Monday, January 19, 2009

Charm in perspective

By Mangal Kapoor

Who was the real Dai Llewellyn? As I read the obituaries last week of the self-styled “seducer of the valleys”, who died on Tuesday at the age of 62, my mind returned to our last meeting in November, when I went down to Kent and took him out from his hospice for the day.

He wanted to visit the place he called home, a cottage on the estate of his friend Patrick Meehan. As I drove, some half-remembered lines from Betjeman’s Song of a Nightclub Proprietress came to my head. “But now I’m broke and done for / What on earth was all the fun for? / For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.”

Dai was suffering from cirrhosis, a brain tumour, prostate cancer and diabetes: he looked wistful as I recited. “That just about sums me up. Except, of course, I’m not broke. I am actually doing quite well at the moment.”

We had arrived. As the gravel crunched beneath my wheels, Meehan’s chauffeur came out with a message. The social security department had called, about Dai’s application for benefits. So the last myth about Dai Llewellyn, rich socialite, baronet and bon vivant, was blown.

Not that I had believed the legend. Not, at least, for a long time. We’d first met in the glorious Thatcherite era of the 1980s, when England seemingly first discovered champagne, and when anyone hungry for entry to the royal enclosure at Ascot racecourse needed to be sponsored by someone who’d been going there for 20 years. Dai was the apparent pinnacle of social London: an Old Etonian heir, good-looking, popular and generous – particularly to the hundreds of new plutocrats who sought an entrée into the world he represented.

Charm, connections, endless good cheer – Dai had them all, plus a grand house in Cadogan Square and a dashing younger brother who just happened to have been the lover of Princess Margaret. He never missed a chance to refer to his family’s ancestral mansion in Wales, nor did he let any rich person who aspired to the royal enclosure slip by. For a certain fee, or perhaps a very good deal on a car – say, 100% off the list price – there was always a way to get his new best friends signed in, to join the dukes, polo players and models at his lavish picnics in the racecourse car park.

It was not always clear where the money for the liveried butlers and Fortnum’s hampers came from: the Welsh coal mines that had made his family’s fortune, maybe, or rich Pakistanis, including those who were ever present at his parties. The rest of the cast at Cadogan Square changed repeatedly: Bubbles Rothermere and the Duchess of Argyll one week, the Maharajah of Baroda and the von Bismarcks the next.

Dai was busy promoting a new “über-exclusive lifestyle service”, called Club Royale. For a joining fee of £5,000, members would somehow whirl between Positano, Acapulco, St Moritz and St Tropez. There was a club HQ in Mayfair with a restaurant, disco and bar, and regular events would be organised, as well as automatic membership of every hunt, every racecourse and several smart clubs around the world. The friends I introduced included a Japanese heiress and a Dulwich businessman, plus a young wine merchant who was thrilled at the big orders that poured in. My chums complained that the club was not quite working, but I felt I had to be loyal to Dai, who had taken me up with enthusiasm, introducing me round town as the young man “with the marvellous laugh”. It was more difficult when I heard the wine merchant had never been paid.

Around the time of the inevitable, slightly messy demise of Club Royale, Dai’s fortunes dived when he lost a libel case against the former debutante and PR Liz Brewer, a bitter rival in the social introductions game. Although the court awarded damages, Brewer was thwarted by Dai’s lack of any identifiable fixed assets and his skill at moving house and keeping ahead of the bailiffs. Gradually Dai, once a staple of the gossip columns, faded from the public consciousness.

Not, of course, that this stopped him honing his magnificent raffish Old Etonian aristo act on the unwary and the easily charmed: he had in fact attended Eton for a few terms but was expelled and spent the rest of his schooldays at Milton Abbey, a minor public school catering for those of a more sporting than academic bent. As for the aura of wealth, he had certainly been brought up in comfort and his family were part of the Monmouthshire county set. But the ancestral fortunes had declined considerably since the Llewellyn acquisition of a baronetcy from Lloyd George, and eventually his parents sold their country house.

