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Roll Call Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William R De B des Voeux 27 December 1911 – 20 September 1944

Sir William Richard De Bacquencourt Des Voeux was born on 27 December 1911. He was the son of Lt-Col Henry John des Voeux O.B.E. and Dorothy Gladys des Voeux. He was married to Lady des Voeux (nee Elkington, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel J.F. Elkington D.S.O.) of Adbury Holt, Newbury, Berkshire and had three daughters.

Des Voeux was educated at Wixenford (now Ludgrove) and Eton. He proved an able scholar, attaining high marks in History, Latin, French, Elementary Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. From Eton he went to Sandhurst, where he again excelled.

He was commissioned, as a Second Lieutenant, in the Grenadier Guards on the 27th August 1931. In June 1932 he qualified as an interpreter, 2nd Class, in French. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion, The Grenadier Guards and served in Egypt and on was stationed at Wellington Barracks, Windsor, and during this time he qualified as a pilot. He was promoted to full Lieutenant on the 27th August 1934 and in January 1937 he was posted to the 3rd Battalion, The Grenadier Guards at Chelsea Barracks.

He was posted back to the 2nd Battalion in February 1937, where he served as the Adjutant, until January 1939. During this time the battalion moved from Chelsea Barracks to Aldershot. He was promoted to Captain on the 27th August 1939.

In 1940 Captain Des Voeux was sent as an instructor to an Infantry Company Commanders’ School near Chichester, it was on the 4th November 1940 that he was promoted to War Substantive Major. Later in the year he volunteered for the Commandos and became a temporary Lieutenant Colonel in command of No. 10 Commando, which he commanded until it was disbanded. In January 1941 he went through the Staff College course at Camberley after which he became Brigade Major to the 20th Guards Brigade. He then returned to the Grenadier Guards for a short time as a Company Commander in the 6th Battalion.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Richard Des Voeux was given command of the 156 Parachute Battalion on the 15th March 1943, taking over from Lieutenant Colonel H.C.R. Hose, D.S.O. At the time the battalion was stationed at Jenin in Palestine and was undergoing a series of exercises. Major Des Voeux had previously served as a member of Major General Browning’s staff in the early days of the airborne development, as a G.S.O.III Staff Officer. Major Des Voeux was assigned to the 1st Parachute Battalion as a Liaison Officer, and accompanied them when they were parachuted into the Beja region, North Africa, on 16th November 1942. Unfortunately his landing was hard and he broke a leg.

At Arnhem, after having dropped over Ginkel Heath at just after 15:09 on Monday 18th, the men of the 156 Parachute Battalion fought their way off the drop zone and assembled in the trees bordering DZ-Y to the west. With the 11th Parachute Battalion being given fresh orders to move into Arnhem and support the 1st Parachute Brigade, and the 10th Parachute Battalion remaining on the drop zone to guard the wounded, only the 156 Battalion were free to commence the 4th Parachute Brigade’s move, and they began to do so at about 17:00. Brigadier Hackett told Des Voeux to keep his men moving until dusk, and then halt them to take time to rest and reorganize before pushing on before first light. However, Sir Richard decided to keep his men moving long after dusk, as they had encountered comparatively little opposition on the way. Major Powell’s ‘C’ Company were in the lead, and they had almost arrived reached LZ-L, approximately 4.5 miles from Arnhem Bridge, when they came under fire from a strong German defence. Des Voeux made his way forward to ‘C’ Company and agreed with Powell that the position was too strong for a successful night attack, and so he withdrew the 156 Battalion into the woods where a firm perimeter was established for the night, before mounting a fresh attack in the early hours.

In the meantime, Brigadier Hackett had visited Divisional HQ to help arrange a clear plan of attack for the following morning. When he returned, he informed Des Voeux that he wished his battalion to advance over three areas of wood-shrouded high ground, the first of which was approximately 1 mile east of the 156 Battalion’s present position. With this high ground under control, the 4th Parachute Brigade would then be more able to mount an attack towards Arnhem. Sir Richard chose Major Robert John Pott’s ‘A’ Company to lead the way, while John Waddy’s ‘B’ Company supported their left flank. Des Voeux and Pott went forward to where ‘C’ Company were positioned and they observed the ground that lay ahead of them, though the woodland was so dense that there was little they could see. As they were doing so, Brigadier Hackett arrived once more and informed the two officers of the urgent need to get moving. With that, Pott immediately left to quickly brief his platoon commanders.

‘A’ Company encountered a very strong German defensive line and were cut to pieces against it. However news of this had not filtered back to Battalion HQ, and so Des Voeux urged ‘B’ Company on towards a similar fate, believing that Major Pott’s men were well on their way towards the second area of high ground, having only met the resistance of a few snipers.

With the 4th Parachute Brigade in retreat later that day, the 156 Battalion were amongst the first to be passed over the railway line and to the comparative safety of the southern side. However a mistake further down the battalion’s column led to most of Support Company, the remnants of ‘B’ Company, and a platoon of ‘C’ Company not crossing over the line, but instead carrying on along it in the direction of Wolfheze. These strayed men were utilized by Ken Smyth’s 10th Battalion in the defence of their area, but they would not be reunited with the rest of the 156 Battalion.

On Wednesday 20th, the 4th Parachute Brigade were withdrawing towards the Oosterbeek perimeter and were viciously pursued by German infantry and tanks, while mortars rained down over the whole area. The 156 Battalion were the Brigade’s rearguard and they suffered the worst of it, however it is a great tribute to these men that the Germans never realized that they were fighting a foe in retreat - attacks were beaten off, and then the paratroopers mounted counter-attacks to push their enemy back. However a terrible toll was taken in terms of casualties and very few men made it into the Perimeter. Lt-Colonel Des Voeux was not amongst them. Sergeant Andy Thorburn discovered his fatally wounded commander, leaning against a tree. He asked if he could help him, but Des Voeux said "No. Move forward. The enemy is in front of you; they need you there". It is believed that Sir Richard died shortly after.

He was first buried along the Sportlaan in the Bilderberg area of Oosterbeek.

He now lies at rest in Oosterbeek Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, plot 6, row C, grave number 10.

On the 24th August 1944 it was announced in the London Gazette that he had been Mention in Despatches for his actions in Italy in September 1943.

On the 20th September 1945 it was announced in the London Gazette that he had been posthumously Mentioned in Despatches for his action in Holland in September 1944.

For a detailed history of the 156 Parachute Battalion see ‘FROM DELHI TO ARNHEM’ by John O’Reilly.

Researched and compiled by Bob Hilton.

Profile photo supplied by Harvey Grenville

Listed Operations

09/09/1943 – 01/05/1944 Italy
17/09/1944 – 25/09/1944 Arnhem (Operation Market Garden)

Airborne Forces service history

Grenadier Guards, (Captain)
1943-1944 Commanding Officer (CO), 156 Parachute Battalion, (Lieutenant-Colonel Sir)

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