2 – Digby Tatham-Warter
From one English eccentric to another: if there is at some level a semblance of logic in carrying a broadsword like Mad Jack Churchill did (in the sense that it is least a weapon, if an archaic one) then there seems little point to carrying an umbrella, as Digby Tatham-Warter did. The man known only as Digby – partly because of his cumbersome double-barrelled surname, partly because there weren’t too many other Digbys knocking about the British Army – was as mad a member of the British officer class as any.
Like Churchill, he went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and joined the colonial service, finding himself in the Raj in 1937. He was due to join the local Indian Army but never did, preferring to stay in the British forces and give himself more time to indulge in his pastimes of hunting tigers and wild boars. He missed the early part of the war while in India, but in 1942, after his brother was killed in North Africa, he went to England to link up with the Parachute Regiment. He didn’t do much fighting initially – he once commandeered a Dakota plane to take his friends to a party – but when he did eventually see combat in the Netherlands, he took to it with aplomb.
He trained his troops in Napoleonic era bugle call messaging, in case their radios broke, and decided, as he couldn’t trust himself to remember the necessary codewords, that he would carry his umbrella with him at all times, the logic being that “only a bloody fool of an Englishman” would do such a thing. He was, in some small way, right. As if the sight of a soldier sporting an umbrella into battle wasn’t enough, he topped it off with a bowler hat, charging with his bayonet towards the German lines looking more like a city gent with a gin and tonic than the parachute commander that he was. When faced with an enemy armoured vehicle, he did the obvious thing: he disabled the driver by poking him in the eye with his brolly. He spotted a military chaplain in distress and rescued him, telling the stricken clergyman “Don’t worry about the bullets, I’ve got an umbrella.”
Tatham-Warter was later captured, but escaped and were taken in by a local Dutch woman. Knowing that they would be easily rumbled as British officers, the Dutch Resistance dressed Digby and his companion up as painters and gave them Dutch identity documents, telling them to pose as deaf-mutes – the Germans were oblivious, failing to spot the two Brits despite them living in the same house as several Nazi soldiers. All the while, the pair were bicycling between escaped soldiers, delivering messages and organising an evacuation. He eventually made his way to the Rhine, where he crossed over the lines and was taken back to Britain.
Digby Tatham-Warter was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his exploits in the Netherlands and, after the war finished, served in Palestine and East Africa. He continued to live in Kenya when he left the forces and is credited as one of the pioneers of the concept of the safari – a fitting role for a man who once delighted in hunting tigers. History doesn’t record if he still carried his umbrella while out photographing animals, however.