Sir Derek Dodson

Courageous diplomat with a talent for accurate analysis
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Derek Sherborne Lindsell Dodson, diplomat: born Cambridge 20 January 1920; MC 1945; First Secretary and Head of Chancery, Prague 1958, chargé d'affaires 1959-62; consul, Elisabethville 1962; CMG 1963, KCMG 1975; Head of the Central Department, Foreign Office 1963-66; counsellor, British Embassy, Athens 1966-69; ambassador to Hungary 1970-73, to Brazil 1973-77, to Turkey 1977-80; Special Representative to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 1981-95; chairman, Anglo-Turkish Society 1982-95; married 1952 Julie Maynard Barnes (died 1992; one son, one daughter), 1997 Rania Massouridis (née Papadam; two stepsons); died Pelasgia, Greece 22 November 2003.

Although immaculately dressed, socially conventional and highly professional, Derek Dodson was much less the conventional diplomat than appearances might have suggested. He had no university degree, no aptitude for languages, a slight stutter, illegible handwriting and little patience with bureaucrats. But he had great charm, moral as well as physical courage, and a rare talent for accurate analysis.

As his Military Cross of 1945 and his confrontation of an African mob while consul-general in Katanga indicate, he was a gallant man. And he was a natural teacher. As head of a Foreign Office department and then as ambassador, he practised and inculcated in others precision and clarity of expression: the desk officers he trained ended up, in the next generation, occupying half the major British embassies worldwide. Unfailingly generous hospitality at his homes in London and Lincolnshire, and in the foreign capitals where the Dodsons served, cemented these and a host of other friendships.

The son of a Lincolnshire doctor, Derek Dodson went from Stowe to Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1939. His taste for adventure, and ability to wangle his way to what he wanted, saw him transferred from India to the Special Operations Executive in Egypt. With SOE came his first close encounter with Greece, where he later served twice as a diplomat and to which he became deeply attached.

He was flown into Greece in 1943, attempting to organise resistance groups and encourage sabotage. Early the following year he parachuted into Epirus to liaise with the anti-Communist resistance, returning to Cairo through Turkey and Syria. He returned clandestinely to Greece a third time, being present at the liberation of both Athens and Salonika, where he shielded the surrendering German general from the threat of local retribution by dressing him in a British uniform until he could be evacuated.

Dodson was awarded his MC for service with the partisans in Northern Italy in the spring of 1945. He led the group which attacked Turin from the East. The citation for the award said that he had shown outstanding leadership and courage, as well as great tact in gaining the confidence of the partisans and exercising control of them. The record belied his laconic claim in later years that he had never seen a shot fired in anger.

As the war ended, Dodson got himself appointed Military Assistant to the British Commissioner of the Allied Control Commission for Bulgaria but, that over, soon tired of post-war soldiering. He joined the Foreign Service in 1948, returning to Greece as vice-consul at Salonika during the critical period of the civil war, when much of the surrounding countryside was under Communist control. A period in Madrid followed. He always said that he owed that posting to the fact that the diplomatic corps frequently donned uniform, which the ambassador thought looked best adorned with medals; as Dodson had a chestful, the ambassador chose him rather than any of his fluent Spanish-speaking rivals.

Returning first to a personnel job in London, Dodson became private secretary to Anthony Nutting, then Minister of State in the Foreign Office. He supported Nutting closely through the trauma of Suez and Nutting's resignation. Dodson always retained a slightly guilty feeling about having allowed himself to be dissuaded from joining Nutting and the tiny band of officials which left the service in protest over Suez.

After service in Prague, following which he came briefly under suspicion as a "third man" among the FO's Russian spies, in 1962 Dodson went to Elizabethville in copper-rich Katanga as consul-general. He had much sympathy with Moise Tshombe, then in rebellion against the government in Leopoldville, with which he also had to deal. He trod this tightrope with skill, but it nearly cost him his life when he issued from his consulate's front gate to confront a mob which threatened to storm the building. Bludgeoned and bloodied, he passed out only after seeing the mob off; he always claimed that, had his intrepid secretary not rushed out and bandaged his head with her petticoat, he would have bled to death.

Back in London, Dodson was Head of the Central Department for three years before returning to Athens as number two to his lifelong friend Michael Stewart. In London he was admirably well-qualified to handle the tricky relationship with Franco's Spain when Labour took power in 1964 and the complex issues with Greece and Turkey when the Cyprus settlement of 1960 collapsed. A ferocious workload was made more onerous than necessary by the existence of a separate Commonwealth Office, with which the FO negotiated as fiercely as with any foreign government. But Dodson found time to train a team which became one of the most effective in Whitehall.

Appointment as ambassador to Hungary in 1970 gave scope to the gift for entertaining which both Dodson and his American wife Julie had in full measure. She, the daughter of an American diplomat, was a perfectionist in such matters, as well as a witty foil to her husband's impatience of the socially unconventional. Transfer to Brazil, then in need of "a safe pair of hands" and finding one of the safest in the diplomatic service, gave fuller scope to these talents, as it did to an unexpected flair Dodson showed for promoting British exports in the burgeoning Brazilian market. He handled the transfer of the embassy from Rio to the new capital in Brasilia. The fuss in Parliament and press over £200,000 being paid for a penthouse apartment for the ambassador's continued use in Rio left him entirely unmoved.

Dodson spent the last three years of his career as ambassador in Turkey. He and Julie loved it and made many friends. But it was a bit of an anti-climax, not just because it was not Greece but chiefly because of what was happening in Turkey at the time. Economic and political crises succeeded each other. To tour the east of the country, the ambassador had to rely on the Shell company manager to reserve petrol, none being available on the market. The substance of relations with a near-bankrupt and strife-torn Turkey was slight.

Derek Dodson found the transition to retirement from 1980 difficult. But occasional work for the Foreign Office and liaison for the United World College of the Atlantic diverted him. Involvement with the Benguela Railway Company took him frequently to Angola. He had been recruited on the strength of his Brazilian experience and supposed fluency in Portuguese; he had none but his retention as a director until only 10 years before his death showed that he had what it took. He was an assiduous chairman of the Anglo-Turkish Society for 12 years, as well as a member of the Anglo-Hellenic League.

After his wife Julie's death in 1992, in 1997 he married Rania Massouridi. They spent much of the year in Greece, where he gardened and walked as energetically as he did in Lincolnshire. Operated on for cancer four years ago, he made a rapid recovery but tumours recurred in his liver. Courageous and debonair as usual, he rejected chemotherapy, preferring to keep his hair, keep on drinking whisky and avoid being a bore to either wife or friends.

Timothy Daunt