Very nice story about Lord Deedes http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/09/ndeedes109.xml&page=1 Bill Deedes was afflicted throughout his life by a chronic lack of confidence. But as a soldier, though he often expected things to go wrong, he never doubted his own competence. As soon as he joined the Queen's Westminsters - a territorial battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) - he found he had a facility for getting on with those above and below him in the chain of command. Having lived in the East End of London for eight years, he had a certain affinity with the Cockney riflemen, while his impeccable manners, industry and deference appealed to senior officers. Deedes transferred from Fleet Street to soldiering with blithe dexterity. He was fit and competent, and physically brave. He fitted in and could lead, a truth recognised when he was given command of B Company in 1942, with responsibility for its 110 men. His battalion made excellent progress across north-western Europe, but their luck changed in April 1945, close to the end of the war in Europe. Just as Major Deedes and his men sensed German resistance was finally beginning to weaken, B Company suffered a catastrophe. Deedes - the only officer in his company to come through unscathed from D-Day to VE Day - would carry the psychological scars of the operation for the rest of his life. At the early signs of spring, Deedes's spirits had soared. In letters to his wife, Hilary, he even praised the German forces for their valour and determination in the face of the impending Allied victory: "Wearying and saddening though it is, nothing can alter the fact that the German struggle is now heroic and I hope when he gives in, unconditionally or no, there is a slight pause to accord the usual honours to a defeated enemy who has gone the last mile and breath before the British press begin their campaign of odium and vengeance." Deedes stressed that nothing should be taken for granted, but noted "a real sense that after so many disappointments, this thing is within our grasp". So it seemed, when the orders came on April 2 for his company to secure a bridge over the Twente Canal in Holland, close to the German border. Faulty intelligence led them to believe that the Germans had fled the area, but when machine-gun and mortar fire erupted on the far bank, it became clear that the 12th KRRC had been sucked into an ambush. As B Company's leading platoon moved across the first span of the bridge, withering fire from at least four Spandau machine guns pinned down the advancing riflemen. The Spandau fire was soon backed up by accurate mortar fire. Deedes, crawling along the bridge to urge his men on, was handicapped by radio failure. His men fought with exceptional valour, completing the crossing of the first span and then killing the Germans who had materialised as defenders of the island in the middle. Smoke was laid down to offer some cover for the riflemen, but Deedes could find no way to silence the Spandaus or the mortars raining down from the other side of the bank. John Butterwick, an intelligence officer, fired mortars over the canal and some machine-gun covering fire was ordered up, but the far bank was so dense with trees that they were firing ineffectively. Then further disaster struck, turning a crisis into a massacre. As Deedes's war diary put it, dryly as ever, "unfortunately, at this moment, the third platoon waiting behind the bank was heavily shelled and lost 90 per cent of its men. The exploiting platoon thus being lost, it was decided to withdraw." As usual, the war diary provided only part of the story. The dead and wounded of Deedes's company lay on the south bank where the platoon had been hit, but others were scattered across the bridge. Deedes knew he had to change the objective from capturing the bridge to a plan for withdrawal of the dead and wounded. He organised small rescue parties that would inch along the exposed bridge to reach the wounded, who were stranded agonisingly out of reach and without any cover. As they moved along the bridge, machine-gun fire whistled above their helmets and mortars dropped all around. The initiative was seized by Lieutenant Andrew Burnaby-Atkins, a handsome Old Etonian. He had won a Military Cross the previous month and had acquired a reputation across the regiment for exceptional valour, bordering on recklessness. Seeing that the leading platoon was still being cut to shreds, Burnaby-Atkins jumped back on to the bridge with his Bren gun and two magazines, and sprinted across 30 yards of open ground swept by Spandau fire to take up a firing position. There, in full view of the enemy, according to the citation for the Bar to his MC, the 22-year-old lieutenant "fired from the hip, emptying the two complete magazines at the Spandaus to cover the withdrawal of the forward platoon. It