Sir William Deakin, historian and founding Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford

William Deakin and Josip Broz ('Tito') in Jajce, 1943

I thoroughly enjoyed Deakin’s book – The Embattled Mountain – which tells of his night-time parachute drop right into the midst of the ferocious battle for survival of Tito’s partisans around Mount Durmitor in Montenegro, and subsequent development of a very positive relationship with the future leader of Yugoslavia. One cannot but be amazed how these men were whisked out of academia, put in uniform and because of their language skills given the most important of missions. Today they would be micro-managed to death. Deakin’s mission to Tito is often subordinated by that of the dashing Fitzroy Maclean, but having read the accounts of both, I think that Deakin should be given huge credit for doing the groundwork and keeping the relationship going through some very difficult times. Treat yourself and buy Deakin’s book from Amazon.

by Michael Howard

First published in the Independent 27 January 2005

William Deakin was one of the last British heroes of the Second World War, and one who had a significant effect on its outcome. He began and ended his career as an Oxford don; but as a young officer in the Special Operations Executive it was largely his experience and advice that persuaded Winston Churchill to support the Communist partisans in Yugoslavia; thus confirming the position of Marshal Tito as national leader and, ultimately, the independence of his country vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

Frederick William Dampier Deakin, historian and university administrator: born 3 July 1913; Fellow and Tutor, Wadham College, Oxford 1936-49, Research Fellow 1949, Honorary Fellow 1961-2005; DSO 1943; Warden, St Antony’s College, Oxford 1950-68, Honorary Fellow 1969-2005; Kt 1975; married 1935 Margaret Ogilvy (née Beatson Bell; two sons; marriage dissolved 1940), 1943 Livia Stela (died 2001); died Le Castellet, France 22 January 2005.

William Deakin was one of the last British heroes of the Second World War, and one who had a significant effect on its outcome. He began and ended his career as an Oxford don; but as a young officer in the Special Operations Executive it was largely his experience and advice that persuaded Winston Churchill to support the Communist partisans in Yugoslavia; thus confirming the position of Marshal Tito as national leader and, ultimately, the independence of his country vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

Deakin was born in 1913 and educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a First in Modern History. He was elected a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, in 1936, but a more important step in his career was his introduction to Winston Churchill as a research assistant when the latter was writing his life of Marlborough.

When the Second World War broke out, Deakin joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, but after two years he was seconded to SOE and posted to Cairo. There he found a ferocious battle in progress between the Foreign Office, which wished to support the Yugoslav monarchist resistance movement under General Draza Mihailovich, and a section of SOE, whose intelligence sources indicated that the only serious fighting was being conducted by the Communist-led partisan movement under Tito.

In May 1943 a small mission under Deakin was parachuted to Tito’s headquarters to investigate the situation. This providentially arrived just as Tito was having to fight his way out of a German encirclement in a battle that has become legendary to Yugoslav history. Deakin himself became part of the legend; not least because of the close relations he established with Tito himself as a result of their shared experience.

Deakin’s presence in Yugoslavia had become known to Churchill, and his report was enough to make the Prime Minister intervene between the opposing factions in London and Cairo, send his own mission to Tito under Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, and eventually order the transfer of Allied support from Mihailovich’s Chetniks to Tito’s partisans.

This provided Tito not only with increasing military aid but with an opening to the West that was to make it possible for him to sever his links with the Soviet Union after the war and establish a position of “non-alignment”. But the abandonment of Mihailovich and the perceived “loss” of Yugoslavia to the West has, in some quarters, never been forgiven, and Deakin’s part in it was to make him a highly controversial figure.

Deakin himself returned to Belgrade as First Secretary to the British Embassy for a year after the war, where he laid the foundations for his expertise in Yugoslav politics and cemented his friendships among politicians and historians who were prepared to speak freely to him, although they were barely on speaking terms with one another.

In 1946 Deakin returned to Oxford, but time for his academic duties was severely restricted by the demands made on him by Churchill, to whom he now became principal research assistant in writing his history of the war (The Second World War, 1948-54). It came to an end altogether when in 1950 he was appointed the first Warden of St Antony’s College. The college was funded by a French businessman, Antonin Besse, who intended it mainly for French graduates; but the French themselves showed little interest, the funds were insufficient and the university authorities themselves were not supportive. Deakin thus had to devote himself to fund-raising, and generous grants from the Ford and Volkswagen foundations eventually enabled him to put the college on a firm financial basis.

Much of his time was also dedicated to recruiting students from overseas, making the college an international centre unique in Britain, if not indeed the world. His cheerful presence, combined with the bubbling charm of his second wife, Livia (always known as “Pussy”), made the college a happy place from the very beginning.

By 1968 Deakin felt with good reason that he had done all that could be expected of him and, leaving behind a flourishing college, he retired to live in France; within reach of London (where he frequently returned to entertain his friends generously at Brooks’s or White’s) but equally accessible to Yugoslavia for the collection of material for a life of Tito which he was uniquely qualified to write. He never completed it.

His work The Embattled Mountain (1971) was a personal account of his own adventures in Yugoslavia and of the background to his mission, written in an effort to set the contentious record straight. But he will be remembered mainly for his account of German-Italian relations during the Second World War, The Brutal Friendship (1962), written while he was still at Oxford. His strength as a historian was an unbounded curiosity; his weakness a difficulty, especially as he grew older, in digesting his material into a coherent narrative.

The key role that Bill Deakin had played in the war may have made him political enemies, but his modesty, friendliness and charm made it impossible to dislike him. He was much honoured: a DSO and knighthood from the British government, a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur from France; the Russian Order of Valour, and the German Grosse Verdienstkreuz.

Related article:

Sir Fitzroy Maclean Bt: Obituary 

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One thought on “Sir William Deakin, historian and founding Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford

  1. Pingback: An interview with Sir Fitzroy McLean « Patrick Leigh Fermor

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