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Captain Douglas Wilder Trench-Gascoigne
The Last Lotherton Hero

From the Barwicker No.95
September 2009

Captain Douglas Wilder Trench-Gascoigne Douglas Gascoigne the heir to the Lotherton estate, was the son of Sir Alvary Gascoigne and Sylvia Wilder. He was killed in action fighting in the Coldstream Guards as a Tank Commander on 6th August 1944. Following the D Day landings, there was ferocious fighting in Normandy as the retreating German army mounted stiff resistance to the advancing Allied troops. Douglas was killed in the push towards Caen in the major thrust made from Caumont l’Evente near Vire, driving a wedge between the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West. He lies in the St Charles De Percy Commonwealth Graves Commission Cemetery with 809 of his comrades.

Douglas’s family pedigree ensured that he would become an army officer. The Gascoignes were an army family; they were fighting men to the bone, with a recorded military tradition going back to the Norman Conquest.

In modern times Douglas’s great grandfather Colonel F.C.T. Gascoigne (1814-1905) served sixteen years with his regiment before retiring to become Honorary Colonel of the 2nd West Yorkshire Engineer Volunteers for forty years. Douglas’s grandfather Colonel F.R.T.T. Gascoigne DSO (1851-1937) was a very distinguished officer, fighting valiantly in the Sudan trying to save General Gordon in the failed 1884-5 Nile Expedition. In the Boer War he saw a great deal of action with the Imperial Yeomanry, becoming Colonel of that regiment in 1903.

Douglas’s father Alvary (1893-1970) served with the 6th Dragoons for a year before transferring to the Coldstream Guards in France as Captain and Adjutant from 1915-1917; he was mentioned in despatches. He then served with the West Africa Frontier in 1918 before becoming a distinguished career diplomat in Europe, North Africa, Russia and Japan.

Douglas was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and wanted a career in the Diplomatic Service. Like all the Gascoignes he thoroughly enjoyed travelling. His mother was an American and as a child Douglas and his sister Yvonne spent many happy school holidays with her in America and also at the family estate at Craignish in Argyllshire. His grandparents were among the most widely travelled people in the country and Lotherton Hall is full of the many artefacts they brought home.

After leaving Oxford, Douglas travelled abroad, returning home in 1939 when the prospect of war was imminent. He had been in the Officer Training Corps at Magdalen and now entered Guards Brigade training. He was commissioned Second Lieutenant and in October 1940 was posted to the newly raised 4th Battalion, which was an infantry battalion. Military tactics had been revolutionised by the astonishing blitzkrieg which Hitler had unleashed on Europe, overwhelming under prepared national armies in a matter of days. Modern warfare now demanded powerful and highly mechanised coordinated air-ground attacks superbly led by highly trained officers and well equipped well motivated soldiers.

The era of the gentlemanly amateur officer had gone, along with the cavalry. German army officers were well trained professionals using first-class military equipment. The wreckage of a defeated army at Dunkirk meant that wholesale rethinking of the training of British officers had to be undertaken, along with the development of much improved weapons. On land, the British had to match the mighty panzer and the Luftwaffe if they were to win the war. Douglas’s battalion was first converted to a Motorized Battalion by the provision of lorries to join the newly formed Guards Armoured Division when it was formed in 1941. Unfortunately the design and manufacture of German panzers was superior to the new Covenanter tanks on which Douglas and his colleagues trained.

The army was also wrestling with how best to use tanks in battle and Douglas experienced various reorganisations as the Guards Tank Brigade became one of eight Independent Tank Brigades at the disposal of Army Groups. For three years the Battalion trained in England and in 1943 Douglas became third in command of 3 Squadron. Massive American industrial strength produced 49,000 Sherman tanks during the war; these lightly armoured fast tanks were cheaply produced. Significantly there was a Sherman ‘Firefly’, which had a very powerful and effective long barrelled 17 pounder infantry anti-tank gun. Douglas’s Battalion had at least one per squadron. The Germans referred to British tanks as ‘Tommy Cookers,’ because their petrol engines sometimes exploded after a direct hit; a legacy of motor car manufacturers switching production from lorries and cars to tanks. German tank design continued to develop with the Tiger and Panther which could outgun the Sherman and Churchill.

