Devon

War heroine found dead in Devon to have council funeral

Eileen Nearne
Image caption Eileen Nearne was captured and sent to concentration and labour camps

A wartime heroine who was captured three times by the Germans and endured spells in concentration and labour camps is to be buried by a council because no friends or family can be traced.

Eileen Nearne, 89, who died in her Devon home on 2 September, was one of 39 female agents sent to occupied France in her capacity as a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II.

Miss Nearne, who was fluent in French, was captured by the Germans just four months after arriving in France, but managed to persuade them she was an innocent French woman.

Her bravery and resilience continued throughout the war - she was caught again and sent to a concentration camp before being transferred to a forced labour camp in Silesia where she managed to escape.

She was later recaptured in Germany by the SS, but was again able to persuade her captors of her innocence and was released.

According to reports, she was hidden by a priest in Leipzig until the arrival of US troops.

Despite her daring adventures on the continent in the 1940s, Miss Nearne survived the war and ended her days in Torquay.

She was found dead at her home in Lisburne Square, off Babbacombe Road, on 2 September and her possessions are to be handed over to MI5.

Professor Michael Foot, who wrote a book about SOEs, described Miss Nearne as "a real heroine, although a silent one".

He told BBC News: "I came across her some 50 years ago and found she had done some important work in the spring and summer of 1944 when she was working a secret wireless set from Paris to England.

"She primarily arranged drops of arms from London to resistors in eastern Paris and around Lille where they made the French rail network practically unusable by the Germans during the fighting in Normandy.

"They [the Germans] caught her at her set - there was no denying she was a clandestine wireless operator because she was with her recognisable set and her fingerprints were all over it.

"She told them that she was just a little shop girl who had gone into the resistance for fun.

"They didn't, of course, believe her but they couldn't get anything else out of her at all."

'Protocol of service'

According to Professor Foot the Germans tried to extract information from Miss Nearne through torture.

She was stripped naked and repeatedly forced face down into a bath of cold water until she nearly drowned, but such was her allegiance to Britain that she refused to divulge anything to her captors.

Miss Nearne was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany and later transferred to a sub camp from where she escaped.

Torbay Council has arranged her funeral for 21 September. It was due to take place at Drakes Chapel in Torquay, but because of global interest in her story a church service is now being arranged and will involve members of the military.

Drakes of Torbay Funeral Service said they had received e-mails and phone calls from people around the world who had been so moved by her plight that they were offering to pay for her funeral or wanting to send flowers.

Image caption Miss Nearne was found dead at her Torquay home on 2 September

The church venue for the funeral service has yet to be announced, but a Union Jack flag is to be placed on her coffin and the Royal British Legion has said its organisation will be at the funeral.

John Portreath, Devon manager for the Royal British Legion, added: "I'm sad to say that we had no idea she existed until the news came through yesterday.

"I am just so sorry we were unable to meet her before she died.

"She was clearly a remarkable woman. She was 23 when she was dropped into France and her only qualification was that she was a linguist.

"To survive all that she went through - I think perhaps she was never the same after the concentration camp.

"She certainly lived pretty much under the cover all her life and was a recluse.

"There will be a big Royal British Legion presence at her funeral because she was a combatant."

A Torbay Council spokesperson said: "We have been contacted by various organisations including the Torbay District & Funeral Service and Westerleigh Group which have offered to fund the funeral arrangements of Eileen Nearne.

"We are currently liaising with the Royal British Legion regarding a protocol for the service so Miss Nearne can be laid to rest with the dignity and respect she deserves.

"New funeral arrangements will be publicised in due course."

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