Eileen Nearne 'Agent Rose' SOE Secret Agent
15 March 1921 - 2 September 2010
Eileen Nearne MBE - codename Rose - , who has died aged 89, was a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE); parachuted into France, she was captured, then interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo.
Eileen Mary 'Didi' Nearne was born in London on March 15 1921 into a large Anglo-Spanish family which moved to France during the interwar years; she was thus brought up speaking French. When France fell the Nearnes fled through Spain, eventually arriving in England in mid-1942. Eileen Nearne and her older sister, Jacqueline, joined the FANY, but their language skills were highly prized and later they and their brother, Francis, were recruited by SOE.
At first Didi worked as a home-based signals operator, receiving messages from agents in the field, while Jacqueline was sent to France to work as a courier; both girls were supposed to keep their roles secret from one another, but were unsuccessful.
Then, on March 2 1944, Didi Nearne was also dropped into occupied France with her organiser, a Frenchman, Jean Savy. On landing she was greeted by two Frenchmen, who exclaimed: "Oh, a young girl. Go back, it's too dangerous!"
Using the code name "Rose", she was given the mission of helping Savy set up a network in Paris called "Wizard"; its aim, unlike the networks dedicated to sabotage, was to organise sources of finance for the Resistance. Didi Nearne's role was to maintain a wireless link to London, and in the course of the next five months she transmitted 105 messages.
The method was for potential French backers of the SOE to select a phrase – any one they wished – which Didi Nearne would transmit to London.
If potential financiers heard their messages on a BBC broadcast among the messages personnels, they would know they were dealing with genuine SOE agents and not with some German stooge. They would be reimbursed after the war.
Didi Nearne found the conditions in Paris chaotic. The Germans had penetrated some networks, and members of the Resistance and SOE agents were competing for new safe houses.
She herself needed somewhere to hide her wireless and make her "skeds" (wireless transmissions), and eventually found a place in a deserted house at Bourg-la-Reine, south of Paris.
While she was travelling there by train her cover was nearly blown by a German soldier, who offered her a cigarette and asked if he could help carry her suitcase (which contained her wireless): she told him it was a gramophone, hurriedly left the train and walked the rest of the way, carrying the heavy case.
On her very first transmission she made contact with London, and that evening, back in Paris, she was relieved to hear her own message personnel: "Happy to know that the duck has had a good trip."
Meanwhile, Savy had returned to London with important information about German V1 rockets, leaving Didi Nearne on her own. Although she did not know it at the time, the same aircraft which took Savy home also carried her sister, Jacqueline, who had just completed 15 months in the field.
Didi Nearne then worked for the "Spiritualist" network, leading a solitary life and frequently moving between secret transmitting places while sending important intelligence about German troop movements.
As the Germans became increasingly effective at tracking the locations of covert transmissions, she had several narrow escapes, often hearing the interference of someone trying to jam her, or the sirens of police cars, as she finished sending.
On July 21 1944, however, she was arrested. Despite prolonged and brutal interrogation she maintained her cover that she was a girl from the south looking for work who had been asked to send messages on behalf of a businessman. Didi Nearne was subjected to water torture, being held face down in a cold bath until she nearly drowned, but did not crack.
In mid-August she was sent, under her assumed name of Jacqueline du Tertre, to the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where she maintained all the while the cover of an insignificant French girl who knew nothing about the Resistance or SOE.
From Ravensbrück, she was sent on several forced labour details. On one, at Torgau, she met another British agent, Violette Szabo, and they plotted an escape; but Szabo was moved on before they could put a plan into action. In April, when she was at the Markleberg labour camp, the Russians were advancing from the east, and Didi Nearne and other labourers were sent on a forced march by night. Realising that this was her best opportunity of escape, She ran off into a forest with two Frenchwomen and fled westwards.
The women were briefly arrested by a German patrol but persuaded the soldiers that they were French volunteers and therefore had no papers. After several nights without food they reached Leipzig, where they took refuge in a church. Didi Nearne was inspired by her strong Catholic faith to believe that she would be well received, and the priest, appalled at the state of the women, hid them in the bell tower.
Didi Nearne lapsed into unconsciousness for several days and awoke to the sound of gunfire. Peering out, she saw white flags everywhere, and when American troops stormed into the church she tried to explain that she was a British agent. The incredulous Americans reported that she was unbalanced and her story invented; but London confirmed her story, and within a few weeks she was back in England.
Didi Nearne was one of only a handful of British agents to have survived Ravensbrück but her experiences marked her profoundly, and after the war she often had to live in the care of her sister. She painted violent pictures as a way of exorcising her time as a German prisoner. She trained as a nurse, and at one stage tried to find a job as a radio operator.
Of her time as an agent, she told one interviewer: "It was a life in the shadows, but I think I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret, I could be lonely, I could be independent, but I wasn't bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it."
She was appointed MBE and awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Didi Nearne, who was unmarried, died on September 2 in Torquay, where she moved in 1982 following her sister's death.
We salute the heroines of the SOE!
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.