UK: Sir William Deakin

From France,David Pike writes: Sir William Deakin, the illustrious founder of  St. Anthony's College, Oxford,  died in Var (France) a few weeks ago,  While Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean is better known than Deakin for his work in Special Operations Executive, it was Deakin who in May 1943 led the first British mission to Tito's Partisans and had the distinction of being wounded by the same German bomb that wounded Tito. St Antony's was founded in 1948 with Deakin as its first Warden. RH: Here is The Times /1/25/05) obituary of Deakin: The first Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, William Deakin was a distinguished historian who will be remembered for his published work and, especially, for his creation and development of St Antony’s as a centre of international graduate studies.

He also had a highly meritorious war career, leading a hazardous Special Operations Executive mission to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. For this he was awarded the DSO, and his persuasive reporting on the situation on the ground had a decisive influence on British government thinking about which of the resistance movements to support in Yugoslavia. Deakin’s qualities were such that he might have been successful in many other professions. His independence, courage and intellectual vitality, together with his warm heart and deep loyalties, made him an outstanding personality with a wide circle of friends in many countries. His reputation extended far beyond the academic world in which his main work was done.

Frederick William (Bill) Dampier Deakin was born in 1913, the elder son of Albert Witney Deakin. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, and already as an undergraduate he was gaining the reputation of being one of the most brilliant and dashing figures of his generation. After being placed in the first class in the modern history school in 1934 and winning the Amy Mary Preston Read scholarship in 1935, he was elected to a fellowship at Wadham College, which he was to hold ­ with periods of prolonged absence on war service and other duties ­ until 1950.

He quickly established himself as an outstanding teacher and lecturer, but in his early days as a don he was also employed as a research assistant by Winston Churchill, who was at that time writing his life of Marlborough. Churchill at once appreciated Deakin’s qualities, and the professional association became a friendship that was to last until Churchill’s death.

Even before the outbreak of war in 1939, Deakin had joined The Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and in 1941 he was transferred to the Special Operations Executive (SOE). He was subsequently sent to Cairo to work on Yugoslav questions. When reports from British officers attached to General Mihailovic’s Cetnik organisation in Yugoslavia, which the British were supporting with some arms and supplies, suggested that Mihailovic was a much less effective ally than the partisans, under their still shadowy leader Tito, Deakin was sent to Yugoslavia to report at first hand on the partisan movement.

In late May 1943 he was parachuted to the partisan HQ in Montenegro. With another officer, Captain W. F. Stuart, and two wireless operators, he arrived at the height of a German offensive, and for the next few weeks Deakin shared the hazards and hardships of the partisans during one of their worst ordeals of the war. Within a few days of their arrival Captain Stuart was killed, and Deakin and Tito were wounded by fragments of the same bomb.

During this period Deakin’s courage and cheerfulness won the confidence and admiration of Tito and the other partisans, and his integrity and his friendly nature did much to overcome the prejudice and suspicion which Tito and his staff felt towards the representative of a government which was still officially supporting their rival Mihailovic. It was largely as a result of Deakin’s reports of the partisans’ effectiveness and perhaps, too, of the faith which Churchill personally had in Deakin’s judgment, that the British Government decided to withdraw its support from the Cetniks and to concentrate on helping the partisans.

Deakin left Yugoslavia in December 1943, two months after a formal military mission, under Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, had been dispatched to Tito’s headquarters. But he continued to be responsible for Yugoslav affairs and at the end of the war he served as first secretary at the British Embassy in Belgrade. These experiences gave him a lifelong interest in Balkan and Eastern European history, reinforced by the ties of personal friendship which now bound him to Tito and other leading figures in Yugoslavia.

In 1946 he returned to Oxford and resumed his teaching at Wadham. But he soon received another summons from Churchill, this time to be one of the leading members of the team which was helping the former Prime Minister in the preparation for his war memoirs. Churchill’s temperament and working habits and Deakin’s own scholarly scrupulousness and loyalty made this an exacting task. During the next few years Deakin’s own creative gifts as an historian were fully absorbed by his work for Churchill, and he was obliged to postpone his own projects.

In 1948 Antonin Besse, a French merchant and shipowner resident in Aden, offered Oxford University £1million to found a new college which should keep a proportion of its places for Frenchmen. In 1950 Deakin was asked by the university to become its first warden. Deakin had to determine the nature of the college from its inception and had, in effect, sole responsibility for assembling a small group of Fellows and selecting the first students. He quickly established excellent relations with the founder and his family, and he won the confidence of the committee under Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (later Lord Kilmuir) which was supervising the affairs of the college until it became fully independent. It was agreed that the college should become an international graduate college, specialising in the first place in the fields which especially interested Deakin ­ modern history and political studies.

Within a few years St Antony’s College was established as an integral and valuable part of the university, and there is no doubt that it was Deakin’s personality and imagination which gave it its unique international quality. He enabled it to make a distinctive contribution to the development of European, Russian and, later, other regional studies in Oxford. Deakin devoted all his intense nervous energy to the tasks of running and developing St Antony’s and raising additional funds for it. In truth the latter was something he never found congenial, and indeed this contributed to his decision to resign the wardenship in 1968.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 16, 2005