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Sir  (Frederick) William Dampier Deakin (1913–2005), by Bassano, 1961Sir (Frederick) William Dampier Deakin (1913–2005), by Bassano, 1961
Deakin, Sir (Frederick) William Dampier [Bill] (1913–2005), special operations officer, historian, and college head, was born on 3 July 1913 at 30 Temple Gardens, Golders Green, London, the elder son of Albert Whitney Deakin, motor engineer and farmer, and his wife, Bertha Mildred, née Measures. At Westminster School an inspiring teacher reported in 1930 that ‘He has a fine critical intelligence, plenty of drive and a command of words which is sometimes brilliant’ (Deakin papers, priv. coll.). After brief spells at a college in America and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Deakin entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1931. He flourished there, took a first in modern history in the summer of 1934, and went to teach for a while in Germany, where he met and disliked Anthony Blunt. On 22 October 1935 he married Margaret Ogilvy Beatson Bell, the 21-year-old daughter of Sir Nicholas Dodd Beatson Bell, vicar of Cornish Hall End, Essex, and former governor of Assam. They had two sons, Nicholas (b. 1936) and Michael (b. 1939). The marriage ended in divorce in 1940.

Research for Churchill

In 1936 Deakin was appointed a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford. Before then an even more momentous event had occurred. Winston Churchill, seeking help with the later stages of his work on Marlborough, sought advice from Keith Feiling at Christ Church. Feiling recommended Deakin, a man of ‘great spirit and courage, as I have seen in several trials’ (Feiling to Churchill, 2 Dec 1935, Churchill papers, CHAR 8, 506/23). The elder statesman and the new recruit, separated in age by almost forty years, took to each other swiftly. Deakin's knowledge, orderliness, and zeal impressed Churchill. For his part Deakin admired Churchill's fierce concentration and loved his company. Soon he was regarded almost as a member of Churchill's family. He also won within a couple of years his master's complete confidence in political matters. ‘Mr. Deakin is a young man of the highest character and intelligence’, Churchill wrote to the president of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1938, ‘and shares my outlook on European affairs’ (Churchill to E. Beneš, 1 April 1938, Churchill papers, CHAR 8/595). Marlborough completed, Churchill embarked on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples with Deakin as his chief coadjutor. The two often laboured until the early hours in the library at Chartwell; Deakin would then drive to Oxford and teach at Wadham from 9.00.

With Churchill's blessing Deakin had before the outbreak of the Second World War joined the Queen's Own Oxfordshire hussars. During the first winter of the conflict he combined his military duties with research and drafting. In April 1940, while the battles for Norway raged, he found himself late at night in Admiralty House discussing the Norman conquest, and he lunched alone with Churchill at the height of the battle of Britain that summer. Briefly posted to Northern Ireland, he then went for a time to work for British security co-ordination under Sir William Stephenson in New York, before returning on his own insistence to Europe. He was recruited into the Special Operations Executive, sent to Cairo, and there met Livia Stela (Pussy) Nasta (d. 2001), daughter of Liviu Nasta of Bucharest. They married in 1943.

SOE in Yugoslavia

In May 1943 Deakin was dispatched to Yugoslavia, to find out what he could about the mysterious Tito, of whose identity and whereabouts the British were ignorant. He pretended to no expertise in the tangled affairs of Yugoslavia and did not speak any of the local languages. His senior officer in Cairo, a strong supporter of General Mihailović, apparently hoped that he would not return. When the tiny British party landed by parachute in Montenegro, near Mount Durmitor, the enemy forces were all around. Within a few days Deakin's fellow officer was killed in an attack during which Tito, Deakin, and others were wounded. As Churchill later remarked in the House of Commons, to be wounded by the same bomb constituted ‘a bond between people, but a bond which, I trust, we shall not have to institute in our own personal relationships’ (Hansard 5C, 22 Feb 1944, 397.694).

Neither then nor later did Deakin doubt that Tito, revealed to be Josip Broz, was a man of distinction and quality; Tito appears to have reached with equal speed the same conclusion about Deakin. They spent many hours in each other's company. Deakin admired the fortitude, calmness, and determination that Tito displayed in often desperate circumstances. He knew that the partisans—starving, living sometimes on nettle soup or handfuls of grass, infested by lice, daily witness to acts of heroism and terror—were doing the allies a service of the first order by engaging so many German and Italian divisions, a diversion of forces that became the more significant as the campaigns in Sicily and Italy developed. Because Tito spoke no English and Deakin no Serbo-Croat, they plotted the downfall of the Führer entirely in German. In his own account Deakin made no attempt to glide around the horrors of this guerrilla warfare. When the cries of the wounded, soldiers of a Croat division that had fought under German leadership, sounded from the pathways and ditches, ‘Pity had long drained out of us. Edging my horse among the bodies, a flick of the rein would have avoided the trampling of the imploring shadows. But in our triumphant wrath and the explosion of our release, we crushed them’ (Embattled Mountain, 22). In Cairo towards the end of 1943, when Churchill passed through on his way from the conference with Stalin and Roosevelt at Tehran, Deakin found himself seated next to a trim figure in the uniform of a field marshal. This was Jan Smuts. ‘And what do you do?’ he asked. ‘I think I am some sort of bandit’, Deakin replied. Smuts winked. ‘So was I once’ (ibid., 261).

