Major Charles Hargreaves

SOE officer in wartime Yugoslavia and Colditz survivor
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The Independent Online

Edgar Charles Stewart Hargreaves, soldier: born Christchurch, New Zealand 7 September 1917; married 1964 Dawn Mackay (two sons); died Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire 4 February 2005.

Edgar Charles Stewart Hargreaves, soldier: born Christchurch, New Zealand 7 September 1917; married 1964 Dawn Mackay (two sons); died Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire 4 February 2005.

Charles Hargreaves was one of a dwindling band of Colditz survivors. He spent the last days of the Second World War there from 1944 to 1945, after gruelling experiences at the hands of the Gestapo in Belgrade.

Hargreaves, sometimes known as Mickey, was a New Zealander by birth who from his earliest days at school at St Andrew's College, Christchurch, was fascinated by flying. He looped the loop at air shows, learned to parachute and stood on the top wing of a bi-plane in a flying circus. At the young age of 15, he qualified for a pilot's certificate of competence (in effect a licence, which he could not apply for until the age of 18).

In 1937, as war approached, Hargreaves was one of many young New Zealanders who travelled to Britain to volunteer for the RAF. But he failed the eye test and was instead commissioned into the 8th Hussars (the King's Own Royal Irish Hussars), which had converted from cavalry to armoured fighting vehicles. He was posted to Bovington in Dorset and from there to Ireland.

After the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, restless to get into action, he volunteered to join the newly formed No 2 Commando, which was later to become No 1 Parachute Battalion. In 1941, the parachute training at Ringway was very elementary, but he qualified as an instructor, and was then posted to the Middle East Parachute School to train the SAS at Kabrit, near the Suez Canal.

This was still early days for the SAS, but they were already launching devastating raids behind enemy lines. Keen to get into action somewhere other than the desert, in May 1942 Hargreaves joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was recruited for their Yugoslav section.

Despite not speaking Serbo-Croat, he was parachuted into Yugoslavia to work as Liaison Officer with the Chetniks - the Serbian nationalist guerrilla force formed to resist the Germans and the Communist partisans under Tito. He landed almost on top of a signal bonfire, correctly attired in full service dress uniform and Sam Browne belt. Later he adorned his beret with the White Rose of Serbia badge, with its motto "Liberty or Death".

His orders were to "make himself useful", which he proceeded to do on the south bank of the Danube, largely engaged in ambush operations with Chetniks who had taken him to their hearts. He admired the Chetniks, many of whom had sworn not to cut their hair or beard until their country was liberated.

Hargreaves was at one time issued with a package containing gold, diamonds and paper money to buy the loyalty of potential Muslim informers among the occupying Germans. As few deals were made, the valuables remained in his rucksack until, sensing a change in the political climate, he buried them in a cave, gruesomely guarded by six dead German soldiers who had been killed by the Chetniks.

The British withdrew their support for the Chetniks in favour of the Communist partisans. The game was up for Hargreaves and, as he withdrew with a small band of Poles and other nationalities, he fell from his horse, the injuries from which slowed his progress. He was captured, still wearing the Chetnik cap-badge, which, for the Germans, labelled him a terrorist, and was sent to the Gestapo prison in Belgrade. He recalled:

I was kept in isolation, and for that year I think the only people I ever spoke to were the guards or the interrogation people. This sort of life drives you to all kinds of extremes, and you become rather like a squirrel - you collect anything you can that you feel you might put to some use.

Hargreaves was able to accumulate a length of thread, a button and some scraps of paper, and managed to extract a nail from the duck-boards in the cell. "My cell was closed by an iron door, but there was a gap of about a quarter of an inch under the door, and there was another cell immediately opposite mine," he recalled:

By looking through the hole in the door, I could see somebody else being put in the cell opposite. Taking one of my little bits of paper and a nail, I scratched myself, got some blood and I wrote a little note on a piece of paper. I then wrapped this round the button and tied it up with the piece of thread. I was able to flick it underneath the door across the cell and under the door opposite. Eventually we established quite a communication, and I learnt a lot about this man - but I never ever saw him, and I never spoke to him.

During this period he underwent brutal interrogation before being sentenced to death. He was transferred to another prison for this and was moved from room to room each day as the former inmates were executed. But he protested that he was a British officer and was finally believed. He was later transferred to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. With his health deteriorating, he was moved under the protection of the Red Cross to Colditz Castle - which he recalled as being "sheer bliss".

When the war ended in 1945, Hargreaves was liberated and, back in England at RAF Brize Norton, he found himself in a barbed-wire enclosure prior to debriefing, alongside another Colditz New Zealander - his friend Captain Charles Upham, the double VC winner. It was not long, however, before he was more happily installed in the Ritz in London as the guest of the hotel-owner. The absence of ready cash was no hindrance at all.

In peacetime he led a varied career. He was comptroller to the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey for some years, much relishing the wildlife in the grounds, where he had the chance to house his pet chimpanzee, a vexatious creature which had proved too boisterous for his London flat - where he also kept his parrot, Fred. One of his more delicate assignments was to collect the rent from various nudist conventions that gathered in secluded areas at Woburn - a task he carried out with great aplomb, fully and immaculately dressed.

He then travelled the world as a Queen's Messenger. In 1964, he met Dawn Mackay, the young headmistress of Heathfield School, and they were married. They later moved to Hatchlands near Guildford, and for many years ran a finishing school for girls. Later again they moved to Aultmore, near Nethy Bridge on the banks of the Spey in Scotland, and finally retired to Tobreac.

At the age of 75, Hargreaves was invited to New Zealand, where his achievements were celebrated in a This is Your Life programme when he was reunited with his friend Charles Upham. While there, Hargreaves enjoyed bungee jumping at Kawarau which, despite his age, he found most exhilarating.

Max Arthur