The Tragic Destiny of Basil Blackwood
Unpublished documents reveal how the brilliant 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava met his end on a wartime mission in Burma
Basil Blackwood, the clever and charming fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, died in Burma at the age of 35 in the final months of the Second World War. Neither family nor friends ever knew how he had died. My recent discovery of 80 pages of unpublished documents in the National Archives at Kew reveals for the first time his military mission and the exact place and precise circumstances of his death. These papers provide a brief history of his short life. They list his interests, the books he read during military service, his personal possessions and instructions about returning them to his family in Northern Ireland. They contain a sorrowful account of the failure to recover his body and his presumed burial in an unknown place by the Japanese.
Basil Blackwood’s grandfather, a descendant of the 18th-century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was the cultured and worldly 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1826-1902). Dufferin is in County Down, Northern Ireland; Ava, near Mandalay, was the ancient capital of the Burmese kings. Tennyson celebrated Helen’s Tower on Dufferin’s 3,000-acre estate, Clandeboye, built in 1800:
Helen’s Tower, here I stand,Dominant over sea and land. Son’s love built me, and I hold Mother’s love in lettered gold.
But according to Dufferin’s great-granddaughter Caroline Blackwood, who portrayed Clandeboye as Dunmartin Hall in her autobiographical novel Great Granny Webster (1977), it was chilly, damp, smelly and filthy, with no hot bathwater and stone-cold food.
One of the most prominent diplomats of his time, Dufferin was Governor-General of Canada, ambassador to Russia and the Ottoman empire, when he helped settle the future of Egypt, and author of a successful travel book about Iceland, Letters from High Latitudes (1857). He became Viceroy of India and in 1886, after a brief military campaign, annexed Upper Burma to the British empire. He was painted by the Symbolist artist George Frederick Watts, and was a friend of Kipling, who praised him in the pedantic dramatic monologue, “One Viceroy Resigns”, in which the poet assumed the viceroy’s voice and advised his successor. After India, Dufferin continued his diplomatic career as ambassador to Italy and France. In 1900 he was innocently involved in a financial scandal with the notorious swindler and suicide Whitaker Wright. The Viceroy’s four sons fought in Britain’s early modern wars and had a tragic history. His oldest son, Archibald, born in 1863, was killed in 1900 in the siege of Ladysmith in the Second Boer War. Terence, his second son (1866-1918), was a British diplomat who became the 2nd Marquess and died of pneumonia at the end of World War One. His third son, Basil, was born in 1870 and killed in action in July 1917. Frederick (1875-1930), the fourth son, a soldier and politician, became the 3rd Marquess. The father of Basil Blackwood, he was wounded in the Boer War and (twice) in the World War One, and killed in a plane crash in 1930.
Basil’s mother, Brenda, was considered half-crazy. She called herself Queen of the Fairies and thought her offspring were demonic changelings, left by evil fairies as substitutes for her real children. Basil (1909-45), the fourth Marquess, was educated at Lockers Park, a “prison-like” prep school in Hertfordshire, won the prestigious Rosebery History Prize at Eton and was a Brackenbury Scholar at Balliol College. A friend described his “beautiful brown eyes, very very alive and deep and large”, and said he was quiet and reserved, with fine manners. The biographer Elizabeth Longford called Basil “brilliantly clever . . . very well grown, extremely handsome, very athletic”. Lord Birkenhead, another contemporary, recalled “his incessant chucklings at his own sallies, his dark and striking face thrown forward in fierce argument”. Evelyn Waugh admired him. John Betjeman fell in love with him, and gave him the affectionate schoolboy nicknames of “Little Bloody” and the ironic “Mindless”. He noted his lively conversation and described his appearance and character: “Lord Ava had enormous eyes / And head of a colossal size / He rarely laughed and only spoke / To utter some stupendous joke.” Betjeman later wrote an elegy that described him as “Humorous, reckless, loyal / My kind, heavy-lidded companion”.
