LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A reclusive old lady who died alone in her flat in southwest England and had no one to pay for her funeral has posthumously shot to fame after it emerged she was an intrepid World War Two secret agent.
Eileen Nearne died aged 89 at her home in the town of Torquay on September 2. In the absence of any known relatives to make funeral arrangements, authorities entered the flat to take charge several days later, a local council spokeswoman said. A search for documents that might help locate relatives instead yielded a treasure trove of medals and papers that revealed the life of a woman once known as “Agent Rose,” who defied the Nazis as a wireless operator in occupied France.
British media compared her death to that of the fictional Eleanor Rigby, who died alone in a Beatles song.
“She was to be buried, like Eleanor Rigby, along with her name,” said the Times newspaper, which published on its front page a large black-and-white photo of a young Nearne in a beret.
“That may now change. It ought to, given Eileen Nearne’s service to her country ... Her courage was capped only by her humility. Her life deserves to be sung about every bit as much as Eleanor Rigby‘s,” said the Times in an editorial.
A member of the secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE), the 23-year-old Nearne took a night flight into France in March 1944 to work as an undercover agent helping coordinate a network of resistance fighters and spies.
She was arrested by the Gestapo four months later but was able to hide her true identity thanks to her fluent French, acquired during childhood when her family lived in France.
However, Nearne was arrested again weeks later and was imprisoned at Ravensbrueck concentration camp before being transferred to a forced labor camp in Silesia. She escaped in April 1945 but was re-arrested, before escaping one last time.
After the war, Nearne was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her services. She lived for most of the rest of her life with her sister Jacqueline, who had also served in the SOE.
Since her sister’s death in 1982, Nearne had lived alone and never spoke about her wartime exploits.
“Isn’t it ironic that this lady, with her Special Operations Executive training, carried this through for the rest of the life and remained under cover, so much so that we’re talking about her with such surprise just after her death,” said John Pentreath, of the Royal British Legion, in a BBC interview.
The Legion, an organization dedicated to the welfare and memory of members and veterans of the British armed forces, has taken over preparations for Nearne’s funeral, which will take place next week. “We began to realize that a large bit of our history has just left us and it is hugely important to us that even now, after she’s died, we do something about it, which is what we’re going to do at her funeral,” Pentreath told the BBC.
“We will pay her the honor and respect that she deserves.”
Editing by Paul Casciato