Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave
23 January 1916 – 30 March 1979
During World War II, Neave was the first British officer to successfully escape from the German prisoner-of-war camp Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle. He later became Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Abingdon.
The Assasination of Airey Neave
Neave was the son of Sheffield Airey Neave CMG, OBE (1879–1961), a well-known entomologist, and his wife Dorothy (d. 1943), the daughter of Arthur Thomson Middleton. His father was the grandson of Sheffield Neave, the third son of Sir Thomas Neave, 2nd Baronet (see Neave Baronets). Neave spent his early years in Knightsbridge in London, before he moved to Beaconsfield. Neave was sent to St. Ronan’s School, Worthing, and from there, in 1929, he went to Eton College. He went on to study jurisprudence at Merton College, Oxford. While at Eton, Neave composed a prize-winning essay in 1933 that examined the likely consequences of Adolf Hitler‘s rise to supreme power in Germany, and Neave predicted then that another widespread war would break out in Europe in the near future. Neave had earlier been on a visit to Germany, and he witnessed the Nazi German methods of grasping political and military power in their hands. At Eton, Neave served in the school cadet corps as a cadet lance corporal, and received a territorial commission as a second lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on 11 December 1935.
When Neave went to Oxford University, he purchased and read the entire written works of the writer Carl von Clausewitz. When Neave was asked why, he answered: “since war [is] coming, it [is] only sensible to learn as much as possible about the art of waging it”. During 1938, Neave completed his third-class degree in the study of jurisprudence. By his own admission, while at Oxford University, Neave did only the minimal amount of academic work that was required of him by his tutors.
Neave transferred his territorial commission to the Royal Engineers on 2 May 1938 and following the outbreak of war he was mobilised. Sent to France in February 1940 as part of a searchlight regiment, he was wounded and captured by the Germans at Calais on 23 May 1940. He was imprisoned at Oflag IX-A/H near Spangenberg and in February 1941 moved to Stalag XX-A near Thorn in German-occupied western Poland. Meanwhile, Neave’s commission was transferred to the Royal Artillery on 1 August 1940. In April 1941 he escaped from Thorn with Norman Forbes. They were captured near Ilow while trying to enter Soviet-controlled Poland and were briefly in the hands of the Gestapo. In May, they were both sent to Oflag IV-C (often referred to as Colditz Castle because of its location).
Neave made his first attempt to escape from Colditz on 28 August 1941 disguised as a German NCO. He did not get out of the castle as his hastily contrived German uniform (made from a Polish army tunic and cap painted with scenery paint) was rendered bright green under the prison searchlights. Together with Dutch officer Anthony Luteyn he made a second attempt on 5 January 1942, again in disguise. Better uniforms and escape route (they made a quick exit from a theatrical production using the trap door beneath the stage) got them out of the prison and by train and on foot they travelled to Leipzig and Ulm and finally reached the border to Switzerland near Singen. Via France, Spain and Gibraltar, Neave returned to England in April 1942. Neave was the first British officer to escape from Colditz Castle. On 12 May 1942, shortly after his return to England, he was decorated with the Military Cross. He was subsequently promoted to war substantive captain and to the permanent rank of captain on 11 April 1945. A temporary major at the war’s end, he was appointed an MBE (Military Division) on 30 August 1945, and awarded the DSO on 18 October. As a result, the earlier award of the MBE was cancelled on 25 October.
He was later recruited as an intelligence agent for MI9. While at MI9, he was the immediate superior of Michael Bentine. He also served with the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremberg Trials, investigating Krupp. As a well-known war hero – as well as a qualified lawyer who spoke fluent German – he was honoured with the role of reading the indictments to the Nazi leaders on trial. He wrote several books about his war experiences including an account of the Trials. A temporary lieutenant-colonel by 1947, he was appointed an OBE (Military Division) in that year’s Birthday Honours. He was awarded the Bronze Star by the US government on 23 July 1948, and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel on 1 April 1950, At the same time, his promotion to acting major was gazetted, with retroactive effect from 16 April 1948. He entered the reserves on 21 September 1951.
Neave stood for the Conservative Party at the 1950 election in Thurrock and at Ealing North in 1951. He was elected for Abingdon in a by-election in June 1953, but his career was held back by a heart attack he suffered in 1959.
Edward Heath, when Chief Whip, was alleged to have told Neave that after he suffered his heart attack his career was finished but in his 1998 autobiography, Heath strongly denied ever making such a remark. He admitted that in December 1974 Neave had told him to stand down for the good of the party. During the final two months of 1974, Neave had asked Keith Joseph, William Whitelaw and Edward du Cann to stand against Heath, and said that in the case of any of them challenging for the party leadership, he would be their campaign manager. When all three refused to stand, Neave agreed to be the campaign manager for Margaret Thatcher‘s attempt to become leader of the Conservative Party, that was eventually victorious.
