This poignant historical repository of some 230,000 wills, maybe five per cent of which are accompanied by final farewells to mothers, wives and sweethearts, has been made available on the internet by the Courts and Tribunals Service. Final moments: Walter was just 16 when he fought at the Somme but his photos soon took on dark tone. Historic: A nurse from the Army Nurse Corps preparing dressings in a tent at the 13th Field Hospital Saint Laurent sur Mer near Omaha Beach near Omaha Beach on June 15, 1944.
Destruction: Some of the pictures, such as this incredible view of the bombed-out town of Agneaux, show the extreme damage wreaked on the French countryside. Hunched over a wireless set, alone in a safe house in a Parisian suburb on a rainy morning in July 1944, Didi Nearne tapped out a Morse Code message. A month earlier, Allied armies had landed in Normandy and the battle for France was raging fiercely. The average SOE wireless operator in Occupied France lasted for just six weeks before being arrested. Peering through the rain-misted window, she was horrified to see several cars parked in the street below and Germans pouring from them. Displaying extraordinary nerve, Didi shouted back indignantly, denying any knowledge of a wireless set.
Didi was handcuffed, bundled into a car and driven through the Paris streets to an address that made every SOE agent shudder with fear: 11 Rue des Saussaies — Gestapo headquarters.
Eileen Nearne — known as Didi — was, in fact, one of the bravest secret agents of World War II. When she died, aged 89 in 2010 at home in Torquay, her body lay undiscovered for several days. It transpired that the eccentric old lady who fed stray cats had once been one of the most successful agents of SOE, as had her sister, Jacqueline, who had died many years before. Now the story of these two astonishingly courageous women is revealed in a new book by the author Susan Ottaway, who was among the few people in whom Didi confided details of her incredible, inspiring story. Didi was born in London in 1923 to Jack Nearne, a doctor-turned-chemist, and Mariquita, a French-Spanish aristocrat, who already had three children, Francis, Jacqueline and Frederick.
When Didi was two, the family moved to France, eventually settling in Nice where the girls attended a convent school. The pro-German Vichy authorities forced the family to leave Nice — as British citizens, they were not allowed to live near the coast — they moved to a village near Grenoble.
Jepson believed women were suited to undercover work because they had ‘a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men’.
But did these two unworldly convent girls have the nerve and ability to become SOE operatives in enemy territory, carrying out Churchill’s command to ‘set Europe ablaze’?
In January 1943, Jacqueline — codename Designer — and her network chief, Maurice Southgate, parachuted into Occupied France. Jacqueline became the courier for a large network of resistance groups, delivering messages and weapons across France and organising sabotage operations, including blowing up a Luftwaffe aircraft engine factory, setting fire to 27 new trucks bound for Germany, damaging railway lines and stealing 30,000 litres of German petrol. Whenever Southgate was away, Jacqueline took charge of the network, with 600 men under her command. She was one of SOE’s most successful agents, but after nearly a year-and-a-half of constant operations she was exhausted. Arriving in London, she learned that Didi had pestered Buckmaster into sending her to France as a wireless operator two months earlier. She was given a false identity — Jacqueline du Tertre, a dizzy shop girl — and the codename Rose.
After D-Day, Didi noticed more Germans and more sinister detection vans combing the streets near her safe house. On the morning of July 22, 1944, she was caught — and so began her horrific ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo. On August 15, just ten days before the Allies liberated Paris, Didi was put on a train crammed with hundreds of other prisoners in cattle trucks, jolting across France and into Germany for day after day. Eventually, the train arrived in Ravensbruck concentration camp, where the Nazis followed a policy of ‘extermination through work’. The relentless physical toil and lack of food took its toll, but Didi was sustained by her strong religious faith and unwavering belief that she would survive. At Ravensbruck, she became friends with three other SOE agents, including Violette Szabo, later immortalised in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.
While Didi stuck to her story that she was a simple French girl, the other agents had admitted to being British. With the Allies advancing through Germany, the guards decided to move the prisoners to another camp.
It was to be another three weeks before British intelligence officers learned of her whereabouts and rescued her.