In due course a larger mission under Fitzroy Maclean was sent to Yugoslavia. The two of them, and others, advised that the most effective opposition to the axis in Yugoslavia came from the partisans rather than from Mihailović, and the British government decided eventually to withdraw support from the latter and concentrate it on the former. That Maclean and Deakin had contributed to this decision is not in doubt; what counted for far more, it is now plain, was the interception of many enemy communications revealing links between Mihailović and the Italians and Germans and the fact that it was the partisans, not Mihailović, who caused them most trouble.

In 1944 Deakin became head of SOE's Yugoslav section in Cairo and, later that year, was transferred to the staff of Harold Macmillan and became adviser to a new command, Balkan Air Force, responsible for all military operations into central and south-eastern Europe. Macmillan valued him as highly as Churchill did. After the war he served for a while as first secretary in the British embassy at Belgrade, confronted hourly by obstruction and outright hostility on the part of the Yugoslav authorities, of which he did not fail to provide many examples when taking official farewell of Tito at the end of January 1946. For his services in Yugoslavia Deakin was awarded the DSO and the Russian order of Valour, and later the Yugoslav Partisan Star, first class.

Churchill had already resolved to follow the habit of a lifetime; having lived in the eye of the storm for six years, he would write about the war. On his return to England Deakin found himself intercepted and asked to deal with all the political and diplomatic side of the memoirs. To this task he devoted himself for years, combining it with his duties at Wadham. By his mastery of languages, wide intellectual interests, coiled energy, cordial relations with colleagues in Whitehall, readiness in drafting, and harmony with Churchill, Deakin made the enterprise possible. Describing himself as ‘one who surrendered without terms long ago to the magic of the man’ (‘Churchill the historian’, 1), he felt the tension immanent in the position of a research assistant who was also a professional historian. ‘It was always Winston's book’, he nevertheless said long afterwards; ‘the rest of us were there to help as best we could, not to interpose our own views’ (private information).

St Antony's College

At the instance of Churchill, Wadham College converted Deakin's post in 1949 to a research fellowship. But it chanced that Antonin Besse, a French citizen whose main enterprises were based in Aden and east Africa, had offered Oxford over £1 million for the foundation of a college. Negotiations dragged; Besse became impatient; there was a risk that the benefaction would be lost. It was probably the warden of Wadham, C. M. Bowra, who proposed that Deakin should become head of the new enterprise. At all events it was he who explained the position to Churchill. ‘I was delighted to hear of this plan which will give Bill Deakin the opportunity his talents have so long deserved’, Churchill replied. ‘I do not think you could have made a better choice’ (Churchill to Bowra, 20 March 1950, Churchill papers, CHUR 2/168B).

St Antony's might have taken any one of several forms; indeed, it might have proved little more than a hostel. Deakin, however, saw and seized the opportunity. Oxford could now build up a purely graduate international college. He travelled to meet Besse in the south of France and expounded his plans. Between the two an immediate alliance of respect was forged, soon reinforced by strong affection. Besse judged Deakin to be ‘altogether a superior man’, who had in him ‘a spark of adventurous spirit which endears him to me’ (Footman, 185–6). Within weeks Deakin surmounted innumerable difficulties. He gathered the nucleus of a staff, looking for people of high talent who would not only bring distinction on the nascent college by their research but also devote themselves to their pastoral and teaching duties.

St Antony's opened in October 1950 with seven students. It concentrated largely, but in no rigid fashion, on the study of modern international history, politics, and economics, acquiring buildings by lease or purchase. Student numbers grew rapidly. The college's areas of expertise expanded almost by the year. It became and remained a renowned centre of ‘regional studies’ of a distinctive kind, firmly rooted in established academic disciplines. Like the warden himself it provided a bridge between the worlds of public affairs and of academic study.

Somehow Deakin combined these duties with research and drafting for the last three volumes of The Second World War (1951–4), paying a heavy price in respect of his own scholarly interests, but with a dividend beyond calculation; for in the study at Chartwell he had learned ‘vastly more of the sense of history than my formal education as a student, and later as a teacher, ever taught me’ (‘Churchill the historian’, 12). After Churchill retired exhausted from the prime ministership in 1955 Deakin helped at every stage with the revision of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, issued in four volumes between 1956 and 1958. Then the way was at last open for pursuit of his own academic interests. His masterly account of the relations between Hitler and Mussolini, and of the implosion of the fascist regime in 1943, appeared as The Brutal Friendship in 1962, and The Case of Richard Sorge, written with his close friend and colleague at St Antony's, Dick Storry, in 1966.

