Deane-Drummond, second from left, with other members of the British gliding team 1956-58; left to right, Anthony Goodhart, Philip Wills and Nicholas Goodhart
Much decorated commando whose wartime exploits included daring sabotage, narrow escapes and a famous episode at Arnhem
For a decade after the Second World War, mention of Tony Deane-Drummond would provoke the response: “The man who hid in the cupboard at Arnhem”. While he had done just that, the incident tended to obscure the war record of a man of great courage and ingenuity, who went on to command the 3rd Division and become the British solo gliding champion.
Commissioned into the Royal Corps of Signals in 1937, he went to France with the 3rd Division in 1939 and was evacuated through Dunkirk the following June. The British defeat in France rankled with him to the extent that, in the hope of getting back into action quickly, he volunteered for commando training and joined No 2 Commando, later re-designated the 11th Special Air Service Battalion, training for parachute operations.
In February 1941, more than two years before the Allied invasion of Italy, he took part in Operation Colossus to destroy the Tragino aqueduct carrying water from the River Sele into the arid province of Apulia. The aim was to cut the pipeline to the Italian ports of Bari, Brindisi and Taranto, from where supplies and reinforcements were being shipped to the Axis forces in North Africa.
After a 400-mile approach flight from Malta, assault troops and explosives were dropped by parachute within reach of the target and the water supply line was duly cut. Although damage to the aqueduct had only negligible impact on Italian re-supply operations, the raid caused widespread alarm and deployment of Italian troops to protect other installations.
The party had been instructed to move in three independent groups to a submarine pick-up point at the mouth of the Sele on the Adriatic coast, but all were captured and sent to a prison camp at Sulmona, inland from Pescara. There, before escaping, Deane-Drummond requested a German book on gliding so he could learn the language.
In all, he made five escape attempts. He identified a weak spot in the perimeter wire of the Sulmona camp and first escaped in December 1941. With his fair hair and complexion, and using the German he had learnt in the camp he passed himself off as an itinerant German labourer and walked unmolested to Pescara. There he bought a rail ticket to Como, but was recaptured while attempting to cross into Switzerland on foot.
Imprisoned in a camp east of Pisa, he made other attempts before feigning illness to get transferred to a military hospital in Florence; he escaped from there by climbing along a decorative moulding on the outer wall 70ft above the ground. He crossed into Switzerland in June 1942 and eventually reached Gibraltar. He was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the Tragino aqueduct operation and successful escape.
As second-in-command of 1st Airborne Divisional Signal Regiment, he took part in the Arnhem operation in September 1944. He had expressed doubt whether the small No 22 radio sets for communication to the parachute battalions would work over the distances required in the battle for the Arnhem bridges and was proved correct. Frustrated by failure of communication between divisional headquarters and the leading units, he set out in a Jeep to find out the source of the problem.
While moving towards the Arnhem road bridge with the 3rd Parachute Battalion, he took over command of a group of men from the battalion whose commander had been killed. When the group was reduced to a handful of men, he led them to a house on the river within sight of the bridge and, knowing they were surrounded by the enemy, they locked themselves in an outside lavatory behind the house.
There they remained for three days, but were taken prisoner when attempting to get away and held in a house at Velp, just to the north of Arnhem. Deane-Drummond discovered a wall cupboard in the house in which he hid for 13 days, rationing himself to sips of water from his water bottle and some bread. When the other prisoners were moved on he made contact with the Dutch Resistance and eventually re-crossed the Rhine to safety. He was awarded a bar to his Military Cross in June 1946 and mentioned in dispatches.
He attended the Staff College, Camberley, in 1945 and served as Brigade Major (chief of staff) of a brigade of the 6th Airborne Division in Palestine. He was an instructor at RMA Sandhurst, 1950-52, and commanded a company of the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment in Cyprus during the Eoka terrorist campaign, when his skull was fractured by a rock thrown at him. In 1957 he was appointed to command 22 SAS regiment engaged on counter-terrorist operations in Malaya; however, he was soon to take two squadrons to Oman.
