Denis Cecil Hills, traveller, writer, linguist, military intelligence officer and teacher: born Birmingham 8 November 1913: married first 1939 Dunia Lesmian (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Ingrid Jan (two sons); died Richmond, Surrey 26 April 2004.
Denis Hills is widely remembered as the vocal British lecturer rescued from death row in Kampala, Uganda, by James Callaghan when he was Foreign Secretary. But perhaps his real claim to fame has as much to do with the tyranny of Joseph Stalin as that of Idi Amin.
At Yalta in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had acquiesced to a seemingly innocent request from the Russian dictator that captured Soviet citizens, many of whom had fought for the Axis powers, be repatriated, supposedly as "free Soviet citizens" - a decision the forceful implementation of which many British and American military officers, including Hills, were later to find distasteful in the extreme.
The well-built son of a bank manager, Denis Hills proved an unruly youth at King Edward's School, Birmingham: he was a keen sportsman and some say something of a bully. He is even said to have intimidated one John Enoch Powell, a scholarly fellow student, but that is unlikely for Enoch was two years his senior and Hills later wrote scorning "the arid logic of the brilliant bookworm", adding, "I had little to do with him." However, Hills did win an open history scholarship at Lincoln College, Oxford, where a coveted "Fourth" in PPE just eluded him and he is more remembered for wrestling, rugby, womanising and night climbing. After one such adventure - betrayed by abrasions acquired slipping off the Bursar's window ledge and falling some 20 feet - he was rusticated.
Hills displayed a remarkable facility for languages. As a young student he discovered a taste for travel and writing which would never leave him; he developed an almost romantic attachment to scenic and historic centres in Germany and later Poland and Turkey. His interests were often earthy and his observations, although perceptive, were seldom political, which may account perhaps for his attendance at the 1935 Nuremberg Rally.
There - as ever he was his own man - it was probably not ideological conviction but his rugged individualism, which oft-times bordered on cussedness, that got him into some trouble for refusing to salute in the Nazi style. He moved on to Poland, where he worked as an English editor and teacher and once again developed, and adopted as his lifelong guide, a somewhat unreal vision of that country.
The outbreak of the Second World War obliged him to flee to the British Council in Romania but he was soon to be found serving in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq with the Free Polish forces. In Italy he was present at several battles including that which sadly culminated in the destruction by bombing of the historic monastery of Monte Cassino. In 1944 he was attached to the Soviet Mission at Taranto as a liaison and intelligence officer and was also involved in intelligence gathering and interrogation, investigating such areas as rocketry in Germany and the Soviet Union.
In his later writings, Hill recounts how the tramp steamer SS Fede, carrying hundreds of Polish Jews - would-be Israeli settlers attempting to run the Palestine blockade - was detained at La Spezia by the British military authorities. Unaware that their number included a handful of hard-line Zionists who were bound to make trouble for the British authorities in Palestine, it seemed to him at the time only human to allow the vessel to proceed on its way, which he recommended.
Meantime he secretly took Professor Harold Laski to meet the Jewish leaders. Laski counselled patience: "[Ernest] Bevin is my friend. I will speak with him. Trust me!" Hills thought the leaders unimpressed, so he personally badgered his fellow British military officials into releasing the vessel. Clearly, as usual, Hills acted on impulse but this incident is important not least because it was thereafter to be dramatised in the influential film Exodus (1960).
In order to implement the Yalta repatriation agreements, in 1946 prisoners of war hailing from the east were to be secretly taken to Pisa and Rimini, in a plan known as Operation Keelhaul. Thence Soviet citizens would be forcibly repatriated by train (Operation Eastwind) as would likewise Croats (Operation Highjump). Hills, involved with associated interrogation and travel arrangements, later wrote simply that he "refused to set himself up lightly in judgement of their [the prisoners'] actions during the war". He added:
Many of them eluded [the orders] with our collusion . . . I doctored the nominal roles as best I could. Some Russians I registered as Poles. Some I encouraged to run away from their camps, which were not at all closely guarded . . . Some took shelter with Russikom, an organisation of the Greek Catholic Church in Rome . . . [but a few] soldiers who had disguised themselves as workers or civilian refugees were denounced by fellow Russians.
In 1947 an unnamed "Capt A" in the British army noted the furtive shielding and re-routing of many prisoners and submitted a long report openly deploring all forced repatriation to Eastern Europe. There was great sympathy at staff level, especially among those officers who had given specific assurances at the time of mass surrenders and felt their honour at stake. The document was circulated anonymously.