Undeterred, he continued to invite people down to Wales to stay there. Of course, he always had to cancel at the last minute, giving ever more baroque excuses, depending on the status of those he was letting down. I once warned him that some particularly keen Americans had bought new tweeds and a Welsh phrase book at Harrods for the occasion.

Some time after the Brewer debacle, I was working at the London Evening Standard and, thinking it would be fun to resurrect Dai, looked him up and dropped his name into a few amusing stories. In no time he was weaving his old myth-making magic on a wider public. Knowing his circumstances, I reeled with laughter as I read his boasts of “crossing the Atlantic in private planes and yacht-hopping while relaxing in Sardinia – Calle de Volpe”. Our mutual friend Lady Edith Foxwell and I joked that it was a misprint and that he had really said “sardines in Vauxhall”.

She and I set up a monthly social pictorial called Voila!, pitched somewhere between Tatler and Hello!. Dai came on board and insisted on employing only titled people. The Earl of Westmorland was the sporting editor; the Marquess of Bland-ford, the motoring correspondent.

Billed as the first magazine written by the aristocracy for the aristocracy, we were an overnight sensation – on television and in the newspapers every day, invited to every party. But when our advertising team sold ads for cash, Dai steered them towards barter, swapping ad space for free meals, champagne and exotic holidays: lovely for him; not so good for the balance sheet. In addition to this, Dai hijacked the company chequebook so that no one could keep track of things, although I was a founding shareholder. Had Dai planned to milk the magazine as a means to get free meals and holidays all along? Surely not.

In January 1994 I persuaded the Hon Jonathan Harmsworth, the son of Lord Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail and General Trust, to buy Voila! for £150,000. It was a great deal for us, for although the magazine had a high profile and good sales, the rent was overdue, we had no assets and there was no money in the bank. Perversely, Dai blocked it, suggesting I hold out for £1m. Shortly afterwards the Lebanese publisher got fed up, closed the title and retired to Beirut. Dai acquired a lucrative sideline in writing syndicated articles blaming me for the collapse of Voila!.

Dai didn’t suffer long: he became the PR for the new Dorchester nightclub, succeeding one Major Brian Wright, uncle to the Duchess of York and former butler to the Duke of Devonshire. When I took a Greek shipowner there for a drink at Major Wright’s invitation, the major looked him up and down and said: “I must say you are very well dressed for one of your race.” His particular brand of charm was judged not quite suitable for the target clientele of the Dorchester, but Dai’s was and he landed a job perfectly suited to his particular genius, one that brought with it a Mayfair mews house. His twinkling eyes, green velvet smoking jacket and cries of “Darling! Wel-come!” made the Dorchester club so popular with the smart set that Annabel’s was virtually deserted for a few months.

He was now pushing 50 but women still found him irresistible. He had been so successful at creating his image as an amazing lover and rich heir to a title that, with his genuine warmth and charisma and his impressive array of friends, he seemed a very good catch.

By the mid1990s, however, his weight had ballooned, he was drinking too much and he admitted to dyeing his hair with bootblack – and yet women still threw themselves at him. He was particularly popular with older divorcees and Essex-girl types. I introduced him to a rich Persian friend: when their affair fizzled out, she ended up writing a book about gigolos. Therapy, perhaps. It was never published.

I recall a rich American with a mansion in Kensington and a Gloucestershire estate, who turned weak-kneed and starry-eyed over Dai as late as 2002. “My God!” she marvelled. “Just how did you get to meet people like that?” And of course, out of loyalty, I backed up Dai’s outrageous claims.

But people he visited in recent years said he would come for a weekend and stay three weeks, drinking the house dry. “ ‘I’ll replace it,’ Dai promised, turning up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand whisky after consuming several cases during his extended stay,” said one host. The truth was, he generally had nowhere else to go.

Meanwhile, the Dorchester club was losing its cachet. Dai eventually left, selling a story to The Sun about how he had busted a vice ring there. Secretly, many of his friends speculated that if the vice ring existed, he was running it. He lost the mews house but in characteristic style still gave the Mayfair address, Adams Row, as his own for many years.