A rebellion in the interior against the authority of Sultan Said bin Taimur had been suppressed with British help in 1957 but the ringleaders had escaped to the 6,500ft-high Jebel Akhdar plateau, from where they and their supporters dominated the routes between the Omani interior and the coast. The Sultan again requested help from the British Government under the terms of the treaty between them. It was abundantly clear that any operation to flush the rebels from the Jebel Akhdar would require considerable ingenuity, as a handful of men could hold each of the dozen or so single-file tracks leading up to the plateau’s edge.
After a blockade of these routes to deny the rebels supplies, while allowing some misleading information to trickle through, two squadron of 22 SAS climbed the sides of the Jebel on the night of January 26, 1959, taking advantage of the full moon. Although they avoided the known tracks, contact with the rebels was not long delayed. As soon as firing began, other supporting British troops joined in and RAF aircraft strafed the enemy’s known positions. The majority of the dissidents were captured or dispersed but again the ringleaders escaped, this time to Saudi Arabia. It is believed that the Jebel Akhdar had never been taken since capture by the Persians in AD890. Deane-Drummond was awarded the DSO for his skilled leadership of the operation.
He commanded 44th Parachute Brigade in the Territorial Army from 1961 to 1963 before serving as Assistant Commandant at Sandhurst and then being appointed commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in 1966.
Comprising many of the units of the UK-based Army Strategic Reserve, this was a post well suited to his experience and abilities, but he was not to see active service again. In 1968 he went to the Ministry of Defence as Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Operations).
Essentially a man of individual action, he did not find the task of coordinating operational plans between the three single-Service operational directors, also of two-star rank, an easy one, as they generally preferred to work as a cabal of their own.
He retired from the Army in 1970 to become chief executive of the Paper and Paper Products Training Board, a post he held until 1978. His book Return Ticket (1951) about his wartime escapes, became a bestseller, and he used part of the proceeds to buy a high-performance glider. He published two further works: Riot Control (1975) and his auto- biography, Arrows of Fortune (1991).
Single-seat gliding then became his abiding interest, and he made a wide circle of new friends with enthusiasm for the sport. He was British gliding champion in 1957 and a member of the British team in the World Championships in 1958, 1960, 1963 and 1965.
During the final day of the 1967 National Championships he had a mid-air collision at 8,000ft over Oxford with Air Commodore N. W. “Paddy” Kearon. Deane-Drummond lost 4ft of his starboard wing tip but luckily retained use of the aileron, while Kearon lost a piece of his trailing edge. Both landed safely, Deane-Drummond cursing and shouting, “One more climb in a CuNB (thunderstorm-threatening cumulus) and I would have got back to Lasham.”
Anthony John Deane-Drummond was the son of Colonel J. D. Deane-Drummond. His great-great-grandfather served as an ensign in the Peninsular War against the French and later became a general. He was educated at Marlborough and RMC Sandhurst.
He married Evangeline “Evie” Boyd in 1944. She predeceased him, and he is survived by their four daughters.
Major-General A. J. Deane-Drummond, CB, DSO, MC and Bar, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Operations), 1968-70, was born on June 23, 1917. He died on December 4, 2012, aged 95
Le Bel, left, with his fellow members of the Jedburgh team James: Jack Singlaub and Tony Denneau. Their mission was to disrupt German supply lines in France
French SOE officer who shot down a German aircraft with a machinegun while on a sabotage mission in occupied France
Planners of the Normandy invasion of June 1944 were faced with a problem of how to delay German reinforcement of their forces opposing the landings. Air attack on the French rail and road systems would be the principal means but sabotage of critical points was also judged essential. This task fell to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).
SOE already had “circuits” of agents operating in France with French Resistance groups but coverage was not comprehensive. A new force of three-man teams, codenamed Jedburghs, was formed to make contact with the Resistance, call for air drops of arms and explosives and help to select targets for sabotage.
Jacques le Bel, a sous-lieutenant in the French Army who had escaped to England in 1940, was the French member of the Jedburgh team codenamed James led by US Lieutenant Jack Singlaub. Another American, Sergeant Tony Denneau, was their radio operator. The team was parachuted into the mountainous and lightly populated Corrèze region of France on the night of August 8-9, 1944.
In common with all other “Jeds”, they wore uniform to demonstrate that they were not spies and were dropped with a 26-man strong detachment from the French 3rd Battalion of the Special Air Service (SAS). The initial task of Team James was to provide the link between the local Resistance and the SAS group.
None of the team had seen active service before and in the general excitement that ensued the sabotage element of their mission appears to have been forgotten. The largely communist Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP) made up the largest group in the local Resistance; they were intent on killing Germans and the French SAS were delighted to join in.
Isolated and facing attack by superior numbers, the 300-strong German garrison of Égletons, between Clermont-Ferrand and Tulle to the south-west, seized 30 French civilian hostages and barricaded themselves into a school on the outskirts of the town.
The French SAS group, led by a Captain Wauthier, and the FTP fighters lost no time in attacking the school but were repulsed. The Jedburgh team seemed surplus to requirements until the Luftwaffe appeared and Jacques Le Bel shot down a Heinkel He 111 bomber with one of four Bren light machineguns he had presciently sited for air-defence. (Wauthier later claimed that one of his men had shot down the Heinkel, but Singlaub backed Le Bel’s claim.) News that a German anti-partisan column, Kampfgruppe Jesser, was heading their way from Clermont-Ferrand led to the dispersal of the Égletons besiegers. The FTP group headed southwest to intercept German troops moving up from Tulle to relieve the Égletons garrison, while the SAS group under Wauthier took to the hills and later successfully ambushed the Kampfgruppe Jesser on its way back to Clermont-Ferrand, having relieved the Égletons garrison.
Team James moved to another small town, St-Pardoux-le-Croisille, to begin training a separate Resistance group based there, using some of the German weapons captured at Égletons. They then accompanied these Resistance fighters in the liberation of Brive-la-Gaillarde and several other local small towns.
On August 28, Singlaub decided that Team James could contribute nothing further in the Corrèze and took advantage of a visiting RAF Hudson aircraft to return to England accompanied by Le Bel. Their purpose was to persuade SOE headquarters to mount an operation in the Austrian Tyrol where, so they were informed by an anti-Nazi Austrian with the Resistance, a group of escaped French forced labourers in Germany had taken refuge and needed arms and organisation.
Surprisingly, SOE headquarters approved this idea. Singlaub and Le Bel were returned to the Corrèze, the latter with instructions to plan and undertake the Tyrol venture, while Singlaub rejoined the team’s radio operator Denneau.
Having made his plan and selected the route, Le Bel cycled to the Tyrol via Switzerland and eventually made contact with the escaped forced labourers.
In late April 1945 he was with this group in the Tyrol when it had occasion to liberate a prison camp containing French political prisoners. Among those freed was the former French premier Léon Blum, a socialist and a Jew, who had been arrested in occupied France, imprisoned in Germany but later moved to the Tyrol, possibly with a view to use as a hostage.
Jacques le Bel, Count de Penguilly, was born in Brittany in 1919, a member of a French aristocratic family dating from the Middle Ages and thought to be of Celtic origin. After the war he returned to his family’s import-export business in which he had been working in the 1930s. He died in the family château at Saint-Samson-sur-Rance, south of St Malo. He was unmarried.
Jacques le Bel, Count de Penguilly, Special Operations Executive veteran and businessman, was born on September 2, 1919. He died on October 16, 2012, aged 93
David Salik in Tel Aviv in what was then Palestine in 1942
Polish paratrooper who was decorated for his initiative during the disastrous Allied attack on Arnhem
David Salik was one of the last surviving veterans of the Polish Parachute Brigade which was dropped at Arnhem in September 1944. Prior to that he had survived imprisonment in a Soviet labour camp. At the war’s end he was to be one of a small number of Jews from his home town to have survived the Holocaust.
He was born in 1914 in Sanok, a small Galician town. It had been ruled from Vienna since the late 18th century when Prussia, Russia and Austria had partitioned Poland. Galicia was a mosaic of peoples, divided by language and religion with often conflicting aspirations. Sanok reflected this rich and complex tapestry with its Catholic church attended by Poles, the Uniate or Eastern Catholic Church attended by Ukrainians, and a synagogue with a mainly Yiddish-speaking congregation.
