127824 Michael Oliver Wenman RENSHAW, MiD*, Welsh Guards

Discussion in 'The Brigade of Guards' started by dbf, Aug 30, 2019.

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    Personal Number: 127824
    Rank: Major
    Name: Michael Oliver Wenman RENSHAW, MiD*
    Unit: Welsh Guards

    London Gazette : 14 June 1940
    The undermentioned to be 2nd Lts.: —
    27th Apr. 1940:—
    Michael Oliver Wenman RENSHAW (127824).

    London Gazette : 9 August 1945
    The KING has been .graciously pleased to approve that the following be Mentioned in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in North-West Europe:—
    Foot Guards.
    W. G'ds.
    Capt. (temp.) M. O. W. RENSHAW (127824)

    London Gazette : 4 April 1946
    The KING has been graciously pleased to approve that the following be Mentioned in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in North-West Europe:—
    W. G'ds.
    Maj. (temp.) M. O. W. RENSHAW (127824).
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2020
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  4. Guy Hudson

    Guy Hudson Looker-upper

    Screen Shot 2020-04-22 at 16.18.27.png
    Screen Shot 2020-04-22 at 16.18.40.png
    The Sketch 26th March 1941
  5. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD

    From Michael Renshaw: A Society Figure in War and Peace by
    Michael St John-McAlister

    "... Renshaw was staying with the retired American actress Maxine Elliott in the south of France when World War II broke out. Along with his fellow guests, Sir Michael Duff and Charles (later Sir Charles) Birkin, he was of fighting age and all three men hurriedly packed and returned to England to join up.25 Renshaw was commissioned into the Welsh Guards and by 1940 was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps.26 He crossed to Normandy on 28 June 1944, enduring a rough crossing, ‘the boat rolling most unpleasantly [...] vehicles swaying [...] dangerously, people looking ghastly [...] Would sell my soul for some brandy’. Even the smell of a naval officer’s pipe was enough to induce nausea. The mood was lifted by the ‘fantastic sight’ of masses of vessels, of every type, off the Normandy coast but there was still an understandable feeling of melancholy and uncertainty as disembarkation severed ‘the last link with England. I think we [are] all rather unsure when we shall return’.27

    In Normandy, at the rank of Captain, Renshaw commanded the Provost Company of the Guards Armoured Division and served with the artist Rex Whistler, some of whose works Renshaw owned.28 The pair, taking advantage of Renshaw having his own vehicle, spent part of the three week lull following their landing in Normandy visiting chateaux, sourcing wine and calvados for the mess, arranging to have camembert flown home, and picnicking in orchards and by rivers. At the recently captured Cherbourg harbour, ignoring the ‘No Entry’ signs, Renshaw drove through at speed and with the horn blaring, whilst Whistler, instructed by Renshaw to ‘puff himself up like a general’, ‘nonchalantly’ returned the salutes of the duped sentries. Despite the risk of booby traps they rifled through drawers, wandered through ammunition dumps, tunnels, and barrack rooms, and generally did everything they ‘had been lectured, taught and trained not to do’.29 The tour with Renshaw was to be one of the final acts of Whistler’s short life. Edith Olivier, Whistler’s close friend, described it as ‘probably the last bit of sheer pleasure he had on this earth.’30 Having eschewed obvious, and theoretically less hazardous, roles in camouflage or as an official war artist, Whistler chose to be a tank troop leader. He moved north on 6 July 1944 ‘to join in a terrific shoot’ and on 18 July, as part of Operation Goodwood, he took part in an attack across the river Orne, east of Caen, and died of a broken neck caused by a shellburst near Le Mesnil. There was not a mark on his body. It was his first action, and had lasted just a few minutes.31 Renshaw thought Whistler’s death ‘a great loss and a great waste’ and wrote that he ‘Always wish[es] Rex was still around’.32

