One of Britain’s most-decorated female spies was initially dismissed as “scatterbrained” and “not very intelligent” by her superiors, documents released for the first time yesterday reveal.
When Eileen Nearne was buried last month, details of the 89-year-old’s heroism came to light. One of a select number of Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, she was parachuted into France in 1944 as a radio operator with the code name Rose, transmitting vital intelligence until she was captured.
She endured torture at the hands of Nazi interrogators, refusing to reveal any details of her operations, and eventually managed to escape. She was later awarded the French Croix de Guerre and given an MBE for her “cool efficiency, perseverance and willingness to undergo any risk”.
However, files released by the National Archives reveal Nearne’s superiors were far from impressed with her after her two-week training course. In a scathing report written just a few weeks before her deployment, they wrote: “She is not very intelligent or practical and is lacking in shrewdness and cunning. She has a bad memory, is inaccurate and scatterbrained.
She seems keen but her work was handicapped by lack of the power to concentrate.
“In character she is very ‘feminine’ and immature; she seems to lack all experience of the world and would probably be easily influenced by others.”
The report, which is dated January 26, 1944, continues: “It is doubtful whether this student is suitable for employment in any capacity on account of her lack of experience.”
Yet Nearne defied all expectations when she was sent on assignment. In another newly released file, she wrote of her arrest at Bourg-la-Reine on 25 July: “I had just sent a message when through the window I saw the Gestapo arrive. I had just time to burn the message and to hide the radio set. They searched the house and found the set. They also found the one-time-pad. They asked me questions about my code. I told them lies … They put me in a cold bath and tried to make me speak but I stuck to the story.”
Nearne was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she refused to do prison work despite having her head shaved and being told she would be shot. She eventually managed to escape during the night in April 1945 as she was being moved from a camp in Markleberg.
When she returned home, the glowing recommendation for her MBE stated: “For 5months she maintained constant communication with London from this most dangerous area, and, by her cool efficiency, perseverance and willingness to undergo any risk in order to carry out her work, made possible the successful organisation of her group and the delivery of large quantities of arms and equipment.”
Nearne spent her later years living quietly in Torquay. When her body was discovered in September it was believed she had been dead for some time. Council workers searching her flat for details of her next of kin found the papers that revealed her heroism.