Airey Neave has to be one of the most interesting British characters of the twentieth century. The first British officer to make a home-run from Colditz, co-ordinating escape lines in occupied Europe, part of the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials and later a Conservative MP, sadly he will probably best be known for his cold-blooded murder by Irish Republicans in 1979.
This book is a re-print of his memoirs of his time working with MI9. It begins after his return from Colditz, and his recruitment by Brigadier Norman Crockatt. Crockatt felt that as Neave had experience of escaping from captivity in Nazi Europe he would be an ideal person to work for the organisation tasked with assisting captured servicemen to do the same. This is a point that Neave makes frequently – only someone who has been on the run themselves can understand the stresses and strains of escaping.
Neave worked specifically on setting up and assisting escape lines in France, Belgium and Holland. MI9 provided higher direction and assistance, but most of the most dangerous and important work was carried out by the incredibly brave men and women of occupied Europe. In particular it is impossible not to admire the heroism of Dedee of the famous Comet line. Neave was also involved in escapes such as those of the survivors of the Cockleshell Heroes, the camp set up to accomodate hundreds of airmen at the Foret de Freteval, and Motor Torpedo Boat rescues from Brittany.
A common thread that appears during Neave’s account is how frequently ‘the establishment’ failed to see the important of rescuing captured men. At times it seems that the armed forces and other agencies such as SOE were at best ambivelent, and at worst hostile to MI9. While escape and evasion are part of military training nowadays, in the second world war there still seems to have been a deep distrust by many of anything new or irregular, and MI9 fitted into this category.
Not only was it important to bring back men who were capable of fighting again, in many cases – particularly with aircrew – they had cost thousands of pounds and hundreds of hours to train. And quite apart from the material aspect, it is important for men to know when going into battle that if they were captured, then every effort would be made to get them home safely. If medical care of the wounded had been revolutionised by the Crimean War and the First World War, why did it take so long for the armed forces to accept MI9’s work? Its a seemingly obvious lesson – agencies on the same side should put turf wars aside and find ways of working together.
It evidently gave Airey Neave great satisfaction to be given the duty of reading the indictments to those on trial at Nuremberg. He had been involved in some of the operations that led to the execution of allied personnel and civilians. Of the latter Neave is quite clear – their contribution to the escape organisations was crucial. He is particularly scathing of historians who have attempted to belittle the contribution of these very brave people.
Early on in the book Neave states that an official history of MI9 is yet to be written, and due to the limits imposed on the relevant documents may be some way off. Whilst he was no doubt writing under the restrictions of the official secrets act, and many documents may indeed still be closed, it is quite possible that Airey Neave’s account is an official account in all but name. I found it a rivetting read.