When Didi arrived back in Britain, Jacqueline was appalled at her emaciated, confused state.
In 1946, suffering acute anxiety and depression, Didi was admitted to a psychological clinic, where she received electroconvulsive therapy. Jacqueline and Didi were recognised by the SOE as outstanding agents whose achievements had helped defeat the Germans. Neither sister married or had children, though Didi doted on her niece, Odile, the daughter of her brother Frederick. It was a fitting tribute to the sisters whose sacrifice and courage remain an inspiration to this day.
But Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown RN is very much alive and in sparkling form as he pours me a glass of sherry at his West Sussex home and reflects on an astonishing life. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Eric had to interrogate a bewildering cross-section of leading Nazis, including Hermann Goering, as well as plane manufacturer Enrst Heinkel and designer Willie Messerchmitt. In fact, young Brown would soon be back once more to receive the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. Years later, he would end up as an aide-de-camp to the Queen, who would add a CBE to his collection in 1970.
Pin-sharp at 94, Eric is in constant demand from historians and documentary makers, while his autobiography, Wings On My Sleeve, is a must-read for any self-respecting aviator.
Now he is about to tell all as one of the star speakers at next month’s Daily Mail-sponsored Chalke Valley History Festival.
What’s more, his appearance on the last weekend in June will coincide with the Chalke Valley History Festival Airshow — one of this summer’s most spectacular, featuring replica dogfights from both World Wars.
Eric’s father had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War and, along with all former RFC pilots, received an invitation from the newly formed German Luftwaffe to visit the 1936 Olympics.
A promising scholar at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, Eric had recently lost his mother, so his father decided to take the boy to Germany to see the Games. Among those hosting the RFC delegation was the charismatic Great War ace Ernst Udet, who had become a famous stunt pilot.

Eric went on to Edinburgh University, where he studied German and joined the university’s air squadron. In 1939, having recently arrived in Germany on a teaching exchange, Eric received a knock on the door one morning.
Fearing the worst, he was pleasantly surprised to be dumped at the Swiss border, from where he made his way home as fast as possible to sign up with the RAF. Like all young pilots, Eric was itching to get airborne and was frustrated by the lack of RAF planes and postings. So Eric transferred to the Fleet Air Arm — where he was nicknamed ‘Winkle’ — and retrained as a naval pilot. Back home, his exceptional flying skills had been spotted and he was transferred to special duties as a test pilot. And when he wasn’t testing the boffins’ latest theories, he was also charged with training a gung-ho band of Canadian Spitfire pilots with whom he saw regular action over France.
Winston Churchill needed a solution to the Nazis’ unmanned V1 rocket bombs, which were terrifying the civilian population.
Eric helped develop a booster system that could get a fighter alongside a V1 for a short spurt and tip it off-course without colliding. As the Allies progressed through Italy and France, Eric became commanding officer of a very exotic unit — Farnborough’s Enemy Aircraft Flight. One of the most unappealing was a Messerschmitt 163 — a rocket plane that ran on liquid explosive. As commanding officer of Farnborough’s Enemy Aircraft Flight, Eric had to capture Nazi hardware. In 1945, landing at a newly captured airstrip in Germany, he met Allied troops investigating rumours of a concentration camp at Belsen. Realising that Eric had better German than his interpreter, the brigadier in charge asked him along to assist with translation. Eric has never forgotten the sights he encountered nor the remorselessness of the female commandant he interrogated, Irma Grese.
Soon afterwards, Eric flew in to another air base in Denmark, only to discover the Allies had yet to capture it. Given his excellent knowledge of German and aeroplanes, Eric interrogated all the enemy top brass. After the war, Eric worked with Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, clocking up numerous life-threatening ‘firsts’ in the field of jet aviation. Among his unappetising tasks was discovering why certain aircraft would crash at certain speeds, and why planes had a habit of disappearing in storms. It is also highly unlikely that anyone will surpass Eric’s world record for flying 487 different types of aeroplane. A proud grandfather and great-grandfather, he is typical of his generation in insisting that he was ‘only doing the job’. Last surviving Dambuster reveals how he celebrated the success of his daring raid – with a fry up and a cup of tea, of course! George was festooned with a raft of medals including a Distinguished Flying Medal for his part in 617 Squadron’s daring 1943 blitz on the Nazi-controlled dams along the Ruhr Valley in Germany, destroying their hydro-electric source of power. Widower George, who lives in Bristol, was a sergeant at the time of the raids, conducted under the name Operation Chastise, which smashed the Mohne, Sorpe and Eder dams. It took bombardier George and his crew nine attempts to fly at a perilous 30ft, before the bomb, codenamed Upkeep, was finally loosed, seconds before they had to pull up to avoid smashing into the hillside behind the dam.
