Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave was born on January 23rd 1916 in Knightsbridge, London. Neave was born into a wealthy family. His father, Sheffield Airey Neave, was a celebrated entomologist and the great-great grandson of Sir Richard Neave, the 1st Baronet of Dagnam Park and Governor General of the Bank of England from 1783 to 1785.
Neave was educated at Eton before attending Merton College at Oxford where he attended the Cadet Corps and was awarded Territorial Commission. During his studies he wrote a prize-winning essay on the likely consequences of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. He predicted that another widespread war would break out in Europe in the near future and was proved correct on September 3rd 1939 when Britain declared war was declared.
On May 2nd 1938 Neave had transferred his territorial commission to the Royal Engineers and was mobilised as soon as the war began. He left for France in the February of 1940 and was wounded and captured during the fierce fighting during the Siege of Calais in May.
While interned, Neave’s commission was transferred to the Royal Artillery and he broke out of his prison camp in Thron, Western Poland, only to be recaptured and handed over to the Gestapo while trying to cross into Soviet territory. Deemed a security and escape risk, he was then sent to the notorious POW camp Oflag IV-C, otherwise known as Colditz.
On August 28th 1941 Neave donned a German uniform he had made by painting a Polish army tunic with scenery paint from the camp’s theatre and attempted to walk out the camp. Unfortunately the paint he had used shone bright green under the sentries search lights and the attempt failed.
Undeterred, Neave recruited a Dutch Army 2nd Lieutenant named Anthony Luteyn and began to plan for a second attempt that would take place on January 5th 1942. Wearing three layers of clothes; civilian, German uniform and their own prison uniforms, the pair made a quick exit from a theatrical production. They masked their escape using the stage trap door and made their way out through the guard room disguised as German Lieutenants. The disguises were so convincing the pair were saluted by the camp guards on their way out.
After hopping the final wall to avoid the strict main gate guard, the pair began the long walk to neutral Switzerland. On the way they avoided recapture twice, escaping from the Polish police and workmen who discovered them hiding. After four days of walking the pair crossed the Swiss border on January 9th having survived on a handful of chocolates and by sucking snowballs.
Neave was the very first British officer to successfully escape from Colditz. On his return to Britain he was awarded the Military Cross, the DSO and promoted to Captain. He was later recruited to M19 and served with the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg where he was honoured with the role of reading the indictments to the Nazi leaders on trial. For his services during the trial he was awarded an OBE and promoted to lieutenant-colonel before leaving the army in 1951.
In later life, Neave was a prominent member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet where he served as head of her private office and Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He was killed by an IRA car bomb on March 30 1979 as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster car park.