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News > Articles > Airey Neave, OR

Airey Neave, OR

Soldier, Escaper, Spymaster, Politician and Old Ronian (1924 – 1929)
Colditz Castle
Colditz Castle

It seems fitting to remember Airey Neave in this edition of the Ronian as 40 years have passed since his untimely death in 1979. He attended Saint Ronan’s in Worthing, under the Headmastership of the great WB Harris, and is remembered by OR Gospatrick Home as being ‘quite a shy and reserved character’ at school. He left to go to Eton and while there composed a prize-winning essay about the probable consequences of Hitler's rise to power and the likelihood of another war in Europe.

After Oxford he saw active service in WWII with the Royal Artillery and was wounded and captured near Calais on the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. In May 1942, after several escape attempts, he was transferred to Oflag IV-C, the Officer-only POW camp at Colditz Castle.

In June 1942 he escaped from Colditz during a theatrical production, via a trap door beneath the stage, and is famous for being the first British Officer to have successfully made a ‘home run’.

After the war, as a qualified lawyer who spoke fluent German, he was given the role of reading the indictments of the Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg Trials. Thereafter he went into politics and became a Conservative MP. He supported Margaret Thatcher’s challenge to Edward Heath as the party leader in 1975 and, as a reward, she gave him the pick of the great offices of state.  Neave chose Ireland, a job that was dangerous. He was assassinated by an Irish National Liberation Army car bomb at one minute to three on 30th March 1979, aged only 63, shortly before Margaret Thatcher was elected the country’s first female Prime Minister. His murder shocked and horrified the nation and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh both attended his funeral.

After his death, Mrs Thatcher said of him: ‘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.’   

First published in The Ronian issue 71, Spring 2019

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