Basil’s intellect matched his beauty and character. The Oxford economist Roy Harrod praised him as “the most brilliant pupil I ever had”. Randolph Churchill, agreeing with Betjeman and Harrod, lauded Basil as “the most lovable man I met at Oxford. His liquid spaniel eyes and his beautiful, charming manner commanded affection. He was the most brilliant of all my contemporaries at Oxford.” But Churchill, himself a heavy drinker, added, “an undue addiction to drink blighted what might have been a fine political career”. Basil was also addicted to gambling, and heavily mortgaged his vast estate to pay his gaming debts. He solved his financial problems in July 1930 by marrying his cousin, Maureen Guinness, heiress to the inexhaustible brewery fortune. Basil succeeded to his title that month, and spent his honeymoon traveling in Burma and shooting big game with the Maharajah of Mysore in India.
Basil’s three young children had only the vaguest memories of their busy and often absent father. His son, Sheridan, observing him in the bath when he was on leave from India, was startled to find him covered with swollen mosquito bites. Caroline’s most vivid memory was accompanying her father on a massacre of pheasants and being sent out to fetch the dead birds. Her younger sister, Perdita, given a box of rare wartime chocolates by an American soldier, looked forward to eating them. But when she left them in the library, her father succumbed to temptation and devoured the entire box.
Basil had a dazzling political career and held a series of important government posts in the 1930s. He was private secretary to Lord Lothian, the Under-Secretary of State for India, in 1932; to Lord Halifax, President of the Board of Education, 1932-5 and Secretary of State for War, 1935 and Lord Privy Seal, 1935-36. Basil himself became Under-Secretary of State for Colonies from 1937 to 1940. An effective public speaker, deftly mixing argument and wit, he made his maiden speech in the House of Lords at the age of 22. The historian William Maguire, who did not think Basil’s drinking was an impediment, described him as “a gifted young man of extraordinary charm; like his grandfather [the viceroy] he combined intellectual, literary and artistic gifts with ambitions in public life, and as Under-Secretary of State while still in his twenties, he was talked of in some circles as a future Conservative prime minister”.In 1940, as the Japanese troops steadily advanced in Burma, Basil refused a position in Winston Churchill’s coalition government and became a captain in the Royal Horseguards. He returned to civilian life as Director of the Empire Division of the Ministry of Information from 1941 to 1943, but rejoined the army in May 1944 when his experience in the ministry led to propaganda work in Burma. (Two other dashing soldiers, Orde Wingate and Peter Fleming, also fought in Burma.) Blackwood was posted to Force 136, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in south-east Asia, which specialised in strategic deception and operated against the Japanese, as well as against Burmese and Indian nationalists fighting for the Japanese in the hope of achieving independence if they won the war.
SOE’s mobile broadcasting stations, operating only 30 yards from the front lines, tried to break Japanese morale. They distributed pamphlets and used loudspeakers to make demoralising speeches and play sentimental music that made the soldiers long for home. One message, purportedly from the emperor, used Japanese prisoners to persuade the troops to leave Burma and return to protect their families at home. Though the enemy had been taught that death was preferable to dishonorable surrender, British propaganda urged them to stop fighting the lost war and assured them that they would be treated well as prisoners. Their perilous task was almost impossible, but the propaganda sometimes worked and in the spring of 1944 Force 136 convinced four different Japanese units to surrender.
Basil’s jaunty and optimistic letters home during the last week of his life (which must have reached Northern Ireland after his death) revealed his adventurous spirit and eagerness to confront danger. Writing to his wife on March 17, 1945, he assumed a historical as well as a personal interest in the Burmese campaign by announcing that Ava had been retaken and that the Allies had nearly won the war in Burma:
I am now in the last camp of one of my journeys across Burma of which I have now made several. I certainly have seen more of the various fronts in the time I have been here than most people have. I have not enjoyed myself so much since the war began.
Fort Dufferin is still but tonight Ava is said to have been recaptured. So after three years Sheridan’s earldom is once again in the family. Please congratulate the little fellow on the successful recovery of his property from the invaders. I am now halfway between two battles and there is a hell of a glare in the far distance, but whether it is Mandalay or Meiktila I am not sure. The only fly in the ointment is that the road I am taking tomorrow was cut yesterday and I shall have to go in a convoy which means very slow travelling and for a nervous old politician some anxious moments on some of the narrower portions. . . .