Thus it became known that members of an 8,000-strong Ukrainian division due to be forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union had ended up as "Russians" in Canada. "Capt A" revealed that many men who had hitherto trusted the British implicitly had since been advised that they were to be repatriated to Russia and those with families were given 24 hours to decide whether or not to stay together. Special sealed trains were ordered and additional provision agreed with the Soviet authorities for the hand-over of the bodies of those whom it was (correctly) assumed would commit suicide en route.
At the time the Soviet press and radio came to know of the report and dubbed its author "the Fascist major". Years later Joseph Epstein came across a copy of it in the US archives and printed it in the Sunday Oklahoman (21 January 1973). The scandal went public. Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his The Gulag Archipelago (1974) dubbed the whole disgraceful incident "The last secret . . . of the Second World War". The MEP Lord (Nicholas) Bethell took this as the title of an erudite exposé published in 1974 (The Last Secret: forcible repatriation to Russia, 1944-7), but it was not until later editions that he learned that the mysterious whistle-blower Capt A was in fact Denis Hills.
Hills neither sought nor received any honour for the hundreds of Eastern Europeans he saved from the dreaded "Corrective Labour Camps", "Filtration Camps", from suicide or from Stalin's arbitrary execution. In fact he wrote of the British reaction only the pained comment, "They knew, or at any rate strongly suspected, that I had doctored the nominal roles and this made them think of me as vaguely unreliable."
After demobilisation, Hills remained unsettled for months: he tried labouring in Germany, then prep-school teaching in England but soon abandoned that for Turkey, teaching English at a technical university, writing again, climbing mountains (and, it is rumoured, the dome of Santa Sophia). Then in 1963 he secured a lectureship in English at the School of Education some distance from the main Makerere University campus in Kampala, Uganda.
In their heyday in the years leading up to and immediately following political independence, the faculties of the great universities of British Colonial Africa resounded with famous names - scholars, writers, artists and a share of eccentric characters. This was especially true of Legon in Ghana, Makerere in Uganda, but also of Ibadan in Nigeria and even Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.
Makerere was particularly strong in intellectual commentary and writing. It was then the home base for the journal Transition. Hills, who always thought of himself more as a writer than a teacher, was enabled to mix with the likes of Ali Mazrui, Rajat Neogy, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul. He loved the freedom and friendships Uganda offered and his writing prospered. That he was not in the class of these colleagues as an intellectual did not prevent him from provocatively remarking that they "studied everything from the composition of elephant dung to syphilis among Baganda women, but were these social anthropologists . . . articulate?"
Hills's writing was still not political. He consciously compared himself and his interests with those of Sir Richard Burton and ignored his editor's mild protests that one needed to turn very few pages before coming across explicit references to genitalia, defecation or sex. For example, from The White Pumpkin (1975), his second book about Uganda: "[After tearing her knickers] I made love to her eight times and once again, out of greed, after breakfast." Yet it was for tactlessly comparing Idi Amin with Emperor Nero and describing him as a "village tyrant" in a leaked pre-publication manuscript of this book that, on 11 June 1975, Hills was sentenced to face a firing squad.
Uganda and its leader were news and the British public was soon up in arms. Both the Queen and her prime minister, Harold Wilson, wrote asking for clemency. Lt-Gen Sir Chandos Blair and another of Amin's former commanding officers were sent out to seek - unsuccessfully - a change of heart but Idi Amin wanted a stage on which to bargain. It was all very difficult as the moody maverick began to fantasise that an invasion of Uganda was being planned by Britain, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Israel.
James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary, feared for the rest of the British community but correctly insisted on a firm promise that Hill would be released before he agreed personally to visit Kampala. It was the intervention of Mobutu Sese Seko of the then Zaire that the eventually stabilised situation. Hills apologised and agreed to remove the phrase "village tyrant"; aid to Uganda was to be reviewed, and Callaghan and Hill flew back to London in an RAF plane, but not before Amin had driven the Foreign Secretary off in a large green Mercedes, without escort, to visit his elderly mother in her thatched hut in the countryside.
Denis Hills was later to appear as himself in a film on Uganda, Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1980), launched with much fanfare in London, but which amounted to little more than the sour grapes of the former, not entirely guiltless, Ugandan Indian community whom Idi Amin had so savagely dispossessed and expelled. Hills also wrote more books and articles on Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, Africa in general and Poland. He also added an aptly subtitled autobiography, Tyrants and Mountains: a reckless life (1992), to the quite substantial list of volumes he had compiled over the decades.
In more recent years, Hills restricted his travels to Eastern Europe. Although he lived to 90 and witnessed the reunion of Germany, independent and self-confident to the end, his restless spirit was never at peace when it came to a nursing home. It is sad that he died only a few days before Poland became a member of the European Union. That event he would have loudly applauded.