When Poland regained independence after the First World War it once more became a Polish town. David and his younger brother Mendel were brought up in relatively comfortable circumstances. Their father, Salim, ran a general goods store in the centre of the town. An Orthodox Jew, Salim was prominent in the local synagogue and Hebrew school. At home David spoke Yiddish but with equal ease spoke Polish. He also learnt Hebrew, Russian and German and spoke Ukrainian.
Salik was active in the Zionist Youth Movement. After National Service in the Polish Army, where he trained as a medic, he took up business studies. In August 1939 he was called up before the German invasion of Poland on September 1. His infantry unit was mangled in mid-September but he escaped capture, exchanged his uniform with local peasants and made his way on foot back to Sanok. A German soldier stopped him but failed to spot the tefillin, the Jewish ritual boxes worn on the arm and head. Sanok had been captured by the Germans early in September and by the time of Salik’s return Jews were suffering intense persecution. Salik learnt that his brother had been murdered by Ukrainian nationalists.
On September 17 the Soviet Union joined in the invasion of Poland and the country was again partitioned. Realising the danger that Jews would face under Nazi rule, Salik’s parents arranged for him to be smuggled across the River San to Soviet-occupied territory. There he found shelter with family members.
However, the Soviet authorities decided to clear the occupied territories of politically suspect elements. In 1940 Salik was one of several hundred thousand Polish citizens deported into far-flung corners of the Soviet Union. They were conveyed in appalling conditions in cattle trucks and many died.
Salik found himself in a labour camp near Novosibirsk where they were put to work clearing forests and constructing roads. The conditions were arduous with winter temperatures dropping to -40C. Salik was able to use his medical training to help fellow prisoners.
Unexpected freedom from captivity came when on June 21, 1941, Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally Stalin. On July 30, 1941, General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister in exile and Commander in Chief, and Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in London, signed an agreement restoring Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations. Polish citizens held in the Soviet Union were “amnestied” and Polish forces were formed under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders.
Anders, who had been released from Moscow’s Lubianka jail, was one of only a few of the Polish officers captured by the Soviet forces in September 1939 not to have shared the fate of the 20,000 who had been murdered in 1940.
Salik made it to Kazakhstan where Polish forces were building up. By mid-1942 some 115,000 Polish citizens, including 35,000 civilians, were allowed out of the Soviet Union via the Caspian Sea to Persia.
Polish servicemen were sent to Palestine, then under the British Mandate, for training. Many Jews, Menachem Begin the future Prime Minister of Israel among them, absconded so as to fight for a future independent Jewish state. Anders, who had shared his own countrymen’s longing over a century for the restoration of their national territory, understood the feelings of Jews who had waited two millennia, and ordered that they should not be pursued as deserters. Salik, although sharing the same desire for a future Jewish state, nevertheless felt it his duty as a Pole to remain in its army.
While the majority of the Poles reforming in Palestine would take part in the Italian Campaign as part of Polish 2 Corps, several thousand were sent as reinforcements to Polish units already in Britain. Salik volunteered for the Independent Polish Parachute Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sosabowski, based in Fife in Scotland.
Sosabowski envisaged that this unit would be flown into Poland when a general uprising against the Germans took place. When Warsaw rose against the Nazi occupiers on August 1, 1944, there was great frustration in the brigade that it was not flown in. In reality such an operation over hundreds of miles of enemy-occupied territory would have proved impossible.
During Operation Market Garden, devised by Field Marshal Montgomery to establish a bridgehead across the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, the Polish Parachute Brigade’s planned deployment on September 19, 1944, was delayed by bad weather.
Salik, a corporal in a field ambulance unit, was parachuted in two days later, but his battalion found that its drop zones had been infiltrated by the Germans. In the house-to-house action that followed at Oosterbeek, Salik several times took charge of his small medical section.
Expected Allied land forces failed to link up with the British and the Polish paratroopers and by September 26 they were pulled back. Many fell into German hands. Salik escaped capture but had as a precaution buried his gold star of David pendant.
