trying to swim.”

Nearne explained why she initially became a spy: “I had patriotic feelings and I knew could do that kind of work since I was by nature a solitary person and that was essential to be able to adapt to that kind of life.”

Describing how she lived undercover, she said after the war: “I wasn’t nervous. In my mind, I was never going to be arrested. But of course, I was careful. There were Gestapo in plain clothes everywhere. I always looked at my reflection in the shop windows to see if I was being followed.”

Parts of her story were later told in books written about wartime secret operations, including the 1966 history “SOE in France, 1940-1944,” by Michael Foot, part of a government history series by authors given special access to secret government records.

But wartime friends said after her death, on Sept. 2, that she had found it difficult to adjust to peacetime life, and a medical report in the government archives said she was suffering from psychological symptoms brought on by her wartime service. She never married, and she lived alone after her sister died in 1982.

But the Ravensbrück experience may have depleted her of whatever emotional strength she had left at the end of her ordeal. While living with her sister Jacqueline, Nearne is said to have painted violent pictures in an effort to exorcise her horrific wartime experiences at the hands of the Germans. She must have yearned desperately for peace; hence the quiet – almost silent – remainder of her life.

Nearne was grossly underestimated by her S.O.E recruiters, and her character, and abilities were described by them in vividly derisive terms. One wonders now how these recruiters, whose reports of Nearne were so  cruelly scathing – and so wrong –  might themselves have fared if subjected to the tortures Nearne suffered at the hands of the Gestapo and the S.S. Nearne, after all, was a woman who received distinguished awards for her “cool efficiency, perseverance and willingness to undergo any risk.

Memories: Eileen ‘Didi’ Nearne (second from right) joins fellow ex-prisoner Odette Hallowes (right) at an unveiling of a plaque at Ravensbruck concentration camp

On her return to Britain, Nearne had a breakdown and was awarded a war pension by the British government as a consequence of her “exhaustion neurosis”

Initially granted £175 per year (equivalent to approximately £4500 today), Nearne’s pension was later reduced to £87 10s.

Nearne’s pension was withdrawn in 1951 when she visited France and the British government refused to make her pension payments through the British consul in Lyon.

In 1954 when Nearne returned to the UK she requested her pension be reinstated but it was not.

Nearne, who had been sworn to secrecy about her wartime work, did not pursue the British government for the pension she deserved and died without any further recognition of her contribution to Britain’s war effort.

The SOE officer responsible for looking after the female agents was Vera Atkins.

When Eileen Nearne came home, Vera Atkins tried to find her a peacetime role. Oddly, it seemed this heroic secret agent was set on a career as a beautician.

The file contains two letters written to salons: one addressed to Mrs Cooper at Helena Rubenstein in Mayfair. The “bearer of this note, Eileen Nearne… is most anxious to train in beauty culture”.

The documents don’t show whether this bore fruit. Eileen Nearne’s obituaries said she had spent thirty years as a nurse. Clearly, she found civilian life rather dull compared to the war.

“I missed that kind of life,” she told her interviewer in 1997. “Everything seemed so ordinary.”

Torture: The women were worked nearly to death and beaten and whipped by cruel female guards in the camp

Initially, Nearne lived in London with her sister, Jacqueline, where, she suffered from “psychological problems brought on by her wartime service”. After her sister’s death in 1982, she moved to Torquay and lived there quietly until her death. Nearne talked about her wartime activities on a Timewatch television documentary in 1997, but she wore a wig, and spoke in French under her codename “Rose”, and her wartime activities were not generally known about.

Friends said that she withdrew into herself and shunned all opportunities to earn celebrity from her wartime experiences. In 1993, she returned to Ravensbruck for a visit, but otherwise, she cherished her anonymity. As she told an interviewer several years before she died: “It was a life in the shadows, but I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret. I could be lonely. I could be independent. But I wasn’t bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it.”

The anonymity that Nearne had cherished in life was denied her in death. A funeral service in Torquay featured a military bugler and piper and an array of uniformed mourners. A red cushion atop her coffin bore her wartime medals. Eulogies celebrated her as one of 39 British women who were parachuted into France as secret agents by the Special Operations Executive, a wartime agency known informally as “Churchill’s secret army,” which recruited more than 14,000 agents to conduct espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines.

Funeral costs were paid by the British Legion, the country’s main veterans’ organisation, and by anonymous donors who came forward after the circumstances of Nearne’s death made front-page news in Britain.

A niece was located living in Italy and has said she was upset that Nearne had been portrayed as being “alone or unloved”, adding, “Although I don’t live in the UK, I was very close to Aunt Eileen and visited her often. I only saw her six months ago. She was always cherished by the family.”

Nearne’s niece said she wished to remain anonymous, said: “I would like to thank everyone for their kind wishes and support at this very sad time.

“My aunt Eileen was a very private and modest person and without a doubt, she would be astounded by all the public and media attention.

“I hope that in death, she will be remembered along with other SOE Agents with pride and gratitude for the work they did both here and behind enemy lines during the Second World War.”

After World War II, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. On 19 February 1946 she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by King George VI for services in France during the enemy occupation

The funeral organisers said that in accordance with her wishes, her ashes would be scattered at sea.

Nearne’s neighbours said she never talked about the war. One said Nearne only ever talked about a beloved pet. She said “I lived in the same block of flats as this lady for two years. She was always sat outside on the bench reading the papers with her ginger cat.

“I sometimes sat and chatted with her. She never talked about herself, only about her cat who she took in after someone abandoned him. What a brave lady.”

Another added: “Please if a lesson has to be learned from this – next time you see that old person walking down the street just remember they have a history, a story to tell and sometimes it is brilliant like this.”

Eileen Nearne, Wartime Spy, Dies at 89 – The New York Times

BBC – Files reveal bravery of WWII spy Eileen Nearne

Eileen Nearne, Heroine of World War 2 – Don Carina

My aunts, the unlikely spies | Life and style | The Guardian

Eileen Nearne obituary | World news | The Guardian

Lonely death of a wartime heroine | World news | The Guardian

SOE agents Didi Nearne: Revealed for the first time, the awe-inspiring …

WWII spy Eileen Nearne died penniless after British pension was …

Eileen Nearne: S.O.E Hero of WWII | theinkbrain

Famous Women in History: Eileen Nearne

N is for the Nearne Sisters – Shooting Parrots

secretww2net | Jacqueline Nearne

Sister Secret Agents in World War II Fought Alongside Men

Eileen Nearne, wartime spy for allies, dies at 89; – Bend Bulletin

O’Connor, Agent Rose – Clare Mulley

World War II heroine’s secret spy file is released |

The Spy Who Took Her Secret With Her To The Grave – Almost

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