William Robert McClintock Bunbury
4th Baron Rathdonnell
Major, Kings Hussars.
(1914 - 1959)
William Henry Leicester Stanhope, 11th Earl of Harrington (1922-2009) was second-in-command to my grandfather, Major the Lord Rathdonnell, aka Bill Rathdonnell, during the Second World War. They served with the 15 / 19 Hussars in northern Europe in the wake of the Battle of the Bulge.
In October 2005,
I took a train to Limerick and interviewed him. It took place in Lord Harrington's
office where he sat himself behind a large oakwood desk and pitched a world
atlas into my arms. The regiment was in action in Holland and Denmark, taking
part in the withdrawal to Escaut and miscellaneous actions at the Seine,
Hechtel, Nederrijn, Venraij, Rhineland, Hochwald, Rhine, Ibbenburen and
Aller. He asked me to look up a place in Holland called "Suderbrerup".
Although that is a phonetic spelling. I couldn't find it in the index. As
it happens, next day we find this place in another book and its not in Holland
at all. It's in Denmark. In the meantime, I produce "The History of
the 15 / 19 Hussars 1939 - 1945" but Lord Harrington is otherwise minded.[i]
"I haven't got my spectacles", says he. "Damn. Never mind,
let me get on with this. What I am going to do now is tell you what I know".
And so he leans towards the microphone and off we go and it is as if he
is reciting Shakespeare.
'"We had the misfortune when I first joined the Regiment to have a Squadron Leader with whom the officers in the squadron did not get on with. As senior subaltern in the squadron, it was my job to walk in, cap off, on behalf of all the officers and refuse to serve under him. I was told by Bill Rankin - the Colonel was away - Bill Rankin said "Bill, for God's sake, sit down". I said "No Sir, I wish to apply for a transfer". He said "Sit down, do you think we're all bloody fools? Come on, sit down!" So I sat down, rather reluctantly, and he said "Now, quite frankly, we agree with you. Now you can go back and rest in peace". I can say with all honesty that as far as I am aware there were very few soldiers in B Squadron of 15th / 19th Hussars at that time who would have gone willingly to fight under that Squadron Leader. So he went.
And then Lord Rathdonnell came as Squadron Leader. And within a short time every man in the place worshipped the ground he stood on. For the very simple reason that he had a huge sense of humour, he was a particularly careful - automatically - to take the side of anybody who was accused of doing anything. And because of this every trooper, and every officer for that matter, worshipped the ground he stood on. It was lucky for us because the contrast between the two was so great that the relief was huge and we'd all do anything for him. And that is not any exaggeration whatsoever. So we'll leave it at that.
Of course I knew Bill and his wife before the War. And so I was no stranger. Ultimately I became his second-in-command and what a joy it was to serve with him. I've already told you that when the Regiment eventually went abroad, we had been trained as a Special Division; in the event of an invasion of England it would have been our prime duty. Consequently we were not sent abroad at all, much to many people's disgust, until after the breakthrough from the Beachehead, Argentan area. Having been on sick leave I joined the Regiment when we were on the River Maas. (ii) We were stationed there for quite a while, sleeping in bivouacs, surrounded by our tents, with two or three foot of snow. But it was extremely comfortable. Only one person, Trooper Thompson, was very fussed that he hadn't got any hair so we told him that there 's only one thing to do and that was to throw a lot of sulphur into his head and that would make the hair grow as it would on a dog. Unfortunately we'd overlooked the fact that we were going to have to sleep with him! How as ever, we then advanced - we were a Reconnaissance Regiment - and the first time I heard artillery fire, over our heads and all that kind of thing, but didn't see any action at all. Then we got to the Rhine and the sappers and engineers there had done a marvellous job and put a pontoon bridge across the river. We went over it and formed a pretty strong bridgehead the other side. And then it was a question of advance as quickly as we could. Frankly I can remember very little about it".
I ask where they were advancing?
"Our centre line was north of Hamburg. We just kept going until we got to Lunenberg Heath. I remember that. But on route there was one incident which is worthy of mentioning. I can't remember the name of the village. But when we arrived there we discovered a wine cellar with a German still in charge of it. Needless to say, he got short shift. Unfortunately the first thing that came to light was a very large barrel of schnapps. So that was produced. And since we were ordered to stand down - we'd had quite a major advance over the last two or three days - everybody got stuck into the schnapps in a big way. Including both The Baron and myself. The Baron was a nickname because there were too many Bills in the Regiment, seven Bills in fact. It was an endearing term. There was no sort of jealousy or pomposity or anything. He was just known as "The Baron". And that was it. And indeed his wife was known as "The Baroness". And that was it, end of story there. Whilst we were getting stuck into the schnapps, a German Stuka dive bomber decided to have a go at us. We were just sober enough to get every gun we'd got in the thing and pointing in the direction which he was bound to come for a rerun. And on the order "Fire!", the whole squadron let rip into the sky, schnapps going behind the shot. However, it was successful because we did see a little trail of smoke coming out of the thing. We didn't see it land but we assumed the thing was dead and it certainly wouldn't fly again with smoke coming out of it. So that was that.
We had just nicely settled down to really enjoy ourselves, some peaceful living, when we were ordered to advance. Well, there was myself trying to hold the map up for The Baron and The Baron was trying to point out where we were going. I can remember now trying frightfully hard to stand still and I couldn't. The Baron was trying equally hard to point correctly but couldn't. However, we moved and the next time I remember seriously anything at all was arriving at Luneberg Heath. How we got there, I have no idea! And I don't suppose many other people in the squadron had any idea either. But we got there and that was it.
We found a French Prisoner of War Camp, officers and prisoners, that sort of thing. Needless to say they were delighted to see us and they jumped all over the tanks and we gave them whatever we had to eat and all that kind of thing. But the moment critique was when they hung the Burgomaster up from a flagpole. They hung him and that was that. Those are the sort of things you might mention?
But in all this, The Baron was wonderful. If he made a mistake, we all said it was our fault. If we made a mistake, he always said it was his fault. That kind of thing. No question about that. It didn't occur - we didn't make many mistakes actually. But the faith in him was absolutely extraordinary. If he told us to walk down the road to a (enemy) gun, we'd do it, no problem.
On route to Holland, I think, we got to a place called Suderbrerup [sic].
It was on a canal. The Baron decided it'd be a good idea if we had a bit
of a party. So we were again to stand down and rest for 48 hours or something.
So instantly, I don't know how he did it, but anyway champagne arrived miraculously
from Paris, having been sent for. And there was a new lieutenant, brand
new fellow straight out from England called Lieutenant Deeming, very nice but
very raw, didn't know anything, no confidence or anything like that at this
particular stage. It was my job to organize so I said "Deeming, come
here. Go down to the village and organize at least twelve bloody good looking
girls to come up". "How do I do it?" "I
don't give a damn how you do it, use your initiative and we'll have a party
here tonight!". Which we did and it was a huge success, absolutely
above board, straightforward, no argument, no messing around or anything
like that. But just as the thing was really going well
Once again. I don't remember holding the map up this time. It must have been stuck on a wall or something. But anyway we went. And that was the beginning. That was long before getting to the Rhine and that kind of thing.
Of course then, the classic story as I say, everything with The Baron was wonderful. You'd do as he said and that kind of thing. The end of the war came. We were stationed at this place called Buckhagen on the Baltic. We got some prisoners down in the cellar and making a hell of a racket. The Baron said: "Bill, go and shut those buggers up!" So down I go with schoolboy intelligence and that kind of thing. I said "Shut up!" and they paid no attention so is said "Right! You! Out!" and with my stick, which you used to carry, "Bend Over!" and hit him three or four on the arse! He was a captain in the German army or something. "Anybody else come out?" Nobody came. Total silence. "How did you do that?" asked The Baron. I said I brought him out and belted him across the backside. "Christ!", he said, "you can't do that kind of thing!" I said: "Well, I've done it anyway". So we'll shut up and won't say anything more about it! Dead silence! That was okay.
On May 1st, B Squadron stayed east of the Elba, awaiting its complement of Comets. The rest of the regiment made ‘a slow and tedious 20-mile journey from Wittoef to the Elbe via Luneburg’, sidestepping bursts of machine gun fire from some fifty Luftwaafe planes, as well as landmines, bazooka fire and sporadic ground resistance. They slowly cleared villages such as Hamfelde, Trittau and Eichede and continued north for Lubeck. The Squadrons met again at Bad Oldesloe where they heard on the BBC that all enemy forces in North Italy had surrendered to Field Marshal Alexander. On May 3rd, B Squadron moved 10 miles north to Dreggers, collecting prisoners as they went, as well as various Allied prisoners-of-war, often ‘weary, footsore and short of food, after days of forced marches to the east’.
