Tom Maxted

Naval officer and Norfolk fruit farmer Tom Maxted, who has died aged 86, won one of the highest gallantry awards for his part in landing secret agents in occupied Europe.

Naval officer and Norfolk fruit farmer Tom Maxted, who has died aged 86, won one of the highest gallantry awards for his part in landing secret agents in occupied Europe.

As a junior naval officer, he played a vital role for the Special Operations Executive charged by prime minister Winston Churchill to take the war to the enemy.

Born in Norwich, the son of an ophthalmic surgeon, he was determined to go to sea. He was 13 when he went to HMS Worcester, the- then Thames Nautical Training College.

He joined the merchant navy and on the outbreak of the second world war, was at Fremantle, Australia. He made his way back home, eventually joining the first convoy to reach Britain from the United States.

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He became a highly skilled navigation officer in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic. He served for 11 months on the battleship, King George V, which was involved in the Bismarck action.

He was spotted by naval intelligence. When summoned for interview, he was asked: 'Could he keep his mouth shut?' Sent to Gibraltar, he became involved in the shadowy world of clandestine warfare.

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As skipper of a “Spanish” 35ft fishing vessel operating under the scrutiny of Axis spies, he gathered intelligence and often crossed to North Africa.

His first mission to France took five days when he landed the secret agent, Odette Sansom (later Churchill) in October 1942, near Marseilles.

He told the EDP many years later: “It was the first run I did and we had an agent who was a young woman with a bicycle and a small suitcase.”

He took her ashore in a rowing boat with muffled oars in the early hours. Odette, who was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross in 1946, was betrayed to the Gestapo in April 1943. Under repeated torture, she was then sent to a concentration camp.

Later, based on the island of Corsica, he served with MTBs (motor torpedo boats) involved in similar activities. His courage was recognised by the remarkable award of the DSO (Distinquished Service Order) - the second-highest gallantry medal after the Victoria Cross - to the 22-year-old officer.

He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre, another signal distinction for a young sub-lieutenant, for landing and rescuing agents from the island of Elba.

After the war, Lt Cdr Maxted did consider emigration because an elderly aunt in Canada had a fruit farm. When he found that it had been sold, he spent a couple of years working for Tom Blofeld, of Hoveton, to learn about horticulture.

With his father's modest assistance, he bought a farm at Kerdiston, near Reepham, in 1950, and started growing fruit.

By 1975, when he was appointed to the Apple and Pear Development Council, he was growing 25 acres of dessert apples and 25 acres of blackcurrants and strawberries.

He was a long-time director of Norfolk Fruit Growers and served as a director of Home-Grown Fruits.

His father was a fieldsman with British Sugar, recalled his son Ranald, who remembers the dubious delights of eating raw sugar beet to gauge the crop's growth.

He remained a very keen sailor and always enjoyed escaping the pressures of land to the open sea on his yacht.

He was secretary to the North Norfolk Harriers for two decades and was a regular follower with the West Norfolk Foxhounds.

He leaves a widow, Judith, son Ranald, daughter-in-law Maggie and granddaughter Debra.

A service of thanksgiving took place at Reepham Parish Church yesterday.

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