In March 1944, Jacqueline Nearne was living on a knife edge in Nazi-occupied France, spying undercover for the Allies. Risking her life daily, she moved continually between hotel rooms and safe houses, dodging Nazi checkpoints, meeting contacts, tracking Nazi movements, and radioing London with her Morse-code suitcase transmitter.
Before she’d left Britain, she had forced the spy chiefs to keep her younger sister, Eileen, safe in Britain. At the tender age of 19, Eileen had followed her big sister into Britain’s new secret service. Jacqueline, five yeas her elder, felt responsible.
It wasn’t until she returned back to London in April 1944 that she discovered the truth: the chiefs had broken their promise. Eileen had been parachuted into France to prepare the way for D-Day. Like Jacqueline, Eileen was trained as an undercover courier and radio transmitter.
Unlike Jacqueline, Eileen was caught.
A spy agency looking to recruit women
Around 50 women were sent by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) into Nazi-occupied Europe. Only 37 came home alive.
Through research for my novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane, I discovered that at the beginning of the war, women were not at all welcome in the intelligence arena. It wasn’t until Churchill formed the SOE in 1940 “to set Europe ablaze” with sabotage and intelligence gathering that women were found to be not only useful, but essential.Around 50 women were sent by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) into Nazi-occupied Europe. Only 37 came home alive.
Who better to slip seamlessly into France’s now predominantly female population? The Nazis were still of the mindset that espionage was a man’s world, which meant that women could pass under their radar. At first, women were restricted to courier and radio-operating roles, but since even this required full combat training, the breadth of their roles quickly grew to encompass sabotage, intelligence gathering, and even training and leading resistance troops.
The SOE were especially keen to employ people with a flawless knowledge of a European language and culture, someone who had lived there. Someone who could pass as a local. This is why most of the women were French or British citizens who had lived in France. Others were talented linguists, including women from Poland, New Zealand, and the U.S.
Two Sisters Move Back from France
In July 1940, a pair of sisters, aged 24 and 19, made their way out of occupied France through Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar to London. With a British father and a Franco-Spanish mother, they had lived in France since the family moved from England when they were young children. Now, armed with fluent French and British citizenship, they knew they would be valuable as translators, never once thinking of other roles the British might have in store for them.
The eldest, Jacqueline, signed up to join the women’s army service, but after she was turned down for not being able to drive in the dark, she was passed on to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the cover organization for women in the SOE. They quickly identified her fluent French, and she was trained to be a courier. The first stage was field training, which included armed and unarmed combat. Then came courses in security and tradecraft, the methods and apparatus of espionage. Finally, she was given parachute training and specialist training in her given role: Morse code telegraphy and the use of a suitcase radio transmitter.
It was top secret. She had to sign the Official Secrets Act and wore her full khaki FANY uniform while in Britain, using a nursing-related cover story. Yet Jacqueline found it impossible to keep her SOE life away from her inquisitive little sister. When the truth came out, Eileen became determined to join the SOE with her.
Jacqueline was terrified. She knew from training the risks involved. The chance of capture or death was around one in four, destined to rise as the war continued. Five years Eileen’s elder, Jacqueline had helped to bring her up, nurtured her from a baby. How could she let her join such an organization?
Eileen was adamant though, and the SOE were delighted to take another Nearne girl who could pass herself off as French. All that Jacqueline could do to save her sister was to make her bosses promise not to let Eileen into the field. It’s hard to tell if her motives were because she felt Eileen wouldn’t be so careful, or perhaps she lacked the cold-blooded deception needed for the job. Or perhaps she was just frightened for her sister’s life more than she was for her own.
Jacqueline Parachutes in Behind Enemy Lines
In January 1943, Jacqueline was dropped into central France. As a courier, she hid radio parts in her make-up bag, traveling by train, which was especially dangerous as there were often Nazi checkpoints at the stations. She maintained contact with the Paris network, and after fifteen tense months, she was flown back, meeting a Lysander plane in a small field with her codename chalked across the underside.
As soon as she was back in London, she discovered the awful truth: the SOE had not kept their word. Her little sister Eileen had been parachuted into occupied France. With D-Day imminent, they needed as many spies as possible to track and stall Nazi troop movements and coordinate the French resistance network. Eileen had become Mademoiselle du Tort, codename Rose.
In July 1944, she received an urgent message that she had to transmit to London over her radio. Radio operators usually used their bedrooms in safe houses or hotels, and they would have had to move regularly as new radio-wave-detecting machines were enabling the Nazis to root out spies. Eileen was already unsure how safe she was to transmit messages in that particular location, but the importance of the message made her take the risk.Eileen never gave anything away….Even under torture, she stuck to her story: she was an innocent French secretary who had been trying to do her job.
