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Few Knew Her Real Identity: 89 Year Old Was 'Agent Rose,' A World War II Spy

The Funeral Takes Place Of Former SOE Agent And War Heroine Eileen Nearne

hide captionMourners pay their respects at the funeral of decorated World War II spy Eileen Nearne.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

At a Catholic church in Torquay, England, Father Jonathan Shaddock presided over the funeral for Eileen Nearne.

"Whenever we saw her, she was just very, very quiet," he said. "Just said her prayers, and then slipped away at the end of mass without having much to do with anybody."

Turns out, she was a spy during World War II. Her alias: Agent Rose.

"Eileen Nearne was one of only a few dozen women spies in an organization set up by Winston Churchill, called the Special Operations Executive," NPR's Philip Reeves explains. "Its mission was to support the French Resistance."

There were hundreds of people at the memorial service. Veterans from the British Legion formed an honor guard.

Sarah Helm, the author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, says women were used as spies for a particular reason:

The thinking was that they would not be noticed, so when they flew them back into France, a woman wandering around, you know, with a basket of eggs or traveling on a train or looking like a housewife wasn't going to be picked up by the Gestapo as much as a man might be.

Nearne was born in France, spoke French fluently, and became a wireless operator. At 23, she was flown from England into Nazi-occupied France. In Paris, Nearne was captured and tortured, then sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women.

"She survived that hellhole, eventually escaped, and found her way to American Hands," Reeves reports.

According to The New York Times, Nearne, who was "known to her neighbors as an insistently private woman who loved cats and revealed almost nothing about her past," died alone:

...her body undiscovered for several days, was listed by local officials as a candidate for what is known in Brtain as a council burial, or what in the past was called a pauper's grave.

But after the police looked through her possessions, including a Croix de Guerre medal awarded to her by the French government after World War II, the obscurity Ms. Nearne had cultivated for decades began to slip away.

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