As we move through 2013 thoughts will inevitably turn to next year and to the major anniversaries to be celebrated in 2014. There will of course be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War but we will also come to remember once again D Day with the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings. Quite rightly, much attention will settle on the brave Allied troops who swept ashore under heavy fire and gained the all important bridgehead into France. Torquay retains a very visible reminder of this event with the D-Day embarkation ramps still preserved on the harbour side today.
However, tucked away in a corner of Torquay there is another reminder of that period and of the contribution of some quite exceptional individuals. To find it you need to travel a short distance from the harbour side up the Babbacombe Road to where there is a turning which leads to what had once been a fine Regency Crescent but what today has become a rather run down series of apartments and bedsits. Amongst the genteel decline of peeling paint, blown plaster and neglected gardens there is a blue plaque erected by the Torbay Civic Society which commemorates the fact that in one of these apartments a remarkable woman lived out the last years of her life. Back in 1944 this woman contributed to the war effort in a way that few who knew the lady in her later years could ever have dreamt of.
The woman in question was Eileen Nearne known to her friends and family as Didi. Born to an English father and French mother she had spent her earliest years in England before the family moved to France and led what might be regarded as a privileged life. The family were comparatively wealthy with Eileens’s mother being the daughter of French and Spanish nobility. They had properties in various parts of France including Nice, Boulogne Sur Mer and Paris. The advent of the Second World War blew this gentile life apart and following the German invasion of France, the family found their properties effectively confiscated and sought refuge in Grenobles.
Eileen’s older sister Jacqueline decided that she could not sit back and do nothing and so conceived of a plan to get to England and volunteer in the war effort. Unsurprisingly younger sister Eileen insisted that she too wanted to do her part. Both sisters made a very hazardous trip to London via Spain and presented themselves to the authorities. The girls’ ability to speak French fluently soon brought them to the attention of the SOE which was the top secret organisation that operated agents in occupied France.
First, in early 1943 Jacqueline was sent to France as a courier for a network of resistance groups covering a vast area of central France. She rapidly gained a reputation as a highly effective agent and spent months helping to co-ordinate the increasing activities of the resistance groups. Eileen followed her sister into France in 1944 as a radio operator responsible for transmitting and receiving messages to and from London and the field agents. Both of these roles were extremely dangerous. The Gestapo were extremely active in hunting down enemy agents and there were French collaborators as well as double agents to contend with. British agents that were caught were often brutally interrogated before being sent on to concentration camps where their fate was generally a summary execution by hanging or the bullet.
Jacqueline’s immense workload took its toll on her health and she was eventually recalled to London because of her near total physical exhaustion. She had obstinately resisted the recall for a while but bowed to the inevitable realising that the longer she stayed in such a condition the greater the risk she posed to her fellow agents; exhaustion and tiredness led to mistakes….
Meanwhile, Eileen’s existence in Paris was a lonely perilous one. Wireless operators had to keep a minimum of contact with other agents in order to avoid detection. The Gestapo were also making life more difficult with increasing numbers of patrols using wireless detection equipment able to pinpoint where wireless apparatus was being used. Eileen sent and received many hundreds of messages but perhaps the most important of all was a message detailing the existence of the V1 rockets in northern France. The rockets had not yet been fired into England and so the full horror of the damage they (and their successors the V2) could do was as yet unseen. The RAF were able to delay their use for a few precious months by bombing some of the installations .
Like all radio operators Eileen was aware that she could only use a location for just so long before discovery by the Gestapo became a real possibility. A new location had already been identified for her and she was preparing to make the move. The move itself was hazardous. The equipment was bulky and heavy and the Nazi patrols in Paris could at any time search baggage and discover the illicit equipment. Eileen decided she must just send one more message from the apartment she’d been using before making that move. Too late she became aware of the cars screeching to a halt in the street below.
As the thud of boots on the stairs came ever closer Eileen had the presence of mind to destroy all paper records of messages and codes. She hurriedly dismantled the equipment and made an effort to hide it. When the expected banging at the door came she resolved to try and bluff her way out. Initially she pretended that she had not been using any equipment and adopted injured outrage that she should have been accused. She believed she’d got away with it when she saw the confusion on the face of the young German soldier in front of her. However, any hopes she had of having escaped were soon dashed when the Germans discovered the components of her wireless after a cursory search of the apartment. 17 Gestapo agents had been dispatched to apprehend her. She was dragged off to the infamous Gestapo headquarters in Paris at 11 Rue des Saussaires.
Here she again she tried to bluff her way out by initially pretending to be stupid. She claimed that she had been sending messages but that she’d been doing this for some mysterious businessman who had effectively picked her up in a cafe and paid her. The story was totally ludicrous and it wrong-footed her interrogators so much so that she began to feel confident that she had convinced them she was some witless girl who had been duped into working as a British agent.
