Captain Huw Pyrs Wheldon
Unit : "C" Company, 1st Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles
Service No. : 172198
Awards : Knight of the Order of the British Empire, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, Military Cross.
Huw Wheldon was born in Prestatyn, Wales, on the 7th May 1916, the son of Sir Wyss Wheldon; a prominent educationalist who fought in the Great War and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. When War was declared in 1939, Huw enlisted in The Buffs but was commissioned into the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1940 and later joined the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles.
He recounted something of his experiences in Normandy to Marshall Pugh in an article entitled "No Trouble Brewing", published in the Daily Mail on the 3rd April 1958. It reads:
"In one of 250 gliders escorted by a cloud of fighters we were coming in on France. But nothing, absolutely nothing, about D-Day was turning out as I'd expected. There was no fierce fighter opposition, no signs of flak, no wrecked gliders in the fields below.
In our glider some of the "Red Devils" about the penetrate the Atlantic Wall were sucking jujubes. Or they looked like jujubes... Looking again I saw that they had taken the barley sugars from the special airborne rations which were supposed to last for three days. "Put them away," I said sharply, before they devoured the compound cakes or porridge. "Want to live on grass?" "But, Sor," said one Irish rifleman, "they're very good them sweets."
We weren't gliding in the accepted sense of the word. As always, it was as if we were in a very old railway carriage being yanked across the sky. As always... for weeks and months we had rehearsed for this, landing on fields and roads and hills. Once we'd even turned over in the air, and, sitting upside-down, strapped into his seat, the platoon sergeant, famed for his ferocity, had recited the Lords Prayer seven times without pause or punctuation.
Now this, this very strange business was it. From the moment we crossed the French coastline sweat began to run down the back of the glider pilot's neck. There were two little runs of it, like bacon fat. He was working overtime. "We're casting off," he said, and I turned round to strap myself into my seat. At first I couldn't believe it, but Mullins, the company runner, was asleep. Mullins was a magnificent character, later to become a sergeant. He had been very good company all the way, and had now apparently decided to have a quiet nap just before the towing plane discarded us. "Come on, Mullins." I said, "We're invading Europe." Groaning, he scratched at his eyes and, looking bored, he began to buckle up.
Released by the tow-plane the glider came down with all the grace of an empty can. We made a perfectly smooth landing in a soft field on a glorious summer's night. Other gliders, quite undamaged, did the same. France. But it was pretty difficult to believe it.
We had been warned and trained, trained and warned, that the dangerous time for us was the moment immediately after landing, when we would be disorganised and defenceless, relaxing in the relief of being down. Like everybody else I had to leap out of this cardboard aeroplane, for I became part of an organised unit round the Bren gun. Well, I leaped out and the grass smelled fine and sweet. All around there was action and machine-guns were hiccupping, but nobody seemed to be firing at us.
After two hours in the glider I wanted to relieve myself first; certain that the others would gather round the machine-gun. When I looked round to make sure that they were in what we were pleased to call all-round defences, I saw that all of them - all of them - were following my example. Despite the rifles and the ammunition, despite the camouflaged smocks and parachute helmets, despite the blackened faces, they looked like small boys on a Sunday school treat. I think the absurdity of it dawned on all of us at once, and we were down behind the Bren gun as if our lives depended on it.
Our next job was to leave this area, which was not all that healthy, and rendezvous with the rest of "C" Company, 1st Bn. Royal Ulster Rifles, in a wood. Thereafter "C" Company as a whole would go to the battalion start line for the attack.
When we reached this little wood one of the riflemen from another glider was waiting for us at the edge. As we crouched to talk I noticed that he was feeling like the rest of us. He had this dreamy, slightly mystified, let's-try-to-take-it-seriously look. "Captain Wheldon, sor," he whispered to me "it's a miracle. Not a casualty. Not a single Anglo-Saxon man. Every Anglo-Saxon man's arrived unharmed. The whole Anglo-Saxon company's here. It's an Anglo-Saxon miracle."
