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. Two other heroes written about over the past fortnight went on to become Anglican clergymen: Donald Peyton Jones, died aged 90, was a founder of the Royal Marines Special Boat Service; and ‘Jumbo’ Wilson fought insurgents in Java. A week or two earlier, the passing of Frank Pantridge, died aged 88, was noted by the Telegraph. As a medical officer in the Far East later taken prisoner by the Japanese, he was awarded the military cross, having (so the citation read) ‘worked unceasingly under the most adverse conditions of continuous bombing and shelling … an inspiring example to all with whom he came into contact’. Mr Pantridge was one of those who did great things in later life. He invented the portable defibrillator.
Sometimes I read such pieces with an aching heart, and always in a state of awe. I love the Telegraph for caring about this vanishing race of men who served Britain when she was still a great power. Of course, it cannot write about all of them. Let me mention my father-in-law, Peter Montague, who died on New Year’s Day at the age of 88. Actually I wrote about him in The Spectator Christmas edition of 1996. He was a young officer in the Honourable Artillery Company seconded to the 2nd Indian Field Regiment who, having been trained in Arctic warfare, found himself in the North African desert at the beginning of 1942. On 27 May 1942 his regiment was part of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade which engaged the Germans (who had first been mistaken for South Africans!) at the Battle of Bir Hacheim. Six of the regiment’s officers were killed and a further 12 taken prisoner, Peter among them, his face burnt by an exploding petrol tank. He spent the rest of the war in a series of Italian and German prisoner-of-war camps from which he tried, without success, to escape.
I mentioned in that Christmas piece how officers who had served in the 2nd Indian Field Regiment would meet every year in an Indian restaurant in London. After Indian independence in 1947, the regiment was incorporated into the Indian army. It has no premises of its own in this country, nor any regimental memorabilia, and its annual lunches in that dingy restaurant, some of which I was privileged to attend, have been the only commemoration of its wartime role. Even in 1996 time had reduced the numbers to 10 or 11. Now the survivors have dwindled to perhaps two or three, and the lunches have been stopped.
They taught me that, in the end, it is really only your old comrades who salute you — and perhaps the Daily Telegraph. Certainly you should not depend on the gratitude or continuing interest of the state. A few years ago Peter went to look up his war records in some government archive and found that according to officialdom he had not existed. Happily the Honourable Artillery Company has a better memory.
When I read these obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, I think how very young these old men were then, and how frightened, despite their courage, they must sometimes have been. Those of us who have never been in a battle can never know what it is really like. As he lay delirious on the verge of death, Peter was back in the desert of more than 60 years ago, shouting orders and warnings, gabbling about Germans, and sometimes striking the air. This is the world that is slipping from us. Every week, every day still, these old men are dying, but the source is inexorably diminishing. There will be fewer and fewer such obits in the Telegraph. And one day, not so very far away, there will be none at all.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 29, 2005