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Life, Death Of WWII Spy Transfixes British Public


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im David Greene.


And Im Robert Siegel.

Were going now to Torquay in the southwest of England. Until a few weeks ago, that faded ocean-side resort town was the home of an elderly woman named Eileen Nearne. No one there knew much about her. And then she died and the truth came out. Hundreds of people turned up for her funeral yesterday to honor one of World War II's most courageous spies.

NPR's Philip Reeves was there.

(Soundbite of church bells)

PHILIP REEVES: Her coffin arrives in a big black hearse. Outside the church door, veterans from the British Legion form a guard of honor.

The British, like Americans, have witnessed such scenes many times as they bury their dead from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is different. This coffin is very small - within lies an eighty-nine year old woman.

(Soundbite of bagpipe music)

REEVES: A couple of pipers march ahead of the coffin. Until a few days ago, very few people here had heard of Eileen Nearne, aka Agent Rose.

Father JONATHAN SHADDOCK (St. Mary's Catholic Church): Whenever we saw her, she was just very, very quiet and just said her prayers and then slipped away at the end of Mass without having much to do with anybody.

REEVES: Catholic priest, Father Jonathan Shaddock is officiating at the funeral.

(Soundbite of chanting)

REEVES: The ceremony gets underway. Adrian Stones, chairman of Britain's Special Forces Club, takes the stand and Eileen Nearne's story unfolds.

Mr. ADRIAN STONES (Chairman, Special Forces Club): On the 2nd of March 1944, Eileen was dropped into occupied France with...

REEVES: Nearne was one of only a few dozen women spies in an organization set up by Winston Churchill, called the Special Operations Executive or SOE. Its mission was to support the French Resistance.

Sarah Helm, author of a book on the subject, says women were used as spies for a particular reason.

Ms. SARAH HELM (Author): The thinking was that they would not be noticed. So when they flew them back into France, a woman wandering around, you know, with a basket of eggs or travelling on a train or looking like a housewife wasnt going to be picked up by the Gestapo, as much as a man might be.

REEVES: Nearne was raised in France and spoke fluent French. She became a wireless operator, like most of the SOE's female agents. Helm says the women ended up doing much more than this, though.

Ms. HELM: They got involved in the sabotage. They obviously helped with operations. They got involved with putting down the bombs under the trains and the rest of it.

REEVES: Helm is one of the few who knew Nearne's story before she died. She says after training, Nearne, then 23, was flown secretly from England into Nazi-occupied France by light aircraft.

Ms. HELM: They needed a lot of extra agents to go in before D-Day, because this was when they wanted to gear up the resistance to its absolute peak. Because the idea being that the German forces would be slowed down in reaching the beaches.

REEVES: Nearne went to a safe house in Paris but was eventually captured.

Ms. HELM: Eileen was then tortured. She was one of the few that I know of who was subjected to the water torture, which is not dissimilar from what people might know as water-boarding today.

REEVES: Anyone found to be a British spy was shot. But Nearne refused to crack. She apparently convinced her Nazi interrogators she was a local member of the French Resistance. They dispatched her to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. She survived that hellhole, eventually escaped and found her way into American hands.

When Colonel John Pentreath, from the British Legion, first heard Nearne's story after her death this month, he was amazed by her heroism. He also felt another emotion.

Colonel JOHN PENTREATH (Manager, Devon Royal British Legion): Huge sadness that she died alone and that she wasnt with friends and people who knew of her plight.

REEVES: Municipal officials were going to give Nearne a pauper's funeral, after concluding she had no close family or friends. Her past only became clear after they discovered her possessions, including a medal from Britain and France's highest wartime honor, the Croix de Guerre.

Pentreath says the British Legion began to be inundated with calls from the public.

Col. PENTREATH: Since the news broke out, theyve said, look after this lady, send her off well, she helped to save this nation. And weve had that sort of sentiment coming from the public in the last week.

REEVES: Nearne herself would almost certainly not have welcomed all this attention. Her niece, Odile, told the congregation at the funeral that her aunt was a very private woman.

Ms. ODILE NEARNE: She didn't want to be famous. People like her just want to forget.

(Soundbite of a bugle)

REEVES: In the end, hundreds of people turned up, determined Nearne won't be forgotten. They listened, some tearfully, to buglers from the armies of Britain and France, and watched respectfully as Agent Rose was finally carried off to be cremated at a private ceremony.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.