    It is not clear whether Renshaw himself ever went into battle. Given his role in the Provost Company it is likely he did not as his company had a policing role, as well as responsibility for lighting roads and erecting signposts when tanks and armour moved, and designating suitable routes for different types of vehicle.33 It was exhausting work and in the run up to a battle or a major movement of armour there would be endless maps and battle orders to study, and a telephone ringing ceaselessly, at all hours. Renshaw wrote to his mother that, at times, he was getting two to three hours sleep in every twenty-four, and on one occasion that he had had no sleep for four days. His life consisted of ‘plans + maps roads + tracks, the usual chaos.’ He would work for hours on movement plans only to have to revise them at short notice because of the change of fortune in a battle or the state of the weather.34

    The wider Division certainly saw active service and Renshaw’s diary records the progress of several battles, in sometimes stiff fighting, including the loss of thirty-six tanks in one day, as well as many references to casualties. In an enlightening letter to his brother, Thomas, Renshaw noted ‘progress is rather more bloody and less floral [...] We seem always to be what I believe themilitary call the van, a glorious position but at times rather unpleasant.’35 Even being behind the lines, as Renshaw may have been for much of the time, was not always safe. His diary and letters recorded frequent shelling and air raids and he noted that ‘The Luftwaffe are now paying us a certain amount of attention.’ He wrote eloquently of the earth ‘groaning and trembling’ and it seeming to ‘scream with pain.’ In classic understated English officer style, he rather insouciantly described the experience of being shelled as ‘not pleasant’.36 In an echo of this, he also recorded drinking whisky with R.A.F. officers at a nearby airfield when enemy aircraft attacked. Whilst the pilots dived for cover under chairs, tables, and lorries, and into ditches, Renshaw and Rex Whistler nonchalantly remained upright, whisky glasses in hand.37 One would like to think they did not spill a drop.

    Renshaw’s Division fought its way from Normandy, through Belgium and the Netherlands, and into Germany. James Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, who had been at Eton with Renshaw, was anxious that Renshaw’s unit was having a hard time, given the number of Guards Armoured Division casualties being brought into the hospital where he was recuperating.38 He was right to be anxious. Total casualties for the Division have been given as 956 killed, 3946 wounded, and 545 missing; one in three from a complement of 14,400.39

    Like all officers, Renshaw faced the unenviable task of writing to the families of those of his men who were killed. Judging by the replies he received from some of those families it is a task he carried out with sensitivity and the utmost respect. The resignation and sadness in a simple diary note such as ‘another letter to widow’ speaks volumes about how hard writing such letters must have been.40

    The weather was a constant worry and shelter was not always adequate. At one stage Renshaw’s unit was billeted in a pig sty with four walls, a window with no glass, and a door that did not fit its frames and on another occasion he found himself dug in next to a somewhat pungent cemetery. When his unit reached Brussels, Renshaw was installed in what had been the former Gestapo’s headquarters, complete with what he described, chillingly, as blood stained cellars.41 The north western European winter of 1944/1945 was severe. He frequently wrote to his mother thanking her for sending clothing or anxiously enquiring about the whereabouts of winter clothing that had been promised and wrote of ‘bitter cold here, my hands, feet, and toes are just chilblains.’42 Edith Olivier pictured him blowing on his fingers in a land of ‘dykes and dykes, canals and rivers, covered in mist or shrivelling under an icy breeze’ and said the last line of Renshaw’s most recent letter to her had ‘pierce[d] [her] to the heart.’ Renshaw had written: ‘Warmth I find is almost the essential factor in life’.43

    Even good weather could create problems. Hot, dry days led to Renshaw complaining of being ‘so covered with dust that I was hardly recognizable. Hair white with it.’ He feared rain as his clothes, being ‘so impregnated with clay dust’, would become stiff as a board. Summer rains came the very next day and lasted for four whole days, flooding headquarters, Renshaw’s billet, and all his clothing and bedding. It also left the roads under two feet of mud, making his job of ensuring they were clear for vehicle movements virtually impossible.44

    In such trying times, things that would once have been taken for granted took on huge significance, and consequently food and drink became a constant source of happiness to Renshaw and his companions. Occasional small mercies included capturing German food dumps, whilst the abundant game was no match for soldiers with time on their hands and easy access to rifles.Woodcock, pheasant, partridge, quail, and plover were all sampled. Camembert and butter was readily available; bread, meat, tobacco, and chocolate less so. There was always the risk of overindulgence (Renshaw made himself sick eating too much cream, his first for three years) but such changes in diet, lessening the monotony of army biscuit, helped lift morale.45

