Regimental honour: a reminiscence

(Canscene) — In 1941, the beleaguered British people, staggering under merciless bombings, the thought that so many families had been torn apart by war and the discomforts of blackouts and rationing, were in no mood to receive ugly news of how empowered people were abusing privileges.

Month in and month out crews of British tankers and their naval escorts were risking their lives trying to avoid the torpedoes of U-boat wolf packs and Stuka bombers. Police and the newspapers were doing their best to sniff out illegal uses of precious petrol especially by persons of privilege. Sometimes the privileged ranked so highly that their abuse was hushed up.

Arrogance personified
All the better therefore for Lieutenant General Sir Henry Royds Pownall, at one time commander-in-chief of the British forces in Northern Ireland. His stupidly arrogant act of folly on a February day in 1941 was never made public.

Army Headquarters was at Lisburn, a town just outside Belfast. Three batteries of the 63rd anti-tank regiment were stationed there while the fourth –250 Battery — had been moved to Portrush, a seaside resort some 60 miles away on the north coast of Ulster.

One day, General Pownall was being chauffeured through the streets of Lisburn; his car was flying the flag marking his rank. Military regulations had it that at all times, soldiers close to high ranking officers’ cars must salute the flag. This, two green young soldiers from the 63rd Anti-tank failed to do for which they were immediately charged. But this was not enough for Pownall.

The general ordered every anti-tank man, including officers, to be marched by his car at 8: am on a Saturday morning. In spite of the 63rd’s Colonel John Thompson’s pleas, the detached 250 Battery was also ordered to make the trek to Lisburn. I recall the bitterness with which Major James Priestley gathered us together and made it clear that both he and Thompson had protested on the grounds that large quantities of petrol would be needed to transport more than 100 men to Lisburn and back; but the general had been relentless.

Hushed-up but by no means forgotten
Priestley asked for our strict confidence stating that leaking such information would dishonour the Army and, in the hands of the media, help create unrest on the home front.

So, off to Lisburn we drove through a chilly February morning to be marched by the general’s car, some of us even spitting surreptitiously to show tour contempt.

Since even cooks and other non-combatants had to come on the journey, we’d enjoyed no more than a cup of tea brewed by the few men left behind to guard the billets but regimental funds provided for a full restaurant breakfast for all who’d travelled from Portrush to Lisburn.

Now, the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) was a Territorial ( militia) regiment officered by men with extraordinary connections, some even reaching to Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself.

Was it surprising, then, that General Pownall was posted to Singapore shortly after the Lisburn incident?

3 Responses to “Regimental honour: a reminiscence”

  1. Bill Says:

    Ben, I’m happy to see Pownall’s folly placed on record. The internet has a long memory, so this excellent example of egotistical self-indulgence will not be lost to history.

  2. Ben Says:

    Bill, that’s the value of old age: memories like this come jumping into mind unbidden and I’m sorry that I didn’t do something abou this immediately the war ended and I was a free man. The Official Secets Act was nver invoked and I cold have got witnessed but I guess I was just too busy getting adjusted to civilian life again.

  3. Peter Says:

    In trying to research my Fathers (F E Broughton) wartime experiences I came across this account. I clearly remember him telling me that he was with 63rd anti tank and that he spent part of the war in N Ireland. He spoke of driver training with gun limbers up and down the sea wall steps and mentioned also that he did some chaufffeur work for a high ranking officer though perhaps was not at the wheel in this case. The event itself is quite shocking and |I wonder if the miscreant survived Singapore. I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who can add to my research either generally (the 63rd) or my father himself