While the rest of the squadron went to Dreggers, the Baron and Bill Harrington were somewhat delayed when they paid a visit to a Polish stud at Grabau. ‘This was an interesting example of German thoroughness’, says page 230 of Courage's History of the 15/19 King's Royal Hussars (this part having presumably been written by my grandfather). ‘They had removed the whole outfit, horses, Polish grooms and their families, from Poland at the beginning of the war, and had installed it complete in this village. There was a stud farm here before and so the necessary stables and paddocks were available. The village became to all intents and purposes a Polish colony. But now there was not a great number of horses there and they were mostly draught horses of poor quality. We were given a great welcome by the Poles and it was an enjoyable afternoon, although we were forced to drink an inordinate amount of Schnapps before we left’. Bill gave a rather more epic account of this visit.
But then we were on reconnaissance, Bill and myself, The Baron, call him what you will. In a scout car. A lovely day, looking out over cherry trees all in blossom, absolutely fantastic, the Baltic, lovely day. And all of a sudden a big cloud of dust came up towards us. So we immediately turned our Bren gun on it in case there was some nonsense. And suddenly, out of the dust, there was a gentleman - we didn't know at the time who he was or what he was - in full dress, waving his sabre around his head. And pointing in this direction, like that. So we followed. He galloped down the road and we drove behind him. He galloped absolutely flat out, his cloak filling out the road. We arrived in a little village and we stopped and out came a man of about 6 foot 6, 6 foot 7, immaculately dressed, and in the very best English invited us both in to his Mess. And he told us then what they were. And this was a regiment of Cossacks that were being kept for propaganda by the Germans, intact with all their horses and all their wives and children. The lot. Everything. I forget which came first. It must have been before lunch that we were asked to select our pony. We went out and looked at a whole lot of these Cossack ponies and selected and they were immediately caught and saddled up by them. And then the Colonel challenged us to a race. We realised you couldn't get by because the cloak was right across the road and this fellow was roaring and screaming his head off! So I decided to do the same thing, winked at The Baron, and the two of us started shouting and roaring and the second we started the ponies started to gallop properly. We won the race. But that was fun. Couldn't have been better.
Back we go into the Mess. We sat down there and there was a table laid out. The Colonel got up and he said: "Gentlemen, I want you to understand that in this Mess we never discuss politics. We speak only of the Horse. Nothing else. So please, sit down and with me, drink first of all to the Horse". [The Earl lets forth the sound of a bottle being uncorked]. Bonk! Vodka. Sitting down, we noticed there were three little bits of stuff, a bit of bread with some meat on top of it, three lots. We sat down. "Now, the Horse's nostrils". Bonk! Vodka. Then, surreptitiously, we were picked up and given a bit of this stuff to eat which we did. I can't remember much more after that. We had the Horse's eyes, the Horse's teeth, the Horse's head until all the vodka went. And then we got on to kirsch, cherry, and all that went. Then we had something else, Curaco or something extraordinary, until there was literally no more left. Well we were ossified, you see. In the meantime, the regimental band had been playing soft music. What we hadn't noticed was that the whole regiment was lined up in front of the Mess. And the Colonel said: "Now we will show you the test of bravery. This is what the Cossacks must learn". And so we looked on at this business.
Here was a man with a busby (?) with a soldier at each side. To a certain beat, there would be a shoosh of the sabre from this side and a little bit if the busby would go. Then dump-dum and from the other side, shoosh, a little bit of the busby would go. And during this time he is taking his clothes off and bang again bang again until there was no hair left on top of the busby and your man was stark naked. Then, I forget quite how it happened, but he got with the music, his test of bravery was over and he was allowed to put his clothes on. When he was fully dressed, the Colonel suddenly put up his sword like this and dropped it. And with that, everyone roared and screamed and rushed through behind the office and there they seized the first woman they could get and raped her. Magnificent. Absolutely you've never seen anything like it. We were missing for about two days. We were so drunk we couldn't get home. But that was The Baron and myself. And that was a true story. I've probably got it a little bit incorrect but basically its right. That's what happened. I can't quite remember how your man got dressed again but he did. I know what happened after that. No question about it. Luckily it didn't affect us. We wouldn't have got through the rush that came through, we'd have been bowled over.
This was between Buckhagen and Denmark, a little village overlooking the Baltic. They wanted terribly, these people, to get back to Canada. That was their big thing. We said we'd do what we could and that kind of thing. But no good because the order came that all displaced personnel were to be sent back to Russia. And so these poor devils went back to Russia. Men on one side, women on the other. Male children in one carriage, female children in another. And we knew. There was nothing we could do because it was there was absolutely nothing we could have done about it. We knew that the second they got back to Russia, they would all be shot. As deserters. Or as Tsarists. Awful.
