The Magic of The Telegraph’s World War II Obituaries

As the last wave of Allied heroes fades away, their stories offer a connection to almost unimaginable courage—and to the heyday of British colonialism.

A woman adjusts a portrait of Brian Stewart commissioned to hang at Buckingham Palace in 2015 as part of a series of portraits of D-Day veterans. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)

Here are a few things Brian Stewart did:

  • Landed at Normandy right after D-Day and led a unit that destroyed 12 Panzer tanks. “They had a bad habit of sticking snipers up trees. But I had a bad habit of shooting at snipers up trees,” he said.
  • When sent to Malaya as a district commander, with a tiny police force, he ambushed a troop of bandits at night and sentenced them, as magistrate, the following day.
  • Was sent to North Vietnam as British consul general during the Vietnam War, as the U.S. bombed:​

He arrived speaking no Vietnamese, and was at once held by Red Guards. His only accreditation was to the city’s municipal office. If the Foreign Office sent the government a message Stewart had to deliver it at the back gate of the drains department; and if secure communications with London were needed he had to set off by aero plane and return a week later.

His Malayan experience meant that he was unperturbed by the air raids, unlike most western diplomats, and he recognised that the Americans were not winning Vietnamese hearts and minds, though nobody believed him when he delivered a paper to this effect to a high powered American conference in Saigon.

  • After a tumultuous stint working on Northern Irish issues, he returned to Asia where “he was widely admired for his skill in running the largest Secret Intelligence Service station as Far East Controller in Hong Kong.”

Stewart died at 93 in August, but I learned these facts from his fantastic obituary in The Daily Telegraph. (Stewart’s son Rory, an author, diplomat, soldier, and now a member of Parliament, has already accrued a set of his own remarkable adventures.) Stewart’s obituary is not the most amazing I’ve ever read in The Telegraph. That honor goes to Robert de La Rochefoucauld, which The New Yorker deemed “the world’s most interesting obituary.”

One reason these obituaries are so delightful—especially to American readers—is a simple difference in style. As James Ledbetter neatly put it in 2002, U.S. newspapers treat a death as a news story and write obituaries accordingly. The most important information goes at the top, and the piece follows a template. The Telegraph, in contrast, treats it as an occasion to tell an essayistic story. That makes a Telegraph obit a gripping tale with fevered narration and occasional editorial judgments. The late editor Hugh Massingberd perfected the form, with colorful descriptors and a quick pace. The Telegraph’s are not the best-written obituaries—the unrivaled champion is Margalit Fox of The New York Times—but they are the most fun.

Yet there’s something distinctive about the World War II obituaries in particular. The notices for these nonagenarians are coming more frequently these days, as the heroes of the fight to liberate Europe fade away. Their popularity testifies to a public eager to clutch personal recollections and tales of the time before it becomes mere history. The Telegraph’s list of “Military Obituaries” is a scrapbook of heroism, but it is also a rare, precious glimpse into the era of colonialism. They are yellowed postcards, trapped in an old-fashioned red Royal Mail pillar box, from an era when the gin and tonics were cold, everyone was a “chap,” the natives were restive but subdued, and the sun never set on the British Empire. And because so many of these men (almost always men) were born into a titled class mortally wounded by the Great War but not yet dead, they belong to the last generation of true British colonial elites.

Well, not La Rochefoucauld: He was born into French aristocracy—yes, of course, he was related to the writer of maxims—and as a teen met Hitler, who patted him affectionately on the cheek. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the Resistance and then the British Special Operations Executive, with General de Gaulle’s permission. (“Do it. Even allied to the Devil, it’s for La France.”) He learned safecracking from convicts, then headed back to France. He was captured and sentenced to death. Then things got interesting:

En route to his execution in Auxerre, La Rochefoucauld made a break, leaping from the back of the truck carrying him to his doom, and dodging the bullets fired by his two guards. Sprinting through the empty streets, he found himself in front of the Gestapo’s headquarters, where a chauffeur was pacing near a limousine bearing the swastika flag. Spotting the key in the ignition, La Rochefoucauld jumped in and roared off, following the Route Nationale past the prison he had left an hour earlier .… From Auxerre, friends in the Resistance helped him on to a train for Paris, where he evaded German soldiers hunting him by curling up underneath the sink in the lavatory.