When Thatcher was elected leader in February 1975, he was rewarded with the post of head of her private office. He was then appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and was poised to attain the equivalent Cabinet position at the time of his death in the event of their party winning the general election of 1979. In opposition, Neave was a strong supporter of Roy Mason, who had extended the policy of Ulsterisation.
Neave was author of the new and radical Conservative policy of abandoning devolution in Northern Ireland if there was no early progress in that regard and concentrating on local government reform instead. This integrationist policy was hastily abandoned by Humphrey Atkins, who became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the role Neave had shadowed.
Politician Tony Benn records in his diary (17 February 1981) that a journalist from the New Statesman, Duncan Campbell, told him that he had received information from an intelligence agent two years previously that Neave had planned to have Benn assassinated if a Labour government was elected, James Callaghan resigned and there was a possibility that Benn might be elected party leader in his place. Campbell claimed that the agent was ready to give his name and the New Statesman was going to print the story. Benn, however, discounted the validity of the story and wrote in his diary: “No one will believe for a moment that Airey Neave would have done such a thing”. The magazine printed the story on 20 February 1981, naming the agent as Lee Tracey. Tracey claimed to have met Neave and was asked to join a team of intelligence and security specialists which would “make sure Benn was stopped”. Tracey planned a second meeting with Neave but Neave was killed before they could meet again.
Airey Neave was killed on 30 March 1979, when a magnetic car bomb fitted with a ball bearing tilt switch exploded under his new Vauxhall Cavalier at 14:58 as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster car park. He lost his right leg below the knee and his left was hanging on by a flap of skin. Neave died in hospital an hour after being freed from the wreckage without regaining consciousness. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), an illegal Irish republican paramilitary group, claimed responsibility for the killing.
Margaret Thatcher speaking to the press immediately after the assassination of Airey Neave
Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher led tributes, saying:
He was one of freedom’s warriors. No one knew of the great man he was, except those nearest to him. He was staunch, brave, true, strong; but he was very gentle and kind and loyal. It’s a rare combination of qualities. There’s no one else who can quite fill them. I, and so many other people, owe so much to him and now we must carry on for the things he fought for and not let the people who got him triumph.
In March, retired terrorist and supporter of capital punishment, Airey Neave, got a taste of his own medicine when an INLA unit pulled off the operation of the decade and blew him to bits inside the ‘impregnable’ Palace of Westminster. The nauseous Margaret Thatcher snivelled on television that he was an ‘incalculable loss’—and so he was—to the British ruling class.
Neave’s death came just two days after the vote of no confidence which brought down Callaghan’s government and a few weeks before the 1979 general election, which brought about a Conservative victory and saw Thatcher come to power as Prime Minister. Neave’s wife Diana, whom he married on 29 December 1942, was subsequently elevated to the House of Lords as Baroness Airey of Abingdon.
Neave’s biographer Paul Routledge met a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (the political wing of INLA) who was involved in the killing of Neave and who told Routledge that Neave “would have been very successful at that job [Northern Ireland Secretary]. He would have brought the armed struggle to its knees”.
Whilst working in the House of Commons as Paddy Ashdown‘s research assistant, Kevin Cahill claims to have had around six conversations with the security staff there. The most frequent remark was that “everyone knew” the story behind Neave’s death but that no one could talk about it in detail because it would have been too dangerous. Cahill claims they did not believe INLA killed Neave but that it was an “inside job”. Cahill concluded that Neave was killed by MI6 agents working with the CIA because Neave sought to prosecute senior figures in the intelligence establishment for corruption.
Another person who did not accept the generally accepted version of events was Enoch Powell, the Ulster Unionist MP. Powell claimed in an interview with The Guardian on 9 January 1984 that the Americans had killed Neave, along with Lord Mountbatten and Robert Bradford MP. He claimed the evidence came from a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary with whom he had a conversation.
On 18 October 1986 Powell returned to the subject of Neave’s death in a speech to Conservative students in Birmingham. He told them that INLA had not killed Neave, but that he had been assassinated by “MI6 and their friends”. Powell claimed Neave’s Northern Ireland policy had been one of integration with the rest of the UK and that the Americans feared that this process, if implemented by Neave, would have been irreversible. His killing, alleged Powell, was intended to make the British Government adopt a policy more acceptable to America in her aim of a united Ireland within NATO.
In 2014, 35 years after Neave’s death, it was reported that a fictionalised account of Neave’s murder was to be used in a Channel 4 drama. The drama, Utopia, portrays Neave as a drinker who colluded with spies and portrays his assassination as perpetrated by MI5. This led to condemnation of the broadcaster, with Norman Tebbit (a friend and colleague of Neave and survivor of the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984) saying “To attack a man like that who is dead and cannot defend himself is despicable”. Neave’s family, who had not been consulted about the programme, announced their intention to take action to prevent the programme from being broadcast, claiming it had “fictionalised the atrocity ‘in the name of entertainment’ as well as falsely depicting him as a debauched and conniving figure