msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/14/2010 12:09:40 PM ET 2010-09-14T16:09:40

Eileen Nearne died alone, uncelebrated, facing a pauper's funeral despite her extraordinary record of wartime heroism for Britain.

It wasn't that no one cared about her clandestine service, it was simply that no one knew what the 89-year-old had done during the harrowing days of World War II when Britain's very future hung in the balance.

It was not until after her Sept. 2 death from a heart attack that reports surfaced about Nearne's work with the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine operation set up by wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill for acts of sabotage and espionage against the Nazis, said John Pentreath, county manager for the Royal British Legion, a charity which honors veterans.

All that changed when officials searching her apartment found the medals and the records linking her to special undercover operations in occupied western Europe. Now plans are being made for a funeral that will, officials say, give Nearne the recognition that her heroism merits.

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Nearne, who spoke fluent French, was one of 39 female agents who infiltrated occupied France, the BBC reported.  After training in the U.K., British forces flew her to a field in central France in March 1944, and from there she joined her team under the nom de guerre Mademoiselle du Tort, Britain's Independent reported.

The Germans captured her several times, the BBC said.  She was able to escape the first time by convincing her captors that she was a French woman, uninvolved in war efforts, the BBC reported.  Caught again, the Nazis sent her to a concentration camp, then a forced labor camp in Silesia, the report said. 

Pentreath said reports indicate that the Germans captured Nearne behind enemy lines with a radio transmitter before the they sent her to the concentration camp.  Nearne had sharpened her skills by working as a radio operator, keeping in touch with agents in Europe from listening posts in the U.K., the Independent said.

She managed to escape the camp, but the SS picked her up once more in Germany.  Again, she persuaded them of her innocence, the BBC said, and a priest hid her in Leipzig until U.S. troops landed.

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'Staggering story for a young girl'
Nearne, the youngest of three children born to a Spanish mother and English father, first joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force with her sister Jacqueline, the Independent said. Their language skills caught the attention of recruiters for the special forces team, and the organization trained them at an isolated Scotland castle, the report said.

"It's a staggering story for a young girl," Pentreath said. "We hold her in awe and huge respect. All Brits do. We are very disappointed we didn't know about her when she was alive, we would have dearly loved to have made contact with her."

He said the charity "will make sure she gets the dignity and respect and homage that befits a lady of her experience." Local authorities have planned a Sept. 21 funeral, the BBC reported; they plan to move the service to a venue large enough to accomodate a crowd.

Drakes of Torbay funeral home told the BBC people around the globe sent e-mails and called, offering to pay for the funeral or asking where to send flowers. 

After World War II ended, Nearne returned to London to live with her sister, the Independent's report said.  Upon her sister's death, she moved 190 miles west to the seaside town of Torquay; neither sister married, the newspaper reported.

The saga of her lonely death and her wartime service seems to have touched a nerve in Britain — The Times newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday that Nearne seemed to resemble Eleanor Rigby, the spinster who died alone in a celebrated Beatles song written primarily by Paul McCartney.

The newspaper said it is not too late to honor Nearne for her sacrifices.

"Her life deserves to be sung about every bit as much as Eleanor Rigby's," the editorial said.

Nearne apparently did not discuss her wartime service with any of her neighbors in Torquay.

Neighbor Steven Cook told The Independent he'd known her for approximately six years, but that she "was very reclusive."

" We thought she may have been in the French Resistance from rumors, but I was very surprised at the extent of her heroism," he continued.

Officials at the Torbay Council who are organizing Nearne's funeral said the wartime artifacts in her apartment have been turned over to the Treasury and to intelligence officials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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