Eileen Nearne: Lonely death of a spy who evaded Gestapo

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The Independent Online

To many, she was simply a quiet and unassuming 89-year-old lady who would see out her twilight years as a social recluse in a small flat in Torquay.

Indeed, after dying alone at her small seaside flat on 2 September, 89-year-old Eileen Nearne was to be laid to rest with few – if any – mourners expected at her funeral. Yet neighbours and council officials were stunned when they found out that Eileen Nearne had been a British spy who had plotted behind enemy lines during much of the Second World War.

Details of Ms Nearne's history were discovered among her possessions at her flat in Torquay. Included was French currency, correspondence written in French, and medals. Ms Nearne, had been a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). She was one of the few female agents who risked their lives in occupied France during the Second World War to work with the resistance.

Despite the wealth of accomplishments, Ms Nearne's funeral resembles the life of a real-life Eleanor Rigby, with no known family or friends to mourn her. Torbay Council, which has had to arrange the funeral, is now hoping that the publicity will drive those who knew her to attend.

Ms Nearne was one of just 39 female agents sent to France by the SOE, and one of a handful to be captured by the Germans. Her neighbours were astonished to learn of her wartime record, which she'd never mentioned.

Steven Cook said: "I have known her for about six years and she was very reclusive. We thought she may have been in the French Resistance from rumours but I was very surprised at the extent of her heroism.

"You would never have thought it, as she never spoke of it. I just want everyone to know what she had done in her past." Ms Nearne was the youngest of three children with a Spanish mother and English father who all became agents. Their parents had moved to France in 1923 but made their way back to England at the outbreak of war.

Ms Nearne and her older sister, Jacqueline, joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, operating barrage balloons. Their fluent French soon caught the eye of SOE recruiters and they were trained in the dark arts of secret warfare at a remote castle in Scotland.

Ms Nearne honed her skills as a radio operator at listening stations in England, keeping contact with agents in occupied Europe. In March 1944, she was flown to a field near Les Lagnys, in central France, where she joined the Wizard network as a radio operator.

She assumed the name Mademoiselle du Tort. Four months after her arrival, and two months after the D-Day landings, she was captured by the Gestapo but persuaded them that she was an innocent French woman arrested by mistake.

After the war Ms Nearne was awarded the MBE and lived in London with her sister. She moved to Torquay after her sister's death. Neither sister married. Ms Nearne's funeral service is due be held at Drakes Chapel, in Torquay, at 11am on 21 September.