Luckily there were to have good cause to celebrate. At 8 o’clock on the evening of May 4th, news arrived of the unconditional surrender to Montgomery of all enemy forces in North West Germany, Denmark and Holland. For the Hussars, the war was over. ‘We celebrated’, says Courage’s History, ‘but with restraint, for the news had come as an anti-climax. We could not afford to relax much and it was raining hard’. The Hussars were allotted the area of north Schleswig-Holstein between the Danish border and the Kiel Canal. (At about this point, Lt Col R.C. Fripps arrived with some Herefords, having overrun part of the Cavalry School at Potsdam and kindly handed over ‘part of the prize’ which must have been horses?)
The official end of the war was announced on May 7th and the next day, the King and Churchill gave their VE Day speeches. But for the Hussars, victory remained somewhat muted. The landscape was flat and they were still advancing north. ‘We did not feel like part of a victorious army which had crushed the enemy in battle and which was now to occupy his country’, says Courage. ‘The last ten days had bought exciting events – the surrender of Italy and the death of Mussolini, the end of resistance in Berlin and the end of Hitler and Goebbels, the surrender to 21 Army Group, and finally the end of the war in Europe. Little wonder that we felt tired and disinterested and relaxed – and all the time we collected prisoner; the dejected remnants of the Wermacht covered the green grass of our ‘cages’ with field grey for a time and then passed on wearily to confinement in more permanent camps. It was an amazing sight’. The general cry was ‘Alle ist Kaput’; but already some of the more adventurous spirits among the younger prisoners were starting to sow seeds of trouble among the Allies. It was not uncommon to be asked ‘When will the war against Russia start, with the Wermacht allied to the British Army?’
On 11 May the Hussars moved north from Schlamersdorf to Bad Segeberg, north-west through Neumunster to Rendsburg on the Kiel Canal, over the famous high-bridge there, and on through the ancient town of Schleswig to their temporary billets, A and B Squadron to Satrup. It was sunny and peaceful.
On 14th May, the regiment made its last move in Germany when sent to occupy a beautiful area on the Baltic around the small fishing village of Kappeln. Lord Rathdonnell and B Squadron were based in a large house in Buckhagen, with a private bay, as well as a baliff’s house and several large barns which came in useful. Over the coming months, they were to control and supervise this area, showing the flag and seeking out any ammo and camera dumps. By chance the Rittmeister, who lived at Buckhagen, owned an entire cavalry regiment, including six Tsarinas, three prominent show-jumpers (Turban, Memphis and Zirkel) and a number of other thoroughbreds. Courage, Rathdonnell and Captain Prestwich subsequently rode the show-jumpers and competed ‘with success at several gymkhanas round the country’. The show-jumpers all competed in Dublin after the war. The Rittmeister (cavalry captain) was particularly excellent and gave important instructions in how to ride. But, Lord Harrington said the only two men allowed to handle these horses were the Colonel and the Baron. The Rittmeister had a number of other horses, mostly four or five year olds, and ‘two spectacular teams, one grey, one brown, of five horses each, which the Commanding officer used to drive about the countryside” . They brought the whole lot to their base at Buckhagen where Bill, in charge of organising hay and oats, recalls the town burgomaster bowing and scraping the ground. They were stabled with Rathdonnell at Buckhagen. A dozen more thoroughbred two and three-year olds were later added to the catch.
Lord Harrington: 'The other good story was The Baron and myself, once again, war over, set sail for Brussels. There was an officer's club in Brussells and we got in there. The drink was very good but we didn't think too much of Brussels really at this particular stage. We didn't know anybody. We didn't know where to go or what to do. So we were thinking about how we might get some sort of a party going so that we could get to know these people in Brussels. Well, I said, "Baron, I tell you one thing, there's a fellow who was at school with me called Knatchbull and I see the British Ambassador's Kntachbull-Hugeson what do you think?" He said: "Well, we can go and meet him and see what he can do!" So the two of us went off, not walking in a straight line I may tell you, until we got to the British Embassy. When we saw the length of the stairs and the red carpet and the people in uniform standing at the bottom, it sobered us up to no small means! What the hell have we let ourselves in for? But anyway we went upstairs and met the Ambassador and he was absolutely charming. He said exactly the right thing, "I'm delighted I'll be able to help so what I will do is lay on a cocktail party so you can get to know everybody there is". And so the whole regiment descended and we had a major party there. And go to know everybody. As a result of that, there was dancing every night of the week, it was wonderful. Oh yes. Good fun was had by all.' [iii]
Lord Harrington: 'But that was The Baron for you. He was a very good I should think he would have but the other thing too, which was very sad he was impossible before ten o'clock in the morning. Absolutely impossible. He said to me: "Bill, never speak to me before ten. I never feel right". So we never did. But after ten, he'd say "I'm so sorry" and apologise profusely. And of course, what he had was a tumor on the brain. That was it but we didn't know that".