On October 3 the Home Army in Warsaw capitulated after 63 days which further deepened the gloom of the surviving Polish paratroopers. For the initiative he had shown in action Salik was awarded the Polish Military Cross of Merit with Swords and promoted to sergeant.
By early 1947 the Polish Forces under overall British command, numbering some 200,000 men and women, were disbanded. There was to be no return to a free Poland. Most chose to remain in exile rather than go back to a now Soviet-dominated nation.
Polish veterans were given the choice of joining the Polish Resettlement Corps where they learnt skills to enable them to settle in Britain. Salik received a scholarship to study business studies at Napier College, Edinburgh. In 1953 he set up a shop, Quality Delicatessen Stores, in Notting Hill, London, which thrived. In 1994 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem he took part in a tandem parachute jump there. He continued sky-diving well into his eighties.
Salik returned to Poland in 1989 in an unsuccessful attempt to find his brother’s grave. He returned again in 1995 with his son Mark, who had identified Mendel’s likely resting place, to place a plaque to commemorate him in the Jewish cemetery in Przemysl.
In 1965 Salik married Louisa Falchi, an Italian Catholic who converted to Reform Judaism. She died in 1993. He is survived by a son and daughter.
David Salik, Russian labour camp survivor and Arnhem veteran, was born on February 20, 1914. He died on October 26, 2012, aged 98
RAF officer who launched a number of inspired overseas aid programmes, many of them using a hovercraft to reach remote areas
For more than four decades Squadron Leader Michael Cole brought aid to remote communities by hovercraft, leading expeditions along previously unnavigable rivers to connect isolated people to medical services and community development. Motivated by his love of adventure and Christian faith, Cole mobilised thousands of people, many of them young volunteers from the UK, to work in areas in need in East Asia and Latin America, and raised the tens of thousands of pounds necessary to buy and operate the hovercraft.
Cole, a physical education officer with the RAF, began working on charity expeditions in 1974 when he was enlisted by an RAF chaplain to help to deliver a water-drilling rig, donated by the Christian NGO (non-governmental organistaion) Tearfund, to the famine-ridden Wollo Province of Ethiopia. With his links to the RAF, Cole helped to negotiate the aircraft that carried the equipment to Addis Ababa before joining the core team to deliver the aid.
Later, at a Tearfund conference, he met Dr Bill Gould, a missionary surgeon, who invited him to Nepal to deliver a telephone exchange to the mission hospital in Tansen. At that time patients would walk for days to reach medical help and Gould believed that by using hovercraft, medics and patients would be able to navigate the Himalayan rivers more quickly and safely than before. Cole shared in this belief and planned an expedition to Nepal to find out whether a manoeuvrable six-seater River Rover hovercraft could provide a “hover doctor” service. In 1979 he led the British Joint Services hovercraft expedition to Nepal with 26 team members from the RAF, Navy and Army.
Cole brought the hovercraft to Peru after the Falklands conflict in 1982 to explore the headwaters of the Amazon. The medical services he nurtured established goodwill between the UK and Peru. President Belaúnde of Peru rode the rapids in the hovercraft and hosted a reception for the team in the presidential palace in Lima. A year later, in 1983, Cole was appointed OBE for his services to humanity.
In 1985 the RAF assigned him to lead Operation Raleigh, the adventure and community service programme for young people, in Peru. At the request of Peruvian church leaders and expatriate missionaries, he also recruited a team of Christian young people who served in the northern jungle area.
Cole resigned from the RAF to become Short Term Experience Projects (STEP) director of the Evangelical Union of South America (now Latin Link), where he developed a programme for young people in partnership with Latin American churches. The first STEP team undertook a construction project in the shanty towns of Arequipa, Peru, in 1987. Under Cole’s leadership the STEP programme expanded into Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and, in 1989, into the “villas of misery” in Buenos Aires as a project aimed at reconciliation between the UK and Argentina. More than 150 youngsters from the UK were involved each year, as well as others from Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand.
During this time, Cole planned another major hovercraft project, this time in China, exploring the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. This aided a 1990 child vaccination programme sponsored by Unicef and material science research. In 1993 he jointly led a fourth hovercraft project, developing “hover doctor” services on the Fly River delta of Papua New Guinea.