Close friends were told he now had a “chic little pad in Soho”. He was the PR for an Italian restaurant, but when I dropped by for lunch, the owner said he was late and sent me to a lino-floored, neon-lit dormitory of bunk beds above Piccadilly Circus, which Dai shared with a large number of Italian waiters. He was furious to be seen there, but made light of it, saying his digs reminded him of his army days. We descended through a rabbit warren of corridors to the “meat rack”, the gay red-light district in the shadow of Eros’s statue, Dai desperately maintaining a jaunty air as if he were on a shoot at Blenheim Palace. I never told anyone else, but it was his home for some considerable time.

Salvation was on the horizon in the form of Deborah, a pretty Jewish divorcee. Dai proposed to her and moved into her house in St John’s Wood. She offered to pay all his gambling debts and even said he would not have to sleep with her (his famed sexual prowess was on the wane by now). But he suddenly announced via the gossip columns that he hardly knew her and had not proposed.

Deborah was devastated. Her father had a stroke and she suffered a breakdown. She told me that every time Dai looked out of her window towards Regent’s Park he thought to himself: “If only it were Sloane Square.”

She may have been right, but when he did have a rich lover in Sloane Square, he fluffed it. Lady Wilcox – who now sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Wilcox – was blonde, widowed and adoring and lived with him for years. She told me she ended their affair at the end of the 1980s when he interrupted a meeting with the governor of the Bank of England. Walking into her drawing room stark naked at noon, he demanded to know why there was “no f****** milk for my cornflakes”.

Eventually Dai found a home with his old friend Meehan, once the co-host of the famous picnics at Royal Ascot. Dai was allowed to use the idyllic cottage in the grounds of his Kent estate. Of course, when Meehan went away, Dai promptly moved into the main house and invited friends from London down to “his” country estate.

So here I was driving Dai from his hospice to see what had been his last refuge for perhaps the final time. Considering his condition, he was remarkably cheerful, swigging what he said was red wine from a plastic bottle. I suspected it was Ribena laced with morphine to control the pain. I had urged other friends to come down, and had even suggested a party in the hospice room, but such was the cynicism that Dai engendered by then that some joked he was feigning illness to get free accommodation, or as a publicity stunt. Even Meehan’s daughter, Nathalie, made cracks about the mice who had been stealing the whisky, and one of the staff hinted that Dai had borrowed money from him.

Dai gave instructions to Meehan’s chauffeur to renew his car tax for a year and said he would be back for Christmas. I realised it was important for him to believe he was not dying. As he went back to the hospice, saying goodbye to his cottage for the last time, he was rather sad to have lost his “lucky” cloth cap.

He turned to me. “Ninety per cent of the things between us are better left unsaid. But I have not been particularly proud of my behaviour all the time. If I do get that backdated disability benefit, you must come down again and I’ll spend it all on lunch with you.” I drove back to London. The party was over.


Another account of Sir Dai here

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It’s 1759 and all that ... or the history you never learnt at school

1066 is more famous, 1415 (the year of Agincourt) more Shakespearean and 1939 more globally significant. But there is another year whose impact on every area of British life is becoming ever more apparent: 1759.

Its legacy echoes through today’s headlines, with the collapse of the ceramics firm Waterford Wedgwood (founded 1759). The latest Guinness’ advertising campaign (“17:59. It’s Guinness time”) refers to the date when Arthur Guinness built a brewery for stout in Dublin.

One of the salient achievements of an extraordinary year will be celebrated at the British Museum, which opened 250 years ago today. The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew were also new in 1759.

The most obvious advances were on the battlefield. There were British military successes around the globe in “the year of victories”.

The City was emerging as the financial centre of the world on the back of its importance to shipping and trade. And the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution were encouraging Josiah Wedgwood and Arthur Guinness to begin building their empires.

