Secret life: British recluse who died alone found to have been a World War II heroine

LONDON (AP) — 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.

After the war, Escott said, Nearne and the other SOE agents who had survived tried to return to their normal lives in England and rarely discussed what they had been through. "They wanted to go back to their old life if they could," she said.

But Nearne maintained her secrecy until the very end, never discussing her wartime exploits with her neighbors in Torquay, the seaside town 190 miles (300 kilometers) southwest of London where she lived until her death.

She was facing a pauper's funeral, but all that changed when officials searching her apartment found the medals and records linking her to clandestine operations. Now plans are being made for a funeral that will, officials say, give Nearne the recognition her heroism merits.

"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.

Historian M.R.D. Foot, who had access to Nearne's secret account of her activities, said Nearne had entered France in 1944 and was the only British agent with an operating wireless transmitter in the Paris area during the crucial period from March 1944 until she was caught by the Germans in July 1944.

"She was there during D-Day," he said. "What she did was extremely important. She was arranging for weapons and explosive drops, and those were used to help cut the Germans' rail lines."

He said Nearne displayed rare bravery and discretion when she refused to talk about clandestine operations even when Gestapo agents stripped her and forced her into a tub filled with frigid water, holding her head under until she nearly drowned. They then interrogated her with the threat that she would be submerged again if she didn't provide information — but she didn't crack.

"Thank goodness I was spared that," said Foot, who was also a clandestine operator inside France in 1944. "She maintained she was just a little French shop girl who went into the Resistance for fun."

Nearne managed to escape from a forest camp set up near the main Ravensbruck concentration camp, he said.

"She was well above average," in her abilities and courage, he said, adding that her sister also managed to operate as an undercover courier in France without being caught.

The saga of Nearne's lonely death and her wartime service seems to have touched a nerve in Britain. The Times newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday that Nearne seemed to resemble Eleanor Rigby, the spinster who died alone in a famous Beatles song.

The newspaper said it is not too late to honor Nearne for her sacrifices.

"Her life deserves to be sung about every bit as much as Eleanor Rigby's," the editorial said.

Officials at Torbay Council who are organizing Nearne's funeral for next week said the wartime artifacts in her apartment have been turned over to the Treasury and intelligence officials.