In the same year President Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua invited Cole to prepare a hovercraft communications project to connect isolated communities of the Caribbean coast and along the Rio San Juan to medical services and community development. He completed a hovercraft journey across the Central American isthmus from Bluefields to Managua in May 1995. Since then, volunteers have travelled to Nicaragua several times a year to undertake medical work, education projects and vocational training. Cole was awarded the Medal of Honour, the highest award the Nicaraguan Government can bestow on expatriates, in 2000.
Michael Edwin Cole was born in Winchmore Hill, North London, in 1935 to Herbert Cole, a telegraphist, and Elsie, a teacher. He trained in physical education and geography at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and Carnegie College, Leeds, before teaching physical education in Edmonton, London. He joined the RAF initially as a National Serviceman before he was commissioned as a flying officer in 1962.
As a physical education officer, he ran expeditions and leadership training for officer cadets and organised a team from RAF Cranwell to ski across the Norwegian icecap with huskies. Cole was posted to Rheindahlen in Germany in 1968, where he oversaw the construction of a dry ski slope and a ski shop on the base, and also competed for the RAF ski team.
In his seventies Cole continued to visit Nicaragua several times a year and initiated new areas of service including experimental farming. His son Nick opened an eco-lodge training facility in Matagalpa, central Nicaragua, this summer, which Cole watched via a webcam.
He is survived by his wife and their two children.
Squadron Leader Michael Cole, OBE, overseas aid organiser, was born on April 10, 1935. He died of cancer on September 25, 2012, aged 77
Brigadier John Constant
Ñàï¸ð â Çàïàäíîé Ïóñòûíå è â Áèðìå, ïîçäíåå ñòàâøèé ãëàâíûì âîåííûì èíæåíåðîì Àðàáñêîãî Ëåãèîíà
Constant, right, when he was Chief Engineer of the Arab Bedouin Legion in the early 1950s, with King Hussein of Jordan
Wartime sapper in the Western Desert and Burma who later became Chief Engineer of the Arab Legion but whose passion was sailing
John Constant’s life was a tussle between his profession as an engineer and his passion for the sea. Consequently, colleagues saw an appropriateness in his choice to head the Ministry of Transport’s Channel Tunnel Engineering Division early in the project’s planning phase. He had served previously with distinction in the Western Desert and Burma campaigns and in the Kingdom of Jordan as Chief Engineer of the Arab Bedouin Legion.
The son of Major Noel Constant of the Blackheath ship-owning family, he was a Wellington scholar before going to RMA Woolwich in 1934. Commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1936, he read for his mechanical engineering tripos at Peterhouse, Cambridge, then joined 1st Field Squadron Royal Engineers with what was to become the 1st Armoured Division in England.
Instead of accompanying the division to France after the outbreak of war, he was sent in 1940 to join an engineer regiment in Egypt. Early operational experience clearing Italian minefields near Mersa Matruh was followed by a brush with the Afrika Korps. Dispatch of half the British force in Cyrenaica to Greece gave the German commander Erwin Rommel an advantage, leading to his capture of HQ 2nd Armoured Division to which Constant was attached. He awoke in the desert to find himself and his sappers guarded by German sentries.
As the light came up, he walked into the desert, ostensibly to answer the early morning call of nature, and kept on going. He and another sapper officer who had taken a similar course, came across a British truck abandoned in the retreat, started it and drove cautiously eastwards, avoiding Rommel’s briefly victorious columns, until they reached safety.
After commanding a sapper squadron in the desert laying and lifting mines, he became Chief Instructor of mine warfare in Middle East Command. In this capacity he witnessed the calamity of the minefield gap for 23rd Armoured Brigade in the planned breakout south of the Ruweisat ridge in July 1942. Although the gap had been cleared, because they moved without dismounted guides the tanks missed the entrance and suffered serious casualties in consequence.
After a course at the Staff College in Quetta, Constant was appointed chief of staff of a brigade in the 7th Indian Division in Burma. He took part in the advance to the Irrawaddy, the main crossing of the river and the fighting down the eastern bank from Pagan to Chauk in early 1945.
