SOE agent Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne was born on 15 March 1921 in London to an English father, John, and a Spanish mother, Marie. She was the youngest of four children while her elder sister, Jaqueline, and her brother, Francis, also became SOE agents.
In 1923, the family moved to France where Eileen became fluent in French. After the German invasion in 1940, Eileen and Jacqueline followed the well-worn path to London via Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar and Glasgow, while their parents and brothers remained in Grenoble.
In Britain, the SOE soon identified Eileen’s talents. Initially, she worked as a signals operator decoding secret messages, often written in invisible ink, received from agents in the field.
After a period of training, on 2 March 1944, Eileen arrived via Lysander in Les Lagnys, Saint-Valentin. Her mission was to work as a wireless operator for the Wizard network. She also organised sources of finance for the Resistance. Over five months she transmitted 105 messages, each one sent at enormous personal risk.
Coincidentally, Eileen’s organiser, Jean Savy, returned to Britain on 9 April 1944 on the same aircraft as her sister, Jacqueline, who had spent fifteen successful months in the field. Savy arrived in Britain with important information about the Nazi’s V1 rockets.
In July 1944, the Gestapo detected Eileen’s transmitter and arrested her. A period of barbarity followed, which included crude forms of inhuman treatment. Nevertheless, despite the torture, Eileen convinced the Gestapo that a businessman had hired her to send messages and that, at the time, she remained innocent of his British nationality.
In August 1944, the Gestapo sent Eileen to Ravensbrück concentration camp then on to Silesia. At the camps, the guards forced her into slave labour. However, she remained defiant and, despite more torture, refused.
On 13 April 1945, Eileen escaped with two French women. Marching to another camp through the snow and dark they hid in a forest then travelled to Markkleeberg where the S.S. arrested them. However, they managed to fool the S.S. (it’s remarkable how many agents managed to do this) and with the aid of a priest they hid in Leipzig until the liberating Americans arrived a few days later.
It’s ironic that Eileen constantly lied to the Gestapo and, for the most part, the believed her. They regarded her as ‘a silly little French girl who was wasting their time.’ However, when she told the Americans the truth they didn’t believe her and it took some time before they handed her over to the British authorities.
After the war, Eileen suffered from what we now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jacqueline cared for her and in 1997 she felt well enough to appear on a Timewatch television programme where she discussed her wartime experiences.
Eileen died in September 2010 aged eighty-nine.