After smashing the dam, the heroic airmen flew their Lancaster bomber over the Mohne Dam, which has been blown by another plane in the same daring raid.
The Sorpe dam was badly damaged by the daring night-time raid, orchestrated by wing commander Guy Gibson and bouncing bomb inventor Barnes Wallace. It was only when they flew back to RAF Scrapton in Lincolnshire that the brave crew realised they had been hit several times by an armoured train on their way to the dams, and the pilot’s chair was pockmarked with bullet holes. The five-hour raid came at a heavy price – 53 of the 133 brave airmen, hand-picked for the secret mission, did not come home. The brave airman married sweetheart Gwyn, a phone operator in the Women’s Royal Air Force, days before the sortie, after being given special permission from chiefs despite all leave being cancelled.
After narrowly avoiding death on an eye-watering 50 missions during his 22 years’ service with the RAF, George became a teacher.
Great-grandfather George, who became a widower when Gwyn died of cancer in 2005, is helping Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson with his scheduled remake of the classic 1955 Dam Busters film.
The RAF commander who ordered the controversial fire-bombing of Dresden which killed an estimated 25,000 civilians during World War II said he would do it again in a long lost interview filmed 30 years after the end of the conflict.
But the newly-discovered interview with Sir Arthur, which was filmed in 1977 and will be aired for the first time on the BBC tonight, shows the RAF chief defending his decision. And the chief commander of the Bomber Command tells his interviewer, Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, that he would do it again if he had to.
Harris also countered the myth that area bombing was his idea – claiming it was already Government policy. Mason asked Harris why he was ordered to bomb whole cities rather than specific Nazi targets.
Sir Arthur, who died in 1984 aged 91, refused a peerage because his men were denied a campaign medal.
The Bomber Command, which suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit, losing 55,573 of its 125,000 men, eventually got a memorial last year.
Bomber Command veteran Doug Radcliffe, 89, who is now secretary of the Bomber Command Association, backed his former commander. It was initially claimed that up to 250,000 civilians lost their lives in the Dresden bombings but an official report released after the war showed the casualty figure was in fact closer to 25,000.
Over two days and nights in February 1945 British and American bombers turned the city into a sea of flames and rubble. The newly-found footage will shed more light on Dresden and the actions of the RAF during World War Two. The bombers only flew at night to reduce the danger of being shot down, but with primitive navigation equipment, this made it difficult to identify and hit a small target.
In 1941, it was decided that The Bomber Command would target entire industrial cities – known as area or blanket bombing. This policy was endorsed by Churchill and formally adopted in early 1942 as Sir Arthur took the helm of The Bomber Command. Harris said at the start of the bombing campaign that he was unleashing a whirlwind on Germany. Working class housing areas were targeted because they had a higher density and firestorms were more likely. The plan was highly controversial even before it started, but the Cabinet thought bombing was the only option available to attack Germany directly as a major invasion of the continent was years away.

Reflected glory: A peaceful pond is what remains today of the craters made by massive mines on the Messines Ridge near Ypres. Infantry Division stares at the camera as he is surrounded by injured comrades near Omaha Beach. It contained urgent information from the leader of her Resistance network to intelligence chiefs back in London. Agents of SOE — the Special Operations Executive — played a vital role sabotaging German communications and relaying information about troop movements and weapons back to Britain. Their radio-detecting vans combed the streets, seeking out signals that would lead them to the wireless operators laboriously tapping out their messages. Four female SOE agents had been put to death in a concentration camp by lethal injection that month. This was where agents were interrogated, often tortured and then sent to concentration camps. When caught, she showed exceptional courage, withstanding torture and incarceration in concentration camps.
