The unknown female war hero

On 2 September 2010 police were called to a small house in Torquay after local residents reported a strong smell coming from the property. After forcing their way into the house officers found the decomposed body of an 89-year-old female lying on the floor in one of the rooms and they estimated she had been dead for several weeks.

Door to door enquiries failed to identify the woman: no one knew her name, she did not appear to have friends, and nobody was seen visiting the house. The only time she was seen in the street was when she was feeding stray cats.

Whilst searching the house an officer found a photograph of two women dressed in British army uniforms which were taken during the war and they later found an old shoe box containing several medals including an MBE, the French Croix de Guerre, other medals and more photographs of the two women taken during the war.

It was several weeks before the police discovered the dead woman was Eileen Nearne and the photographs of the two young women dressed in British army uniforms was Eileen and her sister Jacqueline who had served as agents with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The police and local community were further surprised to discover the elderly cat lover who had been ignored and went unnoticed in her community was also a war hero.

(Photographs found by police. Left Eileen, Right Jacqueline )

By the age of 22 Eileen was a trained clandestine wireless operator who had volunteered even after being warned her life expectancy, with a bit of luck, was about six weeks.

During the night of 2 March 1944, she arrived in France by Lysander aircraft at an isolated field and joined the Wizard circuit which specialised in sabotage operations and her job was to keep in touch with London.

It has always been acknowledged the work of wireless operators was the most dangerous job in SOE because the Germans had the technical capability to detect their signal and identify their location. Wireless operators were also aware they were in possession of important intelligence and if arrested they must expect to be tortured by the Gestapo and if they refused to talk, they would most likely be shot.  Consequently, survival meant being one step ahead of the German wireless detection teams by never transmitting from the same location and passing their messages as quickly as possible before moving to a safehouse some distance from where they had been transmitting.

During this dangerous game of cat and mouse where the Germans had all the advantages Eileen Nearne sent over 100 messages to London. According to Foot, SOE’s official historian, “she had transmitted a good deal of economic and military intelligence besides arranging for weapons, sabotage stores and other agents to be dropped by parachute. Eventually her transmissions were tracked down and she was arrested and handed to the Gestapo.

Her torture at Gestapo headquarters has been described as savage and intensive but she refused to talk and expected to be shot but instead was transported to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. At Ravensbrück she came across other women from SOE who were in a pitiful state due to torture and neglect.

In early 1945 Eileen Nearne escaped and used her training to evade capture as she made her way through war-torn Germany in the hope of meeting up with allied forces.  After being stopped by the SS in keeping with her training she calmly informed them she was a French volunteer working in a Factory and was allowed to continue her journey. After reaching Leipzig a German priest hid her until the arrival of the US army.

After the war Eileen lived in London with her sister Jaqueline who was the only person she knew and trusted. Eileen and Jaqueline had always been close, and her sister greatly helped her cope with the psychological difficulties of dealing with the memories of her treatment by the Gestapo and the horrors of Ravensbrück. In 1982 Jaqueline died of cancer and Eileen moved to Torquay.

With no friends, traceable relatives and with insufficient money in her bank account, after her death the local council was going to pay for a cheap funeral and cremation but after news of Eileen Nearne’s distinguished war career came to the attention of the British Legion, they paid the funeral costs and among those who attended to show there respects  were members of the military and the Foreign Office.  

Before her death Eileen Nearne (Left) attending a memorial at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Sitting to her right is Odette Churchill GC another SOE agent who refused to talk under torture and survived this death camp.

Her sister Jacqueline will be discussed in a later post.

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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