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Friday, October 02, 2015

Public Servant, Secret Agent: The Enigmatic Life and Violent Death of Airey Neave

I stumbled across this book while doing some research on Colditz, the supposedly escape-proof castle/prison where incorrigible escapees were housed by the Nazis.  I had never heard of Neave but reading just a couple of pages hooked me completely.  It’s fascinating.

As a child Neave had been sent to Germany in 1933 to learn the language.  This gave him an opportunity to witness fascism in practice and he formed a lifelong hatred of authoritarianism that became an obsession.

Unlike his fellow students who wanted nothing to do with war, Neave joined the Territorials.  When the war began, he was shipped off to France as part of a Searchlight unit which was unfortunate enough to be assigned to defend Calais against Guderian’s panzers. He was shot by a sniper and captured. (He described these events in his book The Flames of Calais.**) He was captured and imprisoned in several different POW camps from which he tried to escape each time.  Eventually, he wound up in Colditz, the supposedly escape-proof camp (that’s a laugh).  He escaped to Switzerland in 1942 where he came to the attention of MI9, one of those shadowy numbered agencies of British Intelligence which, in this case, was “a wholly owned subsidiary of MI6.”

During the war, following his escape, he worked for MI9 in establishing and maintaining the escape routes for downed airmen. Anxious to get France following the Normandy invasions, he pushed through on the heels of the American Third Army in order to personally liberate one of the rather spectacular camps they had established right under the noses of the Germans.  It held over 100 men and was supplied by air. One interesting and confirmed story has him preventing the destruction of Chartres Cathedral by American troops with orders to blow it up for fear snipers might be hiding in the towers.  If so he personally saved one of the great Gothic cathedrals.

There is a relatively short chapter on Neave’s role in the Nuremberg trials. I was disappointed in its brevity for Neave’s -- he was one of the junior prosecutors -- comments on the reactions of each of the major defendants as the indictments were being read to them I thought were fascinating and would have enjoyed learning more. I realize in a biography one has to be selective, but I would have traded some of the escape detail for more depth about Nuremberg. Especially since the author questions whether Neave took its lessons to heart: “...soldiers should also understand politics, and Nuremberg was the greatest example of civil society seeking to make soldiers understand the nature of their actions and their responsibility to recognise political right and wrong. In his own life, the soldier – politician Neave was not always so scrupulous. He vigorously propounded the virtues of liberty and democracy but flirted dangerously with quasi-military groups in Britain determined to halt what they saw as a drift towards Communism. For the most part, the politician was in charge, but sometimes the soldier took over, as in his attitude to Northern Ireland much later."

He then morphed into politics, but his heart always lay with the secret service and he intertwined the two. Following a heart attack in 1959 (most likely caused by his excessive drinking and smoking, he resigned his ministerial offices and relegated to the back benches where he began to nurse a resentment against what he  considered ill treatment from his conservative brethren taking a job as a lucrative  parliamentary consultant for an atomic energy company. Back as an MP, his efforts were unspectacular except in the area of compensation for British POWS who had been held by the Germans in concentration camps. He was active in debates on the ‘brain drain’, care of the elderly, nuclear energy, toll bridges and the foot and mouth epidemic among English cattle. Making a long story shorter, Naeve offered his services to Margaret Thatcher as her campaign manager and using the psychological skills of the secret service, performed brilliantly. His intelligence network was “unsurpassed.”

By the early seventies, IRA violence was dominating the news. Following Thatcher’s election, Naeve could have virtually any position in her cabinet. Perhaps because of his MI6 experience he chose Northern Ireland. “Despite his reputation as a vaguely progressive Conservative, Neave was now moving in very deep shadows on the hard right of British – and Irish – politics.” No doubt he thought he could use force to quell the Republican movement.  "Roger Bolton, a television producer who knew him and put together a documentary on his assassination, argues the paradox that Neave was a moral man willing to do things that immoral people were not: ‘If necessary, he took the gun out and there were difficult things to be done but for the most honourable of reasons.’ Thatcher perhaps owed him a great deal as Neave was the mastermind behind the coup that “dethroned” Edward Heath. using the “psy-ops” techniques he had acquired during his years in the intelligence services.

Neave was killed by a bomb in his car in 1979.  Routledge managed to interview the team (another one of the hopelessly confusing quasi-independent groups with its own acronym (INLA) they were black-hooded and still very secretive, but hoped that by revealing the truth of Neave’s killing, they might persuade the British government to reveal information about some of the government’s own killings.

"He was a public servant who never really stopped being a secret agent.”   

A riveting book. One caveat:  some knowledge of 20th century British parliamentary history would be invaluable, something I did not have, and without it the central section seemed often ungrounded, but the recounting of his time during the war, his shadowy operations to get Thatcher elected and Northern Ireland make up for that.  Highly recommended.  

** In his book, Neave makes the case that holding Calais “at all costs” made the evacuation at Dunkirk possible.   Liddell-Hart thought that was rubbish noting that the panzer division assigned to Calais was only one of seven and had been deployed because “it had nothing else to do,” and that the brave stand against overwhelming odds was a useless sacrifice that Churchill later glorified to salve his conscience.     

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