While we were in Europe I read an article from London by John F. Burns about a woman who died there September 2nd. Eileen Nearne, known as Didi , had volunteered, in World War II, to join the Special Operations Executive, a wartime agency known as "Churchill’s secret army." It consisted of some 14,000 agents who were recruited to conduct espionage behind enemy lines during the war.
She was born on March 15, 1921 into an Anglo-Spanish family that moved to France where she grew up. The family had to flee to Spain before the German occupation of France. Didi, her older sister Jacqueline and their brother Francis all joined the Special Occupations Executive.
Didi was one of thirty nine brave women who, in March of 1944, parachuted into Nazi occupied France to prepare the French resistence. She followed her sister who had previously parachuted into France. In the meantime, her sister had been airlifted back to Britain safely.
Didi had volunteered for one of the most dangerous jobs which was to operate a secret radio from Paris that was used to organize weapons drops to the French resistence as well as relaying messages between London and the resistence. She was only twenty three years old at the time.
For weeks she had done her job. After several narrow escapes from discovery, however, in July 1944 the Gestapo arrived at her Paris apartment just after she had sent a coded transmission. She was able to burn the messages and hid the radio, but the in a search of her apartment Gestapo found the radio and she was arrested. She was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp near Berlin.This camp was primarily for women and tens of thousands died in captivity there. The Gestapo tortured her, beating her and stripping her naked and then submerging her repeatedly in ice cold water. They wanted the identity of the people working with her, the assignments given by London and the code. In spite of her treatment, she stuck to the story that she was a just a local French woman who had been paid by a local businessman to transmit coded messages she did not understand. She survived, but other women were executed at the camp.
From this camp she was sent Eastward through other Nazi death camps with her head shaved and in poor physical health. By December of 1944 she ended up at the Markeberg camp where she worked twelve hours a day on road repair. After working there for awhile, she was being transported to another camp. She and two other Frenchwomen escaped and were linked up with U.S. troops. However, U.S. intelligence officers thought she had been a collaborator with the Nazi’s and held her at a detention center until they verified she was, in fact, a British secret agent.
A book was written about these secret operations that told her story: SOE in France, 1940-1944 by Michael Foot. When asked how she had survived she said:
"The will to live. Willpower. That’s the most important. You should not let yourself go. It seemed to me the end would never come, but I always believed in destiny and I had hope. If you are a person drowning, you put all your efforts into trying to swim."
After the war, friends said she had trouble adapting to peacetime life. She had psychological symptoms from her wartime experiences. She described her experience before capture as "…a life in the shadows, but I was suited for it…I could be lonely…but I wasn’t bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it." She never married and lived alone after her sister died.
She avoided any celebrity status, but in 1993 she made a visit back to Ravensbruck.When she died at age 89, alone and in an apartment in the seaside town of Torquay, her body was not discovered for several days. Authorities planned to bury her in a pauper’s grave, until they discovered commendations for her wartime efforts and even the Croix de Guerre medal awarded her by the French. Instead she received funeral with a military bugler, uniformed mourners and a red cushion on top of her coffin with an array of medals awarded her.
There are some incredible people who have had unique experiences or lived lives of unusual circumstances we know nothing about until after they are dead. Eileen Nearne, a twenty three year old woman, had the courage to parachute and not only parachute, but into enemy occupied areas. She was willing to operate a radio even though she knew the Gestapo was constantly monitoring for illegal radio transmissions. She survived torture and imprisonment. She was a couageous and extraordinary human being.