BEFORE BECOMING a priest, Desmond Haslehust had been a soldier with a remarkable war record including escapes from prisoner of war camps.
Haslehust was born in Plymouth in 1918, and after school at Malvern entered Sandhurst and was subsequently commissioned into the Worcestershire Regiment in 1938. He saw service with his regiment in Palestine during the troubles before the Second World War. From the outbreak of the war he saw service in the Sudan, Eritrea, Abyssinia and in the western Desert of North Africa. He was captured by Rommel's Afrika Corps during the fighting for Tobruk in 1942 and was received into the Catholic Church two months before capture.
As a prisoner of war he was moved to Italy and handed over to the Italians. In prison he was a 'tunneller' but escaped by other means when the Italians left the war. Subsequently recaptured by the Germans, Haslehust achieved a remarkable escape through the floor of a prison train on its way to Germany. He spent some months on the run and during this time he found sanctuary within the house of an Italian priest at Fosse, north of Verona. Sanctuary included a hole cut for him in the back of the church altar in which to hear Mass and to shelter from the Germans when they came looking. Despite this hideaway, he was eventually recaptured and moved to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.
After the war Haslehust returned to his regiment and saw service commanding a company at Luneburg. He left the army, resigning his commission in 1951, shortly after which he entered the Benedictine abbey of Downside, in Somerset, as a novice. He left the community at Downside and was sent to the Beda College, in Rome, in October 1952 where he completed his training and was ordained priest in 1956 in the Basilica of St John Lateran. His broad talents were recognised and he was for 19 years Secretary of the Plymouth Diocesan Schools Commission. He was during his time also parish priest of a number of parishes the last of which was Axminster.
Whilst at Axminster he celebrated 25 years as a priest, in 1981, when the parish enabled him to return to Italy for an audience with the Pope and to revisit the priest in Fosse who had given him sanctuary so long ago. He received a tremendous welcome from the 90-year-old priest, and the whole village turned out to fete him.