March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 17

By David Dilks


“A man of great spirit and courage.” Such were the terms in which Keith Feiling wrote from Christ Church to recommend F.W. Deakin to Winston Churchill seventy years ago. All those present today, and a far greater number beyond these shores, will recognise the acuity of a devoted tutor’s judgment.

Though he felt shy and nervous in this company, and swiftly discovered that Churchill expected his research assistant to be as tough in constitution and concentrated in thought as himself, Bill Deakin fitted in from the start at Chartwell. Soon we find Churchill writing “I like Mr. Deakin very much,” and a little later, “Deakin has been here four days and has helped me a lot. He shows more quality and serviceableness than any of the others.”

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Hitherto, Churchill had sought danger and political excitements and had written about his experiences— placing them in the context of larger themes, to be sure, but with his own figure prominent in the foreground. Hence a delicious remark of the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, when yet a further volume of The World Crisis appeared, “I am immersed in Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe.”

Churchill’s life of the First Duke of Marlborough, by contrast, represented an enterprise different in its nature, and it was for this that Mr. Deakin had been recruited. The events of more than two centuries earlier must be recreated in the imagination and reconstructed; vast archives, at The Hague and Vienna no less than Blenheim, must be trawled. Churchill was bent upon the rescue of his great ancestor’s reputation from the ravages inflicted upon it by Macaulay. For his literary assistant, an academic historian accustomed to appraise sceptically, this situation held an immanent conflict. But as Bill once put the point soon after Churchill’s death, he had “surrendered without terms long ago to the magic of the man.”

To be close to Churchill was a privilege for which it was worth paying; the price, which Bill observed for the rest of his life, was one of strict loyalty and discretion, the dividend beyond calculation. Possessing the accomplishments of a scholar, he soon acquired something still rarer. For in the study at Chartwell, starting late at night and not ending until three or four in the morning-—after which he would drive across country to Oxford and teach at Wadham from nine—Bill learned “vastly more of the sense of history than my formal education as a student, and later as a teacher, ever taught me.” The point was no doubt apparent to Bill’s academic colleagues from an early date; we must doubt whether it brought them much joy.

When wishing to be boisterous or intimidating —no infrequent event—Churchill would address his young assistant as “you god-damned don.” However, Bill realized at an early stage—indeed, he could scarcely have worked for Churchill on any other terms—that such turbulence passed in the twinkling of an eye.

He won his master’s confidence swiftly and completely; immediately after the Anschluss of 1938, Churchill sent him to Prague to discuss with President Benes the state of Czechoslovakia’s defences. In research and discussion at Chartwell Deakin saw, and helped Churchill to appreciate, the conduct of coalition warfare in the hands of a master. Soon both of them were to witness the process in its modern guise.

One day early in 1939, Bill said to Mr. Churchill (in those formal days, they invariably addressed each other as “Mr. Churchill” and “Mr. Deakin”), “You know I have never asked you for anything on my own behalf, but now I want to make a request. I’m anxious to join the Territorials. Would you send a letter of recommendation to the Oxfordshire Hussars? After all,” he added brightly, “I’m only asking for a chance to get killed.” Churchill wrote at once to the Commanding Officer, “I can say from my own intimate knowledge of him for several years that he is in every way fitted to make an excellent officer.”

Once the last volume of Marlborough was published, Churchill had embarked upon A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, with Deakin as his indispensable coadjutor. In the intervals of training with the army, Bill discussed lustily with him the question of whether King Alfred ever burnt the cakes, and emerged chastened when his master explained that at times of crisis, myths have their historical importance. At the height of the Norwegian campaign in the spring of 1940, the two of them debated the reign of Edward the Confessor; and a few months later, with the Battle of Britain raging, Captain Deakin lunched alone with the Prime Minister. Even Churchill had by now abandoned the idea of early publication, and the book did not appear for the better part of two decades.

Bill realised in the army, as young men from Cumberland mingled with those from Devon, each group speaking a language more or less incomprehensible to the other, that there was all the same something called England, which meant everything to them all. After Northern Ireland, he was posted to highly secret duties in the United States and then on his own insistence came back in 1942. because he did not wish to serve out the war behind a desk.

When it was decided that Captain Deakin should be parachuted into Yugoslavia to discover the whereabouts and activities—indeed, the identity—of Tito, he can scarcely have expected to return. He wrote to Churchill from Cairo in May 1943 on the eve of his departure: “I am glad to go and hope to be able to establish a useful liaison and in any case send back information of value.” With what we must think a conscious echo of Captain Oates, and with a nice display of English understatement, he added, “It will be some time before I can extricate myself from the Balkans again….”