Among her belongings, police found several medals, including a Croix de Guerre, and other clues to a secret wartime life.
In 1940, the German army marched into France and the family’s well-to-do life was turned upside down. Didi insisted on going, too, and the two girls made the perilous journey via Spain and Portugal, arriving in London in May 1942. But their applications, mentioning their fluent French, reached the desk of Captain Selwyn Jepson, the recruiting officer for F section — the French section — of SOE. Before leaving, she had made Buckmaster promise that Didi would never be sent on a mission to France. Often she had to stay in hotels, and once a plainclothes policeman banged on her door, searching for members of her network. Didi, he observed, was a highly convincing liar and performed brilliantly under interrogation. The first time she set out, carrying the cumbersome 18kg wireless, a German soldier on the train asked what was in her suitcase.
Didi knew that she was about to face the dreaded ‘baignoire’ — the Nazi version of waterboarding. Seeing some trees in the distance, Didi seized her chance and started running towards them. In February 1945, the guards executed the three British girls by shooting them in the back of the neck. Emaciated, with dysentery and a hacking cough, it seemed unlikely she could survive much longer. As the column began to march off in the darkness, Didi and two other women made a break for some nearby trees. The long months of incarceration, seeing her friends weaken and dying beside her, had left her deeply scarred. Yet neither was given the George Cross, unlike some other female agents who had spent less time in the field. In 1993, she bravely returned to Ravensbruck to unveil a plaque to those who had died there. Hundreds of people turned out for Didi’s funeral in Torquay to honour the modest heroine who had lived among them. Indeed, open his memoirs at any page and you are left asking a single question: how on earth did this modest Scotsman live to tell the tale?
He has set aviation records that will almost certainly never be broken and is revered as one of the greatest test pilots of all time.
Here is a man who narrowly cheated death in the wreckage of a torpedoed ship, helped to liberate Belsen and took 2,000 enemy prisoners armed only with a pistol. It will certainly bring back memories for Eric, whose flying career was shaped by these conflicts. During a student trip to Germany, he wrote to Udet, by then a senior Luftwaffe general, who invited Eric into his social circle.
But there were plenty of vacancies for pilots in the Royal Navy following the loss of the aircraft carrier, HMS Courageous, with more than 500 men, in the opening weeks of the war. Before long he was on HMS Audacity, an aircraft carrier escorting vital convoys between Britain and Gibraltar.
Among his tasks was working out ways of flying Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitoes on and off ships, vastly improving the clout of the Fleet Air Arm. Eric’s erstwhile mentor, Udet, had committed suicide in 1941, but one day Winkle found himself in an interview room with Hanna Reitsch, still an unrepentant Hitler worshipper. The Soviets were also demanding that the Western Allies do something to relieve the pressure on the Eastern Front. Between the enticing decor and the delectable drinks and food, there is no reason to not enjoy this amazing midday party! They were cremated, but evidence emerged later that some of them were still alive when they went into the ovens. I always looked at my reflection in the shop windows to see if I was being followed,’ she recalled later. Didi had her answer ready: she was a simple French girl and had been sending coded messages for her boss, a businessman.
She was also, he noted, a beauty, with her dark hair and eyes, slim figure and air of Parisian chic.
She was kept busy transmitting messages for her network chief about double agents, German communications, the distribution of weapons for the Resistance and the launch sites of V1 rockets aimed at Britain.
But the Americans suspected Didi of being a Nazi spy and locked her up with female Nazi prisoners. The wide-eyed student was introduced to some of the leading lights of the Luftwaffe — including their formidable test pilot and world gliding champion Hanna Reitsch — having no inkling that, within a couple of years, they would be his sworn enemy. One of his party tricks was a shooting game where you had to fire a pistol at a target behind you, using a mirror.
She snatched up her codes and the paper on which she had encrypted the message, shoved them into the kitchen stove and set light to them, poking them until just ashes were left. The man holding it began shouting at her in German, while other men started searching the house.

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