The bravest of all are those veterans who can keep a secret

November 7th, 2014

By day Roberts was a humble banker, but his alter ago, Jack King, was central to national security. When his role was revealed, his daughter was astonished. “We’re still reeling from it,” she said. Her father was not around to tell her himself, for he had taken his secret to the grave, in 1972.

Suburban bank clerk Eric Roberts

And while it would be bad news for spy novelists and espionage thriller directors if everyone kept tight lipped for ever, I cannot help feeling astonishing, redoubled admiration for those brave souls who are not only prepared to risk life and limb in the service of their country, but also willing to forgo any applause for having done so.

That is selfless heroism of a rare kind. Yet it is the heroism that I saw time and again as obits editor at the Telegraph, when stories of eye-popping wartime bravery emerged only because documents were found after someone’s death. We also frequently wrote sentences such as: “Her military exploits only came to light when, for a school project, her grandchild asked her about what she had done during the war. It was the first time she had discussed it in 55 years.”

Sometimes we ran something along the lines of: “He rarely discussed his service after the war, merely stating that he had fought alongside many brave men.” The full details only emerged in records held at the National Archives.

You have to admire that reticence, diffidence even. Take Rose Robertson, for example. She died in 2011 aged 94.

“Sworn to lifelong secrecy,” our obit stated, “she underwent tough counter-interrogation training. For the rest of her life she was very reluctant to speak about her secret work. On the rare occasions when she did, it was with self-effacing modesty, though it was clear that her memories caused her considerable distress.”

Doubtless many spies and special forces soldiers are left in “considerable distress” by the memories of what they have gone though. How that distress must be exacerbated by the loneliness of not being able to tell anyone.

War correspondents, who suffer their fair share of PTSD, sometimes say that they are spared the worst mental hangover because they relentlessly tell and retell the stories of their scrapes. In fact there is little they like better. Rob O’Neill didn’t have that option, that comfort. And there seems little doubt that he was an extremely courageous man. How can anyone who has endured less possibly condemn him?

But that only confirms the point that the greatest heroes are those who you will never know about, at least in their life times, because they just don’t talk about it. They all deserve a medal. A big one. They just won’t ever be able to wear it in public.

Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer… – An Anthology of The Telegraph’s Greatest Ever Obituaries


World War Two

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