Major Charles Hargreaves

SOE officer in wartime Yugoslavia and Colditz survivor

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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
scienceBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Sport
Mario Balotelli posed for this selfie during AC Milan's 5-1 defeat to Manchester City
sport
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth Games
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + ents
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
Extras
indybestSpice up your knife with our selection of delicious toppings
Sport
sport
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

Senior Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Leading Sof...

Chemistry Teacher

£90 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried