George Henry Lane
Son of Ernest Lanyi
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About George Henry Lane
George Henry Lane MC (18 January 1915 – 19 March 2010) was a British Army officer in the Commandos during World War II, achieving the rank of Lieutenant. He performed a number of missions behind enemy lines. Captured on one such mission, Lane was spared after he had tea with Erwin Rommel, and later escaped.
George Lane was born Dyuri Lányi on 18 January 1915. A Hungarian Jew, he was the eldest son of Ernest Lanyi, a landowner in the northern part of Hungary. At the end of the World War I, the northern Hungarian region was transferred to the newly created nation of Czechoslovakia. Lane, aged four, effectively became a refugee, and his family moved to Budapest, where he was educated.
Lane became a swimming champion, and he toured widely with the Hungarian Olympic water polo team. In order to travel, but lacking funds, he took a friend’s advice to write about water polo as a freelance journalist. His articles included an eyewitness account of a Nuremburg rally.
Lane moved to England in 1935 to undertake studies at the University of London. He was more or less adopted by the Dean of Windsor, Albert Victor Baillie, who enjoyed vacationing in Hungary. Lane wrote several articles about the trauma of meeting demoralized Germans in Harwich. These articles attracted the interest of Rozsika Edle Rothschild, a Hungarian sportswoman who lived in Northamptonshire. Rothschild wrote to Lane, but he did not respond to her letters.
World War II
Lane was studying at London University when World War II began. He volunteered to join the British Army and was accepted by the Grenadier Guards. The Home Office, however, served him with a deportation order.
Lane often stayed at Leeds Castle, the home of the American-born political hostess Lady Baillie, where he met Anthony Eden, the future Prime Minister and David Margesson, the government Chief Whip. With their help the deportation order was rescinded, but he had to spend a year in the Alien Pioneer Corps doing manual labour.
Lane then joined Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British irregular warfare organization. After intensive training, Lane became adept in unarmed combat, weapons and explosives, parachuting, and small boat handling. He went on missions to Belgium and Holland, but he refused to parachute into Hungary, so he transferred to No. 4 Commando under the leadership of Lord Lovat.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British Chief of Combined Operations, decided that better use should be made of foreigners in the British Army because of their language skills and intense hatred of Hitler. Lane and a commando captain, Bryan Hilton-Jones, identified 140 foreigners for a proposed “X Troop”, of whom 80 were selected, all them fluent in German. Largely composed of Jewish refugees from Europe, this X Troop became Number 3 Troop in No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, of which Hilton-Jones became commanding officer. The men of Number 3 Troop would be temporarily seconded to different units and undertook reconnaissance raids. Lane was commissioned as an officer in 1943.
For one mission, Lane had to parachute into northern France, rifle a safe in a German brigade HQ, and bring back some important papers. A top safe breaker was released from prison on the Isle of Wight for two days and taught Lane how to crack the German safe. The prison inmate was reluctant to reveal the secrets of his safecracking trade, only doing so when Lane swore not to take this skill with him into civilian life.
For another mission, Lane was part of a small group that was dropped behind enemy lines to examine a new gun sight. A report was needed urgently, so the men tied the report to a carrier pigeon brought along for the purpose. The pigeon flew away and was heading for home when a hawk darted out from under the cliffs and seized it. The frustration of seeing so much effort wasted, Lane said later, nearly reduced him to tears.
In May 1944 Lane was raid commander of three missions, known as the Tarbrush raids, to examine mines on the French coast near Ault. During the lead-up to D-Day, an RAF fighter had strafed a pillbox on the French coast. The aircraft carried a camera, and the scientists who examined the film were puzzled that the plane's rockets, which fell short, appeared to have set off underwater explosions. The Allies wanted to know if the Germans were using a new kind of mine on the beaches. Lane led a hazardous reconnaissance mission that required a two-mile approach to a heavily defended coastline. Lane's reconnaissance expedition discovered that the Germans had attached Teller mines to stakes in the water. These would be submerged when the tide was high and would explode on impact with a landing craft. However, the mines had no waterproofing and had corroded. They had only exploded when the rockets from the RAF fighter had hit nearby. Lane concluded that the Teller mines were only a crude improvisation, not an advanced type of mine.
Capture by Germans
Lane was ordered to return the next night, and the next – this time with a sapper officer, Roy Wooldridge, who was a mine expert. They found nothing but the Teller mines, but had orders to photograph other obstacles on the beach using infrared equipment.
The commandos were taken by surprise when starshells illuminated the beach. Lane and Wooldridge, hiding in the dunes, came under fire from two German patrols. They were cut off from the others in the raiding party, who, unable to wait any longer, had left them a rubber dinghy and swum out to their boat. When the firing stopped, Lane and Wooldridge returned to the beach and paddled out to sea as fast as they could. Although it was dark and pouring rain, a German patrol boat spotted the two British commandos. The two men jettisoned their photographic equipment before they were taken prisoner. They were told that they would be handed over to the Gestapo and shot.
German dictator Adolf Hitler had issued the illegal "Commando Order" in 1942 that required the immediate execution of all commandos on sight, irrespective of uniform, rank or whether they were trying to surrender. Lane and Wooldridge could have been executed immediately, but they were first interrogated by German Army officers to ascertain the purpose of their mission.
