Captain Douglas Wilder Trench-Gascoigne 1917-1944 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
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
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
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
‘By Tank into Normandy.’ Stuart Hills
‘Operation Bluecoat.’ Ian Daglish