Heroics of Resistance nurse revealed in her death

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The Independent Online

For the seven North American airmen being smuggled onto a train in Paris on 17 March 1944, the broad Lancashire accent of their French Resistance guide must have been a surprise.

But there was little doubt about the courage of the woman they knew as Mireille as she switched from English to pitch-perfect French to deflect the inquiries of a Gestapo officer and railway officials.

The last the men - three Canadian RAF pilots and four Americans - saw of Mireille was when she passed them on to their next courier at a station in Brittany en route for a Royal Navy vessel and disappeared for her next mission.

Some 62 years later, the unlikely story of Mireille Herveic finally came to light yesterday after she had died in hospital on 13 April aged 91. Born in Greater Manchester to a French steel fitter and his English wife, Ms Herveic was an unsung hero of the Resistance who risked all in wartime France to repatriate stranded aircrews. After the war, she returned to Britain to marry a Norfolk farm worker.

Ken Woodhouse, 83, a Canadian airmen whom Ms Herveic helped in March 1944, said: "We were astonished when this woman who we all assumed was French started talking to us in a strong English accent.

"I will remain forever grateful to her because she showed extraordinary bravery on that night."

The young nurse worked in a Resistance escape network, using friends in Paris as an excuse to travel from her home in Brest.

Aged 25 at the outbreak of the Second World War, Ms Herveic had already travelled to the Belgian colony of Congo as a missionary nurse, when she returned to Brittany in 1939.

In 1940, Ms Herveic saw the aftermath of the bombing of the Lancastria, a cruise ship evacuating British soldiers and civilians off St Nazaire which was sunk with the loss of up to 7,000 lives. There were 2,477 survivors.

In the following six years she helped dozens of allied airmen, French civilians and Jews flee the Nazis. Using knowledge garnered from local children about mine placings, she was able to plot a safe escape route down cliffs on the Breton coast.

In her only interview, given seven years ago, she said: "I couldn't help it. It was in me. If I see anybody that needs help, I will go and help them. I just thank God I was able to do it."

Those who knew Ms Herveic after she settled in the Norfolk village of Seething, following her marriage to Albert Grix, said she had remained reticent about her wartime exploits. Derek Land, who knew her for 15 years, said: "You could see how she survived - she was incredibly strong-willed."

For many who knew her, the secret life of the nurse who kept her Lancashire accent and liked to be called Muriel was unknown.

Mr Land said: "She seemed an ordinary Englishwoman until she started speaking Breton. She lived an extraordinary life."