was his initiative that made this withdrawal possible." Burnaby-Atkins may have taken the initiative, but Deedes probably saved his life. Seeing his subaltern hopelessly stranded, Deedes sprinted along the exposed section of bridge through machine-gun fire and detonated smoke grenades to give him the faintest cover. This, according to Deedes's own MC citation, "greatly assisted the successful withdrawal of the leading platoons". His conduct so inspired his men that it allowed the company to "withdraw in good order when ordered to do so". That was the British Army at its most ingeniously euphemistic in describing how a conceptually flawed operation was closed down. B Company was not effecting an ordered withdrawal but a desperate retreat, and at a terrible cost. Almost half of the company was dead or wounded. Twenty-two men were killed outright, including two young officers, Lt Roger Green and Lt Barry Newton, who had been with Deedes since the Normandy landing 10 months before. Another officer was wounded, along with another 20 men. Deedes would later refuse to talk about the day he won his MC. He never gave any hint of the astonishing valour he displayed in running across the exposed span of the bridge to save his young lieutenant. His medal was stashed discreetly in a sock drawer. In part this was a natural modesty but, perhaps more than that, Deedes never wanted to think or talk of the horror he witnessed that day. Though the intelligence failures that did not identify the entrenched German defensive positions were the direct cause of the disaster, Deedes was the company commander and knew he had to take a share of responsibility. In years to come he talked bitterly of his MC as "a survivor's medal", and with exaggerated self-effacement would cackle bitterly that he had won his for retreating. Being a good officer mattered enormously to Deedes - more, even, than being a good reporter - but he could not begin to take pride in this formal recognition of his valour because men under his command had died. The worst part of leading a company came when the guns fell silent and letters had to be written to wives and parents. Deedes also wrote the obituaries of officers that appeared in the KRRC annual. The loss at the Twente Canal of Lt Newton, an only son who had been wounded at Normandy only to return to the battalion and be killed at the age of 22, hit Deedes especially hard. Most of the obituary entries in the war years were dreary and spare. Deedes exploited his writing skills to convey much more than the mundane details offered by other company commanders. In these dismally frequent tallies of the loss of young life, he achieved a genuine lyricism about the fallen officer and the writing had much more power, there in the heat of loss, than in his subsequent accounts for his autobiography and anniversary pieces for The Daily Telegraph. Deedes, a decade older than his subalterns, established with them a sort of connection, somewhere between brotherly and fatherly love, which by his own admission he later failed to find with his own sons. Deedes would certainly have deprecated any cod-psychological treatment of the Twente Canal disaster, but it does not seem fanciful to conclude that some part of his limited emotional capacity died along with his men that dreadful April day, just a month before the German surrender. As he wrote of Newton in his regimental obituary: "When he was killed I think everyone in the Company who knew him felt a few years older, and the funny things in life seemed much less fun." For Deedes, the loss of these young officers who had been with him since landing did not cause fleeting grief; it was a wound he carried with him for the next 62 years of his life. The Twente Canal was the last major battle for the 12th KRRC before the German surrender a month later. With the end in sight, Deedes fretted about the consequences of victory, for he feared his men might lapse into sloppy pre-Normandy conduct. When the end came, on May 5, most soldiers were too tired to be either euphoric or ill-disciplined. The officers knew they should be jubilant, but Deedes was struck by the subdued mood. "I find V[ictory] and all that a bit beyond me," he wrote to Hilary. "One feels terrific thankfulness but quite unable to express adequate thoughts on the subject." He told her how lucky he had been to come through. "I was watching an infantry attack with the Squadron Leader when a large shell fell a few yards from us," he wrote. "It was a dudâ¦ Luck or Providence has certainly looked after me and particularly in the last few months. I find my thankfulness inadequate." Deedes was one technical malfunction away from being killed 48 hours before the end. It was a shattering time for him, feeling grief, a measure of survivor's guilt, mixed, no doubt with some misplaced sense that he was at fault for the death of his