In September 2010 an 89 year old woman died alone in her modest flat in the English seaside town of Torquay. She had been a very private and unassuming person about whom her neighbours hardly knew. But examining her belongings in order to identify her next of kin, the police discovered something incredible: Eileen Nearne had been a heroine of the Second World War, a brilliant and courageous spy who had helped to liberate occupied France and had survived incarceration and torture in a Nazi concentration camp.
Eileen Nearne, better known as Didi for most of her life, was born in London in March 1921. Her father was English, her mother Spanish and she was the youngest of four children. In 1923 the family moved to France but, following the German invasion in 1940, they made their way back to England through Spain, arriving in London in 1942.
She was initially offered a role in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force but declined it. Probably because of her fluent French, Eileen was soon recruited by the Special Operations Executive in which her sister, Jacqueline, and brother, Francis, also served for a short time. The SOE was an organisation known as “Churchill’s Secret Army” that had been formed to carry out intelligence and sabotage missions in enemy-occupied territories. To begin with, Eileen was a London-based signals operator and dealt with communications from field agents. In March 1944, however, she was parachuted into occupied France together with her colleague, a commander in the French army known as Jean Savy.
Using the codename “Rose”, Eileen’s mission was to help Savy set up and maintain a Paris intelligence network called “Wizard”. The purpose of “Wizard” was to seek out and secure funds for the French Resistance. Eileen’s role was to sustain a wireless network between Paris and London which allowed potential financiers to check they were dealing with genuine SOE agents and not German infiltrators. They would devise a phrase of their own choosing, Eileen would send it to operatives in London and, when the prospective backers heard their ‘message personnel’ repeated during broadcasts of the BBC’s European Service, they could be sure their contacts were authentic.
With the German forces becoming increasingly more successful at seeking out intelligence networks and safe houses being in high demand, Eileen had to be clever and ever-vigilant to evade discovery and to keep her wireless and equipment hidden. She changed location frequently and, over a five-month period, sent over 100 messages to London.
On 21st July 1944, whilst operating from a deserted house on the outskirts of Paris, Eileen was discovered by the German forces. She managed to burn her notebooks and hide her equipment before she was arrested but her radio was found and seized.
She was taken to Gestapo headquarters and subjected to prolonged and brutal interrogation. She suffered appalling water torture during which she was forcibly submerged face-first in water until she fell unconscious from oxygen deprivation. Nevertheless, she never divulged the truth and stuck doggedly to her story that she was simply a Frenchwoman in need of employment who had been asked to send some messages on behalf of an English businessman.
In August 1944, her head shaved, Eileen was sent to Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp where thousands lost their lives. There she was threatened with execution and further tortured but she never deviated from her cover story no matter how brutally she was treated. In maintaining her brave silence, she ensured the safety of her SOE colleagues stationed in France and the continuation of their work.
Over the next few months Eileen was moved around several different labour camps. In April 1945 she was stationed at Markleberg. As the Allied forces were advancing on the labour camp, the inmates were sent on a forced night-time march. Eileen seized her opportunity to escape and, together with two Frenchwomen, fled the march and sought cover in a forest. Enduring several days without food, the women headed west to Leipzig and took refuge in a church. The Roman Catholic priest there hid the them in a bell tower until the city was liberated by American troops on 15th April.
Eileen had lapsed into unconsciousness and came around just as America soldiers were storming the bell tower. She identified herself as a British intelligence agent but they assumed she was delirious or lying and would not believe her. Luckily, Eileen’s colleagues in London confirmed her story and she was back in England just a few weeks later.
In recognition of her wartime service, Eileen was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government and an MBE in London. However, she found it hard to adjust to life in peacetime and struggled with the psychological damage of having been tortured by the Gestapo. She lived with her sister in London, moving to Torquay after her sister’s death in 1982. She sought out a life of privacy and seclusion, rejecting any and all opportunities to celebrate her wartime heroism.
At her death in 2010, the truth of Eileen’s life having been finally discovered, she was given a funeral with full military honours that befitted her service and achievements. In keeping with her wishes, her ashes were scattered at sea.