Eileen Nearne, a reclusive World War II heroine who operated as an undercover radio transmitter in France during the D-day invasion, helping coordinate the Allied war effort until she was caught by the Gestapo, died Sept. 2 of a heart attack at her home in southwest England. She was 89.
Nearne, who was known as Agent Rose, maintained her secrecy and never discussed her wartime exploits with her neighbors in Torquay, the seaside town in Devon where she lived until her death.
Her bravery was not widely acknowledged until local officials went into her apartment after her death and found a treasure trove of medals, records and memorabilia, including French currency used during the war.
During World War II, Nearne worked with the Special Operations Executive, a clandestine operation set up by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to carry out acts of sabotage and espionage against the Nazis, who were occupying Western Europe.
Nearne's mission to France in 1944 — when she was just 23, posing as a French shop girl — was to operate a wireless transmitter that served as a vital link between the French resistance and war planners in London.
John Pentreath, county manager for the Royal British Legion veterans' charity, said Nearne was captured behind enemy lines with a radio transmitter and was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She later escaped and was ultimately liberated by American forces.
"It's a staggering story for a young girl," he 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."
Historian M.R.D. Foot, who had access to Nearne's secret account of her activities, said she was the only British agent with an operating transmitter in the Paris area during the crucial period from March 1944 until she was caught by the Germans in July 1944.
"She was there during D-day," he said. "What she did was extremely important. She was arranging for weapons and explosive drops, and those were used to help cut the Germans' rail lines."
He said Nearne showed bravery and discretion when she refused to talk about clandestine operations even after being subjected to extreme treatment.
After the war, Nearne was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her services. She lived for most of the rest of her life with her sister Jacqueline, who had also served in the Special Operations Executive.
Since her sister's death in 1982, Nearne had lived alone.
The saga of Nearne's lonely death and her wartime service touched a nerve in Britain. The Times of London said in an editorial that she seemed to resemble Eleanor Rigby, the spinster who died alone in a song by the Beatles.
"Her life deserves to be sung about every bit as much as Eleanor Rigby's," the editorial said.
On Tuesday, hundreds mourned Nearne during her funeral in Devon.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times