It really looks as though the Jap has just about had it in Burma, though how long it will take and how much he will be able to salvage from the wreck is another matter.
In his last letter, written to his children on March 24, Basil expressed excitement about the tough fighting and very real danger. Though surrounded and attacked by the enemy, he was still confident of victory:
At the moment I am in a camp in a plain which has got the Japs all round it, so we have got to get all our food and ammunition and all things dropped to us from aeroplanes every day. But we get plenty so we are all right. I was just about the last car to get through on the road before these Japs closed it, so I was in luck.
So now we are like a besieged city in olden days (like Troy). I am writing this in a slit trench as it is six o’clock and the sun is going down so the Japs are shelling us and I’m afraid they are going to attack us again tonight. They attacked us the night before last and got into the middle of our position but we drove them out and counted 300 dead bodies the next morning which was jolly good, though they killed a few of ours which was very sad.
Printed sources, including the official British history of the Burma campaign, The War Against Japan, Vol. IV: The Reconquest of Burma (HMSO, 1965), romantically but mistakenly state that Basil died in Ava or even in Fort Dufferin in Mandalay. In fact, he was killed in a Japanese ambush on March 25, 1945, on a covert mission with the Indian Field Broadcasting Unit (IFBU), more than 100 miles south-west of Mandalay.
In Telegram from Guernica, the biography of the war correspondent George Steer who was also killed in Burma, Nicholas Rankin wrote that Basil was filmed just before his death: “Stanley Charles was a combat cameraman with the South-East Asian Command Film Unit, who were roving film reporters. In Burma in March 1945, Charles met a ‘very pleasant’ captain who invited him to film the IFBU at work. Charles filmed them putting up their apparatus, which included a loudspeaker on a tripod, then broadcasting surrender terms in Japanese to an enemy unit in a tunnel on a hill, with the captain lying prone. He was still filming from about 75 yards away when a Japanese mortar fired on the Indian Field Broadcasting Unit and killed the captain.” Basil’s family was notified of his death through diplomatic channels by the Crown Princess of Sweden; his body was never recovered.
The recently discovered military documents include full-face and profile photographs of Basil, in captain’s uniform, which show his dark hair and skin and his attractive, aristocratic features. In his SOE Personnel History Sheet he wrote that his religion was Church of Ireland, his profession politics. He had “considerable knowledge” of India and Burma in 1930; experience in the Indian Franchise Commission (on voting rights) in 1932; and extensive travel through “all colonial possessions,” including Mauritius, Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Aden and Hadramaut in the Arabian peninsula, as well as Madagascar and Albania, when he was Secretary for Colonies. He had a speaking, reading and writing knowledge of French, and noted his other interests as shooting, golf, literature and racing. The 30 books in Basil’s possession included thrillers by Agatha Christie and adventure novels by C. S. Forester as well as more serious works: Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Robert Browning’s poems, and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. His personal effects included a wooden box with letters, personal papers, and photographs of his wife and three children, English and Egyptian money, leather case with sporting guns, leather valise on wheels, tin trunk, kit bag and camp bed. He also had some useful smaller items: passport photographs, cigarette case, pocket lighter, miniature compass, travelling clock, fountain pen, book of stamps, sealing wax and clothing coupons. An official asked that Basil’s possessions be sent back to Britain either by air or by “safe hand of one of our own officers”, and urged that “special care be taken to prevent any loss or damage as the result of extra handling and repacking”. But due to wartime restrictions, the commanding officer “regretted that special permission cannot be given to forward to Lady Dufferin the items listed in the above mentioned letter”.
Basil was killed in the tiny village of Letse, across the Irrawaddy River and only five miles from what is now a major tourist site: Bagan, a sprawling ancient city of 2,200 temples. On March 27, 1945 Major D.H. Preston interviewed eye-witness survivors of the Japanese attack and gave a dramatic account of how the enemy, whose presence was unsuspected, opened fire at almost point-blank range as Basil was leading his men:
I have now seen Song [a Japanese-speaking Korean officer] and the official position seems to be that Dufferin must be regarded as “missing” at the moment.
