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Page last updated at 13:32 GMT, Tuesday, 21 September 2010 14:32 UK
Files reveal bravery of WWII spy Eileen Nearne
By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Eileen Nearne
Eileen Nearne was captured by the Gestapo in 1944 (Photo: SWNS)

More details are coming to light on the tragic life of World War II heroine Eileen Nearne, MBE.

Ms Nearne lived a hermit's life in her Torquay flat and the secrets of her work as a spy only emerged after she died of a heart attack, aged 89, on 2 September 2010.

Ms Nearne was parachuted into France in 1944 where she worked undercover for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Her remarkable story is told in files at the National Archives in London.

The personal files are currently secret but are now expected to be opened.

However, other files are viewable and they reveal - often in Eileen Nearne's own words - the extent of her bravery, which earned her the French Croix de Guerre.

There is also information about her elder sister Jacqueline, who also worked as a spy behind enemy lines in France for SOE.


Watch BBC Spotlight's report of Eileen Nearne's funeral

The girls moved from Britain to France as youngsters so could speak the language. They returned to England when France fell and were determined to do all they could for the war effort.

Eileen - codenamed Rose, and also known as Didi - was dropped into occupied France days before her 23rd birthday in March 1944. She worked as a courier and wireless operator in Paris.

After sending her first message to London, she got a coded message back via a BBC broadcast: "Happy to know that the duck has had a good trip."

Describing how she lived undercover, she said: "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."

It was a lonely life, but she relished her role: "When I put my hand on the signal keys, there came a feeling of patriotism.

Eileen Nearne (SWNS)
Eileen Nearne had a feeling of patriotism when sending messages

"I was pleased I was doing something. It was perhaps a little emotional."

But on 25 July 1944, the Gestapo arrived at her hide-out.

Eileen had just finished transmitting with her radio set. She had time to burn the messages and hide the radio but the Gestapo found the radio and her pad for coding messages.

In her report in the National Archives, she tells how she was taken to the local Gestapo HQ, where she told them she was a French woman called Jacqueline Duterte. She told them she was working for a businessman and that she did not understand the messages she sent.

Elaine's report reveals: "He said: 'Liar, Spy', and hit me on the face. He said: 'We have ways of making people who don't want to talk, talk. Come with us'."

She was taken to the torture room, where she was tortured with the cold bath technique: immersion in water to wear down her resistance and complete immersion, where she was immersed and then let up while she was still able to breathe.

But she did not break, and gave false names and addresses of her colleagues.

On 15 August 1944, Eileen was taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany and then to Torgau and Abterode, where she refused to do prison work. Her head was shaved and she was told she would be shot if she continued to refuse: "I decided to work", as she put it in her report.

On 1 December 1944, she was transferred to Markleberg at Leipzig, where Eileen worked on the roads for 12 hours a day.

When asked how she kept up hope, Eileen said: "The will to live. Will power. That's the most important. You should not let yourself go. It seemed that the end would never come, but I have 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."

With the Americans closing in, the camp commandant at Markleberg decided to move the women a further 80km. On 9 April, 1945, while being transported, Eileen escaped with two French women.

Eileen Nearne's flat
The flat in Torquay where Eileen Nearne lived

They spent two nights in a bombed-out house and then made their way through Markleberg, sleeping in woods. They were arrested by the SS, but the women convinced them they were French volunteer workers and were allowed to continue on their way.

In the next part of their journey, they slept rough in a churchyard and stayed three nights at a church in Leipzig, where the priest hid her in the belfry.

The next day, 15 April 1945, the women saw the white flags and went to greet the Americans.

But their ordeal was not over yet. With no identification, they were considered German spies and were held in prisons with members of the SS. Eileen was interrogated and finally, she managed to persuade the Americans she was a British spy and was handed over to an English major.

In her report, she talks of his kindness and she was flown home to England.

Her own experiences, and those she witnessed, affected her for the rest of her life. A doctor's report shortly after the war said Eileen was suffering from psychological symptoms which had been brought on by service in the field.

Eileen withdrew into herself, although she did keep up with some of her closest friends and colleagues she met during the war.

In 1993, she returned to Ravensbruck concentration camp to attend the unveiling of a plaque.

She was devastated when her sister Jacqueline died in 1982, and in 1994, at the age of 73, she moved to Torquay, where she lived in a flat in Lisburne Crescent. She never married, and was known by her neighbours as a cat lover.

It was several days before her body was found, together with documents and medals which hinted at Eileen's remarkable story.

Her funeral on 21 September 2010 was to have been a quiet affair organised by Torbay Council, but the emergence of Eileen's courage and bravery has ensured a heroine's send-off.

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