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Digby Tatham-Warter (1917-1993)

Obituary, The Times

Digby Tatham-Warter, former company commander 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, died on March 21 aged 75. He was born on May 26, 1917.

Digby Tatham-Warter was famously depicted in A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough's 1977 film of the Allied defeat at Arnhem in 1944, as a crazed toff leading a bayonet charge sporting an old bowler hat and a tattered umbrella. But his character, personality and achievements were substantially greater than suggested by the film's rather trite cameo. He actually did wander around the ever-reducing perimeter at Arnhem Bridge urging his (and other's) men on with the aid of a rolled umbrella, though there was neither bowler hat nor bayonet charge.

Educated at Wellington and Sandhurst (where he won The Saddle) Allison Digby Tatham-Warter was the second son of Henry de Grey Tatham-Warter, a country landowner with estates in the Midlands and the West Country. His father, having been badly gassed serving with the Artists' Rifles in the first world war, died prematurely when Digby was 11. Digby had three sisters, one of whom, Kit won the Croix de Guerre while serving with the Hatfield-Spears Unit in the Western Desert. Her heroism coincided with the action at El Alamein in which her brother John was killed serving with The Bays.

As in many families, the death of his elder brother was a further spur to Digby's determined attempts to get in to the war and kill Germans (despite having been a regular officer since 1937 he had thus far seen no action). His family background had made him ideally suited to the Indian Army into which he was commissioned. However, on attachment to The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry he decided to stay with them, while still able to enjoy the rigours of tiger shooting and pig sticking. Determined to get into action he transferred to the recently formed Parachute Regiment where he soon found himself commanding A Company 2 PARA under the already famous Johnny Frost (another rifleman).

During the months of training for Arnhem the battalion was stationed near Grantham, and Tatham-Warter's well-known exploits in tiger shooting and other entertainments in India with the Ox and Bucks were here enhanced by his ability to procure an American Dakota on at least one weekend to fly him and his company officers to London where parties at the Ritz were in marked contrast to conditions in the sealed camp.

He is recalled as a particularly severe but inspirational commander of his men (few of whose names he apparently knew, nor was interested in). The soldiers were there to follow and to fight and he, above all, to lead. His officers (mainly drawn from similar backgrounds as his) were expected to emulate his attitudes and standards.

This management technique, however bizarre today, can nonetheless be seen to have been effective in the desperate battles around the bridge at Arnhem, and in the subsequent escape in which Tatham-Warter played a pivotal role.

The battle at Arnhem resulted from Montgomery's ill-fated orders to "Lay me an airborne carpet to the Rhine" (dashing over which he would have undoubtedly beaten Patton into the heart of Germany). The bridge at Arnhem was the most distant of the three bridges in Holland which the Allies needed to secure if they were going to outflank the Siegfried line and enable 30 Corps to cross the Rhine and advance into Germany. The operation was, of course, a complete and very bloody shambles and ended in what ought to have been a predictable disaster when a necessarily lightly-armed force of ten thousand airborne troops was ultimately surrounded by the 2nd SS Panzer Corps (two armoured divisions) whose likely presence had been reported to the planners.

Tatham-Warter was subsequently never less than undiplomatic in his views on the politics of this forlorn hope notwithstanding his pride in having played an important role in and after it.

It was after the battle when he had escaped from a German-held hospital with his second-in-command, Tony Frank, that he helped to set up "Pegasus I". This was the successful escape across the Rhine by 133 airborne men and other assorted guests of the Dutch Resistance assembled by Tatham-Warter in his travels in the occupied countryside on a bicycle lent to him by the Dutch family with which he was "billeted" (their official guests included SS Panzer Troops who assumed Tatham-Warter to be a Dutch imbecile).

The escape party included airmen, the odd Russian, and even an Indonesian officer of The Royal Netherlands Navy whose unlikely presence was rather obvious in daylight. On his return, Tatham-Warter was awarded a well-deserved DSO (some thought a VC would have been more appropriate). Postwar operations in Palestine despite such entertaining diversions as teaching Arabs to shoot sand grouse and hunting desert fox found little attraction for Tatham-Warter and he emigrated to Kenya in 1946.

There he was very nearly able to return to the time-warp from which he had conducted himself during his days of regular soldiering and most certainly avoided the miseries of Attlee's great new socialist nirvana.

At Nanyuki, where he had purchased two very large estates, he set up a somewhat desultory, though very successful, safari organisation (he would never have referred to it as a business) in partnership with Colonel Hilary Hook. Many of their wealthy clients were to remark on their culture shock on first meeting these two eccentric English gentlemen and the subsequent experiences through which they were led which was, of course, precisely what they were paying for.

For all his seemingly ferocious manner and imperial background, Tatham-Warter was forty years ahead of his time in introducing the concept of safaris in which the game was shot by camera rather than gun (he perhaps considered his guests not up to the latter).

During the Mau Mau Emergency Tatham-Warter, typically, raised, commanded and funded a mounted police unit from volunteer farmers and expatriates to some serious effect. This tied-in with his captaincy of the Kenyan Polo Team (6 handicap) and other equestrian activities both organisational and practical. He was able to combine a hefty social calendar with fishing, sailing and carpentry which he undertook with typical enthusiasm somewhat remarkably producing exquisite inlaid pieces.

He was quickly established in the higher reaches of expatriate existence (on which Kenyan independence had very little effect) to the extent that a series of British Defence Advisers would be told by the High Commissioner to "Look after Tatham-Warter". One such officer, late of Digby's regiment, was not entirely clear what this meant but soon found out when, after an introductory "I suppose you're another bloody mealy-mouthed Diplomat", his charge took him off to a Beating of Retreat by a British Infantry Battalion. As Tatham-Warter, a VIP guest, stood for "Sunset" his trousers slowly, and in time with the lowering Standards, dropped to his ankles. He later claimed "loss of weight" although the cognoscenti had their doubts.

Of course the austere exterior belied a self-mocking humour and a fundamentally anti-establishment attitude (it never, after all, had been his establishment). Those picked, after rigorous selection, to join Digby's very tight circle of friends were allowed a clear view of a complex character shaped by a background which today would simply not be understood. Within this exclusive circle, mostly though not entirely from his own world, he was a warm, loveable man who would do anything for his friends and a wonderful even notorious host. He left an indelible stamp on everything he did and had only one standard in all things his own.

Gerald Lathbury, Tatham-Warter's brigade commander, once remarked (probably in Digby's defence): "But every battalion needs a Digby!" Officers, and many of the men, serving to-day would almost certainly agree.

The Times, 13 Apr 1993


Date13 Apr 1993
Linked toAllison Digby Tatham-Warter

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