Major Richard Thomas Henry Lonsdale
Unit : Headquarters, 11th Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 69129
Awards : Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Military Cross
Richard "Dickie" Lonsdale was born in 1913. He had been a founder member of the 151st Parachute Battalion in India, October 1941, before it was converted to the 156 and transferred to the 4th Parachute Brigade. Boisterous by nature, his airborne career saw him being moved from one unit to another on account of his "unconventional behaviour". In 1943, Lonsdale was given command of the 2nd Battalion's "A" Company.
In Sicily, the 2nd Battalion were charged with the task of seizing three areas of high ground to the south of Primosole Bridge, codenamed Johnny I, II, and III. Lonsdale and the majority of his Company were amongst the few to be accurately dropped onto their zones. Quickly falling in with Lieutenant-Colonel Frost and a mixed force of various units from within the Battalion, they advanced on "Johnny I" to capture it by themselves. They arrived, however, to discover that a small force under Lieutenant Tony Frank, of "A" Company, had preceded them and had taken not only the hill but also 130 Italians prisoner. Lonsdale and his men quickly reinforced them. For his conduct during the operation, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order:
For most conspicuous gallantry and leadership in action. On the night of the 13th of July 1943 this officer was in command of a Company of the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, which was dropped on the Catania Plain in Sicily to secure the high ground South of the River Simeto. On reaching the objective this officer took over command of the Battalion as the Commanding Officer was injured, and at dawn on the 14th of July 1943 German Parachute Troops launched a heavy counter attack on the Battalion positions. This officer by his example, leadership and complete contempt for danger when under very heavy enemy fire, so skillfully directed the defence of the objective gained and in spite of sustaining heavy casualties, that the position was held and heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy, including the taking and retention of 450 enemy prisoners, until relieved by our own troops.
In 1944, having returned to England, Major Lonsdale was posted to the 11th Parachute Battalion as Second-in-Command. It was a young unit that had a troubled past, but in the coming months Lonsdale, with his commander, Lieutenant-Colonel George Lea, made great strides in pulling it into shape.
Flying to Arnhem with the Second Lift, on Monday 18th September, Lonsdale's C-47 was hit by flak, ripping the fuselage and leaving him with a deep cut in his hand, two of his men also received leg wounds and were prevented from jumping. Lonsdale's injury was serious enough to necessitate his temporary departure from the Battalion after landing to have it attended to. The 11th Battalion, meanwhile, were detached from the 4th Parachute Brigade and ordered to advance into Arnhem, to reinforce the remnants of the 1st Parachute Brigade as they attempted to force a passage through to the Bridge. Trapped in the streets and caught in an exposed position by tanks and mortars, the Battalion suffered heavily, and only a fraction of its original strength was able to withdraw from Arnhem with what was left of the 1st and 3rd Battalions, and 2nd South Staffords. As these units fell back on Oosterbeek on Tuesday 19th September, Lieutenant-Colonel "Sheriff" Thompson, commander of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, sent Major Lonsdale forward to take control of these units and organise them into a defensive position a safe distance ahead of the Regiment's guns. Collectively, they became known as the Lonsdale Force.
On Wednesday 20th September, the Germans launched a series of heavy attacks against the Lonsdale Force in their isolated position, and although they held their ground, they became so hard pressed that Brigadier Hicks gave Lonsdale permission to withdraw them to a new location, immediately in front of Lieutenant-Colonel Thompson's artillery pieces. It was here, in the nearby Church, that Lonsdale gave his much famed and rousing speech to the exhausted and dispirited men. Cutting a striking figure, with a sling around his slightly injured arm, a blood-stained bandage covering the three head wounds he had sustained, and a further bandage on his leg, Lonsdale told them: "You know as well as I do there are a lot of bloody Germans coming at us. Well, all we can do is to stay here and hang on in the hope that somebody catches us up. We must fight for our lives and stick together. We've fought the Germans before - in North Africa, Sicily, Italy. They weren't good enough for us then, and they're bloody well not good enough for us now. They're up against the finest soldiers in the world. An hour from now you will take up defensive positions north of the road outside. Make certain you dig in well and that your weapons and ammo are in good order. We are getting short of ammo, so when you shoot you shoot to kill. Good luck to you all". The men left the Church and took up their positions with a new strength and determination.
After the war, Lonsdale liked to give the impression that he used the Church as his headquarters; a romantic image but not factually correct, for his actual Headquarters was 300 yards to the north-west of it, from where orders were passed to the front line units by a field telephone, courtesy of the 3rd Battalion's signallers. On Wednesday, the Lonsdale Force was reorganised to include just the parachute battalions, whilst "Sheriff" Thompson assumed command of the 2nd South Staffords and the Glider Pilots in the area, together with his artillery guns; collectively known as Thompson Force. On the following day, however, Thompson was wounded, and so all the infantry in the sector were placed under Major Lonsdale.
Lonsdale continuously moved amongst his men and encouraged them to further effort, hobbling as he went, and if ever there was an attack to be made then he would do the honours. When the Division was withdrawn across the Rhine on Monday 25th, Lonsdale stayed behind until all of his men had disembarked. By this time no boats were functioning, and so, weakened by his wounds and struggling against the current, Lonsdale swam to the far bank, eventually reaching it safely. For his conduct during the battle, Major Lonsdale was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order. His citation reads:
At Arnhem on the 20th September, this officer, although wounded in the hand and arm, was given command of the remnants of three Parachute Battalions who had withdrawn from the town. This detachment, about 400 strong, was allotted the task of holding part of the divisional perimeter.
Major Lonsdale so organised and inspired those under him that in spite of repeated attacks by enemy infantry, tanks and self-propelled guns, the positions taken up were subsequently held until the remains of the division withdrew over the River Lek. Throughout this period of six days the positions were continually mortared and shelled.
Major Lonsdale, although again wounded, organised several counter attacks to regain ground temporarily lost and his personal example and supreme contempt of danger was an inspiration to all those with whom he came in contact.
Lonsdale was also promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and commanded the 3rd Battalion until 1945, thereafter he served in Palestine. Returning to England and settling down in Salisbury, he led what was described as a turbulent life in business and politics. He died on the 23rd November 1988, aged 74, and is buried in Aldershot Military Cemetery.
See also: Lt Heaps, Sergeant Callaghan.
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