Magazine article The Spectator

Our Modest War Heroes May Be Forgotten by the State - but Not by the Telegraph

Magazine article The Spectator

Our Modest War Heroes May Be Forgotten by the State - but Not by the Telegraph

Article excerpt

Every morning, when I am faced by my pile of newspapers, almost the first thing I do is to turn to the obituary page of the Daily Telegraph. Obits in all the serious papers are good - generally much better than they were 20 years ago -but the Telegraph has a particular specialisation which its rivals hardly try to emulate. Three or four times a week it carries pieces about former servicemen who fought in the second world war. To be included it seems that you need to have won a military medal, or else gone on to achieve high rank after the war. These obituaries record the acts of sacrifice and bravery of young men over 60 years ago. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the British press.

Over the past year or two I have noticed that the number of these obituaries is slowly declining. This is hardly surprising, if you think about it. A generation of heroes has been dying out. If you were 18 in 1945, and fought in the final year of the war, you would be nearly 78 now, had you lived to tell the tale. Those who enlisted in 1939 as very young men would be in their middle eighties now. Surviving senior officers are long dead, as are nearly all the middling ones. We are left mainly with former junior officers, and sometimes NCOs, who were too young to play a central part in the strategic development of the war.

There are still a few exceptions, though: men who have lived into their nineties, and made their mark at a preternaturally young age. One such was Sir William Deakin, of whom the Telegraph carried a typically masterful obituary this week after his death at the age of 91. Before the war Deakin worked as Churchill's research assistant on Marlborough: His Life and Times. He was serving in the Yugoslav section at Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Cairo when he was chosen, in 1943, to lead the first British military mission to Tito's headquarters in Yugoslavia, the first step in Churchill's controversial abandonment of the royalist chetniks in favour of the communist partisans. Young Deakin became friendly with Tito, on one occasion pushing him into a foxhole when they were under German bombardment, thereby saving the future dictator's life. He later founded St Antony's College, Oxford.

Most of the obituaries, though, are of men (and occasionally women) who did not play such a conspicuous part in the high counsels of the war. Often they come from obscurity, and return to it after the war. I have noticed how many of them try their hand at farming. A few spend some time in the short-lived colonies before coming back to a quiet life in the English countryside. For these people, the war was the decisive event of their lives. It drew forth their greatness, and then left them stranded, unable, or unwilling, to match the intensity of experience. Others go on to worldly success.

One is reminded from reading these obituaries what a huge and complex enterprise the second world war was. Over the past couple of weeks the Telegraph has carried a long obituary of George Millar, died aged 94, who was awarded the MC for a daring escape from captivity in 1943, and subsequently received the DSO for his services with the SOE in enemy-occupied France. He appears to have lived a quiet life after the war, farming in Dorset, and writing about his wartime experiences. Another obit was of Commander Edward Stanley, died aged 89, a submariner who tracked an Italian troopship for months and was then depth-charged 56 times after sinking it. In later life he worked for a fertiliser company. …

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