The original endowment had proved inadequate to support St Antony's as its work and reputation grew. Though he always said he disliked the activity Deakin sought funds assiduously and successfully; Besse's family made further generous donations, as did a wide variety of foundations. With support from Macmillan, now chancellor of the university and prime minister, and Churchill, he obtained a handsome grant from the Ford Foundation. From a conference he organized at St Antony's in 1962 sprang the British National Committee for the History of the Second World War, over which he presided for thirty-five years. He also served as vice-president of the international committee to which the British organization was affiliated, and did much to sustain contacts with former enemies and especially with the countries behind the iron curtain. His genius for friendship, accessibility, and reputation as a scholar and as a man of action gave him unique standing and he remained quietly determined that justice should be done to the role which Britain and the Commonwealth countries had played. Deakin's other concerns while warden were numerous, not least when he yielded to the urgent entreaty of Macmillan to serve as one of the five who under the chairmanship of Lord Radcliffe scrutinized security procedures in the public service. The committee examined the techniques of communist penetration, and in November 1961 made numerous recommendations that were accepted by the government in full.

Later years

With the college on a sounder financial footing at last, and after nearly two decades as warden, Deakin retired to Le Castellet, in the south of France, in 1968. There he wrote The Embattled Mountain (1971), a candid account of the horrors and heroics he had witnessed in Yugoslavia, followed by an examination of the same events in the light of facts and evidence largely unknown at the time. He could make but guarded reference to the mass of intercepted evidence on which the British government had chiefly relied in deciding to support Tito. That policy had been strongly criticized from the start, and over a period of some sixty years Deakin found himself censured in wounding terms. This fate he endured with stoicism.

Clubbable and hospitable to a degree, Deakin (who was knighted in 1975) loved in retirement to visit London and old haunts in Yugoslavia. He travelled widely to conferences, and delivered numerous lectures. Self-effacing and unpretentious, he resisted suggestions that he should write an autobiography or an account of his time with Churchill. ‘You are so modest’, exclaimed Macmillan, ‘that you do not realise the high reputation that you have’ (Macmillan to Deakin, 22 April 1981, Deakin papers, priv. coll.). He did however leave behind a large body of unpublished material about Yugoslavia, and his papers were later housed alongside those of his mentor at Churchill College, Cambridge.

Deakin was intuitively aware of subtleties of personality and situation that eluded others. His natural dignity enabled him to disdain the frailties of old age; his spirit and courage remained undimmed to the last. Shortly before his death the nurses asked him, ‘Is there anything we can do for you, Monsieur Deakin?’ ‘Certainly’, he replied with decision, ‘champagne for everyone’ (private information). He died on 22 January 2005 at Le Castellet, and his ashes were buried there a week later. A memorial meeting was held on 23 April 2005 at St Antony's College. He was survived by his two sons.

Bill Deakin had achieved high academic distinction; he had played the dominant role in the creation of a pioneering college; he had fought with the utmost valour; he had been a trusted friend and servant of the greatest Englishman of his time. That no one else in his generation had achieved this combination of feats is not a thought likely to have crossed his mind; had it done so, he would have dismissed the notion instantly.

David Dilks


F. W. D. Deakin, ‘Churchill the historian’, Schweizer Monatshefte [Zurich] (1969–70) · F. W. D. Deakin, The embattled mountain (1971) · H. Macmillan, War diaries: the Mediterranean, 1943–1945 (1984) · D. Footman, Antonin Besse of Aden (1986) · C. S. Nicholls, The history of St Antony's College, Oxford, 1950–2000 (2000) · J. Cripps, ‘Mihailović or Tito? How the codebreakers helped Churchill choose’, Action this day, ed. R. Erskine and M. Smith (2001) · D. Reynolds, In command of history (2004) · The Times (25 Jan 2005) · Daily Telegraph (25 Jan 2005) · The Independent (27 Jan 2005) · The Guardian (31 Jan 2005) · ‘Tributes to Sir William Deakin’, St Antony's College Record (2005), 126–48 · WW (2005) · Burke, Peerage · F. W. D. Deakin, ‘What really happened in Yugoslavia during the war?’, unpub. typescript, Deakin papers, CAC Cam. · Deakin papers, CAC Cam. · Deakin papers, priv. coll. · Churchill papers, CAC Cam. · Wheeler-Bennett papers, St Ant. Oxf. · personal knowledge (2009) · private information (2009) · b. cert. · m. cert. [1935]


CAC Cam. · priv. coll. |  CAC Cam., Churchill papers, corresp. · St Ant. Oxf., Wheeler-Bennett papers · U. Birm. L., Eden/Avon papers


Bassano, half-plate film negative, 1961, NPG [see illus.] · Bassano, two half-plate film negatives, 1961, NPG · O. Nemon, bust, 1976, St Ant. Oxf. · E. Sargeant, portrait, 1983, St Ant. Oxf. · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

€241,321.97—estate in France · £13,858—estate in UK: probate, 1 July 2005, CGPLA Eng. & Wales