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Page last updated at 05:33 GMT, Friday, 29 October 2010 06:33 UK
WWII heroine Eileen Nearne was not "suitable" to be spy
By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Eileen Nearne
Eileen Nearne was thought unsuitable for spy work

Newly released documents about World War II heroine Eileen Nearne reveal she was assessed as "scatter-brained" just two months before she was dropped behind enemy lines in Paris.

Previously classified documents say she was not ready for the dangerous spy work she was sent to do.

The story of Miss Nearne's amazing bravery only emerged following her recent death in Torquay, aged 89.

She was arrested by the Gestapo four months after arriving in Paris.

Following her arrest on 25 July 1944, she was tortured and taken to concentration camps. She escaped just before the end of the war and returned to England in May 1945.

Her experiences affected her for the rest of her life.

Miss Nearne - who also went by the names of Jacqueline Duterte, Alice Wood, Rose, Pioneer and Petticoat during her spy work - was flown into France just before her 23rd birthday in March 1944.

"It is doubtful whether this student is suitable for employment in any capacity on account of her lack of experience."
Report on Eileen Nearne, January 1941

According to the files, she worked as a radio operator for the Mitchell Mission (Wizard).

But just two months before, in January 1944, she was not deemed suitable by a Major assessing her training.

The report, dated 26 January 1944, says: "She is not very intelligent or practical and is lacking in shrewdness and cunning. She has a bad memory, is inaccurate and scatter-brained. She seems keen, but her work was handicapped by lack of the power to concentrate."

The report continues: "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.

"It is doubtful whether this student is suitable for employment in any capacity on account of her lack of experience."


Watch clips of a BBC interview with Eileen Nearne in 1997

But author Sarah Helm, who has written about Britain's WWII volunteer spies, said many of the assessments of the trainees were wrong: "Most of these reports were proved completely meaningless later because when these women were in the field, what they needed was determination, know-how, common sense and bravery - and they had all of these in abundance."

Another report in the files described Eileen as "height 1.68m, brown hair, blue eyes, rosy complexion." Her rank was volunteer in the F.A.N.Y Corps.

And another document says she was applying for employment as a driver/orderly.

Some of the details in the files have come out previously, but others add yet more colour to an already amazing story.

Escape from France

London-born Eileen, her elder sister Jacqueline and their brother Francis were brought up in France by their father, John Nearne, and French mother, Marie de Plazoala.

Codes are among the documents in the National Archive

In 1942, Eileen and her sister were issued with British passports at the British Consul in Grenoble. The two young women made their way to London via Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar and Glasgow, while the rest of the family remained in Grenoble, despite the German invasion of the country.

Both applied for work at the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and were trained and employed as undercover spies - their ability to speak fluent French being a much-needed skill.

The fresh documents, released at the National Archives in London on 29 October 2010, include codes, and operational reports by Miss Nearne.

There is also correspondence from her colleagues in Paris, who sent word back to London about Eileen's arrest.

The message, dated 26 July 1944, says: "From Arnaud: ROSE arrested 22nd about 11 o'clock at her work...by 17 Gestapo in 7 cars."

Miss Nearne's own report into her arrest, incarceration, and subsequent escape, details how the Gestapo stormed her hideaway just after she had sent a coded message.

She told them she joined a French organisation and that she had met her chief in a coffee shop.

During her interrogation, she gave them misinformation about colleagues despite being tortured: "They put me in a cold bath and tried to make me speak but I stuck to my story...they then took me back to interrogate me again. The chief of the Gestapo said he would give me a last chance. I stuck to the same story."

A letter to HQ about Eileen's arrest
A colleague sent word back to London about Eileen's arrest

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 then decided to work", she says 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.

Her report details her escape with two French women: "We escaped on the night of 5th April. We stayed in a bombed house for two nights and the next morning walked through Markleberg and slept in the woods.

"We were arrested by the SS, who asked us for papers. We told them a story and they let us go. We arrived in Leipzig and at a church a priest helped us and kept us there for three nights and the next morning we saw the white flags and the first Americans arriving and when I said that I was English they put us in a camp."

Her managers in London got word of her escape. A note in the released documents says: "Known to have escaped into woods...probably using the name Jacqueline Duterte - 5th Corps First US Army asked to trace her."

US army document
The Americans were not convinced Eileen was a British spy

But the Americans took some persuading that she was who she said she was.

In a report by the interrogation unit of the First United States Army, they state: "Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She often is 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."

Finally, she was handed to the British authorities and was repatriated in May 1945.

The recommendation for the MBE the following month is also in the documents: "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."

She was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre for her bravery.

But it seems her biggest fight came after the war, where she struggled to overcome her experiences.

Among the released documents are letters from her wartime employers, sent to prospective employers, urging them to train Eileen in "beauty culture," where she wanted to pursue her career.

"In view of her extremely valuable war service and the hardship which she has suffered at the hands of the Germans we are anxious to see her re-established in a suitable peace-time occupation," says one of the letters.

After the war, I, along with lots of others, missed that kind of life - everything seemed so ordinary."
Eileen Nearne, 1997

Miss Nearne, however, lived an increasingly solitary life. In a TV interview with the BBC in 1997, she admitted: "When I returned after the war, I, along with lots of others, missed that kind of life - everything seemed so ordinary."

And she said the relished the dangerous nature of her work: "It was gripping. It was dangerous, but the more dangerous it was, the more you wanted to do it."

Even then, she was still keeping her identity a secret - she conducted the interview in disguise, wearing a wig, and under her code name, Rose.

In 1993, she met up with some of her former colleagues when 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 died of a heart attack on 2 September 2010.

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 ensured a heroine's send-off.

Her ashes were scattered at sea in Tor Bay.

Wartime spy Eileen Nearne tells her story
29 Oct 10 |  People & Places
Reluctant heroine
29 Oct 10 |  Today
Files reveal bravery of WWII spy
21 Sep 10 |  People & Places
Hundreds attend funeral of WWII spy Eileen Nearne
22 Sep 10 |  People & Places




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