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Piers St. Aubyn laying a wreath at Arnhem

Lieutenant The Honourable Oliver Piers St. Aubyn

 

Unit : Headquarters, 156th Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 132149

Awards : Military Cross, Mentioned in Despatches

 

Piers St. Aubyn was born on the 12th July 1920, at St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall, one of three sons and two daughters of Francis Cecil St. Aubyn, the 3rd Baron St. Levan, and the Honourable Clementine Gwedonlin Nicolson, the only daughter of the 1st Baron Carnock. He joined the British Army in March 1941, and was posted to the 156th Parachute Battalion on the 30th March 1943. He was Mentioned in Despatches whilst serving with them in Italy. At Arnhem, St. Aubyn was serving as the Battalion's Intelligence Officer, and for his actions here he was awarded the Military Cross. His citation reads:

 

This officer displayed conspicuous gallantry and great powers of leadership at Arnhem during the period 20th-25th September 1944. On 20th September 1944, he assisted in rallying the remnants of the Battalion and leading them in a bayonet charge on an enemy position in a wood which was preventing the remainder of the Brigade making contact with the Division. After clearing this position he led a patrol to clear a neighbouring wood of the enemy and remained with this patrol exposed to enemy fire all the afternoon to protect the rear of the Brigade Group.

 

On rejoining the Division he commanded a composite platoon of the Battalion on the divisional perimeter with great skill and gallantry for the remainder of the battle.

 

This skill was further demonstrated on Saturday 23rd September, when a Tiger tank approached the building in which Lieutenant St. Aubyn's platoon were located and opened fire upon it. A PIAT was brought forward and scored a hit on the tank. It was still mobile but this resistance worried the crew sufficiently for them to withdraw. St Aubyn's men were not content, however, and under cover of smoke from phosphorus bombs, two men ran out of the house and into a building alongside the tank. Several minutes later a hand was seen hanging out of a hole in the roof and a Gammon bomb was dropped on top of the Tiger, prompting a loud explosion. The two men successfully made their way back to the platoon's positions, and the Tiger tank did not move again. Either the blast had killed the crew or left them concussed.

 

Promoted to Temporary Captain in April 1945, Piers St. Aubyn died on the 24th May 2006. The following is his obituary as printed in the Daily Telegraph on the 16th June 2006.

 

Captain Piers St Aubyn, who died on May 24 aged 85, was one of only three officers of 156 Parachute Battalion to emerge unscathed from the battle of Arnhem. A modest aristocrat with a languid, deprecating manner of speech and a reputation for leading from the front, he was one of 34 officers and more than 500 men dropped, as part of 4th Parachute Brigade, near the Dutch town of Arnhem on September 18, 1944. They were charged with reinforcing the party ordered to capture the bridge over the Rhine; but the operation was 60 miles behind enemy lines, and the Germans proved to be in far greater strength than expected.

 

Although he had been appointed battalion intelligence officer, St Aubyn was leading 30 tired and hungry men two days later when they came across the enemy firing down into the brigade headquarters established in a hollow by Brigadier "Shan" Hackett. Being low on ammunition, St Aubyn told the Germans with a mixture of hand signals and choice Anglo-Saxon to put down their arms and "f*** off"; which, to his relief, they did. After clearing a neighbouring wood, he brought the Germans' weapons to Hackett, half of whose men were killed or wounded in the next four hours. Hackett then called together all those who could walk and led them in a wild dash through the astonished Germans to his division's defensive position several hundred yards away. It was "a beautiful little charge and chase" by the men of 156, Hackett commented in his battlefield diary.

 

By now the battalion consisted of little more than two platoons under St Aubyn and Major Geoffrey Powell, who took possession of two empty houses. St Aubyn's building had strong walls, but it was clear that the platoon could not survive there long. When Powell went to ask General Urquhart for permission to withdraw, the shock in the general's face indicated that he had forgotten all about them.

 

After resisting two fierce attacks, in which he lost eight more men, St Aubyn decided not to await Powell's return, and joined the rest of the battalion holed up in three nearby houses. By now the bridge had been lost, and his men had only boiled sweets to eat. On visiting brigade HQ to obtain rations he found no food, but happily fell into conversation with his cousin, Lord Buckhurst, until Hackett told them sharply to get into a trench before they were killed.

 

Back in his house, St Aubyn dispatched a foraging party, then settled down to read Barchester Towers, reasoning that if he seemed relaxed it would have the same effect on his men. When a private started to run from window to window, shouting "I'll get you, you bastard" at a German sniper, St Aubyn told him to be quiet, and returned to the reassuring story of Victorian clerical squabbles.

 

At dawn enemy infantry were beaten off with grenades, and two paras ran across the street to drop bombs from the first floor of a building opposite on to a self-propelled gun. St Aubyn withdrew from his house only just before a tank reduced it to rubble. The following day, as his men were digging trenches, the enemy tried a new tack, using a loudspeaker to play the Teddy Bears' Picnic and to relay a female voice telling them to surrender if they wanted to see their wives and sweethearts again. Some Typhoons swept low to make a rocket attack, but they did not stop the enemy drawing closer. As a private was about to fire his bren through a hedge, St Aubyn placed a hand over the barrel, coolly saying that they did not want to give away their position.

 

When the withdrawal was ordered on the eighth day the platoon retreated into some remaining houses, where the man shaved and wrapped their boots in carpet and curtain material to deaden the noise. At nightfall they proceeded through the woods, each man holding the unfastened smock of the soldier in front, as if they were children playing a game. When they reached the riverbank a Canadian engineer called from a boat: "Room for one more". As St Aubyn held back to offer another man the place, a fresh machine-gun burst decided the issue, and the passengers pulled him aboard. Around about 30 members of 156 Battalion escaped with the quartermaster, Lieutenant Bush, as well as St Aubyn and Powell, both of whom were awarded the Military Cross.

 

Oliver Piers St Aubyn was born on July 12 1920 into a military family of St Michael's Mount, Cornwall, the island which had been the last Royalist fortress in England to hold out for Charles I in the Civil War. His father, Major-General the 3rd Lord St Levan, had been twice wounded in the First World War; Piers's elder brother, John, was awarded a DSC serving with the Royal Navy in the Second war, in which the youngest brother, Giles, the historian, served as an ordinary seaman.

 

Young Piers went to Wellington and St James's, Maryland, and had begun to study architecture when he joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps on the outbreak of war. He spent a week at El Alamein in 1942, then was posted to the Turkish-Syrian border, where he transferred to the new Parachute Regiment. After making trainee drops on the Sea of Galilee, St Aubyn arrived on the Italian coast at Taranto by cruiser because there were no aircraft available, and immediately commandeered a bus. He earned a mention in dispatches for the way he fought through olive trees and farm buildings. Later he demonstrated his marksmanship on night patrol by bringing down a German officer with two pistol shots before leading a charge on a machine-gun post. Before moving on the platoon paused to eat grapes they discovered in an upturned German helmet.

 

Following Arnhem, the paras returned to their base at Melton Mowbray. At a civic dinner held in their honour, St Aubyn was told that there was "a young lady" at the door. Thinking that it was his girlfriend, he strolled out with a glass of wine and a cigar; he was shocked to find his batman's widow, who had come up from London to ask how her husband had been killed.

 

Following a year during which he served in Palestine, St Aubyn abandoned his architectural ambitions and became a gilt-edged broker in the City with Grieveson Grant and then Greenwells. Epitomising "the gentleman of the market", complete with black top hat, he worked on the floor of the exchange, gaining a reputation for honesty and courtesy, and cutting a striking figure elsewhere as he smoked Senior Service from a cigarette-holder.

 

After marrying Mary Southwell, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, he settled in East Sussex, where he hunted enthusiastically with the Southdown. He became High Sheriff, and also treasurer of the trust set up to preserve Virginia Woolf's house, Charleston.

 

During holidays St Aubyn frequently returned to St Michael's Mount. Watched by his daughter Fiona and son Nicholas, the future MP, he once rescued four people whose cabin cruiser had been upturned; despite a slipped disc, he dived under the boat in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a fifth. Afterwards he lit cigarettes and handed them round to those he had saved.

 

After being widowed in 1987, St Aubyn moved back to Cornwall, where he had a house within sight of St Michael's Mount. At 80 he took up hunting after a 20-year break, and, to show solidarity with the hunting lobby, joined one of the Countryside Alliance rallies in a Daimler.

 

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