Captain Henry Diacono, who has died aged 86, was a member of SOE and was dropped into enemy-occupied France in 1944.
Published: 6:46PM BST 23 Apr 2010
On February 6 that year, Diacono was dropped “blind” – that is to say, with no reception committee to meet him – into France, landing near Chartres. Accompanying him was René Dumont-Guillemet, who became leader of the “Spiritualist” circuit to the east of Paris.
They landed at 3am in a ploughed field some 15 miles from the farmhouse that was their destination. They had no time properly to hide their suitcases and parachutes, and after crossing fields, ditches and fences were still in the open when it grew light. A barn where they might have hidden up for the day had a sign on it in gothic lettering and they decided to avoid it. Then, as they passed a house in a small village, they heard the sound of a programme being broadcast in heavily-jammed English.
Dumont-Guillemet knocked on the door, while Diacono stood behind him, revolver drawn. After a few moments hesitation, they were allowed in. They washed and rested and were given directions for continuing their journey.
After a night in their “safe” house, they returned to collect their belongings but found, to their consternation, that they had disappeared. It seemed that their arrival had been spotted and that their arrest might be imminent.
At that moment a peasant appeared; and, after several minutes of verbal fencing, he told them that he had watched them hurriedly bury their possessions, had recovered them and put them in his house for safe-keeping.
Using his false papers, Diacono enrolled at the University of Paris. A fellow student, Marcel Rougeaux, a cousin of Dumont-Guillemet, acted as his guide, introduced him to his friends and served as the liaison with the rest of the circuit – in short, as Diacono wrote later, he was his “guardian angel”.
Diacono lived in a flat but never stayed anywhere for long. He connected his wireless set to a car battery and spent most of his time coding and decoding messages.
Rougeaux often carried the crystals for his wireless set, and Diacono the messages and codes concealed in the tubes of his vélo. Diacono preferred to operate out of doors, where he would get some warning of approaching danger, and often transmitted to London from woods 50 miles from Paris.
On one occasion he had a very urgent message to transmit. He, Dumont-Guillemet and their driver (who was a member of the circuit and was in the uniform of the French police) piled into a car and travelled by secondary roads.
The weight of the set, which was hidden under the bonnet of the front-wheel-drive vehicle, caused a breakdown. By the time it was fixed, they were so short of time that they had to risk taking the route nationale.
When they were stopped at a German roadblock, Dumont-Guillemet grabbed his revolver and said that he was going to try to shoot his way out. Diacono was behind him with the set between his legs. But their driver commanded: “Put the gun away,” stopped the car, got out and said: “Französisch Polizei.” They were waved through, but Diacono said later that he was never closer to death.
Henry Louis-Antoine Diacono was born in Algiers on June 20 1923. His father was British of Maltese descent and was the manager of the local Barclays bank. Henry was educated at a Jesuit school, Notre Dame de l’Afrique, before going to the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce d’Alger.
In June 1940 his elder brother, Jean-Baptiste, was killed when the military plane in which he was travelling to London with other volunteers to join General de Gaulle’s forces exploded on take-off at Algiers airport. Sabotage by agents of the Vichy regime was suspected, and Henry, who was greatly affected by this tragedy, cut short his studies and joined the army.
Two years later he embarked on a liner to Scotland. After a spell in a training camp, some of his companions were posted to the Royal Artillery, others to tank regiments. “Because of my slightly darker complexion,” he wrote afterwards, “as was the custom of the time I was deemed to be cannon fodder and sent to the infantry.”
He was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers and posted to the 17th Battalion; but his fluency in French marked him out for transfer to the SOE, and he underwent rigorous training as a radio operator at Thame Park.
At the headquarters in Baker Street, he was given a field name and rehearsed in his cover story. He was also given a set of clothes which he was told was “typically French” – but which his friends in France described as “typically English”.
For eight months Diacono maintained regular radio contact with London but, as liberation got closer, he became involved in sabotage missions, using his training in explosives to destroy German lines of communications, railway lines and roads.
He once had the task of accompanying a lorry loaded with arms and explosives from a parachute drop to Paris; the cargo was concealed under a load of vegetables. On the way they were hailed by two Germans who were standing exhausted beside their bicycles on the edge of the road. The driver wanted to shoot them, but Diacono persuaded him not to and the men were installed on top of the vegetables. Their presence allowed the lorry to pass all the control points in Paris without inspection.
The end of Diacono’s mission was marked by tragedy. On August 27 1944, two days after General de Gaulle paraded down the Champs Elysées following the liberation of Paris, the retreating German army was in regular fire fights with Resistance members in the region of Meaux.
Diacono was dispatched with a group of 300 Resistance fighters to secure an area prior to a large parachute drop. They were surprised by a German detachment and, after a sharp battle, they captured 70 German soldiers, including several officers.
They arrived at Saint-Pathus, where the local population turned out cheering and waving flags in the belief that they were being liberated. This was exactly what the Resistance wanted to avoid, because the Germans learnt of it and dispatched a considerable force, including several Tiger tanks which encircled the village.
Diacono, who was carrying his equipment, ran down the high street but encountered a tank arriving from the far end of the village. He dived into a farmyard, where he hid his wireless and pistol under some floorboards and his microdot code books in a pot of boiling tripe.
Fortunately for him, he was one of the few Resistance members wearing civilian clothes. The tank went into the farmyard, and for the next hour all the buildings were searched. Several Resistance members were arrested, but Diacono insisted that he was an itinerant farm worker. The farmer supported his story and he was released after questioning.
The Germans set fire to the village and the surrounding cornfields to flush out the Resistance members who had gone to ground. They captured almost all of them, and massacred more than 100.
Diacono and a few survivors were able to make their way to Meaux, which was liberated by American tanks the next day, but the fate of their comrades made any celebration impossible.
After the war Diacono returned to Algiers, where he worked as a shipping agent. In 1952 he moved to Paris to join a firm of carpet importers, finally retiring to Sorges, in the Périgord, in 1963. He was active in the Association Libre Résistance, which represents SOE members in France, and was its treasurer for more than 20 years. He was appointed MBE and awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre.
Henry Diacono, who died on March 19, married, in 1963, Françoise Michel, who survives him with their son and daughter.
From the Telegraph