It was a risk she shouldn’t have taken. In the middle of transmission, the Gestapo entered the premises and arrested her. She was taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, notorious for its “baignoire,” a torture chamber of horrific proportions. There she underwent severe torture, including what we now call waterboarding. Her head would be plunged into water and held until her lungs felt like they would burst. As an SOE survivor of Nazi torture put it, “You have two choices: you either say something, or you don’t. If they go on, there is a limit to your strengths, and therefore you will die.”
Yet Eileen never gave anything away. She made up a cover story that she had been passing messages to a businessman for whom she worked, and that she had no idea that he was British. Even under torture, she stuck to her story: she was an innocent French secretary who had been trying to do her job.
The Concentration Camp
In the end, the Gestapo gave up on her. On August 15th, they had her transported to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp for women in Germany. There she had her head shaved and starved on the meager rations—by 1944 German food supplies were low and very little was wasted on prisoners. Ravensbrück was notorious for its medical experiments, although there are no mentions of Eileen undergoing any “treatments.” She was, however, threatened with execution when she refused to do prison work. Giving in to the enemy wasn’t in her nature, and they quickly tired of her, dispatching her to a labor camp in Silesia.
In early 1945, as she was being marched with a work gang through woodland, she took off with two other women into the trees. Prisoners were always on the lookout for escape routes, and there is a strong chance they had discussed possibilities and were ready to run when an opportunity struck, such as a distracted guard, a prisoner incident, or by a chance occurrence.
After taking cover in the forest, they made their way to a village. They needed shelter, food, and a hiding space, and fortunately they found people who were willing to help them. Aiding prison runaways would have been punishable by death, but Silesia was in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the local Polish people were often very willing to help Allied prisoners, whatever the risk.
They began traveling by foot and journeyed across the German border, through the Markkleeberg region, where they were apprehended by the SS. Keeping their heads, they managed to fool their captors into thinking they were innocent travelers, and they were allowed to continue their journey.
Once they reached the city of Leipzig, a Priest gave them shelter, and they remained hidden there until Germany was liberated by the advancing US Army in April 1945.
Yet Eileen still faced uncertainty. Chaos ensued in Germany in the aftermath, and unsure of her full identity, Eileen was held under suspicion of being a Nazi spy. It wasn’t until her status with the SOE was checked that she was eventually released and given passage to London.
Return, Reunion, and PTSD
When Jacqueline met Eileen on her return, she found her sister immeasurably changed. Both of the sisters were awarded MBEs and the Croix de Guerre, but the toll of the torture and imprisonment had taken a massive toll on Eileen’s health. It took a long time and a lot of her sister’s devoted care before her body began to recover.
Her mental and psychological recovery was not as simple. These days we would call it PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—but in that era it was barely considered. She found social interaction difficult, and whereas Jacqueline became a high-flyer in the UN, Eileen struggled with holding down a job, eventually becoming a carer in a home for the elderly.Both of the sisters were awarded MBEs and the Croix de Guerre, but the toll of the torture and imprisonment had taken a massive toll on Eileen’s health.
Neither of the sisters married. Jacqueline was too busy during the war to find a husband, and after the war she was looking after her sister and focusing on her new career.
For Eileen, however, the matter was different. Her experiences had changed who she was, and she shunned social contact of all types. Their niece, Odile Nearne, had known both of the sisters well and explained in an interview with the Guardian that Eileen “was a very warm and loving person, and she would have loved to have had her own family.”
It isn’t unusual for spies to acquire a large dose of paranoia, that should anyone know their true identity, they would be in absolute peril. For the research for my novel, I came across a number of cases where former spies were unable to resettle into civilian life. This was especially so for SOE spies. Since they hadn’t hardened themselves to a life of deception, as did the career spies in the other agencies, they were never quite able to release the tension of living undercover, always thinking ten steps ahead. Their lives depended on a heightened sense of mistrust, and in peacetime this became an obsessive secrecy and suspicion. She once told her niece that if anyone found out about her life as a spy, she would simply disappear.
In 1997 and at the age of 76, Eileen Nearne was asked to appear on a television interview about SOE spies. She did it, but only disguised by a wig and speaking in French to conceal her voice. The following week, a woman in her small town asked her if it had been her on the television, and she completely denied it. Apart from that one interview, Eileen never spoke about her experiences in the war. The memories must have terrorized her, and she spent her life trying to forget about it.
She died in 2010 at the age of 89, and her reclusiveness had been such that her body wasn’t found for several days. Her death would have gone unnoticed, a small funeral with no flourishes, had a council administrator not found a note mentioning her past and leaked it to the press.
Her funeral, instead, became one of a military hero. A flag covered her coffin as a procession went through her town. Her medals were polished and laid on a cushion for all to see. Papers, letters, and documents found in her apartment laid testimony to all she had been through. The secret that she had kept for all her life was finally known.