Meeting with Rommel
For several days the two British commandos were kept in cellars at Cayeux, where they were interrogated by the Germans. Eventually, Lane and Wooldridge were bound, blindfolded and pushed into a car. They were driven to a castle, and Lane was taken to a room guarded by a ferocious dog. Lane's blindfold was removed and an elegant German officer arrived with sandwiches and real coffee. Lane was then taken to a large library. Sitting at a desk at the far end was Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Rommel got up and invited Lane, who was standing to attention, to join him at a table that was laid for tea. Rommel questioned Lane through interpreters. As recounted in Lane's obituary in the London Daily Telegraph, Rommel had experienced much trouble with "gangster commandos," as he called them.
"You must realize," [Rommel] said, "that you are in a very tricky situation. Everyone seems to think that you are a saboteur."
"Well, if the Field Marshal believed that I was a saboteur he would not have done me the honour of inviting me here."
"So you think that this is an invitation?" Rommel rejoined.
"I do, sir, and I must say I am highly honoured." The Field Marshal smiled, the atmosphere became relaxed and the two men had a long conversation.
In the ensuing conversation Rommel apparently relaxed enough to ask Lane, "How’s Montgomery doing?"
As described in Lane's obituary in The Times, Lane replied, "Unfortunately I don’t know him, but he’s preparing the invasion and he’ll be here shortly," adding, for good measure, "by the shortest route."
Rommel went so far as to tell Lane he thought it was a shame that the British and Germans had not united to fight against the Soviet Union.
David Pryce-Jones, in the National Review, describes a few other details about Lane's meeting with Rommel:
When the blindfold was removed [Lane] found himself facing Field-Marshal Rommel and other German generals in their headquarters at La Roche Guyon. Rommel then interrogated him about his mission, saying that he suspected the Allies were about to invade. George of course spoke German but stuck to English, to be on the safe side. The more George hedged, the more Rommel played the good-cop role. But then one of the other generals butted in. If George was the British officer he claimed to be, why did he speak English with a foreign accent. “Because I am a Hungarian Jew,” was not the right answer in the circumstances. George said, “Because I am Welsh.” Oh, of course, the generals all nodded. George was given a cup of tea, and then sent to prison in Paris, and deported — not to a concentration camp as might have been the case, but to an officers' prison. As for Rommel, a few days later he and his car were shot up by the RAF, so he played no part in D-Day, and then he was accused by Hitler of being part of the July bomb plot, and forced to commit suicide. George was surely the last non-German to see him alive.
Later that day, Lane and Wooldridge were taken to Fresnes Prison, near Paris. There they were told that they would be hanged or shot. The screams from the other cells were terrifying, Lane said, but after two days the pair were sent on to the castle prison for officers at Spangenberg, near Fulda, Oflag IX/A-H. There were 300 British officers in the castle. They had an excellent library, and Lane studied estate management through a correspondence course.
As the Allies closed in, the prisoners were moved out under guard. On the second night, Lane escaped by slipping into a deep ditch. He then hid in a tree, but then saw a German soldier climbing up behind him. The German turned out to be a deserter.
The German advised Lane to walk to a nearby hospital and wait for American forces to arrive. When Lane arrived at the hospital, a doctor told him that the SS regularly searched the hospital. Lane, however, told the doctor that the Americans were very close and that when they arrived, the doctor would need a friend. Lane then proceeded to round up some of the sick and wounded from his PoW column and bring them back for treatment. Two days later he was able to give the Americans such a good account of the doctor that they put him in charge of the entire hospital.
Once the Americans had liberated the area, Lane caught a ride to recently liberated Paris, where he stayed with his brother-in-law, Victor Rothschild. He asked for a hot bath. "I have lots of Chateau Lafite," said his host, "and lots of Dom Pérignon. But I cannot provide you with a bath because there is no hot water." As with the carrier pigeon, Lane said afterwards that he could have cried.
Marriage to Miriam Rothschild
During the war, Lane met Miriam Rothschild, the renowned entomologist, when recovering at her house after an accident. Miriam Rothschild was the daughter of Rozsika Edle Rothschild, who had written Lane before the war about articles he had written. When Lane arrived at the Rothschild estate, he recognized the address. Rozsika Rothschild had died in 1940, but her daughter remembered the articles. Miriam's first words to Lane were, “Why the hell didn’t you answer my mother’s letter? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Lane and Miriam Rothschild married in 1943. After the war Lane helped to run the Rothschild estate at Ashton Wold in Northamptonshire. Lane farmed successfully and became a successful businessman, but his marriage to Miriam broke down, and they divorced in 1957. Lane remained on good terms with his first wife, and she even attended the silver wedding lunch for his second marriage in 1986.
Lane moved to the United States in 1955. He joined a firm of stockbrokers in New York and studied at night school until he had passed the stock exchange examinations. He later opened offices in Cannes, Monte Carlo, Paris, and Zurich.
Marriage to Elizabeth Heald
In 1963, Lane married his second wife, Elizabeth Heald, the daughter of Sir Lionel Heald, Attorney General in the last Churchill government.
After Lane remarried in 1963, he lived in London, travelled widely, and pursued a number of business interests. He opened the London office of the Economic News Agency, reporting on precious metals. Later, with a Hungarian partner, he secured financing for projects in the Congo from an office in Berkeley Square.
A great sportsman, he loved shooting in the Scottish Highlands and in his native Hungary. He also bred Hungarian partridges in Scotland.
In 1984, Lane returned to the château where he had met Rommel for an article in The Sunday Telegraph. Twenty years later he went back there for the BBC. He always believed that Rommel had saved his life.
Lane won the Military Cross for his part in the Tarbrush raids on the Pas de Calais coast of May 1944.
George Lane died on 19 March 2010 at the age of 95. He was survived by his second wife, and his son and three daughters from his first marriage.
George Henry Lane's Timeline
January 18, 1915
December 27, 1945
March 19, 2010