Hero in war, victim in peace

“Airey Neave knew what it meant to fight for freedom, had cheated death many times during the war, and yet he would die a violent death during a time of peace”

Books
Airey Neave: Life in the shadows (©NEAVE FAMILY)

One of the pithiest letters ever written to The Times was published on January 6, 1974. Written by one Michael Hall, it consisted of the single question, “Sir, Is there no escape from Colditz?”

Mr Hall had a point. At the time of writing, the whole of Britain really did feel imprisoned in the iconic German prisoner-of-war camp. The second series of the hit BBC TV drama starring Robert Wagner and David McCallum was about to air, Pat Reid’s phenomenally successful memoirs about Colditz were prominently displayed in every bookshop, and there was even a board game that had been placed under many Christmas trees called Escape from Colditz.

In among all this Colditz kerfuffle, one man had been somewhat neglected. His name was Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave, the backbench Conservative Member of Parliament for Abingdon, an Old Etonian who had held the seat for two decades, and whose parliamentary career had been blighted by a heart attack he had suffered when he was just 43.

While Pat Reid and the TV stars hogged the searchlight, many had forgotten that the unassuming Neave was the first British officer to have made a “home run” from the supposedly escape-proof castle in Saxony. Yes, he too had written his memoirs, and they had sold well, but somehow Neave had an absence of the star quality that would have made him as much of a Second World War celebrity as the likes of Pat Reid and Douglas Bader.

It is that lack of “x factor” that is the key to understanding this most intriguing of soldiers, intelligence officers and politicians. You can see it in his face, which somehow managed to look different in every photograph—a great asset for someone who needs to live in the shadows but a handicap, surely, for someone in public life.

It is also a problem for biographers, who usually prefer their subjects to be both charismatic and contradictory. As Neave publicly displayed neither of those attributes in abundance, this makes him a tough nut to crack, even for an author and historian as experienced as Patrick Bishop.

Not for Bishop, then, any exciting tales of childhood misdemeanour, or tragic tales of neglect. Neave behaved well at Eton, and was a little naughty and lazy at Oxford, while his father seems to have been a bit distant and not terrifically likeable. Teenage diaries, so often a goldmine, are anodyne, and things only really start to hot up when the war starts, and it’s from here that Bishop is able to draw on the five wartime memoirs-cum-histories that Neave himself wrote. For anybody who has read this quintet this section of the book may feel familiar, but Bishop tells it well. After all, escaping from Colditz, running escape lines, serving the indictment on Hermann Goering at Nuremberg, being awarded a DSO and an MC, certainly constitute a “good war”—and all this by the time Neave was just 30.

Tragically, at Nuremberg Neave was already nearly halfway through his life, which was vilely ended by INLA terrorists when his car was blown up as he was leaving the Palace of Westminster in March 1979. He was 63.

At the time of his death, he had been the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for five years, and, in all likelihood would have served in that role in the Conservative government that would be elected just a few weeks later. However, Neave’s political legacy has always been seen in the context of playing the kingmaker to Margaret Thatcher, for whom he acted as campaign manager in her successful bid to lead the party in 1975. Much guff has been written about Neave’s supposed mastery of  the “dark arts” which saw him mastermind that campaign so adroitly, but in truth, his tactic of talking down his candidate as an outsider was little more than good solid bluffing.

Bishop does Neave a great service with this gripping account, and better still, he also brings a robust sense of journalistic inquiry into why Neave’s killers have never been brought to justice. It seems particularly unjust that one of those allegedly involved in the assassination, Harry Flynn, manages an Irish bar on Mallorca, where he serves tourists with sangria and beer without his past appearing to trouble him—or them.

Meanwhile, Neave lies in the graveyard of an Oxfordshire village, a man who really knew what it meant to fight for freedom, who had cheated death so many times during the war, and yet would die a violent death during a time of peace. There is an irony there, but perhaps for a man like Neave, who knew the fight was never over, it was a death he might have expected—but never feared.