The historian Frank McLynn, author of 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World, believes that the year should “be as well known in British history as 1066”, the year of the Norman Conquest. In comparison, Magna Carta in 1215 changed nothing, he said. Other armadas followed the one in 1588 that Drake and Raleigh destroyed. Trafalgar and Waterloo in 1805 and 1815 were great victories but, set against the broad sweep of developments in 1759, “changed little”.

So what forces meshed in Britain halfway through the 18th century to remould the world?

The German-speaking monarch George II had little to do with it. By 1759 he had withdrawn from the world. He died on his toilet a year later. Government was steered by William Pitt the Elder, who was loathed by the King, but had a visionary conviction that trade backed by naval superiority could make Britain a world power.

The combatants of the Seven Years War were all European (Britain and Prussia on one side, France, Russia and Austria on the other) but that year British forces won crucial victories in India, the Caribbean and North America as well as near Düsseldorf and off the coast of France. The best known was probably the taking of Quebec, secured by Major-General James Wolfe, who died in the battle.

The defeats that France suffered in 1759 were a significant contributor to the vast debts that led to the French Revolution 30 years later. They gave the East India Company a freer hand in India and also determined that the 13 British colonies in America felt safe enough from French conquest so that they could demand independence from the Crown.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, sees the opening of his institution and Kew as “the first coherent intellectual response to globalisation”. The British Library and the Natural History Museum were also important. These were civic collections, not collections belonging to royalty or to universities.

“What you have, available for free for everybody for the first time, is the whole concept of the world: what’s grown, what’s been made, what’s been written and what’s been thought. This is the beginning of the whole notion of citizen access to information.”

The trusteeship structure of the British Museum, enabling government to fund the institution but not to control it, became the model not just for every museum in the English speaking world “but for the BBC, the Open University and the internet, because Tim Berners-Lee [the father of the world wide web] is so much part of this British tradition of free access.”

That was the year

— George and Martha Washington are married: a union that helps to beget the Union in North America

— Lacking a port in which to refit and resupply, the French Navy leaves the coast of India after a series of minor engagements with the British and never returns

— Robert Burns is born and will go on to inspire a uniquely Scottish literature. “Arise to deck our land!”

— Adam Smith publishes The Theory of Moral Sentiments, providing an ethical underpinning to his later work The Wealth of Nations

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Simple, well-known names work best

Naming a child is, like most things in Britain, as much about class as it is about fashion. Unless you happen to be committed to one of those quaint but unpronounceable family names - St John, Princess Tiaamii - then baptising your progeny offers an unmissable (and sometimes unwitting) opportunity to display your social ambitions.

For many years those wishing to play down privilege have tended to use names such as Fred, Stan, Jake or Sam. These all perform equally well in the stands at Queens Park Rangers as they do on the fields of Eton, leaving more obvious middle and upper-class names such as Ptolemy and Orlando on the sidelines. Similarly, for the self-made man with a few leftover rough edges, Tamsin seems so much more tempting than Tracey.

The penchant for more traditional names is an interesting development. Elizabeth and William are both solid all-weather names, indicative of the sort of middle-class aspirations - a job, a stable home, not being a contestant on Big Brother - which have, in recent years, fallen out of favour. And so it seems that in times of trouble we turn to old certainties and trusted authority.

Besides, these are versatile names. They abbreviate well and can be shortened according to social requirements. If a William finds himself attending a large inner-city comprehensive, he can become Billy; if he gets himself into grammar school, he can be a Will. If he ends up an Oxford Don, he can style himself Willem, possibly with the addition of an intellectual initial. Will is both the name of the heir to the throne and of several reliably cool figures, such as the actor Will Smith and the musician, of the Black Eyed Peas. Ditto Elizabeth: Liz, Lizzy, Bess - it is the ultimate social chameleon.

