Day, Sir Derek

Sir Derek Day, born November 29 1927, died March 7 2015

Sir Derek Day, who has died aged 87, was a member of the bronze medal-winning British hockey team in the 1952 Helsinki summer Olympics and had a distinguished career as a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Ethiopia and High Commissioner to Canada.

It was not until well after his retirement from the diplomatic service, however, that Day was presented with his Olympic medal. Only 11 had been struck, and in 1952 it had fallen to the Great Britain hockey manager to work out which 11 of the 13-man Olympic squad would receive them. Day had been the team’s first-choice goalkeeper but, for the bronze medal match, he had tactfully suggested that the substitute goalkeeper, Graham Dadds, be given a game, thinking it was a pity for the man to have come all the way to Helsinki and not play.

The British side clinched victory with a 2-1 win over Pakistan, but when it came to allocating the medals, the 13 squad members drew lots and Day and a team-mate drew the short straws and had to watch the medal ceremony from the stands. Years later the British Olympic Association determined that any athlete taking part in the preliminary round of an event – within a team event – should be presented with a medal.

When the two men finally received their medals in 2010 they received much more media coverage than the team had in 1952. “There was, I think, one hockey correspondent, probably from The Times or The Telegraph, who came out,” Day recalled. “Sport didn’t really attract the media interest then that it does now … We were all amateurs and we just got on with it.”

Derek Malcolm Day was born at Finchley, north London, on November 29 1927 and educated at Hurstpierpoint College, then, after two years’ National Service in the Royal Artillery, at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

He joined the Foreign Service from university in 1951, the year that Burgess and Maclean defected: “I often think that that left two vacancies, otherwise I might not have got in,” he told an interviewer later. At the time there was little formal training for recruits to the service. “I was told the difference between white paper on which you wrote minutes and blue paper on which you wrote drafts but that was about all,” Day recalled. “One literally learned the trade as one went along.”

After postings in Tel Aviv and Rome, Day spent a couple of years in a small Foreign Office unit which liaised with MI6, followed by a four-year posting as information officer at the British Embassy in Washington.

Back in London in 1966, he spent a brief period writing speeches for the Permanent Secretary and Secretary of State before being appointed an assistant private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, George Brown. When Brown resigned from government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices were merged and Day went on to serve in the private office of Michael Stewart, the first Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Turkish troops in Cyprus during the 1974 war against the Greek Army (1974 KEYSTONE-FRANCE)

In 1972 he was posted as a counsellor to Cyprus and was present when the Turks invaded the island two years later. The High Commission in Nicosia found itself on the dividing line between Greeks and Turks, and when Turkish forces entered the city Day was stuck in his office for three days, unable to make the 100-yard journey home. But he recalled the conflict as strangely “civilised”. Services such as street lights and telephones continued to work. On one occasion he had phoned his opposite number in the Turkish Embassy after the Turks had bombed a prison about 300 yards from his office, asking him if he could persuade Turkish forces not to bomb quite so close to the High Commission. “Well, I’ll do my best,” the man replied, “but it’s a bit difficult with these military.”

A less civilised atmosphere prevailed in Addis Ababa, where Day was posted as ambassador in 1975, a year after the revolution which had deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and about a month after Selassie’s death. The new Soviet-backed Derg junta was not interested in talking to British diplomats and the security situation meant that it was often dangerous to venture outside the embassy compound. In his first year 13 British subjects were kidnapped by various rebel groups, so Day spent a lot of time negotiating with their captors; all were eventually released unharmed. However he found relief from the inevitable frustrations by building a small six-hole golf course on an embassy paddock. He was delighted to discover in later life that the course still exists — one of only two golf courses in Ethiopia.

Returning to London, early in 1979 Day was appointed a government representative to Rhodesia (with which Britain no longer had formal diplomatic relations), at a time when the country was holding elections for an internal settlement to the long-running bush war, which produced Bishop Muzorewa as the first black Prime Minister of “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia”. Day was slightly disconcerted when his arrival in Salisbury was announced in a local paper under the headline “Tory envoy arrives”. Muzorewa’s government never achieved international acceptance and lasted only a few months, after which Day returned to London.

After a difficult two years as Chief Clerk at the Foreign Office at a time of cuts to the service, Day enjoyed his last posting, as High Commissioner to Canada, from 1984 until his retirement in 1987.

His “one sadness” was that his very last formal engagement — the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Vancouver in 1987 – coincided with bitter argument between the British and Canadian governments on the question of sanctions on South Africa, “on which Mrs Thatcher was adamant and in her forthright tones made it absolutely clear that she was not going to be bullied … so it was a meeting of some acrimony.”

Following his retirement Day became vice chairman of the British Red Cross, and served as a Commonwealth War Graves commissioner.

He continued to take an active interest in sport, playing competitive club hockey for Southgate and East Grinstead for as long as his work would allow, and enjoying tennis and golf. In 2012 he carried the Olympic torch as it passed through Copthorne, West Sussex, near his home.

He was appointed CMG in 1973 and KCMG in 1984.

He married, in 1955, Sheila Nott, who survives him with a daughter and three sons.

*This Obituary was first published in the telegraph, all rights reserved

1 thought on “Day, Sir Derek

  1. We were school prefects at the same time trying to make the best of the changes brought by the succession as Headmaster of the the Rev R C Howard after the brilliant, charismatic, but flawed W S Dingwall, who brought Hurst such distinguished academic and sporting results. Derek was not only one of the three British Ambassadors who owed their education to that small public school of approx 200 boys , but also one of the Three Hurst Hockey Internationals in a great Olympic team

    I remember Derek with great affection as the most civilised and gentle, of my fellow prefects. and fun during rehearsals of The Taming of the Shrew (1945). What better could one say of anyone on their passing?.

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