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Captain Peter Hanbury
Late Welsh Guards
by Paul de Zulueta
formerly Welsh Guards


Peter Hanbury, who has died aged 99, spent almost his entire service with the Welsh Guards as a prisoner of war. In answer to the question: ‘What did you do in the War, Grandpa?’, he wrote a diary entitled A Not Very Military Experience. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In the face of great adversity, casual brutality, often near starvation, and the ever-present anxiety of the unknown, Peter conducted himself with considerable courage. His presence and fortitude were of great comfort to his fellow POWs, many of whom remained lifelong friends.

Peter was educated at Eton where he was elected to Pop and excelled as a ‘Wet Bob’, and Trinity College, Cambridge. His degree was cut short by the advent of war. As he was only 21, Peter was offered a commission in an anti¬aircraft unit. Eton, Cambridge and the Welsh Guards seemed a more natural and agreeable progression, and he duly submitted an application form for the Regiment, stating as his Welsh connection, ‘Directly descended from Robert de Hanbury,1330, Chamberlain of North Wales’. It did the trick with Colonel ‘Chicot’ Leatham, the peppery but much-loved Regimental Lieutenant Colonel who had just turned down the novelist Evelyn Waugh.

Peter’s diary, A Not Very Military Experience, reveals how poorly prepared and unprofessional the British Army was at the outbreak of war: just two three week spells of training; no ammunition for the .38 pistol which he fired just once; no Mills bombs to practise with; desultory training on the Bren gun; and yet an inordinate amount of drill, extra picquets for not possessing a tiepin, and long snoozes on King’s Guard with a large glass of Kummel to hand. If Peter’s life had seemed effortless to date, Guderian’s panzers were soon to change that irrevocably.

Sunday 25th May 1940, 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards defending St Omer crossroads outside Boulogne, a few shots in the air, rifles against well-coordinated panzer attacks, lying low in a cellar with his platoon, and then the mixture of terror and relief as he heard the cry, ‘Aus, Aus, Hände hoch, Tommy!’ The Germans had taken complete possession of Boulogne and so began Peter’s five years in captivity.

Post war generations fed on TV series like Colditz and the film The Great Escape, glamourising the outwitting of hapless goons, have clouded our judgement on life as a prisoner of war. Peter’s war diary paints a bleak picture:

‘Starvation diet, we all became so weak it was difficult to get down to the morning parade, pulse rate 52, Ion Garnett Orme’s, 32; nearly died of dysentery, went to the loo 20 times in 24 hours, (It was ten years before he fully recovered from dysentery); ice from spilt water remained frozen on the floor, issued with second blanket; brother officer sketching at the window shot and killed’.

Peter was to move camp a further four times. His gift for friendship, the shared experience and camaraderie of fourteen other brother officers from the Brigade, which included amongst others Desmond Llewellyn, (Royal Welsh Fusiliers) later to become ‘ Q’ in the Bond movies, and his best chum from the Welsh Guards, Neil Perrins, saw Peter’s health and resilience recover.

The arrival of Australian and New Zealand officers brought a welcome change of culture, and the formidable figure of ‘Smut Smith’ who taught Peter accountancy. As Peter said, ‘ Smut’s lessons were invaluable all my life, I was now able to read a balance sheet and pick out the false ways people would use to boost profits’.

The Australian humour also added gaiety to everyday life. Ian Weston-Smith, a Scots Guards officer went to introduce himself to an Australian officer:

‘G’day, take a stool, Smith’

‘It’s Weston-Smith’,

‘Well, take two stools, cobber’.

An Australian to another British officer,

‘Have you got another of those monocles you’re wearing’,

‘Yes, I have one in my room’

‘That’s good, you can stuff it up your arse and you’ll be the camp telescope’.

There remained, however, grim reminders of their reality. A train full of Russian POWs arrived at the camp station. They had not been let out for six weeks. A third had died on the train; the rest were stinking. The Germans put them in the bath house into which Peter and some fellow officers managed to pass some soap. The Russians ate the soap and two died on the bathroom floor. In another incident, Mickey Stourton (Regiment, not known) was murdered with his hands up as he took an unauthorised break.

Saturday, 5th May 1945. Liberation by 12 Corps of Patton’s Third Army. Three weeks later, Peter had dinner at the 400 Club in Mayfair greeted by Rene who asked him if he’d like his usual table and the half bottle of gin they had kept since his last visit in April 1940.

Peter really made the most of the rest of his life. Two short lived marriages were, perhaps, the only signs of his physical and mental suffering from five years in captivity. His second marriage to Molly Burnaby Atkins, whose brother Freddy was a POW with Peter, was blessed, however, with two children, a son Nigel, who also served in the Welsh Guards, subsequently building a highly successful career in Lloyd’s of London, and a daughter, Rhona. He joined the family firm, Wood, Hanbury, Jackson where he became chairman in succession to his cousin, Christopher Hanbury. The business flourished under his leadership and wise counsel.

His other great passion was his farm in West Sussex, idyllic, tranquil, and helpful in his regeneration. He oversaw significant changes in farming techniques which increased yields from one to five tonnes an acre. Together, with his third wife, Pam, to whom he was married for 50 years until his death, they built a magnificent home and refuge for their children and wider family.

Peter may not have felt that, in the idiom of the age, he had had ‘A Good War’, but his compassion, humanity, understanding and kindness to others, born from his experience as a POW, not only helped his fellow POWs to survive but enabled him to lead a life well lived, and a life well loved.

© Crown Copyright