The Baron Rathdonnell returned to Ireland after the war to run the family estate at Lisnavagh which his grandson, my brother William, runs today. He died of a brain tumor in 1959 at the age of 44. I will place a more detailed account of his life in due course.
Bill Harrington was a tall man and I liked him immensely. He said my grandfather was perhaps his greatest friend and we drank Champs de Sables and he told me lots of things other than war stories like how Sherpa Tensing was taught to ski by a Limerick man. There were many other tales he told me that I have yet to put to paper. Sadly I did not record how they captured the Dutch Royal Yacht near Hoog Keppel [sic, Kappeln?] and sailed it up the River Schlei into Schleswig-Holstein. And then there was something about Wilsen Bill [sic] where he recalled the road being impassable owing to an enemy gun straight ahead. They thus went off-road, with a large number of war-hungry Herefords on the back of their tanks, taking a path through a field on the left flank of the road. When the German bazookas were spotted, Bill put up a smokescreen through which the Herefords dashed and slew the enemy.
One unrecorded conversation was particularly remarkable. We were standing by the fireplace in his drawing room next day when he started to stroke his chin uncomfortably. He says something like "I don't know if it's relevant really." He again recalled the dark moment when his men freed some French officers from a woodland POW camp near Luneberg Heath only to witness the liberated men string up the Burgomaster from a lamppost. But the real stunner came when he spoke of Admiral Karl Dönitz, the man who succeeded Hitler as President of the Third Reich. He said something like: "I arrested him, you know. He didn't want to surrender to me, wanted a more senior officer. But I prodded my gun in his face and I said "you bloody well come with me". He wasn't the worst of them though". This was all extremely mind-altering information to me because it sounded like my grandfather's second-in-command had just told me he personally arrested Adolf Hitler's successor. And when I went to check the books, I saw that Dönitz was indeed arrested by British troops on May 23rd at the German naval academy at Flensberg on the Southern Danish border. However, on further investigation, it turns out that perhaps I was confused. Bill was certainly in Flensburg when Doenitz was arrested. But the Grand Admiral was arrested, in private, when he stepped on board the house-boat Patria to negotiate with Eisenhower's deputy. Nobody from Bill's regiment was present that day. I've checked just about everything. But no matter. Old soldiers are like old fishermen and sometimes the size of the catch increases dramatically. And Bill was nothing if not dramatic. Further details of this event may be found here. In July 2005, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary on Hitler's doctors (made by German ZDF channel) which showed a picture of Dönitz, Albert Speer and Karl Brandt being taken away by the British.
Bill wasn't comfortable talking about these last days of warfare. Perhaps there is too much pain attached. For instance, he may have known that, in the last days of the war, as many as 100,000 Germans took poison or shot or hanged themselves to escape from the advancing Red Army. Many were women, shamed into self-destruction as victims of rape, which the Russian soldiers inflicted on an epidemic scale.[iv] Or maybe he just took his Oath of Silence seriously. I would have liked to have gone back and spoken to him again on the subject.
After the war Captain Harrington was sent to Palestine, which he utterly hated. There were some amusing anecdotes from this period. For instance, when they accidentally shot their barber, Dobie, in Hajah (sic). He was eventually advised to return to England or he would face disciplinary charges. He and Michael Gordon-Smith then travelled to Alexandria where, on the Black Market, they purchased two badges ostensibly giving them the rank of Major. They then commandeered a ship laden with South Africans bound for Marseilles on which they played a large amount of poker. Back in England, they made their way to their regimental headquarters to sign themselves out of the army. They found the camp deserted barring a handful of others also seeking to be signed out. The two fictional Majors regarded each other and then signed the whole lot out. "Bill would have done the same", he says, meaning my grandfather. He says that while he does believe in the law, his step-father taught him a healthy disrespect for it.
With thanks to Piers Dennis, Doug Mayman, Cilla Harrington, Ben Jellett, Hugo Jellett, Thady Dunraven, Ana Wyndham-Quin, Alan Lillingstone, Brendan McNally, Elizabeth Perez, Michael Purcell and Karen Shanahan.
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