Airey Neave murder anniversary: Colditz escaper feared by republican terrorists

Margaret Thatcher at a press conference at the Dunadry hotel  in Co Antrim with her friend and colleague Airey Neave' in June 1978. Pacemaker Press
Margaret Thatcher at a press conference at the Dunadry hotel in Co Antrim with her friend and colleague Airey Neave' in June 1978. Pacemaker Press

He was a war hero and the first Allied prisoner to escape from the infamous Colditz castle, but Airey Neave would be surreptitiously killed by an enemy he predicted “would never dare face him”.

In the weeks following his booby-trap murder at the hands of the INLA on March 30, 1979, Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher described her Northern Ireland Secretary to-be as having “a will of steel and beyond that, guiding and infusing everything he did, a simple Christian faith”.

The mangled remains of the blue Vauxhall car belonging to Airey Neave on the car park ramp at the House of Commons. Photo: Ian Showell/PA Wire

The mangled remains of the blue Vauxhall car belonging to Airey Neave on the car park ramp at the House of Commons. Photo: Ian Showell/PA Wire

As the Tories’ spokesman on Northern Ireland while in Opposition, Neave was uncompromising in his attitude to terrorism.

The MP for Abingdon became a prime target for republican terror organisations when it became apparent the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher were likely to sweep to power in the May 1979 general election.

Once asked is he would be prepared to talk to the IRA, the former army intelligence officer replied: “Yes, I’d say ‘come out with your hands up.’”

The INLA claimed responsibility for the attack but no one has ever been convicted of involvement in the murder.

Several media outlets recently reported that one of the main suspects is currently running a bar on the Spanish island of Majorca.

Confronted with the reality of life as a terrorist target, Neave famously told journalist and Conservative party advisor Patrick Cosgrave: “If they come for me, the one thing we can be sure of is that they will not face me. They’re not soldier enough for that.”

Six weeks after Neave’s murder, newly elected Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher told a memorial service at St-Martin-in-the Fields church in Trafalgar Square that her great friend and colleague was a man who always stood for “freedom against tyranny”.

Mrs Thatcher said: “What sort of man was this war-time soldier, whom the Germans could not contain and who had such a quietly powerful influence on the politics of peace?

“He was, I think, the most unassuming man I have ever met, and I had known him for 30 years. Despite the heavy responsibilities which he carried, I never once heard him raise his voice.”

She added: “But, as with many distinguished men and women, the calm and quiet exterior concealed an inner fire and strength.”

Writing in The Telegraph in 2014, former cabinet minister Norman Tebbit also remembered his former Tory colleague as a man with a strong will.

“I cannot forget that Airey Neave, the hero of Colditz who was to have been Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, only to be murdered by Irish Republicans in 1979, would not have been such a soft touch as [Labour PM] Mr Blair.”

In a book about his wartime experiences, ‘Saturday at M.I.9,’ Neave recalled how he helped plan the escape of Allied troops caught behind enemy lines as the Germans advanced all the way to the French coast.

Using the codename ‘Saturday,’ one of his most celebrated operations was aiding the remnants of the Airborne Division trapped at Arnhem to evade certain death.

At the end of the war Neave was appointed assistant secretary of the International Military Tribunal sitting at Nuremberg – serving indictment papers on the top Nazis who had been rounded up to face justice at what became known as the Nuremberg war trials.

While still a schoolboy at Eton in the early 1930s, Neave spent time in Germany and became convinced, with the rise of Hitler, that a war in Europe was inevitable.

In response, he read the complete works of Prussian general Clausewitz in an effort to understand war and those who wage it.

At Oxford University he joined the Territorial Army and it is believed is commitment to pre-war readiness adversely impacted on his academic studies.

Within a year of the outbreak of World War Two, Neave was badly wounded while attempting to hamper the Nazi advance on Dunkirk.

Originally taken into captivity at Spangenberg, Neave became known as a habitual escaper and was eventually incarcerated at the heavily fortified former royal residence in Saxony.

Neave was a firm believer in the need to remain mentally strong whilst a prisoner of war and maintained morale by constantly working on escape plans – eventually succeeding in 1942.

He would eventually be murdered because Irish republican terrorists feared his reputation.

In a biography of the former lieutentant colonel published in 2002, Paul Routledge interviewed a member of the IRSP – the INLA’s political wing the IRSP – who told him that as NI Secretary he “would have brought the armed struggle to its knees”.

• Excerpt from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s memorial service tribute to Airey Neave:

“On an afternoon in early spring, the gentlest of men, who utterly abhorred and was sickened by violence, became its victim.

“What sort of man was this war-time soldier, whom the Germans could not contain and who had such a quietly powerful influence on the politics of peace?

“He was, I think, the most unassuming man I have ever met, and I had known him for 30 years. Despite the heavy responsibilities he carried, I never once heard him raise his voice.

“As a soldier he was a most unlikely-looking hero and would have shuddered to have that word applied to him; yet hero he was.”