Charles Hargrove: Infantryman who played a vital liaison role after D-Day before becoming a highly respected foreign correspondent


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The Independent Online

Charles Hargrove was one of the first British infantrymen to land in Normandy on D-Day under heavy German fire with the 231st Infantry Brigade, often referred to as the Malta Brigade because of its experiences during the 1940-42 siege of the Mediterranean island. He landed at Asnelles, on Gold Beach, on the early morning of 6 June 1944, between the beaches known as Omaha and Juno. More of a writer than a fighter, multilingual and of an artistic bent, he later recalled praying on his landing craft not only not to be killed but not to have to kill. As it turned out, both prayers were answered.

Fired upon by field cannon, bunkered anti-tank guns and entrenched machine-guns, he drove his jeep off a landing craft into shallow surf and shifting sands carrying the brigade's commander, Brigadier Alexander Stanier, for whom he served as liaison officer and interpreter. They landed on "Jig" sector, one of four sections of the five-mile-long Gold beach, flatter than other areas, including cliffs, where German guns wreaked havoc on the allied force.

With French as his mother tongue (his father was English), he was to play a key role in the liaison between British forces and the local population, as well as with the French Resistance. Landing with him was a key Resistance figure, Maurice Schumann, a close aide of Charles de Gaulle. Schumann had become known as "the Voice of France" for his wartime BBC radio broadcasts, Honneur et Patrie, backed by the singer Anna Marly, calling for resistance and denouncing collaborators. After the war Schumann became French foreign minister.

The friendly, indeed jubilant liaison with the locals helped the Allies push forward with local support and intelligence input that the Germans had been unable to gain. Hargrove and his fellow infantrymen barely had time for a sip of the widely-offered local Calvados apple brandy before moving inland.

Fighting alongside No 47 Commando Royal Marines, who had lost 76 men through mines or gunfire approaching the beach, the 231st Brigade helped take Asnelles within hours, one of the first successful D-Day operations. They moved on to Arromanches-les-Bains to link up with the Americans from Omaha beach and build the prefabricated Mulberry harbour vital for receiving armour, ammunition and supplies for the planned thrust towards the Rhine. As his brigade pushed into Belgium, he was made an instructor and interpreter in Brussels, joining the 21st British Army Group and helping with the reconstruction of war-damaged railways.

While most surviving British soldiers were happy to return to Blighty, Hargrove married a French girl and spent most of the rest of his life between Paris and Asnelles, where would eventually be made an honorary citizen. From Paris he returned to Asnelles throughout his life and was buried at nearby Bessin next to Schumann, who died in 1998. There was a local scandal two years ago when the mayor of Asnelles, accepting Hargrove's request to be buried alongside Schumann, pointed out that there would be a 285 Euro charge for the plot. The locals were outraged and the mayor apologised.

He became better known in the UK as a foreign correspondent for The Times for 34 years, reporting from Bonn, Berlin, Tokyo – and Paris, including the 1968 student revolt, the funeral of former President Georges Pompidou and the 1974 Turkish Airlines DC-10 crash near Paris in which 346 people died, including 180 Britons, many of whom had transferred from cancelled British Airways flights.

He was based in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War and his reports about activities around the Berlin Wall were among the first handed to British prime ministers over breakfast at No 10. When he first filed his stories for The Times, he was labelled either "from our correspondent" or "our Paris correspondent". But in 1967 "Charles Hargrove in Paris" became one of the Times' first personalised bylines, much to the annoyance of some editors, who felt foreign correspondents claimed too many expenses and should not be named.

Hargrove went on to write several books, some in French, some in English, including two on Queen Elizabeth II for a French readership, Un Gentleman du Times (2001) and L'Autre Giscard: Valéry Giscard d'Estaing vu par un Anglais (1981). He also wrote for The Spectator.

He was born in 1922 in Genoa; his mother ensured that he went to school in Paris, where his mastery of English, French and Italian stood him in good stead. He went to Cambridge, where he got a degree in art history before enlisting. In a memoir, he wrote: "It is a melancholy exercise to cast one's mind back once again to events of more than half a century ago. Melancholy, because in those days I was young and handsome, and looked upon life with a quiet optimism ... and because so many of those with whom I shared this unique experience have passed away. Thus it is that on June 6, 2004, I shall stand alone at the brigade headquarters at Asnelles, code named 'Gold', a few miles east of Arromanches, with 231 Malta Brigade, the first British troops to land."

He had suffered ill-health since being attacked in his Paris apartment building last year. In June this year he took part in the D-Day celebrations at Asnelles, where he dined with President Hollande.

Charles Hargrove, soldier, journalist and author: born Genoa 30 May 1922; OBE; Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur; married; died Paris 19 September 2014.