Douglas’s Battalion landed in Normandy on 20-22 July on the beaches near Courseulles and Arromanches, east of Bayeux. Following heavy allied tank casualties, the Battalion began removing tracks from destroyed tanks littering the battlefield area and weld them to the front, sides and turrets of their tanks, as extra protective armour. The bocage country of Normandy with its narrow roads, sunken lanes and high steep impenetrable hedgerows, criss- crossed by rivers and streams, is very difficult tank country. The Germans mounted very effective resistance using antitank guns and snipers and it was imperative that tanks worked closely with infantry; each needed the other.

A well hidden German infantryman hidden in a hedge could easily destroy a tank with his panzerfaust, which had greater penetrating power than the American bazooka. The most effective German weapon was the dreaded 88 millimetre gun which could accurately fire a high-velocity armour piercing shell on a flat trajectory which would kill any tank. The Spandau machine gun and the Nebelwerfer, multi-barrelled projector which could fire sixty-seventy bombs almost simultaneously, outclassed the weapons possessed by the allies. The German soldiers were well disciplined and trained to assume responsibility when their officers were injured. Thus when the Guards Battalion advanced single file in their tanks down the Norman roads, they were in a very hazardous situation.

Douglas who had been promoted to command 3 Squadron was engaged in very heavy fighting in the two weeks after his landing. The combat was confused and the intelligence unreliable. On 6th August the Coldstream Guards and the 6th Guards Tank Brigade joined the 46th (Scottish) Infantry Brigade were involved in an attack near Lassy. The infantry were heavily mortared and machine gunned, smoke cover was not well coordinated and there were heavy casualties; the tanks were stuck in a sunken lane.

The same thing happened in the afternoon and so the infantry withdrew. Douglas’s squadron came under fire from three well camouflaged 88mm guns and three tanks were knocked, out but without serious casualties. In a desperate attempt to locate and destroy the German 88’s Douglas and his fellow officer and friend Lieutenant Anthony Coates, commandeered a Firefly tank which was more manoeuvrable than a Churchill and had a powerful 17 pounder gun. Douglas set off to track the 88’s, which were tragically further south than was thought, when another concealed German gun on their flank had a direct hit on the Firefly’s ammunition bin, exploding and killing all five members of the crew.

He was 26 years old when he was killed in his valiant attempt to destroy the German guns which had wreaked such havoc with the infantry. His heroic action was in the highest military traditions of his family and the British army. Thus perished the last of the Lotherton male Gascoignes.

There is a terrible irony about the Gascoigne family. They came from Normandy, they perished in Normandy, warfare made them, and warfare destroyed them. Douglas died thirty miles from where the family probably originated.

Bill Burlingham the loyal and well trusted Gascoigne chauffeur remembers all the recent family and speaks of Douglas in glowing terms as,‘A wonderful lad, he and his sister were just like twins.’ Bill also recalls the conversation when a grief stricken Sir Alvary told him that the death of his son had decided him to make the Lotherton estate over to the City of Leeds.

There is a final irony. A recent visitor to Lotherton Hall made it known that it was his tank that Douglas commandeered on that fateful day, but unfortunately he did not leave his name or contact details at the reception desk. He is probably the only person still alive who can say what really happened. I would dearly like to hear and record his story, so if any ‘Barwicker’ reader knows / or thinks they know who this mysterious old soldier is, would they please contact either myself or the Editor.


‘The Undone Years: Magdalen College Roll of Honour 1939 to 1947 and Vietnam.’ Professor Richard Sheppard and Dr Roger Hutchins
‘By Tank into Normandy.’ Stuart Hills
‘Operation Bluecoat.’ Ian Daglish

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