Obituary: Colonel George Lane

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Wartime commando and prisoner of war who once enjoyed tea with Field Marshal Rommel

Born: 18 January, 1915, in northern Hungary.

Died: 19 March, 2010, in London, aged 95.

ON 18 October, 1942 Hitler, irked by tiresome sabotage attacks by seemingly silent and invisible forces, issued a "Commando Order" to his officers. The order was in response to the high levels of success commandos had been having behind German lines, and required the immediate execution of all commandos on sight, irrespective of uniform, rank or whether they were trying to surrender.

This understandably reduced the life expectancy of captured allied commandos significantly. Field Marshal Rommel, the Desert Fox, however, was humane and a genuine military man who cared little for the whims of his pint-sized, mass-murderering superior. This turned out to be rather beneficial to a young British officer who had managed to become compromised on the French coast and was captured by Rommel's men.

Born Lanyi Dyuri in 1915 in northern Hungary, George Lane was the son of wealthy landowners. Towards the end of the First World War the region of Hungary where the family resided was relocated to what then was Czechoslovakia, meaning that Lane effectively became a refugee. They moved to Budapest where he was educated, before he moved to England in 1935 to undertake studies at the University of London.

Lane was an accomplished athlete and an exceptional swimmer and spent time between Budapest and London touring with the Hungarian Olympic water polo team and working as a freelance journalist for a national newspaper in his home country.

While he was studying in London, the Second World War escalated into a full scale conflict and Lane volunteered for the army. The initial response was mixed: the Grenadier Guards accepted him right away, but the Home Office adopted a different approach – they served him with a deportation notice.

While in the UK, Lane had frequently been a guest of Lady Baillie at her home, Leeds Castle, in Kent. Here he had met Anthony Eden and, more importantly, the government's chief whip, David Margesson. It took him a year of doing manual labour in the Alien Pioneer Corps, but with the help of his influential friends the deportation order was eventually withdrawn.

Lane then began a demanding training course with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), learning skills such as weapons and explosives, parachuting, unarmed combat and small boat handling. His first missions saw him parachuted in to Belgium and Holland, but he requested a transfer to 4 Commando, uneasy about the prospect of missions in his homeland.

From 4 Commando he transferred to 3 Troop, a crack squad of soldiers, all of whom spoke German, before his commission in 1943. In fact, 1943 was an eventful year for Lane as he also married Miriam Rothschild, an entomologist of some renown with whom he had resided during convalescence following an accident. When the war ended in 1945 he moved to help with the running of the Rothschild estate at Ashton Wold.

One particular mission demonstrated to Lane the obscure unpredictability of war. He was part of a small group who had been parachuted in to discover the secret of a new gun sight. The information was urgently needed so the surveillance team attached their report to a carrier pigeon, hoping for a swift transfer.

The pigeon, unaware of its new found importance, gained height, changed course, and was promptly plucked from the sky by a hawk. Lane later stated that the anguish of watching their wasted work vanish in front of their eyes very nearly brought him to tears.

It was for his role in the reconnaissance of German mines that Lane made his name. D-Day was imminent and the RAF was flying missions along the French coast. One particular fighter, carrying a camera, picked up what appeared to be underwater explosions, leading to the theory that the Nazis had developed a new type of beach mine. Lane was picked to lead the mission, a tricky mandate which involved almost two miles of approach work in to the enemy's camp.

His first foray discovered the Nazis' ploy – Teller mines attached to stakes. These would be submerged when the tide was high and would explode on impact when in contact with any landing craft. However, this was a crude solution to the problem of a water-bound assault as the mines had no waterproofing and had corroded. They had only exploded and been captured on camera when the RAF fighter had fired its rockets and fallen short. They were set off by the rockets, not because they were an advanced type of mine.

Lane's superiors were thrilled at the news, so thrilled that they didn't believe him and sent him back the next night, and the night after that, this time with a mine expert. They found plenty of Teller mines, but nothing else of any interest. While photographing their evidence the sky lit up and the pair were suddenly under fire from two patrols.

Lane and his partner, Roy Wooldridge, were trapped in the dunes, having been separated from the rest of the mission. Their colleagues, fearing the German patrols, had returned to their boat, leaving Lane and Wooldridge with a dinghy. Once the firing ceased they ran for the dinghy but were spotted and collected from the water.

The order had already been given and they would be handed over to the secret police and executed. First, though, they were interrogated for days by military officers trying to ascertain the purpose of their mission. Lane found himself blindfolded and taken from the building. The blindfold was removed and he was led through the corridors of a castle in to a library where, sat at a desk, was Rommel.

He invited Lane to join him for tea where, after an initially apprehensive introduction, the pair relaxed and engaged in a long talk, albeit with Lane speaking with a Welsh accent, just in case.

Following his high tea, Lane was again told that a painful death was imminent. Again this seemed premature as he was taken to an officers' prison in a castle at Spangenberg. He should have been dead several times over but, as he explained later, he was quite sure Rommel had insisted his life be spared.

His time here was spent doing a course in estate management, using the exceptional library facilities and remote learning. The prisoners were moved as the Allied forces drew near and Lane made a dash for it, hiding in a tree. He was spotted by a German solider, who thankfully turned out to be a deserter and possibly in more trouble than Lane himself. The German pointed Lane in the direction of a hospital where he gained the confidence of the on-call doctor to avoid the SS searches.

When the Allies liberated the hospital, Lane headed for his brother-in-law's home in Paris, dreaming of a hot bath. On his arrival he received bad news: he could have champagne or vintage wine but sadly there was no hot water. Few things in wartime had almost caused Lane to shed tears but this was the final straw.

After the war, Lane was a successful businessman. His marriage to Miriam broke down and they divorced in 1957 so he made a move to the US. He was employed by a New York stockbroker while studying for his exams at night school. Upon graduation he began his new career, eventually opening offices in Europe.

He remarried in 1963, this time to Elizabeth Heald, and moved to London, eager to pursue his favourite hobby of shooting in the Scottish Highlands.

George Henry Lane is survived by his wife, their son and his four daughters from his first marriage.