Ladies and gentlemen: I was in the Special Forces Club on the evening that news reached us of Eileen’s death. I mentioned to the Secretary then that he might stand by for considerable expressions of sympathy during the course of the next day. He told me twenty four hours later that the phone had absolutely not stopped ringing.
I took that level of support to mean that the Club should be represented here today to honour this remarkable lady. I was then honoured myself to be asked to give this eulogy.
I suspect it is unusual to be able to draw upon not one but two very detailed obituaries and I make no apology now for doing so. At the same time I have been able to tease out some extra detail, to look at Eileen’s Club file, which contained one surprise and to read her MBE citation.
Eileen was born in March 1921. She was of Anglo-Spanish origin. Her family moved to France between the wars. As a result she spoke fluent French. After the German occupation of northern France she returned to England through Spain. This was the summer of 1942.
Along with her sister Jacqueline she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. What we would now refer to as her linguistic skill set brought her to the attention of the SOE. She, Jacqueline and her brother Francis were all recruited. There is at this point in the narrative a splendid aside to the effect that they were supposed to keep their roles secret from one another. But in this regard they were not especially successful.
Jacqueline was sent to France while Eileen worked in England as a home-based signals operator. On 02 March 1944 Eileen was dropped into occupied France with her organiser, a Frenchman named Jean Savy. She was assigned the codename Rose and was tasked with the setting up of an organisation codenamed Wizard. Wizard was not supposed to focus on sabotage but instead was intended to secure funding for the resistance movement. Over the next five months she sent over 100 messages. Five months of course takes us more than two months beyond the Normandy landings.
Eileen was involved in the relaying of messages back to London whereby those minded to finance the Resistance would hear messages of their own choosing replayed to them via the BBC. This was to let them know that they were not engaged with German stooges. The intention was that these benefactors would be repaid after the War.
The fact that Eileen was so effective made it rather more straightforward for Jean Savy to return to London with information about a V1 rocket dump. The MBE citation includes a little more detail:
“Her efficiency and courage made possible the organisation of the circuit, the delivery of large quantities of arms and the successful bombing of the St Leu d’Esserent missile store”.
Now that was Operation Crossbow. During the night of 7/8 July 1944 over two hundred Lancaster bombers attacked a large dump of V1 rockets. 31 aircraft did not return.
Meanwhile Eileen continued to send information to London about German troop movements, railway sabotage and general military intelligence. The Germans were alive to the fact that this activity was taking place and attempts were made to jam signals and to determine by direction finding where these signals were coming from. After a number of what were lightly referred to as narrow escapes Eileen was arrested on 21 July 1944. At this point the narrative could easily have come to a close.
Instead, despite prolonged and brutal interrogation, Eileen maintained the fiction that she was a girl from the South who was looking for work and was sending messages on behalf of a businessman. This despite the fact that a search of her lodgings yielded an unused one time code book and a pistol. Her commitment to this story was tested by the German equivalent of water torture. She stuck to her guns.
In more recent examples of clandestine activity the rule of thumb has been that sticking to one’s cover story generally results in the authorities intervening favourably at some point to bring the field agent home. In Eileen’s case she was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. And she still stuck to her guns.
Ravensbruck: some of you will know what happened there. Others might simply recognise the name. I am indebted to Professor Michael Foot for some stark language on what really took place:
Those who have not experienced these modern hells can form no properly vivid conception of their beastliness; and the right to try to picture it on paper belongs best to the sufferers who survived. It is worth remark that the camps had a considerable role to play in the Nazi economy, and that their prisoners were expected not merely to exist but to work, and work hard, on a diet of acorn coffee, turnip soup, and a little dried bread. It was expected, in fact it was intended, that they would all be worked to death.
Quite remarkably Eileen escaped during a forced night march from Ravensbruck to the Markleberg labour camp. With two other French women, names unknown, she evaded arrest despite an encounter with a German patrol and made her way to Leipzig.
Ravensbruck to Leipzig: what in fact did this entail? According to Google Earth the two points are separated by a distance of 213km. That is if you were to travel due south. But if you did that you would be forced to skirt the western suburbs of Berlin. Imagine that in the late summer of 1944.
After a period of time hiding in a church Eileen was discovered by American troops. They had their doubts about her story but London confirmed her identity and she came back to the UK a few weeks later. Her MBE was gazetted on 14 February 1946 and the Croix de Guerre with Palm was awarded on the order of the President of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, Charles De Gaulle, interestingly a month earlier on 16 January 1946. So the French rather beat us to it.
Eileen was interviewed subsequently about her experience. In her own words:
“It was a life in the shadows but I think I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret, I could be lonely, I could be independent. But I was not bored. I liked the work. After the war I missed it.”
Eileen joined the Special Forces Club in 1982. That she had fond memories of her visits is attested to by letters to the Secretary now on file. She resigned once in 1992. The Secretary told me I would be surprised to learn the reason. This ordinarily means that someone took objection to being pursued relentlessly for outstanding subscription payments. In Eileen’s case she wrote to the Club to say that:
“I do enjoy the Club but when I come to London I do take my guard dog with me, as a matter of fact everywhere I go, and your rules forbid dogs in the lounge.”
Eileen was persuaded to change her mind and in 2006 she sent the Club a donation. She resigned finally in 2007.
I believe Eileen’s modest heroism was an inspiration to those around her in 1944. That heroism has remained an inspiration down the years. Her photograph hangs in a very special place in the Club. It will stay there.