In an uncertain world, we give names full of potential. And if you have recently received a visit from the stork and are casting around for inspiration, try applying this infallible test of a name's universality, taught to me by a friend from Sheffield. Does it work in the context of a cold, muddy football pitch? As in “Oi, Peregrine, you cloth-eared fool, fetch t' bloody ball”. Simple, but surprisingly effective.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The story of the crystal apple -- and other Boris-isms

"London stands at a crossroads. Can this new Conservative mayor help the world's leading financial center weather the economic downturn, or will he be caught out? Can he persuade North Americans to come to this great city and spend their dollars? Can he deliver air-conditioning on the underground system for the first time in 150 years? Can he reduce bus crime, make transport safer, and simultaneously jump-start the frozen housing market? Yes, he can, my friends!"

"That's your blistering introductory paragraph, to get your piece off to a really flying start," says Boris Johnson. Behind schedule, just arrived at City Hall on his bike, London's mayor proposes to spare us the hassle of an interview and simply dictate this article for me. I've heard worse offers.

Until his surprise win last May, Mr. Johnson was one of Britain's best-known journalists. This half-parody of his former craft and new life in big-league politics manages to capture some of his challenges and give a taste of an inimitable style toned down, but hardly dulled, by the recent metamorphosis.

"I have to do things my way, otherwise I'd kind of explode," he says. "But . . . I'm afraid there are just times" -- here comes one of numerous playful jabs at the gray Scot at 10 Downing Street -- "when you have to be Gordon Brownian. You just got to, got to, got to."

Previously (in)famous because of a propensity for petty scandals and lively logorrhea, Mr. Johnson convinced enough voters he was serious to unseat London's cockney king, "Red Ken" Livingstone, the two-term incumbent and favorite -- "Mayor Leavingsoon," in Mr. Johnson's campaign shorthand.

Seven months in, here's the bigger surprise: Even detractors say Mr. Johnson is doing a good job. He's the most popular figure among Tory faithful (though not the party leadership) and by some accounts in the country as a whole. All of Britain knows him as Boris; close family use Al, from Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. If David Cameron stumbles in his bid to force Labour from power at the next election, Mr. Johnson -- the only Tory politician to win an executive post since 1992 -- would be the favorite to take over Margaret Thatcher's old party.

Days after his election, this all seemed highly improbable. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stopped by, and there was a little mix-up over the customary gifts. Mr. Bloomberg gave the new London mayor a Tiffany & Company signature box with a crystal apple symbolizing New York City. In return he got a button-down dress shirt covered with a map of London's subway system from Mr. Johnson, who confessed it was an impromptu choice.

The mayors of the world's two financial capitals now claim to have a special relationship -- "very friendly relations," in Mr. Johnson's words. Is the gift episode forgotten, I wonder?

"I am a very proud user of his crystal apple. Where is his crystal apple?" Mr. Johnson looks around and comes up empty-handed. "Someone shot-putted it into the Thames. I don't know what happened to it. Very, very, very, very beautiful object. I'm very grateful to New York and its citizens for my crystal apple. And I'm a proud citizen of New York, a point I would not hesitate to remind you of." Mr. Johnson, mischievous smile and all, was born in Manhattan.

Back to serious matters. This autumn, when the financial system nearly collapsed, Mr. Johnson stood up to defend bankers. His was a rare voice. "Someone had to," he says. Financial services account for nearly a tenth of Britain's economy, far larger in London. Mr. Johnson says he approached Mayor Bloomberg with an idea: "Why don't we form an alliance against ill-thought regulation now, or mistakes we could make now that impede the financial sector, the Anglo-Saxon model, from developing in the future, and let's see if we could find some things in common."

The response? "I have to say I got a bum's rush there. His view was actually, for one reason or another, he didn't see much scope for cooperation. And the reality is that these two great metropolises. . . metropolaise. . ." -- the Oxford classics graduate, author of a survey of the Roman Empire, suddenly wants to stick the ending. "Metropoli?" chimes in his aide. "If it was Greek, it would be poleis," he says, ending the digression. The cities, in any case, "are in competition."