Repatriated after five years overseas, he spent the remaining months of the war training sappers for the Burma campaign and then took his wife and small daughter on a six-week sailing expedition in the Baltic, his first significant cruise since the outbreak of hostilities.
He raced the sappers’ sloop-rigged Avalanche in the first postwar Fastnet Race before driving overland to Naples to take a ship to Egypt for a staff post at HQ British Troops Egypt in 1950. A year later he was promoted substantive lieutenant-colonel to become the Chief Engineer of the Arab Legion. He came to regard his three years in Jordan as among the most satisfactory of his army service and kept his contacts with the Hashemite Kingdom into old age. In 1954 King Hussein appointed him a Bey of the Order of Istiqlal.
Return to London and the War Office was an unwelcome contrast but he was promoted to colonel to head the co-ordination section of the Military Intelligence Directorate. Although he found this fascinating, he resisted an invitation to spend the rest of his service in intelligence and returned to engineering work with the Ministry of Supply. He was subsequently Chief Engineer Middle East Land Forces; Commandant of the Defence Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Warfare Centre at Porton Down, Wiltshire, and finally, on promotion to brigadier in 1966, commander of the UK-based Engineer Support Group with responsibilities worldwide.
He left the Army early in 1968 to take up the post of Head of Channel Tunnel Engineering with the Ministry of Transport, beginning work on the initial feasibility study. At that very preliminary stage, a bridge and an immersed tube were under consideration, as well as a bored tunnel. The feasibility study took until June 1971 to complete in collaboration with the French authorities and a series of overseas inspections of existing tunnels. Completion of the work decided Constant to buy a farm and do some sailing.
His services as an engineer remained in demand, his knowledge of the Near and Middle East in particular kept him busy as a consultant until finally retiring aged 61.
He was married to Jay Shargool in 1939. She predeceased him. He was married to Ann Davies in 1981 and she survives him, as well as a son and two daughters of his first marriage and a stepson.
Brigadier John Constant, engineer and sailing enthusiast, was born on February 9, 1916. He died on November 1, 2012, aged 96
Àãåíò SOE, ïðèíèìàâøèé ó÷àñòèå â ïîäðûâå çàâîäà òÿæ¸ëîé âîäû â Íîðâåãèè
Norsk hydro plant in Vemork, where heavy water was manufactured by the Germans for use in atomic bomb research
Member of the SOE team that blew up a heavy-water plant in Norway and thwarted Germany’s attempt to build an atomic bomb
Towards the end of 1941, intelligence sources in occupied Norway reported a marked increase in the production of heavy water — essential for the manufacture of plutonium required for an atomic bomb — at the Norsk Hydro plant at Vemork, 50 miles west of Oslo. Destruction of this plant, or at least a lengthy disruption of its work, became a priority target for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
On October 18, 1942, an SOE four-man team of experienced Norwegian skiers was parachuted on to the Hardanger Vidda, a wild and uninhabited area of upland Norway. Led by Captain Jens Poulsson (obituary, February 17, 2010) this team was to prepare for the landing of British glider-borne commandos and guide them to Vemork. Navigation problems led to both gliders crashing wide of the intended landing areas and the death of all aboard, either in the crash or being executed after capture by German forces. Poulsson and his team spent the winter on the mountain living on small game they trapped or shot.
In England a new demolition team was assembled under command of Captain Joachim Rønneberg, a Norwegian sabotage and demolition instructor at the SOE training base at Aviemore in Scotland. Given a free hand to choose his team, he selected five Norwegian SOE members, of whom the eldest at 31 and most experienced was Birger Strømsheim.
Strømsheim had travelled by boat to the Shetland Islands with his wife in the autumn of 1941. Recruited by SOE, he had become an instructor in weapon handling and street fighting. Selected by Rønneberg for his maturity and coolness, he became the former’s partner for the placing of explosives, once the team had landed on the Hardanger and gained access to the Vemork heavy-water plant.
Key to the plan’s success was the briefing provided by the Norwegian scientist Professor Leif Tronstad, who had worked at Vemork and constructed a scale model of the plant on which Rønneberg was able to plan the attack. Aware that the survivors of the previous operation had been executed on Hitler’s orders, he left no detail to chance, particularly in view of the urgent need to halt the German quest to develop an atomic bomb ahead of the Allies’ programme.
