Obituary: Capt Henry Denham
HENRY DENHAM's life as a naval officer and writer was full and varied, ending in his 96th year.
Osborne and Dartmouth embarked Denham on HMS Agamemnon as a midshipman of 16 for the Dardanelles, a period recorded in a book of his diaries and notes, Dardanelles: a midshipman's diary (1981). He describes how he ferried troops ashore and coped with such disasters as a Turkish shell bursting in the wardroom and killing 30 men, how they cleaned up the mess and then recovered from the shock with a game of water polo. He visited Turkey again later in life when he had given up sailing and was interested in submarine archaeology. He made friends with Turkish harbourmasters and one said to him that the British were the bravest enemies they had ever met.
Denham's bravery was legendary and so was his understanding of his enemies including Admiral Erich Raeder, the Commander-in-Chief of the German navy, whom he met at the Kiel regatta in 1936. Denham also got to know the German navy when he was second-in-command of the cruiser Penelope during the Spanish Civil War. He had had some interesting postings after the First World War: a year at Magdalene College, Cambridge, occupying the Rhine with the Rhine flotilla, a round-the-world cruise with the Prince of Wales and Lt Dickie Mountbatten on HMS Renown. In the inter-war years he served on HMS Warspite and Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean where he was able to indulge in his favourite sport of sailing. He was then posted to shore jobs because his ears had been damaged by gunfire and after a turn with naval intelligence was appointed naval attache to the Scandinavian countries in 1940. Based in Copenhagen, he was captured with the whole of the British legation by the Germans on their invasion of Denmark but after repatriation was sent out again as naval attache to Sweden where he arrived just as we were finally pulling out of Norway at the time of the collapse of France.
In Sweden Denham became one of the key sources of British intelligence in the Second World War and the Swedes under German pressure tried to have him declared persona non grata no less than eight times, each of which we resisted. Denham prided himself on never using a paid agent and relying on people who were good friends such as the Norwegian military attache, Col Roscherlund, who had an invaluable friend in an independent intelligence organisation, the C Bureau under Major Petersen, who was the originator of the first report on the breakout of the Bismarck. Ebbe Munck, the Danish Arctic explorer and journalist, was an old friend and a steady source of information on Denmark while the Dutch consul-general kept up a flow of information from the Netherlands. Denham's Polish contacts were loyal friends but their contribution to intelligence was very low grade. He was offered the post of naval attache in Poland after the war but he refused as he disliked the government and felt it would have been disloyal to his Polish friends if he accepted.
While before the Battle of El Alamein there was little help in this field from the Swedes themselves there were exceptions as in the case of Col Bjornstjerna. He and his family became close friends of Denham's and he treasured a small silver salver belonging to Bjornstjerna's ancestor Count Morner, the intermediary who had persuaded Marshal Bernadot to become the Crown Prince of Sweden. It was Bernadot who joined the allies against Napoleon, an allegiance of which the Bjornstjerna family were always proud.
The colonel had been Swedish military attache in London and was now a director of Swedish combined intelligence and as such read the decrypted intercepts of all secret German Geheimschreiber messages to Norway. Denham regularly visited Bjornstjerna, who gave him an oral account of what they knew on the naval side. Denham took no notes and used to run back to his office to get the message off to London. The Abwehr spotted what was going on. The Swedish Commander-in-Chief, General Thornell, dismissed Bjornstjerna from the service but his successor became a friend and was equally helpful.
Apart from his talent for friendship Denham was also a helper to those whose careers were blighted by events. There was Hagman, the commander of the Swedish convoy with the four Italian warships being escorted from Italy to Sweden who were forced to surrender their ships to the British in the Faeroes in spite of his officers opting to stand and fight. When he finally arrived in Gothenburg, Hagman came ashore alone to be met only by Denham and a virulent display of revenge by the C-in-C of the Swedish navy who said that no officer in future should ever surrender his ships. In fact Hagman had saved Sweden entering the war as an ally of Germany, an act for which Winston Churchill said he should have had a medal struck. Another case was that of Count Oxenstjerna, the Swedish naval attache in London who was refused re-entry to the UK after going home on leave after wrongly being suspected of being the source of the infamous 'Josephine' messages to the Abwehr from London. Denham took his side but London did not relent.
Denham's talent for friendship and kindness to the underdog was matched by the good humour with which he revealed the spying of the Swedish secret police with their microphone in the chimney of his flat taking a party up to his attic to surprise the spies listening in. He was a keen sportsman and apart from tennis and squash spent what time he could sailing his Dragon on Lake Malar. He played an important part in the steel specialist George Binney's daring blockade-busting operation to get special steels and tools to England.
When he retired in 1947 Denham cruised the Mediterranean in his yacht and during this period wrote his many guides to the seas and coasts of the Mediterranean. He gave up sailing when he fell off his mast in a storm and concluded that he must put an end to it; he did not believe it right to sail unless you could do so single-handed. He was a keen member of the Royal Cruising Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron. As a thank you for his wartime achievements he was awarded one of the very few CMGs given to naval officers and was also decorated by allied governments.
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