First published in the Telegraph: 12:03AM BST 06 Sep 2004
Major Stanley Beckinsale, who has died aged 84, was a founder member of the para-naval section of the Special Operations Executive (Middle East) and was awarded an MC for evacuating several hundred Allied soldiers from enemy-held Crete.
In May 1941, the Anglo-Anzac forces in Crete were narrowly but decisively defeated by General Student’s airborne force. The para-naval section of SOE Middle East, part of Force 133, based in Cairo, was given the task of putting agents on the island to organise the retrieval of British and Commonwealth servicemen who had taken refuge in the mountains.
A few troops were rescued in this way, but it was considered too great a risk for submarines – and a rusty old trawler from Haifa was chosen for the job. After being fitted with a captured Italian 20mm Breda gun in the stern and six Lewis guns mounted at various points, the vessel was named Hedgehog, and Beckinsale was made second-in-command.
On his first trip to the south coast of Crete, Beckinsale ran into a Force 10 gale. Hedgehog had several tons of concrete fore and aft as ballast, and the former fish-hold was loaded with captured Italian rifles and Army boots for the guerrillas. New Year’s Eve 1942 was spent pumping the bilges and throwing the deck cargo overboard; but on the evening of the fourth day, the crew could see the Cretan mountains looming in the distance and smell the wild thyme on the wind.
The inlet chosen for the landing was little more than a cleft in the rocks with a small beach, well away from the German garrisons. When the signal flashed from the shore, they came in and moored by the light of a full moon. Their agent, Tom Dumbabin, a Fellow of All Souls, emerged from the shadows to report that he had managed to collect 150 Allied soldiers and a Greek Orthodox priest.
They lay up the next day, loaded their passengers and slipped anchor at dusk in order to begin the return trip to Alexandria. But the following morning, the lookout heard the engine of an approaching plane, and they quickly altered course. The deck was strewn with passengers, and Beckinsale hastily covered them all with blankets and ran to his Lewis gun. The Italian Arado circled several times before turning away, apparently satisfied that the ship was a coaster on German business.
Stanley Eustace Beckinsale was born in London on March 9 1920. He went to grammar school at Belvedere, Kent, and then to Reading University, where he read Agriculture and rowed in the VIII. The outbreak of war interrupted his studies and, in 1939, he was commissioned into the 1st Battalion Royal Tank Regiment before being recruited by SOE.
Beckinsale joined Saad, the first para-naval ship in the Red Sea, as an engineer in 1940. The schooner carried a crew of four, and was the only one with a draught shallow enough to carry it over the minefields. After the fall of Massawa, Eritrea, his unit was given the task of cleaning up the Italian garrisons on the islands guarding the entrance. He and his comrades negotiated the surrender of more than 2,000 Italian troops manning the batteries on five separate islands.
In 1942, in a further three operations, Hedgehog landed at Crete, where Beckinsale and his comrades rescued more than 100 additional people who were trapped on the island. The trawler was also instrumental in putting ashore a number of British agents, including Patrick Leigh Fermor (who later kidnapped General Kreipe, the commander of the island’s garrison) and George Jellicoe, of the Special Boat Section, who was on his way to sabotage planes at Heraklion airfield.
On Beckinsale’s last trip to south Crete, Hedgehog docked at Mersa Matruh, escaping just a few hours before Rommel’s Panzers arrived on their way to El Alamein. He later made long-distance reconnaissance trips in his 26ft caique Constantinos, some of which covered 1,000 miles and kept him at sea for more than a month. He was awarded the MC and was also mentioned in dispatches for capturing several Italian schooners.
In 1945 the para-naval section was disbanded. Beckinsale was posted back to England for a spell before spending a year with the Central Commission, Food and Agriculture, in the North Rhine Province of Germany. After being demobilised in the rank of major, he farmed in Oxfordshire for 22 years.
Beckinsale subsequently settled in a village in Wiltshire, where he went into partnership with Tom Thain, a former fellow member of the SOE. Together they formed Dentiststone Restoration, a company specialising in restoring stonework, tracery and statuary; among their clients were Wells and Winchester Cathedrals, Romsey Abbey and the Brighton Pavilion.
He retired in 1990. An avid reader, he particularly enjoyed the study of English history and mediaeval architecture.
Stanley Beckinsale died on August 17. He married first, in 1946, Joyce Bolt, who predeceased him. He married secondly, in 1970, Mary Hackett (née Collins); she survives him with a son and a daughter from his first marriage and a daughter from his second.