Created in 2000, the London mayor's job lacks the New York post's powers, which could hinder Mr. Johnson's ability to implement his campaign promises to cut into rising crime and ease transport headaches. So far, Mr. Johnson has managed the high expectations well.

In one of his first acts, he banned alcohol on public transport -- a Bloomberg-like act, I point out. "I'm by nature a libertarian," Mr. Johnson shoots back, "but I thought there was a general freedom that people ought to have to be able to sit on the Tube late at night without having some guy with a six pack of beer leering at them in a threatening way."

On the night before the ban went into effect, Londoners rung out the old tradition of boozing in transit with parties/protests on subway trains and buses. "Thousands of young people were hurling execration at my name," says the mayor. "I thought: This is fantastic. It took Margaret Thatcher 10 years before she had mobs of urban youth denouncing her."

In another headline-grabber, this past fall Mr. Johnson pressured out the Metropolitan Police chief, Sir Ian Blair. A favorite of Labour, Sir Ian was criticized by the right for turning a blind eye to Islamic hate preachers in London. Mr. Johnson took the politically risky move, but cited other reasons, and ducks questions about the terrorist threat in his town. "The best and most effective way of defusing the extremists is to engage and support the moderates," he offers -- a line that his journalist self might have dismissed with a neat word like bilge or pablum.

Municipal government would seem ill-suited to a man noted for a quick wit and a short attention span. But he acts the part, his own way. Mr. Johnson describes in some detail a tunnel planned under the Thames, which, he says, "is going to have a quite colossal bore" -- clearly the opening's too tempting not to take -- "a bore even more colossal than Gordon Brown himself."

Talking up the need for bigger apartments at the introduction of his new housing strategy, he says Londoners have grown too fat to live like Hobbits. He indulges his passion for cycling by seeking to make London friendlier to bikes -- for aesthetic green reasons, he says, to get people out of cars and fat burned off their bodies. Recently, he infuriated earnest greens by describing climate change as "a religion" in his weekly column. "Not all religions are bad!" he says. "Climate change might be the faith that supervenes and brings the human race together. Fear of the Sun God. . ." he adds, before trailing off in a chuckle.

Mr. Johnson won a safe Tory seat in Parliament in 2001 while keeping a foot in journalism. He looked finished in politics on numerous occasions. He is a walking Bartlett's of political incorrectness. A Boris campaign pitch: "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3." On Portsmouth: "[A city of] drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs." On Liverpool, after a Liverpudlian was beheaded in Iraq: "Wallow[ing in] victim status . . . and their sense of shared tribal grievance about the rest of society."

On London hosting the 2012 Olympics, spoken while in Beijing this summer: "I say to the world: Ping Pong is coming home!" On his talent for gaffes (see entries above): "My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters." On himself: "Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon, there lurks a blithering buffoon."

The image of an upper-class Clown Prince from the fields of Eton made Mr. Johnson easy to like and to dismiss. But he is no shallow English toff. He excelled at school. Nor is his background as posh as his accent might suggest. On his parental side, Mr. Johnson is a second-generation immigrant; his great-grandfather was interior minister in the last Ottoman government. Throw in some Jewish ancestors and a direct lineage to King George II, and the image takes on new dimensions.

So, I ask him, are the gaffes now history? Mr. Johnson says flatly, "No," then extrapolates, "What is a gaffe? A gaffe is in the eye of the beholder." I offer Michael Kinsley's definition -- when a politician tells the truth -- and Mr. Johnson says, "Yeah, I would have thought one of the reasons I get elected is because people think I might accidentally blurt the thing they're thinking."

What's the biggest misconception about you? He turns to false flattery: "It's a brilliant question, it's a brilliantly devised, an elaborately constructed trap. I can see the stakes winking at me at the bottom of this leaf covered pit. . . . There are obviously plenty of criticisms that people make of me that I could individually try to demolish, but life's too short."

