Obituary: Peter Deman

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PETER DEMAN was an enterprising wartime escape line organiser, and an active merchant in the Belgium Congo before it went independent.

His parents were Hungarian Jews, quite well-off - his father was a cavalry officer in the Habsburg Army - and his childhood was spent alternatively between Vienna, his birthplace, and Budapest. During part of the Great War his father had been a prisoner of war in northern England, and instilled strongly pro-English feelings in his son, whose original forename was Erwin.

Already before he was 16, Erwin Deman was travelling; he went to Lisbon on business, and was again in Portugal when the Nazi menace, which his parents had long foreseen, overflowed into war. He went at once to France to enlist in the 22e Regiment de Marche de Volontaires Etrangers, one of the few French units which fought hard in the summer disaster of 1940.

Deman was taken prisoner when he ran out of ammunition, and sent to Germany, but at once escaped back to France and got over to Algeria by enlisting in the Foreign Legion. From this he deserted - with some 3,000 companions - the moment Allied troops arrived in north-west Africa, and was persuaded to volunteer for the Special Operations Executive.

In SOE, the meticulous Leslie Humphreys chose him to run a sea escape line called "Var" between Brittany and Cornwall. He spent several weeks on the Dart, cloistered with a former hussar officer called Peter Harratt, acquiring every necessary detail of small boat work. Parachuting was not a skill he cared to adopt.

In July 1943 he went back to France by clandestine Hudson airliner, passing unscathed through a reception organised by a double-agent who was working with the Gestapo. In France he was in double jeopardy, for the French police would imprison him if they discovered he had deserted from the Legion, and the Gestapo would do worse to him if they discovered he was a Jew.

He settled nevertheless in Rennes as an insurance agent, which gave him plausible reasons for travelling, secured a pass to visit the forbidden coastal zone, and identified himself to the maid at a villa near St Cast by presenting an ancient Irish ring which belonged to the villa's owner, Cecily Lefort (Francis Cammaerts's courier, who was murdered in Ravensbruck). Near the villa he found a secluded beach; and he found another farther west near Morlaix - close by a German pillbox, but his circuit came to an understanding with the German sergeant, who did not want to be sent to the eastern front.

Over the winter of 1943-44 the "Var" ran 16 successful operations, carrying between them 70 men and women to and fro. The nautical details are all set out in Sir Brooks Richards's Secret Flotillas (1996). They never lost a passenger; but two of the agents working with Deman, his wireless operator Raymond Langard and his American assistant Emile Minerault, both died in German concentration camps, and several of the 150-odd Frenchmen and French women who helped him were arrested.

Deman came back to England for a few days' staff talks, using the rival "Vic" escape line overland in the record time of seven days, and returning by naval motor gun boat. He was back at his desk in Rennes on the due day after ostensibly taking a fortnight's leave.

Humphreys recalled him, by motor gun boat again, after he had been seven months at work. His next mission was to have gone in overland across the Pyrenees, but petered out in troubles with a pickpocket who stole his papers and in quarrels with mountain guides. He had well earned his Military Cross.

After the war, he found that his parents had survived occupation - they were among those rescued by the Swedish Count Wallenberg. He served briefly in the Control Commission in Germany. He then worked as Secretary to the Arts Committee for the 1948 Olympic Games in London, standing up at close quarters to such luminaries as Sir Malcolm Sargent and Dame Laura Knight.

That year he went back to Africa, where he spent a dozen years as a successful merchant, principally in the Belgian Congo (to which he introduced Guinness). He escaped, with some difficulty, when the Congo became independent, and settled in an office in Morwell Street, behind the British Museum, as an advertising agent.

When Peter Harratt died in the Sixties, as a mark of respect Deman changed his own first name to Peter. He lived in the Essex village Marjory Allingham made famous as Pontisbright, where he had a reputation for robust eccentricity. His second wife, Phillipa (nee Bevan), the golf champion, nursed him through several years' illness. He was proud of sending all four of his sons to Rugby, and inclined to believe that "To be an Englishman was to be seated at the right hand of God".

Erwin Peter Deman, secret agent, businessman and advertising agent: born Vienna 30 April 1921; MC 1944; twice married (four sons); died Rose Green, Essex 22 November 1998.