`He who would save his life must lose it. That I think is one of the great truths of the world’
Captain Hugh Dormer 1919-1944
So wrote Hugh Dormer, in his posthumously published diaries. Dormer was one of the most intense, devout and engaging characters I came across in the research for my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War. Using his diaries, his SOE Personnel File, which had remained top secret until 2006, and eye-witness accounts, the short yet brilliant life of this remarkable young man can be told.
Hugh was born into a prominent Catholic family, one of whose members had served as an MP during the turbulent reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, and had appeared on a list of those who favoured the accession of Mary, Queen of Scots to the English throne.
After an education at Ampleforth College, North Yorkshire, Hugh went up to Christ Church College, Oxford, to read History and was commissioned into the Irish Guards in November 1939. However three years on home front duties left Hugh feeling increasingly frustrated, and he was invited for interview with the (F) French section of the recently formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and recruited in December 1942.
Hugh took part in dangerous and gripping operations deep in German-held French territory, aiming to destroy an oil refinery and a canal and escaping via a secret network via Paris and into neutral Spain.
During preparations for one of these raids, Hugh spoke of, `how much better it was to die young and voluntarily for a cause that was worth the martyrdom’, demonstrating the influence his Catholic roots and upbringing had had on him. He continued
As always when faced with death, cold and premeditated, I feel a strong sense of exhilaration and goodness, and remember always the last words of Nurse Cavell the night before she faced a German firing squad: `As I stand now before God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ For it has always seemed that the conception of these expeditions embodies fully the Elizabethan qualities of daring and resource, and that same combination of love of adventure and love of one’s country, which I have come lately to appreciate so well.
After these raids, for which he was later awarded the DSO, Hugh rejoined his Irish Guards battalion, to prepare for the Normandy campaign. Walking in the North Yorkshire countryside near Ampleforth with his friend, Julian Stonor, a Benedictine monk who was serving as chaplain to the regiment, they articulated their own personal sense of what the war meant:
One morning Julian and I walked down the valley to Rievaulx [Abbey], whose ruined arches framed the blue sky, sleeping eternally in that quiet place. On my last night we drove over together to Ampleforth and dined in the silence of the monks’ refectory and listened to the plain chant of Vespers and later to the carefree laughter of boys. I realized then better than ever how much I was fighting for.
This was in contrast to the Nazis, who were not just as the enemies of the British state, but`destroyers of everything European and Christian and embody the very forces of evil.’ Turning again to the notion of the war as being religiously inspired, he wrote, `God knows we in this country are far from perfect, but this war is far more of a Crusade than the Crusades themselves ever were…’
Hugh’s diary began to take an increasingly fatalistic tone by March 1944:
…there are worse things than death, would men only realize it; and if ever a man, faced with the bitter and deliberate alternatives, chooses safety above honour he will regret that decision to his dying day and be powerless to make it again. He who would save his life must lose it. That I think is one of the great truths of the world…
…to die for God and one’s country and one’s fellow men would be the greatest blessing of all. Those who fall in battle, and are thereby privileged with the opportunity to make that supreme act of self-sacrifice, are the truly fortunate and those who return to the humdrum world have the hardest part to bear
Before he left for Normandy, Hugh sent his diaries to his mother, with the message:
…my final journey will have begun. God knows no man ever set out more happily or gladly before…God grant me the courage not to let the guardsmen down…I ask only that He do with my life as He wills – if I should be privileged to give it on the field of battle, then indeed would the cup be full. There are times when I feel the tide of happiness so mounting in my soul as though the flood-gates might burst and the frail body and its bonds break asunder. My soul is exhilarated like a bird that would sing for ever till its lungs burst.
No man ever went out to meet his fate more joyfully than I
That fate was to meet him on 1st August 1944 in a field in northern France…
Hugh Dormer’s story is one of twenty individuals who experienced the varied aspects of the Second World War in Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War. A personally signed and dedicated copy would make a lovely gift, and can be obtained at a cost of £18 including p+p by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org