men. "I feel they were much finer fellows than me and less easily spared. All 21 and a lifetime before them." Deedes was racked by the fear that, as he put it in a letter home, B Company had not achieved enough on the battlefield "to balance the loss to England" of the deaths of the young officers. "Naturally, one says to one's self, if they'd been better led they might be still alive. I've always had a conscience about that." He would later claim to have almost no recollection of the hours and days after the Twente Canal incident; it is possible that he blocked it out. In fact, there is some evidence that he might have suffered a brief mental breakdown. In the summer of 1945, he wrote to Burnaby-Atkins, then back in England, to tell him what he had not been able to say to his face. He praised his young officer for turning what had been the worst platoon in B Company into the most effective fighting force. But the letter was a message of thanks for helping him through the nightmare of April 1945. "Andrew, I remember very well (though you do not) that after Roger [Green], Barry [Newton] and John [Peyton] had gone, you and your ways had much to do with preventing me from losing grip." By Deedes's stringent standards, that was an extravagantly affectionate letter. For this most emotionally reticent of men to entertain the idea that he might have been "losing grip" confirms how profoundly he had been affected by the loss of his men. Over five years he had shown himself to be a first-class soldier, and in Europe an effective company commander. Now the ceasefire threatened to make him suddenly redundant. Journalism before the war had served him well, but it did not come close to the intensity of his life in the 11 months since D-Day. Moreover, Deedes's letters betray no great passion for Hilary, no yearning to be back home with her after so many months apart. For him the transition back to civilian life was wrenching. Before the war he had lived a contented bachelor's life - boarding in the East End, days at the Telegraph, beer in the evenings with fellow journalists, the occasional dance. In the summer of 1945 he faced returning to Hilary and son Jeremy, but he showed no urgency to do so. To his consternation, Hilary had used her family money to buy her own home in rural Yorkshire. This was almost certainly meant as a signal of intent; that she, as a North Country woman, with her preference for the company of animals over human beings, would not easily be transplanted to Kent. This created a problem for Deedes, who worried that he was unsuited to any career other than journalism. Hilary's family's suggestion that he seek a job on the Yorkshire Post was dismissed out of hand. Instead, in early July, he wrote from Hanover to The Daily Telegraph requesting that he be given his old job back, and was quickly reassured that it was there for the taking. Simultaneously, Deedes wrote to his uncle Wyndham [who had set him on his career in journalism], wondering if he knew of anyone who could offer him weekday digs in London. This letter shows Deedes had no intention of enveloping himself with his wife and new child, and that he was already planning a semi-detached life in London, with weekends in Yorkshire. There was another development that he kept from both Hilary and the Telegraph, even as he appeared to be finalising his return to his old employer. The Army was looking for battle-tested Company Commanders to take the fight to the Pacific theatre. The inducement was promotion from Major to Lieutenant-Colonel, with the prospect of a battalion command in Burma or Japan. Deedes put his name down for a mission that promised to be even more dangerous - achieving the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. Major Deedes was not going to sink into the slough of domesticity without a fight. At the end of July, Deedes made the journey back to Britain - his first leave and sight of Hilary and Jeremy in more than a year. By the end of his life he had no clear memories of this reunion. The one thing he did remember was that while he was home the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, followed three days later by another on Nagasaki and then the Japanese surrender. The dawning of the nuclear age meant Deedes would not be going to the Far East after all; it also spared him the awkwardness of having to tell Hilary of his plans to extend his Army career. President Truman's determination to force an early surrender from Japan cut off an option for Deedes. He had tried hard, but he could no longer avoid answering the call of duty as husband and father. Taken from "The Remarkable Lives of Bill Deedes" by Stephen Robinson published by Little, Brown on 20 March price Â£20, available for Â£16 plus Â£1.25 p&p from Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or at books.telegraph.co.uk. Â© Stephen Robinson 2008.