La Rochefoucauld was again captured on another mission and considered swallowing a suicide capsule. Instead, “he faked an epileptic fit and, when the guard opened the door to his cell, hit him over the head with a table leg before breaking his neck. After putting on the German’s uniform, La Rochefoucauld walked into the guardroom and shot the two other German jailers. He then simply walked out of the fort, through the deserted town, and to the address of an underground contact.”

Years later, in the 1990s, he stood up for a man accusing of being a Vichy collaborator, whom La Rochefoucauld said was a Resistance fighter. The man was convicted anyway, but mysteriously escaped—having acquired a passport from the aging hero. When police came to question La Rochefoucauld, his wife advised, “Don’t try to lock him up. He escapes, you know.”

Freed to speak with voice and narrative, The Telegraph’s obituaries are unabashedly hagiographic—sanctifying men (almost always men) who were incontrovertibly heroic in trying times, even if not all of them were always so admirable in their private lives.

It adds to the charm that the men in question tend to play down their own achievements with Churchillian nonchalance. Take the bomb-disposal expert Colonel Stuart Archer. “By getting my arm down inside the bomb, I was able to hold the fuze pocket and with brute force and bloody ignorance bang it back and forth until I got the whole thing free,” he recalled. “Lots of people had pulled them out before but they had been blown up, whereas I hadn’t. This was luck, luck, luck.” Or take Stewart’s own, humorously terse bildungsroman: “My five years in the Army made me a different person. It made a normal, quiet chap really into an extremely confident chap.” When Billy Drake’s squadron shot down four German fighters over France, a Free French fighter radioed, “Bravo! Merci pour le RAF!,” Drake replied, “Merci pour le sport!”

Because the subjects are so charming, and because they inarguably seized the moment to do great deeds, it makes it easier for the reader who might otherwise feel uncomfortable celebrating these scions of privilege to simply enjoy the ride, unencumbered by guilt. Since the celebration of empire is filtered through heroic deeds, it’s easy to ignore the less savory aspects—the injustice of a landed aristocracy, the dire poverty in Britain up to and after the war, and the rank bigotry of Churchill. There is a reason that the “locals” whom Stewart encountered in his colonial postings expressed a preference for Japanese rule over British, and that his successful return to Malaysia was unexpected, given the conventional wisdom “that ex-colonials were always unwelcome.”

Speaking of his platoon at D-Day, Stewart said they “were pretty ordinary chaps. The guy who got the Military Medal was a butcher from Dundee.” But it isn’t the working-class heroes who went from down the mine to over the beaches who shine through in these Telegraph obituaries. Stewart, the Oxford-educated “son of a Calcutta jute merchant whom he only saw twice in his first 16 years” seems positively plebeian in comparison to the others, and not just the ducally related La Rochefoucauld. Almost to man, they are Oxbridge graduates. Billy Drake, who notched 24.5 aerial kills, was a direct descendant of Sir Francis Drake. Colonel Johnny Coke—John Cuthbert d’Ewes Coke to you—“was born on November 18 1916 in Exeter at the home of his grandfather, Admiral Sir Charles Coke.” And so on.

The best-known of the bunch is likely Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the beloved travel writer who died at 96 in 2011. After being expelled from private school, he decided to walk across Europe (both being clear signs of privilege). Armed with excellent Cretan Greek, Fermor worked for special forces on the island, where he dressed as a German and kidnapped a Nazi major general. They bonded over Horace whilst he was Fermor’s captive.

Even their hobbies carry a musty whiff of leisure. Group Captain Allan Wright “was an excellent and meticulous carpenter and woodworker.” Drake’s “great passion was skiing. He captained the RAF ski team, and made annual trips to the home of one of his sons in Switzerland, taking to the slopes until he was in his early nineties.” Coke described himself as an “indifferent skiier,” yet served as “secretary of the Ski Club of Great Britain and treasurer of the Kandahar Ski Club in Switzerland.” Stewart “nurtured his son for a life of adventure from an early age, rising early to practise duelling with plastic swords in Hyde Park” and become an “enthusiastic gardener” in retirement.

It’s not entirely surprising that the Telegraph, an old-line conservative (and Conservative) newspaper would be the home for these remembrances. Occasionally, retrograde politics slip through—the implication, for example, that women are primarily around to produce heirs: “After a divorce in 1970 he married Sally Nugent, who bore him Fiona and Rory, the Conservative MP, writer and Iraq deputy governor.” But in general, these obituaries for the last wave of World War II heroes offer a guilt-free way to celebrate the age of empire. Just don’t, to borrow a phrase, lie back and think of England too much, or the guilt might creep back in.