Obituary: R. J. R. Trefusis

Click to follow
R. J. R. Trefusis was the hero of an extraordinary episode during the campaign of 1944 to liberate Europe from the Nazis, an incident which earned a place in the annals and in legend, when he personally received the surrender of a group of German officers and men ensconced in the Hotel de Ville in Brussels and saved part of the city centre from almost certain destruction by the retreating enemy. At that time he was a major in the Scots Guards. The incident was recalled on Belgian television at the time of the Duke of York's official visit to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation.

Born in 1914 in the house of his grandfather, the Bishop of Crediton, Robert John Rodolphe Trefusis was the son of Major George Trefusis, a member of an old West Country family, and his Australian wife, Elsie. Educated at Brighton College, "Jack" trained as a civil engineer at the Great Western Railway works at Swindon, and retained a lifelong interest in and knowledge of the railways.

Then, as a good linguist, he went to Germany to represent a British firm supplying, inter alia, the firm of Krupps. These were the years of Germany's undercover re-armament and, because of his contacts and excellent command of the language, Jack Trefusis was able to pick up indications as to what was going on, which eventually reached British intelligence.

On the outbreak of war, he volunteered for service and was commissioned into the Scots Guards, taking part in the D-day landings of June 1944. (Before D-Day his knowledge of the railways of northern France had served him well as a member of the committee planning Operation Overlord.) The following September, when the British army had reached Belgium, he was one of two officers sent to assist forward units in dealing with Germans who surrendered, but with the warning that some SS units were deceptively turning again to attack.

Major Trefusis was given a soft-skinned vehicle and two guardsmen to move behind the leading tanks of 32 Brigade making for Brussels, his principal objective being to find the exiled Burgomeister of the city who had been incarcerated some 30 miles away, so that he could be restored to his civic office. Trefusis contacted members of the Belgian resistance, who agreed to bring the Burgomeister, Mons van der Meulebroek, into Brussels; they also provided Trefusis with guides for his own party.

From a spot behind the enemy lines, they conducted Trefusis into Brussels by an unobtrusive route and smuggled him into a police station from which he was able to get, via a back window, into the Hotel de Ville, where, true to their word, they had van der Meulebroek awaiting him. The square outside was still packed with German troops and in the library of the Hotel de Ville were well over 50 of them, including officers, preparing to set fire to the building.

In his most authoritative German and without hesitation, Trefusis, outnumbered by more than 50 to one, called on the enemy to surrender. He told them the British were in Brussels, and handed them over to the waiting Belgian police. He then brought forward Mons van der Meulebroek and, to the delight of all Belgians present, administered to him as Burgomeister. A little later the two of them appeared together on the balcony of the building, to be heartily cheered by the Belgian civilians who crowded into the square as fast as German troops quit.

The next day Trefusis attended a meeting of the Belgian military command and received an official speech of welcome to the British forces who had liberated the city.

A second cloak-and-dagger episode came later in September when, during the battle of Arnhem in Holland, he was ordered on a special mission with a handful of volunteers to co-ordinate intelligence brought in by the Dutch resistance. They spent 10 days concealed in a tiny dugout in a wood miles behind the German lines, with the support of local Dutch families, where they received information from members of the local resistance and despatched it via Dutch civilian cyclists as couriers back to 2nd Army HQ.

After being demobilised in 1946, Jack Trefusis entered the British diplomatic service and served in various postings for the next eight years. It was in the Embassy in Copenhagen that he met Shirley Scott Barton who also worked there. He left the service in 1954 and returned to England; they were married the following year. Trefusis returned to his own profession as a consultant in the field of hydraulics, and served for many years as a director-general of the Hydraulic Association, where his tact, kindness and administrative expertise were universally admired.

In February 1953, he joined the London branch of Toc H, the association of ex-servicemen founded by the Rev Tubby Clayton after the First World War. He was chairman of the Talbot House Association for 29 years and was instrumental in creating strong links with Belgian ex-servicemen (he kept up for many years his friendship with Mons van der Meulebroek and others he had known in 1944). He was especially concerned to "pass on the torch" to younger people and his work was honoured by King Baudouin in November 1987 with the Order of the Crown of Belgium. He was a trustee of St George's Memorial Church at Ypres.

A devout member of the Church of England, Trefusis was for many years a church-warden of St James's, Piccadilly (where a kinsman had earlier been rector), and served as a Gentleman Usher at Westminster Abbey. In 1973 he became chairman of the Prayer Book Society, founded to defend and preserve traditional liturgy against would-be modernisers, and during his 16 years as chairman built it up into an organisation with a branch in every diocese, forcing the establishment to take its views seriously.

At the time he took over, it still appeared that the Book of Common Prayer was under threat of being superseded completely by new modern- language services. When the Alternative Service Book was published in 1980, there was strong pressure on all churches to switch over to it. Trefusis realised that the strength of the movement lay in its grass roots - in the local branches - and sought particularly to promote them, deploying his gentle, unobtrusive diplomacy and tact in drawing together people with widely disparate views on churchmanship and church politics.

He retired as chairman in 1989 but continued active as president of his local Exeter branch of the society and even during his final illness in April was hardly dissuaded from carrying out an engagement to address the branch's conference at Dartington Hall. Until overtaken by terminal illness he also worked regularly as a volunteer guide to show visitors around Exeter Cathedral.

It was a joy to him when his only son, Charles, was ordained into the Church as a priest in 1990.

Margot Thompson

Robert John Rodolphe Trefusis, soldier and civil engineer: born Exeter 14 October 1914; married 1955 Shirley Scott Barton (one son, one daughter); died Exeter 13 May 1997.