The Tories are no longer Mrs. Thatcher's party. After three consecutive drubbings in national elections, Mr. Cameron, a former ad man, has revived the party's fortunes, freshening up its image without resolving what these new Tories truly stand for. The party, says Mr. Johnson, is a "much broader, more generous operation," but some Thatcher bedrock principles remain. Such as, he says, standing by "people who are getting hit by high taxes, insecurity on the streets, crime that could be dispelled with a little bit of common sense."

I keep asking repeatedly -- as others do -- what else? Mr. Johnson never looks irritated, though he probably should be. At last, "Oh boy, you know what conservatism is. Do I have to describe it? A belief in the old ways of doing things and all that sort of jazz."

The next elections are due in 2010, perhaps sooner. In the fall of 2007, Prime Minister Brown raised expectations and then got cold feet on calling early elections. His popularity plummeted. Now he's back up in polls and so is speculation. On Mr. Johnson's desk sits a tabloid cover mooting a possible June 4 poll. I point to it.

"Bring it on!" says Mr. Johnson, lighting up. "My message to Gordon Brown through the Wall Street Journal is: You great big quivering gelatinous invertebrate jelly of indecision, you marched your troops up to the top of the hill in October of [2007]. Show us that you've got enough guts to have an election June 4. Gordon: Man or Mouse?!"

His press aide shakes her head, puts it in her hands and laughs. Boris Johnson is enjoying himself.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Nazi E-boat saved by military enthusiast

The last Nazi E-boat, which took part in an infamous raid during the Second World War, has been saved by a British military enthusiast.

Schnellboot-130, once the fastest vessel in the world, helped attack an Allied convoy off Slapton Sands, in Devon, in a battle in which nearly 1,000 Allied soldiers were killed.

On the night of April 27, 1944, the boat was one of nine German vessels patrolling the English Channel when they stumbled upon Operation Tiger, which was the rehearsal for the D-Day landings.

The convoy launched a raid and killed 946 Allied soldiers. Allied chiefs initially covered up the loss, keen to avoid the enemy becoming aware of what it had achieved or getting wind of any planned invasion of Europe.

After the war the Schnellboot was seized by the British and used to land spies behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War but was then left in a dockyard and eventually began to disintegrate.

Enthusiast Kevin Wheatcroft has now come to the rescue of the vessel.

Mr Wheatcroft, whose family owns the Donington Grand Prix museum, in Leicestershire, paid just £1 for the hulk but will now spend around £3 million restoring it.

He recently acquired the salvage rights on three sunken Schnellboots off the Danish coast and plans to bring up original parts to help the restoration.

The project will take up to five years after which it is hoped the vessel will become a floating museum and visitor attraction.

Mr Wheatcroft said: "I've always been fascinated with Schnellboots and she is one of the most famous.

"The intention is to return her to her original state and into a moving museum."

He added: "Over the years I have collected a lot of parts including engines, gun platforms, a complete radio and bridge equipment.

"I have acquired salvage rights on three Schnellboot wrecks off the Danish coast. They were sunk after the war in 1948 and 1949, so are not war graves.

"I hope to be able to get an armoured bridge, torpedo tubes and mine racks from the sunken ships.

S-130 was recently lifted from the water and a building will now be put up around her while the work is carried out a few miles along the coast from Slapton Sands.

The Schnellboots were small, fast and effective – and had been devised as a result of the Versailles restrictions set at the close of the First World War.

With the Germans banned from building large warships they embarked on an ingenious naval development programme, resulting in the Schnellboots.

The allies called them E-boats – the "E" standing for enemy.

They were propelled by three powerful Mercedes diesel engines and could travel at 55 knots, faster than any other naval vessel.

The boats had a wedge on the stern that prevented the bow from rising as it accelerated so the guns fired more accurately. That technology is today used on US destroyers.

Wyn Davies, a naval architect and maritime historian, said: "She is the last survivor of a hugely important class of warship that gave our coastal forces quite a headache.

"They introduced several new features, the most useful of which was the use of diesel engines to power them.

"This ended the need for stocking inflammable petrol on board.

"These craft formed the basis for post war development of similar vessels for most Nato navies."