Song is not too clear or explicit about the whole business but briefly the situation appears to be as follows:
On the 25th of March at about 1500 hours the section, escorted by a platoon of a British Regiment, went out on the flank of the box with a view to broadcasting in an area where a previous patrol had reported only dead bodies. The actual target seems to have been about 400-500 yards ahead of this position. Dufferin and the Jemedar [Indian officer] and the platoon were ahead of the section about 200 yards, presumably doing a recce. One hundred and fifty yards short of the dead bodies’ position Japs in some strength opened fire. The platoon and Dufferin were more or less in open country and Dufferin was hit in the chest. Song says he saw him clutch his chest and stagger about with the platoon as it withdrew. He himself made several attempts to get up to Dufferin but could not do so owing to enemy fire. Ultimately the rest of the section had to withdraw with the British troops and although fresh troops made three more attempts to bring in Dufferin they failed to do so. . . . I think Song has behaved and is behaving very well indeed.
Two months later on May 23, the regimental chaplain, Reverend A.J.L. Heaver, who had actually examined Basil’s dead body under fire, vividly wrote of his wounds, the state of his corpse and their inability to get him out of the battlefield:
I can indeed confirm that Lord Dufferin’s body must have been buried by the Japs near point 534 [on the 1″ map of Burma], for our patrols were sent over the same spot repeatedly and there was no trace of either his body or that of the private soldier killed near him.
His death must have been instantaneous as we got out to him only a little time after he was reported hit and from my examination I could see that he must have been hit through the heart and lungs for the nature and extent of the bleeding proved it. Also, his body was rigid. I don’t think more than an hour and a half at most can have passed before we got to him. It will always be a sorrow to me that we couldn’t bring his body in but though I dragged it for some yards, I had to give it up as the man next to me was hit and we all had our work cut out to bring him in under covering fire.
Two years after Basil’s death, Evelyn Waugh gave Nancy Mitford an amusing account of an incident that occurred when both Basil’s widow and Randolph Churchill were probably drunk at a London ball: “Maureen gave Randolph a terrific box on the ear. Instead of striking back like a man he tried to pacify her. They stood in the centre of the ball room sweating & arguing for three minutes and then — another more terrific box. I said to her: ‘I am all for Randolph being struck but why particularly do you strike him now?’ She: ‘He never wrote a letter of condolence when Ava was killed.’ “
Betjeman chose the glorious but not entirely accurate words for Basil’s memorial at Clandeboye:
A man of brillianceAnd of many friendsHe was killed in action at Letze on March25th 1945 at the age of thirty-five,Recapturing Burma the country whichHis Grandfather annexed to the BritishCrown.
In “Runaway”, addressed to Blackwood’s daughter Caroline, who was his third wife, the American poet Robert Lowell followed the memorial inscription and wrote about “your father’s betrayal of you, / rushing to his military death in Burma, / annexed for England / by his father’s father, the Viceroy.” Betjeman exaggerated Basil’s heroic exploits; Lowell saw them as a personal “betrayal” of his abandoned children.
Basil Blackwood had an illustrious literary and diplomatic heritage, impressive title, good looks, great wealth and formidable intelligence. As W.B. Yeats wrote of another gallant Irishman, Major Robert Gregory, “Soldier, scholar, horseman, he, / And all he did done perfectly.” The detailed documents in the military archives solve the mystery of Basil’s death, which occurred nearly 70 years ago. His personal charm, difficult to capture and define, impressed everyone who knew him. A brilliant scholar, with a gift for friendship, he was destined for high office but had his career cut off in his mid-thirties. He held an important position in the British government, but showed personal courage by volunteering for dangerous duty. It’s sadly ironic that he was killed on a comparatively unimportant mission. In Burma, Basil was destined to follow the tradition of his gifted but tragically doomed family.
Additional research by Stephen Fogden