Oliver Thewalt

    Oliver Thewalt

    Theoretical Physics | Quantum Biology | Dark Matter Research Cluster

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    Braver than any man: Revealed for the first time, the awe-inspiring courage of two British sisters who waged a one-family war on the Nazis - and were left with emotional scars that never healed

    Hunched over a wireless set, alone in a safe house in a Parisian suburb on a rainy morning in July 1944, Didi Nearne tapped out a Morse Code message. It contained urgent information from the leader of her Resistance network to intelligence chiefs back in London.
    A month earlier, Allied armies had landed in Normandy and the battle for France was raging fiercely. Agents of SOE — the Special Operations Executive — played a vital role sabotaging German communications and relaying information about troop movements and weapons back to Britain.
    Furious, the Germans redoubled their efforts to catch SOE agents. Their radio-detecting vans combed the streets, seeking out signals that would lead them to the wireless operators laboriously tapping out their messages.
    The average SOE wireless operator in Occupied France lasted for just six weeks before being arrested. Didi, 21, had survived for five months, making an astonishing 105 transmissions.

    Didi knew the risks. ‘There were Gestapo in plain clothes everywhere. I always looked at my reflection in the shop windows to see if I was being followed,’ she recalled later.
    But she had to send this latest message. It was only as she finished tapping it out that she became aware of shouting outside.
    Peering through the rain-misted window, she was horrified to see several cars parked in the street below and Germans pouring from them. They had tracked down the wireless signal.
    Didi knew she had only minutes. Hastily, she took the wireless set apart and hid the pieces in a cupboard. She hid her pistol, too. She snatched up her codes and the paper on which she had encrypted the message, shoved them into the kitchen stove and set light to them, poking them until just ashes were left.
    Only then did she think of saving herself.
    It was too late. There was a loud banging on the door. Taking a deep breath, Didi opened it and found a gun pointing directly at her. The man holding it began shouting at her in German, while other men started searching the house.
    Displaying extraordinary nerve, Didi shouted back indignantly, denying any knowledge of a wireless set. But the search team soon uncovered it.
    Didi was handcuffed, bundled into a car and driven through the Paris streets to an address that made every SOE agent shudder with fear: 11 Rue des Saussaies — Gestapo headquarters. This was where agents were interrogated, often tortured and then sent to concentration camps. Or executed.


    The questioning began. What was she doing with a wireless set? Didi had her answer ready: she was a simple French girl and had been sending coded messages for her boss, a businessman. She had no idea what they were about.
    The Gestapo men were puzzled. Could this seemingly stupid girl really be an innocent dupe of a Resistance agent? Or was she a brilliant actress?
    Eileen Nearne — known as Didi — was, in fact, one of the bravest secret agents of World War II. When caught, she showed exceptional courage, withstanding torture and incarceration in concentration camps.
    But Didi was a modest woman who seldom spoke about her wartime exploits. Her latter years were solitary and reclusive.
    When she died, aged 89 in 2010 at home in Torquay, her body lay undiscovered for several days. Among her belongings, police found several medals, including a Croix de Guerre, and other clues to a secret wartime life.
    It transpired that the eccentric old lady who fed stray cats had once been one of the most successful agents of SOE, as had her sister, Jacqueline, who had died many years before.

     



    Now the story of these two astonishingly courageous women is revealed in a new book by the author Susan Ottaway, who was among the few people in whom Didi confided details of her incredible, inspiring story.
    Didi was born in London in 1923 to Jack Nearne, a doctor-turned-chemist, and Mariquita, a French-Spanish aristocrat, who already had three children, Francis, Jacqueline and Frederick.
    When Didi was two, the family moved to France, eventually settling in Nice where the girls attended a convent school. In 1940, the German army marched into France and the family’s well-to-do life was turned upside down.
    The pro-German Vichy authorities forced the family to leave Nice — as British citizens, they were not allowed to live near the coast — they moved to a village near Grenoble. Frederick, keen to fight the Nazis, soon left for Britain to join the RAF.
    Two years later, Jacqueline decided to follow her brother and join the war effort. Didi insisted on going, too, and the two girls made the perilous journey via Spain and Portugal, arriving in London in May 1942.
    At first they were rejected for war work. But their applications, mentioning their fluent French, reached the desk of Captain Selwyn Jepson, the recruiting officer for F section — the French section — of SOE.
    Jepson believed women were suited to undercover work because they had ‘a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men’.
    But did these two unworldly convent girls have the nerve and ability to become SOE operatives in enemy territory, carrying out Churchill’s command to ‘set Europe ablaze’?
    It seemed unlikely at first. Jepson judged that, at 21, Didi was too young to be an agent. He put her to work as a wireless operator in England.
    Jacqueline was sent for SOE training, but her instructors were unimpressed. ‘Mentally slow and not very intelligent,’ they sneered. ‘She could not be recommended.’
    However, Maurice Buckmaster, the head of SOE’s French section, overruled them. ‘One of the best,’ he wrote on her file. She was also, he noted, a beauty, with her dark hair and eyes, slim figure and air of Parisian chic.

     




    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2318572/SOE-agents-Didi-Nearne-Revealed-time-awe-inspiring-courage-British-sisters-waged-family-war-Nazis--left-emotional-scars-healed.html