John Magrath

Wartime intelligence officer
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The Independent Online

John Patrick Magrath, teacher, lecturer, soldier and businessman: born Alexandria, Egypt 21 July 1920; married 1955 Margaret Cramer (two sons, three daughters); died Petworth, West Sussex 9 November 2005.

As a young intelligence officer, John Magrath won a mention in Despatches for his pivotal role in ensuring that the Allies' liberation of the historic city of Urbino in August 1944 was achieved without major casualties or substantial destruction of its historic buildings.

Capt Magrath had been asked by his commanding officer, Maj-Gen A.W.W. Holworthy, then in command of the Fourth Indian Division, to discover with all speed whether Urbino was still in enemy hands. Having driven swiftly to the base of the city's walls, he hid his motorcycle in the gorse and discreetly made his way into Urbino.

Being half Italian and a fluent speaker of the language, he was able to secure speedy access to the mayor, Avvocato Giorgio Pagi, who at the time was having lunch at home with his family. While the mayor's daughter, Giuliana, served their visitor a plate of spaghetti, the mayor drew him a map of where the German new positions were going to be. Furnished with this scoop, General Holworthy was able to liberate Urbino without encountering significant enemy resistance and to maintain the speed of his advance towards the Gothic Line.

Every year, on 28 August, posters now appear all over Urbino to remind the populace of their deliverance, in 1944, from the yoke of Fascism. Returning to the city after more than half a century, John Magrath, by then a retired schoolmaster and lecturer, was not only received with honour for his part in that liberation - being referred to in the local press as either "Il Capitano" or "Il Professore" or, for good measure, "Il Capitano Professore" - but also managed to find, and partake of a commemorative dish of spaghetti with, Giuliana.

John Magrath was born in Alexandria of an Irish father and an Italian mother. He was only four years old when his father, Gerald Magrath, died and he spent a somewhat unsettled childhood with his widowed mother and two brothers before finding, in the rugged monastic ethos of Ampleforth College, the sense of continuity and stability he needed to flourish academically. Whilst there he also benefited from the mentorship of one of the school's most distinguished lay masters, Walter Shewring, translator of Homer and friend and literary executor of Eric Gill, who instilled in him a lifelong love of art and literature.

A promising undergraduate career at Cambridge was interrupted by the Second World War. His linguistic skills made him a natural choice for the Intelligence Corps, with whom, as well as in Italy, he saw service in North Africa, Sicily and Greece. After the war he joined Shell International, spending seven years in Brazil, and having become fluent in Portuguese (and enough of an expert in Brazilian literature to write long articles on the subject for the TLS) was an obvious choice for a later posting to Angola.

Ultimately, corporate life failed to satisfy his intellectual leanings and in 1970 he retired from Shell in order to complete, at University College, London, the degree in Italian and French which the war had interrupted, and to retrain as a teacher. Given that he had a wife and five children to support, his decision must have seemed eccentric, if not foolhardy.

In retrospect, he was actually a pioneer of the mid-life career change which is now a common choice or necessity. He went on to spend 10 years teaching foreign languages at Woking Grammar School and then at the sixth form college by which it was replaced. In later life he developed a particular interest in Arthurian legends, giving lectures on their influence on art, opera and literature.

Paul Magrath