Evelyn Waugh, who saw something of Bill in Yugoslavia, believed him “a very loveable and complicated man,” a “very clever, heroic man.” We have no need to quarrel with those words. We may notice in passing that after their first meeting, Waugh described Bill’s “Hindu legs, ascetic face,” which I mention because this provides the sole recorded instance in which anybody ever applied the word “ascetic” to him.

It is sometimes thought that Churchill wrote about the Second World War only when it was clear that he could make advantageous financial arrangements. In reality, he was resolved that if health lasted he would follow the habit of a lifetime; having lived in the eye of the storm for six years, he would do what he was uniquely qualified to do: speak for himself. Thus Mr. Deakin, who insisted on leaving the Embassy in Belgrade to return to his Fellowship at Wadham, had scarcely reached London before he found himself intercepted by Churchill and asked to deal with the political and diplomatic sides of the memoirs.

To this enormous task Bill devoted himself. By his mastery of languages, wide intellectual interests, coiled energy, cordial relations with colleagues in Whitehall, orderliness in dealing with many millions of words, harmony with Churchill, he made the enterprise possible. Thus a volume a year for six years. When the last part of The Second World War had appeared, work resumed upon A History of the English Speaking Peoples. A few weeks after his retirement as Prime Minister, we find Churchill writing to his wife, “In a quarter of an hour I expect Bill Deakin. I must bring him along if I can”; which meant that he must seek Bill’s renewed help.

There was no doubt of his capacity to do that; the Warden had a thousand duties here and elsewhere, but it would not have lain in his nature to refuse anything that Churchill asked. To the end, he and Pussy remained amongst the closest friends of the Churchills. When Sir Winston dined for the last time with the Other Club, in his 91st year, he asked the Warden of St. Antony’s to accompany him. I once heard Bill admit— though only under the most direct questioning—what he would never have said unsolicited: that he was proud of that fact.

An integral part of Churchill’s purpose in writing The Second World War had been to make clear the scale and nature of the British and Commonwealth effort. In his different style, Bill determined that justice should be done, in a quiet, scholarly but effective way, to that heroic enterprise.

The process began under the direct impetus of the Warden, who convened at St. Antony’s in 1962 a pioneering conference which discussed Britain and European Resistance during the war. It was an event notable on many grounds, not least of which was that there gathered in this College those who had taken a leading part in the resistance in their own countries in Europe, together with academic commentators; in some instances the two categories overlapped.

Bill’s own writings—about Mussolini and the collapse of fascism, the activities of Richard Sorge, and other subjects—were based upon a mastery of documents in many archives, and an understanding of politics and character deepened by his long association with Churchill. Bill too had experienced his time of violent excitement and wrote about it, though with reluctance and—because he could say nothing about Enigma— under many inhibitions.

He always “saw the skull beneath the skin,” sensed subtleties and layers of meaning hidden from others. In these last years, it was not possible to be with him without recalling Churchill’s valediction of Balfour:

“As I observed him regarding with calm, firm and cheerful gaze the approach of Death, I felt how foolish die Stoics were to make such a fuss about an event so natural and so indispensable to mankind. But I felt also the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling or lets it fall shivered into fragments upon the ground.”

Bill’s modesty, carried to the point of a fault; his charming habit of treating the young on level terms; his wholly unfeigned interest in others and anxiety to help them; the natural dignity which enabled him to disdain the frailties of old age—all provide an example to be treasured until our own time is come. The courage and spirit which Professor Feiling discerned seventy years ago remained undimmed. Asked what the doctors thought about his condition, he replied, “They’re very vague about everything. Only one thing is certain; that I don’t give a damn.”

When Bill arrived at the convalescent hospital at Le Beausset just before Christmas, after a major operation which he had been thought unlikely to survive, he was asked “Is there anything we can do for you, Monsieur Deakin?” “Certainly,” he replied. “Champagne for everyone.”

Churchill once remarked mischievously of a Prime Minister who left office early, “For myself, I always believed in staying in the pub until closing time.” In this College we knew that the last man to leave any good party would always be the Warden. His interests were legion, his friends to be found the world over. His hospitality, not least of the mind, was boundless, and his company an enduring delight:

“They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead;
They brought me bitter news to hear,
and bitter tears to shed;
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking,
and sent him down the sky.”


Address at the Memorial Meeting for Sir William Deakin DSO MA. St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 23 April 2005. Professor Dilks was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull, 1991-99, is the author of The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada 1900-1954, and biographer of Neville Chamberlain. Published in FH by kind permission.

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