While we were cowering there Company Sergeant-Major McCutcheon came out from the wood. He was the bravest man I ever knew, sometimes I think the best man I ever knew. "Sir, come into H.Q.," he said, "Let's get on." I said "We don't have to go into Company H.Q. Got to get on." "Sir," he said, and there was determination in his voice "I would like you to come into Company H.Q." Through nettles and brambles we plunged into the wood. Right in the centre of the wood there was a lean-to hut and a small fire. I had been 15 minutes on the soil of France and the men in that hut had been ten minutes at the most. Nodding like a chummy Naafi girl, Rifleman Rimmer handed me a cup of tea."
For his action on the 7th June, Captain Wheldon was awarded the Military Cross. His citation reads:
Gallantry and outstanding courage when in contact with the enemy. On 7th June near Sainte Honorine, Captain Wheldon was Second-in-Command of a Company which was engaging superior enemy forces and was in danger of being isolated from the remainder of the Battalion. In total disregard to his own safety and under heavy small arms and artillery fire, he moved about from one Platoon to another encouraging the men and making arrangements for the evacuation of the wounded. His fine display of courage and coolness was an outstanding example to his men. It was undoubtedly due to his courageous action that a very critical situation was saved and the position held until the evacuation was ordered.
Promoted to Major, Wheldon commanded "C" Company during the Rhine Crossing on the 24th March 1945, he was wounded five days later during the initial advances into Germany. Captain Richard Rees, the Regimental Medical Officer and Huw Wheldon's brother-in-law, wrote the following in his memoir, "It was in Coesfelt that Huw was shot. As a railway town and junction, Coesfelt had received more than passing attention by the RAF. He had been shot by a sniper and for years afterwards we pulled his leg for having been shot by German Home Guard! But his wound was serious, a through and through wound of the buttock. Fortunately it had missed bone, artery, and sciatic nerve. He was evacuated immediately, and with Penicillin then available in Military Hospitals I knew he would soon be OK again."
The following is a letter Huw Wheldon wrote to his father in April from the British Military Hospital in Brussels:
"The flight was itself highly unpleasant, my glider pilot being a poor hand at the job, and having his difficulties immeasurably increased by a sky full of slipstreams and air disturbances from aircraft ahead. The whole firmament was spotted and crossed with aircraft. We swung about, and long before we reached the Rhine apprehension was crawling into every man's brain. As we approached the Rhine, a pall of smoke from Montgomery's screen became evident. The Rhine could be seen through it, a silver ribbon shining through the uniform grey. Ahead the other aircraft were still going on, and by now we could see bombers who had released their paratroop loads or gliders returning low on our flanks. The smoke underneath grew thicker, and I could see very little. Ahead we suddenly saw the silent flak explosions. Knowing we had another six minutes to go, and hating the thought like hell, I got into my seat and strapped myself in. A moment later the pilot cast off from the tug. I knew quite well he had cast off too early, but I welcomed the snapping-sound as the two-rope swung loose. Cowardly, as ever, I was only too pleased to be coming down. For me, strapped in, the descent was blind. We bumped a bit, and I recognised this as flak. After some little time I saw the ground through the little window and knew we were within fifty feet of our landing. Simultaneously, there was a methodical impersonal crackle, and machine gun bullets tore little holes in the fabric, missing everyone. Then we landed in a splintering crash and then sudden quiet. No more wind was passing through the fuselage. The machine gun fired more briskly and everyone unstrapped like mad and made for the exits. The crash had buckled my seat, and my equipment had got stuck between the seat and the side. I was consequently trapped. This seemed to me at the time ludicrous, and I grinned happily at my musical comedy situation, the bullets doing nothing to disturb the peace of mind almost ineffable which possessed me, as soon as we were landed. I took off my jacket and in this way extricated myself. Nipping about I found the boys all unhurt in a ditch alongside the smashed glider. Beyond the glider, hidden to us, was a farmhouse, some seventy yards away, and in this farm was the machine gun. I decided to leave it to someone else , and led off in dead ground to a little wood. The sky was still full of aircraft in astonishing numbers, and on the ground all over the place were gliders and parachutes; my own chaps, paratroops, chaps feverishly unloading guns, hundreds of Yanks, miles from their objective, and far away, above the pendant smoke, the quiet sun. I found out where we were, and two hours later after a rum journey I found the battalion, all objectives taken, Dai [Captain Richard Rees - Regimental Medical Officer and Huw Wheldon's brother-in-law] alive, but many gone, including my C.S.M., old McCutcheon, the loyalest and most devotest soldier I ever saw, and a very great personal loss. There were hundreds and hundreds of prisoners, all digging away like mad on our positions, while our chaps stood happily by smoking cigars like Lords of Creation.
On my way in to the position, moving along the edge of a wood, I suddenly stumbled on three Boche, not five yards away. I was unarmed, the magazine having dropped out of my pistol some time before, and all I had in my hand was a Ration Pack taken from a discarded haversack to make up for my own, left in the glider. I was naturally petrified with horror. As soon as they saw me the three Boche dropped to their knees and begged me not to shoot. With superb magnanimity I showed mercy, forbearing to throw my ration pack at them, and wheeled them in, now grist to the mill.
My own company did magnificently, storming a position, killing many and taking over a hundred prisoners. I was away at the time and did not share this action. Possibly fortunately. Under me, it might have been a more academic advance and far less deadly. No casualties there."
Returning to the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, he sent the following letter to his father in May 1945:
I am just arrived into my thousandth billet in Europe. Or so it seems. It is the usual experience. A twenty-mile march along knobbly cobbled roads reveals nothing much except well-tilled fields, and a spacious husbandry. Villages seems deserted. The Germans are working or fled - liberated workers loaf around in their various and astonishing garments and we plod on. There are no young men: no men under sixty. Where they all are, God alone knows. Our harbour for the night is a village, taken over. Mercifully, the civilians are gone. I am in a nice house, and, as usual, we have crockery and tablecloths and beds. When we go, we simply leave them. The men are similarly situated. Do what you will you can't stop the occasional ransacking. When we left our last place this morning three civilian women approached me, and showed me a cellar broken into, three trunks smashed open, contents spilled and spoiled. Furious with this hooliganism, what could I do? Furious too with the three querulous bourgeois women with their windy complainings. A bottle had been stolen, a tablecloth, a lamp-bracket broken. They understand the etiquette of defeat: May I speak? Could I make so bold as to ask? May I go out to see my sister? - at the same time there is no clear impression of guilt, no question of doing us anything but favours when they give us, willy-nilly, the use of their houses. No room here, they say - I have seven Eastern workers living here, two Polish girls there. The notion of doing anything but taking the propriety of this for granted is not entertained.
I have seen stick-thin children of five, born to an unspeakable world, playing King of the Castle on a heap of naked and rotting dead women.
Four days ago I entered a farm, taken over. It was beautiful; and its centre room a joy in itself. Well proportioned, it had three fine pictures, lovely pieces of furniture, a row of bookshelves which included Emerson as well as Schiller; Goethe, Sinclair Lewis, Wells, Voltaire, Plato, T.W [sic] Lawrence, Tolstoy. One wondered helplessly at the mind of the tenant, and his present attitude. Later we heard that the tenant was a widow, forlorn at her loss and living only for the farm and her children. She was gone - we had taken it over, and she asked no questions, made no demands. Her husband, who must have been liberal and cultivated, as well as able, had died, a private soldier, in Stalingrad. The burgomaster in the last village was old and rigid. Puffing unemotionally at a stump of a pipe he professed to understand none of my, or anyone else's German. He was utterly unhelpful, and I respected him at every turn. Odd people came up from time to time asking deferentially would I stop my men taking eggs. (Eggs are so plentiful that my stomach turns at the sight of one). They were only small people, they explained, but [surely 'not'?] Nazis. A week previously they had stoned a column of British prisoners marching through, and spat on the R.A.F. In that particular village they were, on the whole, against Hitler, on the single and sufficient ground that he had denied them comforts during the War in order to send stockings and scents and good foods to France and curry Gallic favour. This, like food rationing, was a matter of hard digested fact, and not open to argument. Pleasant faced women walk the streets of rubble, with a Lutheran church untouched in an open square, and a Prisoner of War camp full of unutterable emaciation behind the railway. Emaciation of the mind. Single men, daft after five years of utter emptiness squat down by themselves and crooning, cook billycans of rubbishy tea. They are helplessly mad, and starved of everything. This, of course, is pleasant and normal compared with the Concentration Camps which honestly are beyond all imaginable horror.
This gives no accurate picture. When I arrived in this evening there was a wireless prepared. With my ear to the loudspeaker, I listened to what fragments of English news that could filter in usual urbane neutrality through a crashing of electrical disturbance; somewhere close, and cutting irregularly across the already muffled news is a crashing brass band, Boche, playing like mad. There is also, somewhere, odd and fugitive swellings which sound like Mozart. This is Europe broadcasting. Our closest station, German, plays smooth jazz, bringing secure hotels and clean bar parlours to mind: just as if nothing was happening. This, in its crude way, symbolises the chaos all round. The chaos which was a town is, in the long run, less terrifying than the chaos which was a nation. We walk on a world of quicksands, and there is only one solid, undeniable fact, and that is that the one constant thing underlying and implicit in all turns and corners of this fantastic world is that this thing, whatever else it may be, is tragic; tragic in the sense that puts tragedy above sadness and apart from a human thing like pity or pathos. It is a gigantic and uncompassable tragedy.
God only knows what conclusions one can draw from this jumble - no set of things point in one direction; and daily one sees and feels something all the way from indication of depravity to signal goodness. There is construction and clarity, destruction and might, and behaviour in this world is compound, what with the difficulties implicit in occupation, difficulties with these overrun people of all sorts and types; and difficulties on the other side, of one's own behaviour, becomes a hand to mouth compromise. I allow my chaps their fist of booty, I live in someone's house; I condemn all sorts of things, and walk a tightrope, falling off pretty often.
One thing emerges, to me, pretty clearly: and that is that despite all evil, we are all bound up in a tragedy which is to a large extent commonly shared, and that sitting back and blandly condemning Germans is as idiotic as it is reprehensible. Raising pious thanks to God because Berlin is now just about annihilated as human habitation is ludicrously irrelevant. War, like peace, is indivisible. Punishment, God knows, lies like a sword across all items of military news. No more is made without the cutting blade. Let it rest at that. The inchaste mass of humanity left over is outside moral judgment - and no simple opinion will fit the structure of defeat. The only principle of sense which will lie at all comfortably on this fragmentary and million-sided tragedy is that the place has got to be got going again, moral and political judgments apart.
Hitler has a cerebral haemorrhage. This is just another facet to a lunatic world.
A sediment of opinion may sometime drop onto the flour [floor?] of my mind. Until that happens I can only write such helpless accounts as this. The boys, thank goodness, a normal and recognisable gang are in superb form, an I am well blessed all round. Dai is fit - so are we all for that matter.
My love to all. It is a tiring business living twenty four hours a day in a Hamlet Act V atmosphere. This letter has been hard work!
After the War, Huw Wheldon joined the Arts Council of Wales, and, in 1951, was Council's administrator for the Festival of Britain, for which work he was awarded the OBE during the following year. Employed by the BBC as a publicity officer in 1952, Huw was keen to become a programme-maker and made his first appearance on television screens running a nationwide conker competition. Thereafter he was a familiar face on childrens' programming, presenting All Your Own. A move into presenting and producing adult programmes followed, culminating in his editorship of the ground-breaking arts programme, The Monitor. After he had "interviewed everyone I am interested in interviewing", Huw Wheldon entered BBC Management, and, by way of Head of Documentaries and Controller BBC1, he became the Managing Director of BBC TV in 1968 and held the post until retirement in 1975. His period at the helm has since become known as the Golden Age of British Television. He was quoted as saying, "Making the good popular and the popular good has been a core purpose of the BBC since its foundation." Huw Wheldon was knighted in 1976.
Married to Jacqueline Wheldon, the novelist, they had three children. Sir Huw Wheldon died on the 14th March 1986.
My thanks to Wynn Wheldon for this biography of his father.
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