Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eileen Nearne: Another modest British hero dies

Eileen Nearne died 2nd September. You may not have heard of her, as most of us certainly had not. Having lived for the past twenty years or so in a quiet seaside flat in Devon, it was only after her death that the story of Miss Nearne's earlier heroic deeds in service to England are becoming known:

War heroine found dead in Devon to have council funeral

Eileen Nearne
Eileen Nearne was captured and sent to concentration and labour camps

A wartime heroine who was captured three times by the Germans and endured spells in concentration and labour camps is to be buried by a council because no friends or family can be traced.

Eileen Nearne, 89, who died in her Devon home on 2 September, was one of 39 female agents sent to occupied France in her capacity as a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II.

Miss Nearne, who was fluent in French, was captured by the Germans just four months after arriving in France, but managed to persuade them she was an innocent French woman.

Her bravery and resilience continued throughout the war - she was caught again and sent to a concentration camp before being transferred to a forced labour camp in Silesia where she managed to escape.

She was later recaptured in Germany by the SS, but was again able to persuade her captors of her innocence and was released.

According to reports, she was hidden by a priest in Leipzig until the arrival of US troops.

Despite her daring adventures on the continent in the 1940s, Miss Nearne survived the war and ended her days in Torquay.

She was found dead at her home in Lisburne Square, off Babbacombe Road, on 2 September and her possessions are to be handed over to MI5.

Professor Michael Foot, who wrote a book about SOEs, described Miss Nearne as "a real heroine, although a silent one".

He told BBC News: "I came across her some 50 years ago and found she had done some important work in the spring and summer of 1944 when she was working a secret wireless set from Paris to England. (BBC Devon here)

When she was first found in her flat, it was presumed that she had no living relatives. Since then the Royal British Legion has stepped up, and a niece has also come forward:

The spy who we loved: Eileen Nearne was cherished says niece

Relative of modest wartime heroine is traced and says her intrepid aunt wanted her ashes scattered at sea

Steven Morris

Eileen Nearne

Eileen Nearne during the second world war,

when she served as a spy.

Photograph: SWNS

Concerns that the funeral of a British second world war spy who died alone at her seaside flat would pass unremarked vanished today when a relative came forward and former service personnel vowed to give her a proper send-off.

The story of 89-year-old Eileen Nearne's heroic exploits as a radio operator in occupied France emerged after Torbay council revealed it could not trace any of her relatives.

It seemed likely that Nearne would be buried in a modest grave by the council, with no one expected at the funeral service.

However, today a niece, who lives abroad, surfaced to pay tribute to "Aunt Eileen" and to reveal that Nearne wanted her ashes scattered at sea.

The niece, who has asked not to be named and was traced by genealogists at investigations firm Kin, said Nearne was cherished by her family.

She said she was distressed 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."

Details of Nearne's amazing personal history emerged after old French currency, correspondence written in French and several medals were discovered among her possessions at her Torquay flat.

Nearne was a member of the Special Operations Executive, the organisation set up by Winston Churchill to spy and carry out sabotage missions behind enemy lines....(Guardian here)

In recent days, the details of this amazing woman's heroic acts have been broadcast around the world. In South Carolina, this:

Recluse found to be UK war heroine after her death

- Associated Press Writer

LONDON — Her secret is out. But it is too late for Eileen Nearne to bask in the glory Britain loves to bestow on its World War II heroes.

She died alone, uncelebrated, on Sept. 2 of a heart attack at age 89. Only on Tuesday did the nation learn of her bravery behind enemy lines: She went on a clandestine mission to France in 1944 at the tender age of 23 to operate a wireless transmitter that served as a vital link between the French resistance and war planners in London.

Nearne posed as a French shop girl. She meanwhile helped coordinate supply lines and weapons drops in advance of the D-Day invasion that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe, then stayed on the job until the Nazis caught her in July 1944, and sent her to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She later escaped after being sent to a smaller nearby camp.

The accounts of her extraordinary deeds - her grace under fire - were made public by military historians and special forces veterans who had read her secret files and knew what Nearne had accomplished but declined to discuss. Her wartime role was not publicly acknowledged until local officials went into her apartment after her death and found a treasure trove of medals, records and memorabilia, including French currency used during the war.

"She was an excellent agent, very imaginative, but very unobtrusive, and that is a very important quality," said Royal Air Force veteran Beryl Escott, author of an upcoming book on the Special Operations Executive, set up by wartime leader Winston Churchill to infiltrate mainland Europe and provide support for resistance forces. "It was vital and dangerous work, especially for wireless operators."

Even when Nearne was caught, according to Escott and others, she was able to endure water torture without cracking and providing the Gestapo with information about the top secret network....


"We will make sure she gets the dignity and respect and homage that befits a lady of her experience," John Pentreath, county manager for veterans' charity the Royal British Legion, said Tuesday.

"It's a staggering story for a young girl," he said. "We hold her in awe and huge respect. All Brits do. We are very disappointed we didn't know about her when she was alive, we would have dearly loved to have made contact with her."

He said it was terribly sad that her story had not been known before her death. (More - and yes, it is a must read -here)

Eileen Nearne

Forgotten: The first floor flat on the Georgian crescent in Torquay where Eileen Nearne lived out her final days. She will receive an all-expenses-paid funeral following public outcry that she was to be cremated unmourned (Daily Mail here)
...Among items found in her home were discontinued French currency, dating back to the War, an array of correspondence written in French and a selection of medals.

Steven Cook, a neighbour, said: “I have known her for about six years and she was well-known in the area even though she was very reclusive. I have been told she died of a heart attack.

“We thought she may have been in the French Resistance from rumours and hearsay over the years.

“I was very surprised at the extent of her heroism. You would never have thought it, as she never spoke of it.” (Telegraph here)

An interesting interview with Professor Foot (who also was a clandestine operator in France in WW2) about Miss Nearne's wartime exploits here, and here.

There is much being written these days about Eileen Nearne, whose MBE medal was found among her personal belongings. That she was an amazingly brave, patriotic hero of England, is becoming more than obvious. That she chose, following the war, to not talk of her actions, says much of her character. It is also becoming apparent that she is now going to be given a full military funeral next week. At last, England will be able to properly acknowledge this - thus far - unsung hero's service to her country.

Thank you for your service, from THIS grateful Brit, Miss Nearne.

Rest in peace.

[Bratnote: In case you missed it, back in March we lost another amazing WW2 heroine. Here]

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