Paul Odgers: Trusted soldier and civil servant

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Over the years, Paul Odgers was the trusted and valued lieutenant of diverse persons – during the Second World War to Field Marshal Montgomery, then, as a civil servant, to Dame Mary Smieton, the first woman Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education, the Labour cabinet ministers Michael Stewart and Dick Crossman, and Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education.

Odgers' introduction to Crossman (whose Parliamentary Private Secretary I was) could hardly have been less auspicious. "This week I've had at last a new assistant, Paul Odgers," Crossman recorded in his diary for 20 March 1968:

Odgers is from the Ministry of Education and has the rank of Assistant Under Secretary and so is quite a senior man. He looked very white and old when he came in and then proceeded

to say, looking up at me with his enormous blue eyes, "I've sat at your feet. I was your worst pupil." I looked into those eyes and suddenly I did see the undergraduate Odgers, my worst philosophy pupil, and had to admit he was right to call himself hopeless.

However, by May, Crossman had decided that "Odgers is a great deal better than I thought at first", and so good did he prove to be that Crossman, on his promotion to the giant department of the social services covering health and pensions, took Odgers with him to Alexander Fleming House. Over breakfast at Crossman's house at 9 Vincent Square one day, Odgers said to me with a twinkle when Crossman was taking his usual early morning phone call from the Prime Minister, "As an undergraduate at New College I did find Dick's successor, Isaiah Berlin, much more congenial".

Odgers told me that it was partly on Berlin's recommendation that in 1943 he had been whisked out of his regiment, the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in Malta, to join Montgomery at the Eighth Army headquarters for the Italian campaign. The following year, Montgomery commandeered Odgers from Italy for the 21st Army group and the invasion of France, with particular responsibility for selecting the locations of and setting up tactical headquarters – a crucial task.

When he joined the Department of Education in 1948, the qualities of hard work and good judgement which had appealed to Montgomery singled Odgers out in the minds of Smieton and her colleagues for advancement. However, Michael Stewart pinched Odgers in 1967 as his right-hand man when he was appointed First Secretary of State. Crossman inherited Odgers the following year.

In 1971, Odgers returned to his first love, the Department of Education, where his skill in devising initiatives on teacher training enhanced the reputation of his Secretary of State, Margaret Thatcher.

Tam Dalyell

Paul Randall Odgers, soldier and civil servant: born 30 July 1915; MBE (military) 1945; Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Education 1948-56, Cabinet Office 1956-58; Under-Secretary, Ministry of Education 1958-67, Office of the First Secretary of State 1967, Office of Lord President of the Council 1968, Office of the Secretary of State for Social Services 1969-70, Cabinet Office 1970-71; CB 1970; Deputy Secretary, Department of Education and Science 1971-75; married 1944 Diana Fawkes (one son, one daughter); died 24 December 2007.