Odile Nearne knew her aunts had played a part in the second world war, but only after their deaths did she discover their true bravery
One day in September 2010, Odile Nearne, a British woman living in Verona, Italy, answered the phone to some devastating news. Her 89-year-old aunt Eileen – known as Didi – had been found dead in her Devon flat.
The two women were close, but there was an additional reason why Odile was so distraught. Just weeks earlier, she had discovered how extensive a role Didi and Didi's sister Jacqueline had played as British secret agents during the second world war. It was a tale of unwavering patriotism, extraordinary bravery and terrible risk, played out against a backdrop that stretched from rural France through the Parisian torture chambers of the Gestapo and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, to the privations of postwar London and the glamour of 1960s New York. Through it all ran a thread of fierce family loyalty and buried secrets: and it all ended at Didi's small flat in a Victorian building in Torquay.
No one in Torquay had any inkling about Didi's wartime adventures: she had once told Odile that if she ever mentioned her life as a spy, she would simply disappear. The truth was that Odile knew virtually nothing about it: when she was a child, her father had instructed her never to ask either of his sisters about the war. "I knew they had played a role, and I knew there had been suffering," she says. "But it was never mentioned or spoken about. On one occasion, after I'd visited the battlegrounds and war graves in Normandy, I tried to raise the subject with Didi – but I could tell from her eyes that it was just too painful, that it brought up emotions she didn't want to remember. So I changed the subject."
Odile had married an Italian man, Enore, and moved to Verona where she raised three sons: and it was during the summer of 2010 that the youngest of these, Silvio, became intrigued by the stories around his great aunts and Googled them. "And looking at the information about them online, I realised for the first time how important their war work had been," says Odile, 58. "Didi had served in France as a radio operator until she was arrested by the Nazis in 1944. Jacqueline had been parachuted into central France and worked there for 15 months, carrying vital spare parts for radio transmitters inside her makeup bag. Both had faced great danger on a daily basis – and their lives had clearly been changed for ever by the events. I knew I had to have one more attempt to persuade Didi to talk about it, because it was so much a part of our family history." But now, before she had been able to make another trip to Devon, Didi was dead – and Jacqueline had died in 1982.
It seemed the sisters had taken their secrets to their graves: but when Odile arrived in Torquay to organise her aunt's funeral, she made a stunning discovery. Didi's flat, which her aunt had always conspired to ensure she never entered (as it was too small for Odile and Enore to stay in, they tended to holiday elsewhere in the UK), was packed with documents, medals and clothes through which the sisters' story could be told. "I now think Didi had kept everything so that, one day, I could find out what had happened," says Odile. "I'm the only member of the family of my generation. My aunts didn't want to talk about what they'd experienced, but I don't believe they wanted it to die with them either."
We are in Odile and Enore's home on the edge of Lake Garda, where one room is now packed with possessions from Didi's flat. "Here are their medals," says Odile proudly, showing me the sisters' MBEs and croix de guerre. There is, though, a hint of sadness in her tone: because her aunts chose to keep their war work secret, Odile feels they lost out on the wider recognition given to some of the more vociferous former members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). "Many of the wartime spies stopped being secret agents when the war was over, and they opened up about what they'd done. But the way I see it, my aunts kept their secrets all their lives. It's only now that their stories can be told."
It is a tale that has its roots, like so many wartime spy stories, in a family with Anglo-French origins. "My grandfather, John Nearne, was British, and my grandmother Mariquita Carmen de Plazaola was born in France to a French mother and a Spanish father. They lived for a while in England and had four children: a son called Francis, another called Frederick, who was my father, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Didi. And in 1923, the family moved back to France, where the children soon learned to speak excellent French."
But the outbreak of war in 1939, and the subsequent arrival of the Nazis, reminded the Nearnes of their English connections. Because of these links, they were told by the authorities that they had to leave their home in Nice and resettle in Grenoble, where they would be monitored by the police. None of the Nearne children felt especially English, but as they realised their association with the country of their father's birth was going to increasingly define them in war-torn France, their thoughts turned to joining the Allied forces. In late 1940 Frederick set out for Britain to volunteer for active service. Just over a year later, his sisters made the momentous decision to follow him.
They expected to find it easy, in the middle of a European war, to get work as translators; but the War Office, unsurprisingly given their background, had other ideas. Jacqueline was recruited into the SOE under the cover of being a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Though forbidden to disclose her real work to anyone, she couldn't keep it a secret from Didi – who immediately launched a successful bid to get herself accepted into the secret service. Jacqueline, though willing to risk her own life, was completely against allowing her little sister to do the same, and when she was flown to France to work as a courier, she made her SOE bosses promise to keep Didi, then in her early 20s, safely in Britain.
It was a promise they didn't keep. When Jacqueline returned from France 15 months later, she was horrified to discover that Didi – codenamed Rose – had been smuggled in behind her. And while Jacqueline had evaded capture and returned to Britain unscathed, Didi would not be as lucky. In July 1944, while transmitting an urgent message from a location she feared was not entirely safe, she was captured by the Gestapo, and tortured at its Rue des Saussaies headquarters in Paris. "She was held underwater until her lungs were bursting, but she refused to disclose any information," says Odile proudly. "She was made of strong stuff – they both were." The Nazis gave up the idea of prising any secrets out of her, and had her transported to Ravensbruck, where she had her head shaved, and was threatened with execution when she refused to do prison work. She was later transferred to a forced labour camp in Silesia but escaped while being marched through a forest. Eventually (though not before coming under suspicion, in the chaotic aftermath of war, of being a Nazi spy and imprisoned), she was liberated.
But it was a very different Didi who returned to Britain; when Jacqueline was reunited with her in London in 1945 she could hardly believe the toll that imprisonment had taken on her sister's health. Long months of recuperation followed, with Jacqueline devoted to her sister's care; but, says Odile, for both sisters – and especially Didi – life had changed for ever.
"Both Didi and Jacqueline had lived under enormous stress for long periods of time, and as a prisoner Didi had experienced appalling suffering," she says. Neither of her aunts ever married or had children; while Jacqueline went on to a high-flying role with the United Nations in New York, Didi struggled to find work, eventually becoming a carer in a home for the elderly. "She was a very warm and loving person, and she would have loved to have had her own family," says Odile. "In many ways she was like a second mother to me – because she was the one who lived in Britain, and because Jacqueline died relatively young, Didi was the aunt I knew best.
"Both my aunts sacrificed such a lot. They truly believed in service, and in the importance of risking all to rid Europe of the Nazis. But they paid a high price for it: the years when they might have been finding partners, settling down and having children were spent instead in training, in being in the field, and later in recovering, and in Jacqueline's case helping Didi to recover from the horrors she in particular had survived."
Having pieced their story together, Odile says she can finally understand why her aunts, and Didi especially, didn't want to talk about the past. "She was a humble and modest person, and she didn't want the spotlight on her. But I also think that she had been so traumatised that reliving it would have stopped her from having a normal life, and she wanted to go on as best she could."
Despite her reticence to be noticed, Didi was persuaded to take part in a television documentary in 1997, but she wore a wig and spoke in French. "When someone in Torquay asked if it was her, Didi just dismissed the idea and said, 'No, you're mistaken'," says Odile. "She really had no need of wider recognition."
But now that she is dead, says Odile, the time has come for Didi's and Jacqueline's stories to be more widely known. "I think they did so much, and from such a selfless point of view, that they deserve to have it recognised," she says. "They didn't care that they didn't get as many medals as some of their comrades, but I don't think their sacrifices should be lost for ever."
After Didi's death, news of her wartime past leaked out in the press, and Odile was pleased that crowds lined the streets for her funeral.
"In her last few years she was known in Torquay as a bit of an eccentric, an elderly woman who didn't have a lot to do with other people and who was besotted with her cats. But I think her story, and that of Jacqueline, has something to teach us all: we shouldn't just do things for the glory of it, we should do things because we believe they're right.
"I'd do anything to have my aunts back, even for just an hour, so I could tell them how incredibly proud I am of them, and how inspiring I find what they did."
Instead, Odile says she is committed to raising their profile. After Didi's death, she campaigned for a blue plaque, which now adorns the outside of her aunt's Torquay flat; it calls her a "war heroine" and describes her "courageous work". And now, Odile hopes to get a similar plaque placed on the house where Jacqueline lived in London.
"I'd like more people to know about them," she says. "When they were alive I did as they requested, and I didn't ask them about the war. But now they're dead, I think everyone could learn something from their story.
"I feel that, as the last relative who remembers them, I owe it to their memory to do this for them."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
[Image from the book "Sisters, Secrets and Sacrifice" by Susan Ottaway]