Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Professional Until the End: Neighbors Never Knew Quiet Woman was a WWII SPY - Guest post by Rebecca Price

Periodically on the ArchivesInfo blog I post articles by guest bloggers. In the past, Linda Norris, Sarah Brophy, and Greg Lawrence kindly shared their thoughts on these pages. In an effort to promote one of ArchivesInfo's strongest goals, to  "encourage collaboration to ensure the security of a wide-range of cultural heritage resources," I feature writers who specialize in diverse aspects of cultural heritage. This month, I offer to you the writing of Rebecca Price, who runs the fabulous Chick History blog. Rebecca chose this piece about a WWII spy to share with my readers. Originally posted on the Chick History blog on November 11, 2010, the post discusses the role archives played in highlighting the fascinating legacy of one fearless female spy. Thank you Rebecca for sharing!


Professional Until the End: Neighbors Never Knew Quiet Woman was a WWII SPY

Secret Agent Woman
In September this year, Eileen Nearne died of a heart attack in her Torquay flat in the county of Devon, England. When officials cleaned out her apartment and were searching for contact information for her next of kin to arrange the funeral, they found instead medals, papers, and an extraordinary life. Eileen Mary Nearne, a.k.a. Jacqueline Duterte, a.k.a Alice Wood, a.k.a Rose, was a spy for the British army during WWII who worked behind enemy lines in Paris and was captured by the Germans in 1944.

Eileen was born in 1921 in London. Her father was British and her mother French. In 1923, the family moved to France where she lived until WWII broke out. When France became occupied by Germany, Eileen and her sister obtained British passports and moved back to England in 1942, leaving their family behind. They applied for work at the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Because they were native French speakers, they were recruited for undercover work and were trained in wireless techniques. The plan was to receive messages in the field and then code, transmit, and destroy said messages.

In March 1944, Eileen was flown into Indre, France for her assignment. For the next four months she coded and transmitted over 100 messages in German-occupied France back to England. The majority of her transmissions were instructions and arrangements for weapon shipments into France for the resistance movement in and around Paris. In July, she was detected and arrested by the German Gestapo – the secret police of Nazi Germany. She was interrogated and tortured using water torture, but gave up absolutely no information on her real identity. She convinced the Gestapo her name was Madamoiselle du Tort and that she had no idea that the businessman she was “working” for was actually British. She was sent to a concentration camp and later transferred to a labor camp. During these ten months of imprisonment she was tortured, threatened at gunpoint, and her head was shaven.

In April 1945 she was transferred again, and this time she escaped with two other French girls into the woods. She evaded SS Officers once again, insisting she was a French volunteer, and stayed on the run for two weeks staying in abandoned homes and churches. When the American troops rolled in, she ran to them for assistance. Alas, they didn’t believe her story either, and kept her in a camp for the month of May until a British officer arrived and confirmed her identity and repatriated her. Yeah, she’s with us.

I'd like to take this moment and point out that Eileen was 23 years old at this time.

Images of the codes Eileen was responsible
for transmitting back and forth between
London and Paris. These, among other
fascinating material, were made available
by the United Kingdom National Archives 
in October after Eileen's death.
Not much of her life after service is known publicly. Later interviews indicate she missed her days working as a patriot for her country and found civilian life unsatisfying. She participated in a documentary on British Spies for the BBC in the 1990s, but she remained in disguise, speaking French, and using her code name Rose. A clip from the interview shows her in a wig recounting her capture and escape. I mean, once a spy, always a spy.

After her death, the British National Archives released the papers they had on her, which include photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and first-hand accounts of her training, services, arrest and escape. You can download these for free at the National Archives website.

These primary sources from the 1940s offer an incredible window into the time period and views of women about their service and capabilities. They also tend to reveal more about the person doing the describing than they do about the person being described.

A male Major assessing her training described her "as very 'feminine' and immature; she seems to lack all experience of the world and would probably be easily influenced by others. It is doubtful whether this student is suitable for employment in any capacity on account of her lack of experience." Two months later she was deployed to France.

The American officer who couldn’t see a trained British spy gave the following thoughtful conclusion: "Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She often is unable to answer the simplest questions, as though she were impersonating someone else." In her version of the interview, Eileen Nearne states she withheld information to American officers because she didn’t want to give too much away. She was, after all, working for the British on convert military operations.

My favorite is the glowing recommendation SOE Officer Vera Atkins gives her when trying to find her a civilian job after ten months in a German concentration camp. “She is completely untrained, but she is extraordinarily reliable and thorough in any job on which she is keen.” This was a letter to a beauty salon.

If by “extraordinarily reliable and thorough” you mean able to code and transmit sensitive military operations, withstand torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, and escape and invade capture in the woods, then YES, she is qualified to be a beautician.

After her return, she was recommended for and received two military honors, the Member of the Order of the British Empire and the French Croix de Guerre. Once her true identity was discovered after her death, she received a full military funeral with honors. Hundreds attended to pay respects.

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