A Look Back at an Amazing Senior: Eileen “Didi” Nearne

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 12 October 2010

Eileen Nearne was an extraordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life, but she wanted nothing more than to be ordinary. In fact, when she died, alone, her body undiscovered for several days, she was scheduled for a council burial (what was once known as a pauper’s grave)… until the police surveyed her belongings.

After finding her Croix de Guerre medal (awarded to her by the French government after World War II), further investigation confirmed that this 89-year-old woman had earned much more than a pauper’s grave.  Consequently, her funeral service, held in late September in the British seaside town of Torquay,

“…featured a military bugler and piper and an array of uniformed mourners. A red cushion atop her coffin bore her wartime medals. Eulogies celebrated her as one of 39 British women who were parachuted into France as secret agents by the Special Operations Executive, a wartime agency known informally as ‘Churchill’s secret army,’ which recruited more than 14,000 agents to conduct espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines.”

As an “insistently private woman” in life, Eileen “Didi” Nearne would probably have abhorred such pomp and circumstance, but knowing this heroine’s story confirms that hers was truly a life to be revered, a life that demanded a distinguished and honorable burial.

Nearne volunteered for perhaps the most dangerous work available in wartime Britain. At the tender age of 23, she endured beatings from members of the Gestapo, who stripped her naked and repeatedly plunged her in a bath of icy water until she nearly blacked out (as recorded in Britain’s National Archives). She worked in Nazi death camps and on a road-repair gang (for 12 hours a day). She was held in a US detention center for being suspected as a Nazi collaborator. And yet, through all of these experiences and brushes with death, she never revealed the secrets they were after, never revealed her true identity, and was loyal to the very end.

Fueled by a strong sense of destiny and bolstered by extreme willpower, Eileen Nearne, known as Didi, never quite recovered from her wartime experiences, according to friends and family. She never married, and she preferred the lonely life, saying she was suited for “a life in the shadows.”

Read more of this remarkable heroine’s story in The New York Times.

-Michelle Seitzer

Readers & followers, what stories can you share of wartime heroes in your family?


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