The Gunnerside group was to be dropped by parachute, but the first attempt on the night of January 23-24, 1943, was frustrated by fog. This entailed delay until the next suitable moon on February 16 when the six men were dropped on the Hardanger Vidda. The drop was near-perfect and the team found and broke into a trapper’s mountain hut to shelter from a storm which blew up and raged for three days.
The day after the storm ended Rønneberg met up with Poulsson and his team who had survived for three months above the tree line. Poulsson had argued that if the reindeer could survive, so could they.
No adverse intelligence having been gathered by a member of the team Rønneberg had sent down to the village nearest to the Vemork plant, the two four-man teams began their ski descent to Vermork, carrying the explosives and leaving only two radio operators at a planned rendezvous on the mountain. They reached Vemork two days later at 8pm on February 27. Their target was a formidable one. The plant comprised seven stories built into the mountainside, with the water gushing down from a reservoir higher up and a 600ft drop to the River Maan in front. Access for workers was by a 75ft suspension bridge.
Rønneberg sent a man down to seek a crossing on the floor of the river valley. He returned with the news that they could cross over an ice bridge and then climb up to the track of a narrow-gauge supply railway. The attack plan was simple: Rønneberg’s team would carry out the sabotage while Poulsson’s would be prepared to give covering fire and fight off any German guards who appeared. To avoid delay in withdrawal, each man undertook to bite his cyanide pill if wounded.
Leaving their skis at a post-operation rendezvous, the two teams climbed down to the river in single file and crossed it without incident. Waiting while the German guards on the bridge changed, they walked along the rail track, cut the chain on the gate across it and then Rønneberg’s team headed for a point where the electric cables serving the plant entered through a tunnel. Once inside, he and Strømsheim placed the charges on the machinery producing the heavy water and set them with a 30-seconds fuse. Leaving by the way they had come, the dull thud of the explosions sounded as they walked back along the railway before descending again to the river.
The plant alarm siren did not sound until both SOE teams had re-crossed the river. By dawn they had collected their skis and returned to the Hardanger Vidda. Afterwards, Rønneberg wrote: “It was a lovely morning and we were sitting there knowing that the job was done and nobody had been hurt on either side.” Shortly before darkness fell, they returned to their main base in a snowstorm, where the two radio operators were waiting.
His radio message to London was a model of clarity and brevity: “Attacked 0045 on 28.2.43. High concentration plant totally destroyed. All present. No fighting.”
Leaving three men behind to train members of the Norwegian Resistance in weapon handling, the remainder of the two parties skied eastwards and, living off supplies the Gunnerside team had brought, eventually crossed the frontier into neutral Sweden in mid-March. From there, they made their way back to England where the Gunnerside operation was judged to be one of SOE’s most successful and significant ventures.
Rønneberg and Poulsson both received the DSO and the rest of the team either the Military Cross or, as the case of Strømsheim, the Military Medal. He was also awarded the French Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre. A German attempt to move an accumulated stock of heavy water by sea to Germany was frustrated by the Norwegian Resistance who mined and sank in deep water the ferry carrying the consignment.
Subsequently, Rønneberg, Strømsheim and Olaf Aarsaether took part in SOE’s Operation Fieldfare. In the spring of 1944, the three were dropped in a remote location overlooking the Romsdal valley with the aim of preparing attacks on German supply lines in the valley. Additionally, they were to establish a base in the mountains close to Dombås, one of the busiest railway intersections between Oslo and Trondheim. They lived in a cabin under an overhanging rock to protect it from discovery from the air.
After the war, Strømsheim returned to work in the Norwegian construction industry that he had left to travel to the Shetlands.
Operation Gunnerside and the sinking of the ferry were made into the film The Heroes of Telemark (1965), starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, with some variations from the detail of what had actually occurred.
Strømsheim’s wife predeceased him. He is survived by a son and a daughter.
Birger Strømsheim, MM, SOE agent, was born on October 11, 1911. He died on November 10, 2012, aged 101