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Page last updated at 07:14 GMT, Friday, 29 October 2010 08:14 UK
Reluctant heroine

Eileen Nearne
Eileen Nearne's role as an SOE agent operating in wartime France was revealed only after her death earlier this year

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

When Eileen Nearne died last month, at the age of 89, poor and alone in Torquay, it was widely reported that she'd never spoken of her dramatic wartime past as an agent of the Special Operations Executive.

In fact, she'd been interviewed for a BBC Timewatch Programme in 1997 called Secret Memories.

She didn't break her cover though - she was introduced only as "Rose", her code name, she spoke in French, and she wore a wig.

"Rose" describes her interrogation by the Gestapo

She talked at length about working underground - about being captured and tortured by the Gestapo - and escaping from a forced march between concentration camps.

Now Eileen Nearne's personal SOE file has been released at the National Archives, giving more detail of her secret wartime exploits. She was trained in wireless technique in early 1944.

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

"She is not very intelligent or practical" he wrote, "and is lacking in shrewdness or cunning".

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

Extracts form Eileen Nearne's files
Eileen Nearne's MBE citation praised her courage and perserverance

Eileen Nearne worked as a radio operator in France for five months, sending over a hundred messages. She was captured by the Gestapo in July 1944.

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

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

The Gestapo took Eileen Nearne to their headquarters in Paris and tortured her by plunging her into a cold bath to "refresh her memory" as they put it. She nearly drowned at each ducking.

A disguised Eileen Nearne reflects on her feelings about surviving the war

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.

She was moved through several camps, and managed to escape with two Frenchwomen in April 1945 while being marched through southern Germany.

Eileen Nearne introduced herself to advancing American troops, who didn't believe her story.

"Subject creates a very unbalanced impression" wrote a US interrogator "her account of what happened to held to be invented". They doubted she could have withstood the Gestapo tortures.

Extracts form Eileen Nearne's files
Even today parts of her file remain censored

The Americans kept her in a camp "with Nazi girls". It was only when a British Major came in person that Eileen Nearne was released, returning to London.

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."

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