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PETER CAZALET
A WELSH GUARDSMAN AT WAR

by Peter Martin



Eton College OTC, 1922. Peter Cazalet is 7th from the left in the back row

Peter Victor Ferdinand Cazalet, the third son of William and Molly Cazalet, was born at Fairlawne, near Tonbridge, on 15th January 1907 and was therefore too young to serve in the First World War as his elder brothers Edward and Victor had done (see articles in the Summer 2014 and Autumn 2014 editions of The Guards Magazine). Educated at Eton and Christ Church, Peter showed great talent for ball games and, surprisingly for a boy who had shied at ponies as a child, then took to riding and became a proficient horseman over fences and hurdles. By the early 1930s, he had begun to build a string of jumpers at Fairlawne with the legendary Harry Whiteman holding the trainer’s licence.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Peter was commissioned in the Royal Artillery, transferring early on into the Welsh Guards with, among others, his friend and fellow amateur jockey Anthony Mildmay. In the spring of 1941, the government decided on a large increase in the number of armoured formations in the United Kingdom. During the previous six months, the bulk of trained armoured troops had been sent to Egypt and there was a noticeable shortage of this arm at home. Partly as a result, it was decided to form, from the several independent Guards Brigades, a Guards Armoured Division.

Large numbers of officers and men flocked to courses at the Royal Armoured Corps schools at Bovington and Lulworth, with conversion courses for all ranks so as to ensure proficiency in the three basic skills of driving and maintenance, wireless, and gunnery. By autumn 1941, the new division formed on Salisbury Plain with, as its divisional commander, Major General Sir Oliver Leese who, by chance, as Captain Sir Oliver Leese, DSO, had been the adjutant of Eton OTC (later CCF) from 1921 to 1925 when Peter served in it as a schoolboy. In such ways is the military world seen to be often so very small!

There then followed several years of training at one camp or another. In December 1942, Peter married Leonora, the adopted daughter of the writer P G Wodehouse and, during these training years, Leonora and their children Sheran and Edward followed the drum from camp to camp and training ground to training ground. Tragically, and during the last weeks of intensive training for D-Day, Leonora died unexpectedly following a routine operation; Peter was allowed a couple of days leave, with only time to break the news to his children and attend the funeral.

The Guards Armoured Division sailed for France from London’s Victoria Docks on 19th June 1944 but was held up for five days in the Thames estuary by foul weather, eventually arriving off the Normandy coast on 25th June for off-loading at Arromanches.

Settled in France by the end of June 1944, the Welsh Guards squadrons began to move forward on 2nd August in their role as the Divisional Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. By the end of August, and after much heavy fighting, the Division had lost 249 killed, 975 wounded, and 176 missing, the heaviest losses they were to sustain throughout the whole campaign. 1st Battalion Welsh Guards had lost 4 officers and 91 other ranks killed. The reinforcement situation was by then acute, hardly surprisingly, and there were several inter-regimental transfers and re-groupings.

On 1st September 1944, the Welsh Guards had a good day, with the 2nd Battalion able to carry out its task of armoured reconnaissance in front of the Division with the open ground of the Somme valley ideal for the purpose; and with sufficient enemy about to provide good targets. At dawn they began their advance on a two-squadron front as they swept across country using roads where they could, shooting up retreating Germans and collecting prisoners. By the afternoon they had reached high ground north of Arras having had, as described in the regimental history ‘an exhilarating and exciting day’. More like a good day’s hunting than war!

There then came the historic and rapid march to Brussels and, by the evening of 3rd September, the Welsh Guards were at Quatre Bras, a name well remembered from the Battle of Waterloo, just outside the city, where they were apparently housed in the golf-club. They had covered 97 miles in just 14 hours. There then followed the autumn, winter, and early spring campaigns of 1944/1945, with the slow German retreat across Holland and back into the German heartland east of the Rhine (very fully described in The Guards Armoured Division by Major General GL Verney DSO, MVO, published in 1955.)

On 18th and 19th April 1945, the Division found itself under command of XII Corps whose task it was to take the country between Hamburg and Bremen. An attack on the town of Visselhovede was launched on 19th April and was initially thought to have been completely successful. The leading group moved on, leaving the HQ of the Scots/Welsh group installed in a house on the main road, under the inspired leadership of Lt Col Windsor Lewis.

Peter Cazalet was sitting beside his tank, reading, when he was warned by a vigilant Guardsman, Raymond Cumbley, that he had seen German soldiers moving up towards the house along a ditch. German marines suddenly attacked from all sides, and the tanks and other vehicles parked beside the house were quickly destroyed. Gdsm Cumbley engaged the enemy first with a Bren gun and then with his tank’s BSA machine gun until he ran out of belts of ammunition. The tank was then hit by a bazooka round but Gdsm Cumbley managed, not without some hazard, to get into the driver’s seat, start its undamaged engine and drive off some 300 yards. The relief came when one of Peter’s troop commanders, Anthony Mildmay, arrived in his tank and helped put an end to this surprising and audacious counter-attack. Other tanks followed Mildmay’s and the marines were eventually driven off. In that little engagement, some 300 prisoners were taken. Two days later at a laager on a German farm, Gdsm Cumbley’s squadron commander, Peter Cazalet, called him in and told him he would be recommended for an award, but despite a letter of recommendation to Lt Col Windsor Lewis, he was to be disappointed; there was no Military Medal. However, the fire fight and his part in it would not go entirely unrecorded. An account was later published in the Western Daily News under the headline Guardsman Saves Headquarters.

Finally, news of the German surrender came on 3rd May 1945. On 9th June 1945, Rotenburg airfield was the scene of much preparation for the Division’s last parade with the battle-stained tanks freshly painted warship grey with paint found in the Cuxhaven shipyards. At the close of this parade, the Guards Armoured Division was formally disbanded.

What this brief account demonstrates is something of the Servitudes et Grandeurs Militaires described by the French writer Alfred de Vigny in his novel of the Bonapartist wars in which he describes the frustrations, delays, boredom, and occasionally glorious episodes of the military life (Honour is manly decency. The shame of being found wanting in it means everything to us. Alfred Comte de Vigny, Servitudes et Grandeurs Militaires. 1835). Not everyone is mentioned in despatches, decorated, or even noticed. Many fulfill their duties in an efficient and disciplined way, looking after their men, behaving honourably, their only reward being that they are mercifully spared death and injury.

Peter Cazalet’s war was over. And he was soon back to training racehorses at Fairlawne, often with Anthony Mildmay as his chosen jockey (for an account of the life of Lord Mildmay of Flete, 1909-1950, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by Peter Cazalet). Three times leading trainer, Cazalet sent out what was in his time a record total of 82 winners in 1964-65. Just as he had been a ‘good officer’ to his Welsh Guardsmen, he was a good ‘boss’ as a trainer of the highest standards, with horses scrupulously turned out; a high proportion of his lads stayed with him throughout their working lives despite his being, and being known as, a strict disciplinarian. Peter Cazalet died in 1973, and for a fuller account of his life, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by the late Lord Oaksey.


Anthony Mildmay on Cromwell (on which he finished 3rd and 4th in the 1948 and 1949 Grand Nationals) riding with Peter Cazalet on the gallops at Fairlawne in 1949

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