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“Man Of War,” Tipperary Book Of The Month

Man Of War” By Duff Hart Davis

His eccentricities possibly made him stand out here in rural Tipperary and local people never really knew what to make of him. He himself wrote in one of his letters, “A lot of people know me, but I’m very much an enigma to most of them and regarded with suspicion, because I don’t fit into any category . . . I’m a trouble-maker. I ride the storm.”

He had travelled widely during his working life, including visits to Ireland, to Morocco and America, settling in 1930 for a period with his second wife Mary at an old farmhouse in the hills of Majorca. Eventually in 1946 he would decide to settle here in North Tipperary, in the village of Ballinderry, having purchased the once-grand but then somewhat ruined house known as ‘Gurthalougha,’ on the shore of Lough Derg, which he had quickly renamed ‘Illannanagh.’

In 1975, a group IRA men, two of which were escaped murderers and who possibly had confused his home with another address in their search for firearms, were not even slightly aware of his mysterious past. Although then aged in his 70’s, he had remained appearing unperturbed, cold, seated & continuing to read his newspaper, when they had surprised him by entering his home. He had insisted that no conversation was ever taking place until they had lowered their weapons. Chastened somewhat by this old man’s non negotiable firm attitude, his unwelcome IRA visitors had consented, later quietly leaving his home, carrying only a couple of shotguns.

Fact Is Often More Exciting Than Fiction

The man of whom I speak was actually born Hugh Evans in 1899, the son of a then prominent London surgeon and his wife. He had enrolled as a naval cadet just before the outbreak of the First World War. By February 1915, this same boy, at just 15 years old, was an acting midshipman aboard the cruiser Bacchante, sailing on its way to participate in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign against Turkey. Once on shore with Anzac troops, Evans soon found himself in the thick of war & involved in hand to hand fighting.  Narrowly escaping death, when a Turkish bullet grazed his scalp, the following year young Evans was invalided home having received even more serious wounds.

On leaving the navy Evans now decided to become a writer, and by the mid-1920s was signing his work ‘Alan Hillgarth,’ the new name which he would now be know, while here in Tipperary and which he had changed by deed poll in 1928. His first novel, called ‘The Princess and the Perjurer,’ was a spy thriller published in 1924.  In 1928 he now also added ‘Gold Hunter’ to his CV, becoming second in command on an expedition to Sacambaya, in the Bolivian Andes, where he would go in search of a huge cache of gold, latter reputedly buried there by the Jesuits, just before their expulsion from South America, in the 18th century.

While settled in Majorca, in 1930, Evans now Alan Hillgarth was appointed the honorary British vice-consul, a role which took up most of his time, following the start of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936.  As British Consul in Majorca during the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, he saved countless lives acting as mediator between both sides.

From 1940 to 1943 he was Britain’s most important intelligence officer in Spain and a key player in the successful Allied subterfuge known as ‘Operation Mincemeat.’ This plan, which was conceived by two London agents, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, was a ruse to attempt to convince Adolf Hitler that the Allies planned to attack Axis forces next in Greece or Sardinia, rather than their real target which was Sicily. His deception would prove successful when a body of a deceased tramp, disguised as a British major, complete with briefcase filled with forged ‘secret’ documents chained to his belt, was dropped off, close the Spanish coast by a submarine. Once discovered by the Spanish authorities, it was up to Hillgarth to convince them that the documents were genuine and ensure that Spanish officials, sympathetic to Nazis Germany, would pass same to Berlin. Germany now moved troops from Sicily direct to the false targets identified in the forged documents and Allied troops invading Sicily now faced less resistance than they might have done and ‘Operation Mincemeat,’ as well as saving countless lives, helped to turn the war in the Allies’ favour.

Later he became Chief of Intelligence for the Eastern Fleet, in Ceylon and a key advisor to Sir Winston Churchill, not just during but after the war and during his early years from 1946, then having chosen the shores of Lough Derg in North Tipperary as his place of residence, residing with his third wife Jean Cobb, a woman his junior by 15 years and their now second family.

Captain Alan Hillgarth, as he was known here in Tipperary, died in 1978 and was buried in the nearby village of Terryglass, Nenagh. Now with exclusive access to his family archive, writer Duff Hart-Davis in his book ‘Man of War,’ is uncovering the truth about an era previously shrouded in mystery and about a man that possibly wanted it kept that way.

Highly recommended and a great read for lovers of real, ‘true to life,’ historic adventure. Makes you wonder who might be actually living next door as I write.

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