Dunsfold Park in Surrey, aka Dunsfold Aerodrome and better known in recent years as the home of the BBC Top Gear series of TV programmes, generously hosted an event on Saturday, 4th August 2018 to unveil The Secret WW2 Learning Network’s new design of commemorative plaque.
The plaque was to commemorate the return, in April 1944, from occupied France of Jacqueline Nearne MBE, Croix de Guerre, an agent of French Section, Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Her flight back to the UK, with two other passengers in a Lysander aircraft of 161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Taylor, was unable to land at the usual location, RAF Tangmere on Britain’s south coast, so continued and fortunately found Dunsfold free of the fog that had prevented a landing at Tangmere.
Jacqueline, who had parachuted into France in January 1943, had been recalled against her wishes, but she was in poor health following 14 months of nerve-wracking duty in enemy-held France on behalf of SOE’s STATIONER circuit. Despite being desperate to return and pick up her duties again in France, Jacqueline was still undergoing further training in England when France was liberated.
She later starred alongside other real-life agents and French resisters in a government information film produced by the RAF's film production unit that was first released in 1946 as "Now It Can Be Told" to shed light on some of SOE’s wartime activities. A shorter version made for theatrical release was dramatically renamed "School For Danger" - but it's the original feature-length film which is available for purchase on DVD.
After the war, Jacqueline served the United Nations in New York until her retirement in 1982. Sadly, she died from cancer only four years later, after returning to live in London.
The commemorative plaque at Dunsfold was unveiled by Odile Nearne, Jacqueline’s niece, who had travelled from her home in Italy especially for the occasion.
Odile spoke movingly of her aunt Jacqueline and also of her other aunt, Jacqueline’s sister, Eileen ‘Didi’ Nearne MBE, Croix de Guerre who died in 2010.
Didi Nearne had followed Jacqueline from the FANY into SOE’s French Section and parachuted into France as a clandestine radio operator in the Paris area. Caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp, Didi Nearne was extremely lucky to survive her imprisonment and return to join Jacqueline in London at the end of the war.
This commemorative event at Dunsfold was organised by Paul McCue, a Trustee of The Secret WW2 Learning Network, an educational charity dedicated to improving knowledge of clandestine operations in World War Two.
The audience of some 60 people included a 12-strong contingent of air cadets from three local squadrons and a representative of the FANY (PRVC) – the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry that Jacqueline had been obliged to join in order to by-pass the ruling that women could not serve on the front lines, let alone behind the lines.
Odile Nearne was assisted in unveiling the plaque by Commander Louise Yarnold of the FANY (PRVC) and by Flying Officer Steve Baker, officer commanding the Cranleigh Detached Flight of 1408 (Dorking) Squadron, Air Training Corps.
Odile Nearne, Commander Louise Yarnold of the FANY (PRVC) and Flying Officer Steve Baker
of the Cranleigh detached flight of 1408 (Dorking) Squadron ATC as they prepare to unveil the commemorative plaque
which was added to the aerodrome’s existing memorial
L-R: Yvette Pitt & Rob Copsey Rob Copsey & Mike Rennie Susan Ottaway, Odile Nearne & Paul McCue
Other attendees included former members of the military, special forces and intelligence communities, and also Yvette Pitt, the daughter of SOE agent Yvonne Cormeau; Susan Ottaway, the biographer of Jacqueline and Didi Nearne; and Rob Copsey and Dr Mike Rennie, two of the participants in the recent BBC Two 'immersive history' series, Secret Agent Selection: WW2.
The plaque was to have been financed by crowd funding, but the operators of Dunsfold Park, Dunsfold Airport Ltd (DAL), stepped in and generously met both the cost of the plaque and provided lunch for attendees.
Paul McCue, Trustee of The Secret WW2 Learning Network (left) and Jim McAllister
Jim McAllister, on behalf of DAL, was an enthusiastic contributor to the day and later led a convoy of vehicles around the Top Gear track, including a trip down Dunsfold’s main runway which is still operational for what is now a private, unlicensed, aerodrome.
The attendees also received a presentation on the history of the aerodrome and had the opportunity to visit the on-site Reg Day Memorial Museum which covers wartime flying operations from Dunsfold. Flight Lieutenant (ret’d) Day had served at Dunsfold from 1943 to 1944 and remembered the news spreading of the landing of the Lysander with its mysterious passengers. Sadly, ill-health prevented 95-year-old Reg from attending on the day.
Token of thanks to Nancy Edwards of The Rutland Group
The Charity’s grateful thanks go to Nancy Edwards of DAL who did much to facilitate the proceedings and to Jim McAllister, for his financial and personal support.
The Charity’s volunteers on the day were Carol Brown, Merril Haeusler, Meryl Jones and photographer John Neale – many thanks to all of them, and also to Ian Titman who provided details of OPERATION CHAUFFEUR, Jacqueline’s flight into Dunsfold. (see below)
The day saw another ‘first’ with sales of the Charity’s first merchandise – postcards, with envelopes, commemorating Jacqueline’s wartime service. Framed large versions of the special artwork (by the Canadian artist Sherry Pringle) were presented by Paul McCue to Odile Nearne and Jim McAllister.
Odile Nearne with her framed presentation version of the special postcard produced in honour of Jacqueline Nearne
- a framed print was also presented to Jim McAllister
Photos and archive images courtesy of -
John Neale - IWM - Paul McCue
With grateful thanks to Nancy Edwards and Jim McAllister
BRIGHTON'S SECRET AGENTS
In 2016 the Charity instigated the Brighton's Secret Agents initiative whereby four SOE agents all born in Brighton were to be recognised by the installation of commemorative plaques. Click HERE for more information.
A blue plaque in memory of Jacqueline Nearne has already been installed on the house at 32 West Hill Street, Brighton in which she'd been born just over one hundred years ago.
RESOURCES & WEB LINKS
Jacqueline Nearne's wartime exploits as an SOE agent are recounted by Susan Ottaway and Paul McCue in their respective books - details with web links are below - and a special "Brighton's Secret Agents" section of this web site can be reached by clicking HERE
"MY AUNTS, THE UNLIKELY SPIES" (click HERE for a web link to this Guardian article) Odile Nearne knew her aunts, Jacqueline and Eileen, had played a part in the second world war, but only after their deaths did she discover their true bravery
OPERATION CHAUFFEUR: Click HERE to read the details of the Lysander operation on April 9/10th 1944 to bring back Jacqueline Nearne and two other passengers from occupied France. This includes the original report by the RAF pilot Flt Lt Bill Taylor. (Courtesy of Ian Titman)
FIRST AID NURSING YEOMANRY (Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps) aka the FANY:
Sisters, Secrets and Sacrifice: The True Story of WWII Special Agents Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne by Susan Ottaway
'stars' the SOE agents Jacqueline Nearne and Harry Ree, and is available on DVD