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Northern Times

Reclusive hero laid to rest with full legion honours

The Legion provided ceremonial honours at the funeral service in Torquay for Eileen Mary “Didi” Nearne, the wartime Special Operations Executive operative who died in obscurity, only to become a global celebrity posthumously when the secret of her heroic past came to light.

“The Royal British Legion is proud to be providing her with the recognition and honours in death that were denied to her in life,” said John Pentreath, Devon County Manager for the Legion.

“This country owes a debt of honour to this brave and remarkable woman – and thousands like her – who fought for freedom behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied Europe.”

The Torquay council had initially prepared for a council funeral without mourners when her body was first discovered in a home she shared with her cats.

However, since her remarkable wartime record came to light, more than 300 mourners filled the pews at the Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians and St Denis in Torquay. Loudspeakers were needed to broadcast the service to others who lined the pavements outside.

Robert Nelson, the Legion’s Standard Bearer Liaison Officer in Devon, arranged for more than 20 standards to attend her funeral and the Legion arranged for a bugler to sound Last Post and Reveille. The service was also attended by members of The Parachute Regiment and veterans of the SOE. It is understood that her only known relative, a niece who lives in Tuscany, was also able to attend.

Armed with no greater qualification than a fluency in French, Miss Nearne was parachuted into occupied France in March 1944 at the age of 23. Using the code name “Rose,” she set up a French Resistance cell in Paris known as “Wizard” whose primary role was arranging the conduit of money to finance Resistance activities. At a time when the life expectancy of agents was measured in weeks, she sent 105 radio messages to London over the next five months.

As German interception of “skeds” (as radio transmissions were called) grew more sophisticated, she was eventually captured in July 1944. She was brutally tortured, but did not crack; later, she was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she befriended legendary agent Violette Szabo while maintaining her cover story of being an insignificant French girl.

She was later sent to Markleberg labour camp, where she escaped and made her way to Leipzig. Barely alive, she was driven by her Catholic faith to take refuge in a church where the priest hid her in the bell tower. Lapsing into unconsciousness for several days, she was eventually rescued by advancing American troops.

Following her return to England, she was awarded an MBE and a Croix de Guerre, but her time in concentration camp had left her with ghosts she was never able to exorcise. Never married, she died alone with her cats on 2 September in Torquay, where she had moved in 1982 following her sister’s death.

The unarmed piper

The Royal British Legion is saddened to report on the passing today of Piper Bill Millin, a Legion supporter and beneficiary from Dawlish, Devon and a legendary figure from the D-Day landings who has died at the age of 88.

Piper Millin was serving as the personal piper to the Lord Lovat, Commanding Officer of 1 Special Service Brigade when it landed at Sword Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944 as part of Operation Overlord. He was ordered by Lord Lovat to ignore the ban on pipes in battle and to play in order to
boost morale of the troops as they came ashore. Unarmed apart from the ceremonial dagger in his stocking, he played unflinchingly as men fell all around him. According to the Daily Telegraph: “Millin began his apparently suicidal serenade immediately upon jumping from the ramp of the landing craft into the icy water. As the Cameron tartan of his kilt floated to the surface he struck up with Hieland Laddie. He continued even as the man behind him was hit, dropped into the sea and sank.

“Once ashore Millin did not run, but walked up and down the beach, blasting out a series of tunes. After Hieland Laddie, Lovat, the commander of 1st Special Service Brigade (1 SSB), raised his voice above the crackle of gunfire and the crump of mortar, and asked for another. Millin strode up and down the water’s edge playing The Road to the Isles. “Bodies of the fallen were drifting to and fro in the surf. Soldiers were trying to dig in and, when they heard the pipes, many of them waved and cheered – although one came up to Millin and called him a “mad bastard”. Mr Millin continued to rally the invasion forces once ashore and captured German soldiers later admitted they had not shot him because they thought he had gone off his head.

His exploits were immortalised in the 1962 film ‘The Longest Day’, which tells the story of the D-Day landings based on the historical account by Cornelius Ryan. It is a common misconception that he played himself in the film; in fact, he was portrayed by Pipe Major Leslie de Laspee, the official piper to the Queen Mother in 1961.

Originally from Scotland, Mr Millin had lived in Devon for 45 years and was considered a hero in his hometown of Dawlish. He was well known to The Royal British Legion in Devon and regularly attended Legion events. The Legion had recently purchased a new electric wheelchair for Mr Millin; however he was unable to use it before he died.

Mr Millin returned to Normandy anniversary events in subsequent years. In June this year, the Dawlish Branch of The Royal British Legion arranged for Mr Millin to return for the 66th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Mr Millin is held in high regard in the veterans’ and piper communities in the Commonwealth, the United States and France, and The Mary Queen of Scots Pipe Band of Ouistreham, near Caen, also played a pivotal role in enabling him to travel to Normandy this year.

The band is the driving force behind a £80,000 fundraising initiative to build a statue of Mr Millin playing the bagpipes on Sword Beach, one of the enduring images of World War Two. The statue will serve as a memorial to all who fought on that day. Piper Bill Millin will be sadly missed by all those who knew him.

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