Review: Wales’ Unknown Hero: Soldier, Spy, Monk by Bernard Lewis
Like the proverbial cat Henry Coombe-Tennant had nine lives and maybe more. A gifted musician and chess-player, career soldier and shadowy spy, his life resembled not one but a veritable series of adventure movies, starring himself as the incredibly handsome hero. Many people commented on his dashing appearance even though he was unassuming to the point of diffidence: after the war he was averse to being included in fellow soldiers’ books about his experiences.
One of the most extraordinary passages in an incident-choked life was a meticulously organised escape from a POW camp which involved tripping the perimeter lights while German-speaking prisoners barked out orders to further confuse the guards.
Just getting out over the wire would have been achievement enough but this was just the beginning of a heroic march to freedom that would take Henry and his two companions over 1,000 miles through enemy held territory, constantly changing clothes or identity along the way.
In this they were helped by the Comet Line, a sort of underground railway that helped smuggle them from the heartland of the German Reich through the Netherlands, Belgium and into France, before they made it over mountains into Spain and finally to Gibraltar where they found a ship to take them home.
Neath historian Bernard Lewis’ meticulously researched and clear-eyed account of Coombe-Tennant’s astonishing life details this action-packed trek which for many men would have been sufficient a tale to sustain them well into their anecdotage.
But soon Henry was joining special forces to be trained as part of the so-called Jedburgh units – three-man teams who would be parachuted behind enemy lines – to work with resistance groups ahead of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Northern France.
So, in August 1944 Coombe-Tennant was dropped into the heavily-forested French Ardennes near the Belgian border to work with Colonel Jacques Pâris de Bollardière who was in charge of a poorly armed and weather-bedraggled bunch of enthusiastic amateurs who wanted to put up a resistance.
Henry and his companions were supplied with arms and radio equipment along with enough amphetamines to do without sleep for 72 hours. But more tellingly, perhaps was the fact that each of the so-called Jeds was equipped with a small ampoule of potassium cyanide lest they be captured, suggesting that these guerrillas weren’t expected to come back from their perilous one-way missions.
But Henry did survive, taking part in various skirmishes despite being hugely frustrated that arms drops they requested from London failed to materialise by way of material support.
That would have been war enough for many a man, but Coombe-Tennant was soon back in the fray, this time as an Acting Major in the Welsh Guards as they advanced towards Germany as part of Operation Market Garden.
Unbeknown to him he was being recommended at one and the same time for the Croix de Guerre with Palm for his work as a “Jed,” which Allied Supreme Commander General Eisenhower duly approved.
As the end of the war came in sight a new body was set up, the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force, with the aim of undertaking high-risk missions to protect Allied prisoners who might now be in danger from their guards, rogue elements of the German army and even civilians.
SAARF pondered ways of breaking into even high security prisons such as the infamous Colditz but by the time they were deployed peace had broken out, so their work was mainly involved with repatriation.
The Welsh Guards were soon involved in a very different theatre of war, as the 1st Battalion and therefore Coombe-Tennant were sent to Palestine which was under a British Mandate following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
A declaration in 1917 by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that the British Government supported the establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs.
The Welsh Guards were consequently tasked with providing a military presence in disparate locations such as Tiberias and Metula near the Syrian border. Jewish insurgency led to heightened security issues, with roadblocks and searches for arms in Jewish settlements which in turn led to deaths and thousands of arrests.
As things quietened down in Palestine Henry took part in a military mission to Saudi Arabia where he donned Arab dress and occasionally moved about by camel. The heat was stifling and the alien environment not conducive to maintaining morale but Henry found relief by climbing the mountains of Jebel Rum in the company of a Lance-Coporal with the splendidly appropriate nickname ‘Havabash Butler.’
Blessed with almighty stamina and energy Henry followed these duties with work as a spy in post-war Germany and later on a period as an intelligence officer in Iraq, posted to Baghdad in 1959 in order to help the Government at home understand how stable, or, indeed unstable things were in a country which had long gained its independence but was still of great interest to Britain, not least for its oil supplies.
Here, despite Bernard Lewis’ plentiful and diligent skills as a historian something happened to Henry which remains a mystery. It’s not only a tantalising gap in his biography but it was sufficiently traumatic to have caused him both physical and psychological suffering. In his own words his ‘ego, which had for so long been the self-sufficient centre of my inner life, disintegrated.’
This led him eventually to seek solace in prayer and eventually to becoming a monk, choosing to join the Benedictine order at Downside Abbey, near Bath where he spent three quiet, contemplative decades.
Henry Coombe-Tennant’s psychic and extraordinarily well-connected mother had, even before his birth, harboured a secret plan to ensure her son would become a ‘New Messiah’ who would bring ‘peace and reconciliation to a troubled world.’
Her beloved son Henry might not have fully realized this maternal ambition for him but this biography amply proves that he lived a life quite unlike any other and that he was man of incredible courage shot through with high tensile inner steel.
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