‘If you are a person who is drowning, you put all your efforts into trying to swim.’
As it’s International Women’s Day, I thought I would pay tribute to Eileen Nearne, the inspiration for the character of Marièle in my recent novel Swim Until You Can’t See Land.
Eileen worked as a secret agent for the Special Operations Executive during WW2, however this was only discovered after she had died and her flat was being traced for next of kin.
She was flown into France in 1944, just days before her 23rd birthday, and worked as a wireless operator for five and a half months, sending and receiving messages, until she was arrested by the Gestapo.
While researching my novel, I discovered her file in the National Archives in which she describes, quite matter-of-factly, her capture, torture and subsequent imprisonment in a labour and concentration camp.
‘They put me in a cold bath and tried to make me speak but I stuck to the story.’
Eileen ended up part of a work gang who ‘worked on the roads for 12 hours per day,’ however she and two French girls managed to escape by hiding in a forest and then receiving help from a priest. Even then Eileen’s ordeal wasn’t over as, without her papers, she was interrogated by the American Intelligence Service who thought she might be a German agent – ‘subject claims…that despite being tortured she did not reveal any information detrimental to the British Intelligence Service.’ Eventually, after being held for over a month ‘in the camp with the Nazi girls,’ they were able to confirm who she was and she was flown back to the UK.
Eileen was an extraordinarily brave woman, who was awarded an M.B.E. and a Croix-de-Guerre for her actions during the Second World War. She was badly affected by her wartime experiences and, like many of her generation, didn’t talk about her past. There’s a very poignant entry in her file dated November 1945, in which she is recommended for work after her return to the UK – ‘In view of her extremely valuable war service and the hardship which she suffered at the hands of the Germans we are anxious to see her re-established in a suitable peace-time occupation. She is extremely keen to train in beauty culture and I have no doubt will work very hard on making a success of it if she is given an opening.’
I hope that in my novel I’ve been able to honour Eileen, and the other women like her, who gave so much during the Second World War.