However, she had underestimated the Nazi counter intelligence agents and things got dramatically worse for her when she was subjected to water torture in which she was thrown into a bath and held under water until the last breath had all but escaped her lungs and she was on the point of drowning. Repeatedly she was dragged out coughing, spluttering and gasping for air only to be thrust back below the water again. It was at this point that her training with the SOE really came into its own. She remembered the mantra that you should never let them see you are frightened and that you should always remain mentally in control. Despite the physical abuse she endured, she refused to change her story and realised after a while that she had beaten her abusers.
Any joy she had at having beaten the Gestapo soon vanished though when they ordered her to be sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp in the heart of Nazi Germany. She was fixated on escaping throughout the long tortuous journey. At one point she made a break for freedom and started running across an open field towards some trees. The shouts of her guards and their threats to shoot her as she ran made her realise that she would never have made it alive and so reluctantly she one again submitted to imprisonment. Despite the setback she continued constantly to look for opportunities to escape. This sustained her during the dark days ahead.
The wills of many of the concentration camp prisoners were broken by the deliberate starvation diet, the abuse from cruel female overseers, the back breaking work beyond normal physical endurance, as well as the unsanitary and disease ridden living conditions. Eileen saw many around her effectively become the living dead who ceased to care what happened to them. They shuffled through each miserable day left to them seemingly oblivious to all that was around them and resigned to the inevitability of their fate. Yet somehow Eileen found the strength and will to survive. He deep religious faith helped sustain her.
There was danger at every point and summary executions and gassings were a feature of the life she now led. She continued to pretend to be an ordinary French girl. This was a dangerous strategy as some of her fellow agents found their way into the same camp and could have revealed her true identity as a British agent. She tried where possible to avoid them but at one point did make contact with three agents Lilian Rolfe, Denise Bloch and Violette Szabo. Violet urged Eileen to reveal her true identity in order to receive better treatment from the Germans. Eileen was sorely tempted to do so but finally decided to continue with the strategy she had adopted ever since her arrest.This decision saved her life. After Eileen was sent to another camp the three agents were subsequently taken to a place of execution within the Ravensbruck camp and one by one shot in the back of the head.
By the spring of 1945 the Germans knew that the war was over and all hope of victory was now gone. However, this made things more dangerous for Concentration camp prisoners as the Nazis were intent upon covering up all evidence of their crimes. As with most other camps the order was given to abandon Markkleeberg to which Eileen had finally been moved. A forced march ensued driving the miserable prisoners deeper into Nazi held territory. All over the Reich similar marches took place and rapidly were dubbed Death Marches for obvious reasons.
At the very start of the march after having barely left the camp, Eileen saw and opportunity and seized the chance to escape as the column passed along a tree lined road. Despite her malnourished weakness and illness she found the strength to sprint un noticed to the safety of the trees. She waited for the shouts of the guards and the resulting search party and recapture but no shouts came and the column shuffled on until it had completely vanished. She stayed where she was until night at which point she discovered that two other girls had also managed to get away. For a few days they hid out in a bomb damaged house until they made their way to the American lines.
For Eileen her relief at reaching the Americans was short lived. The Americans simply didn’t believe she was a British agent. The SOE operations had been highly secret and the Americans simply couldn’t conceive of these young girls operating behind enemy lines. She was imprisoned along with former Nazi women camp guards; the very women who had tortured her and her fellow prisoners. Frustration at not being believed was compounded by the way in which these Nazi women were able to manipulate their young male guards. It was almost beyond endurance to see these women flirting and obtaining favours from the Americans.
It was weeks before the Americans handed Eileen over to the British authorities and Eileen was able to make her way back to Croydon Airport.
The Eileen that returned to England was very different from the young, impetuous, naive girl who had left a year or so before. She was physically and mentally shattered and although the physical effects were treated comparatively rapidly, the mental effects of her experiences really continued to haunt her for the rest of her life. As with many camp survivors there must have been a sense of bafflement and guilt that she had survived whilst so many others perished. The unfathomable randomness of death versus survival in the camps was hard to reconcile and some like the writer Primo Levi simply could never come to terms with their experiences and took their own lives. It took a long time for Eileen to settle at an occupation to support herself and she largely lived in small rented accommodation in London. A lasting personal partnership eluded her and she later spoke of her regret at not having children.
Towards the end of her life in the early 1990′s she moved to Torquay apparently finding the Riviera-like atmosphere soothing. She dedicated her final years to fundraising for the Animals in Distress Charity. She has been portrayed as a sad, lonely figure but this seems an unfair portrayal. It is true that she shunned the limelight and was reluctant to talk about her experiences but she did have a good relationship with her niece Odile who regularly visited from her home in Italy.
Eileen Nairne died in 2010. When her body was discovered in her tiny apartment, she was a woman of mystery and it took some time for the police to uncover her true identity and trace her niece Odile. The initial possibility that she would have a pauper’s funeral outraged the people of Torquay who were stunned by the story that had emerged of Eileen’s early life. A civic funeral was arranged and Eileen’s coffin was draped in the British and French flags. Television cameras recorded the event and although it was undoubtedly a world away from the funeral that Eileen would have chosen for herself it did allow the people of Torquay to belatedly pay proper respect to a very remarkable woman who in a very real sense was Torquay’s hidden hero.