    Obtaining alcohol was another welcome boost and despite the difficulty in sourcing wine, the ‘champagne and brandy [were] still holding out well’, and Dutch gin, apricot brandy, and German rum could also be found. The discovery of the Germans’ vast alcohol store, ‘miles and miles’ of it, in the Brussels customs house was the cause of unalloyed joy.46 Renshaw devised an ingenious method for storing his supplies, albeit not one conforming to proper use of military equipment. As he wrote to his brother: ‘Have turned the Humber into a moving wine chest using all available 3 Tonners as well. Consequently I sweat with fear during shelling, mortaring, aerial bombardment etc lest the precious vehicles be hit.’47 Renshaw even turned budding entrepreneur: ‘Am doing quite a good trade with a local Frenchman. Cigarettes and chocolate for butter, cider, and cherries. I don’t know which side is most pleased.’ Clearly the 200 cigarettes a month he had asked his mother to send were not all for his own consumption.48

    There was also some time for relaxation. Renshaw visited Brussels, although he was less than impressed with the absence of hot water and the fact that the restaurants and nightclubs were all closed, as well as Bayeux and Rennes.49 He hoped to visit Ernest Hemingway and the American army at some stage and wrote that he was planning to see This Happy Breed at the cinema.50 A curious incident occurred when Renshaw was in Holland with the Second Army. As the Allied armies advanced towards Germany he visited Hermann Goering’s aunt who lived in Beek, a village in no-man’s land on the Dutch-German border, just 1000 yards from the German front lines. The incident was reported by American journalist Virginia Cowles and appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Whilst the report gave no firm evidence that the officer was in fact Renshaw, Peggy, Marchioness of Crewe, having seen the report, assumed it was Renshaw based on the fact that the British officer described in the article shared a first name (the officer was named ‘Mickie’ in the article) and long legs with Renshaw. She went on to write that Renshaw’s letter to her confirmed it was indeed him and Renshaw himself referred to it in a letter to his mother in which he describe Goering’s aunt as ‘an astonishing woman’.51

    Renshaw was gratified by the goodwill shown to the Allies as they progressed through north west Europe. Whenever he and his men passed through any town or village in France and Belgium, as soon as the locals realized they were British, food would be produced, and flowers, and drink. Music and dancing would begin. Hugs and kisses would be proffered, even the use of bathrooms (Renshaw had his first bath for two months when he visited Rennes).52 Renshaw found the Dutch ‘kind and hospitable’ and noted that ‘the French seem pleased to see us in spite of the devastation’ the arrival of the Allied forces had inevitably wrought.53 Such receptions must have been a welcome relief from the destruction he witnessed on a daily basis. The devastation wrought by the war is a recurring theme in Renshaw’s letters and diary with comments such as ‘Devastation in villages and towns perfectly frightful, nothing living, nothing upright’ being typical. Some French villages and towns had completely disappeared. He noted that corpses, both human and animal, abounded and referred to atrocities carried out by retreating German forces in France. He hoped that the Allies’ constant harrying of the Germans would not permit them the time to carry out similar atrocities in Belgium.54

    His wartime letters and diary do not give a great deal away about Renshaw’s innermost feelings, but there are occasional glimpses of what the war was doing to him. Having written to his mother that he was ‘very busy, hot, tired, filthy’ he described the war as ‘extraordinary and most unpleasant’ before very simply and bluntly, and without embarrassment, admitting that he was ‘at times very frightened.’55 His chief emotion seems to have been confusion, with a constant veering between optimism at the war ending soon and fatalism that it was far from over. As early as January 1942 he thought that hostilities might end before the following winter and in July 1944 he reported ‘wild rumours floating about Rommel dead, peace in 72 hours [...] Am trying to sober the optimism of my troops, though am madly optimistic myself.’ Even when that did not come to pass he could still write ‘Days and weeks may see the end not months’.56 Renshaw’s diary and letters contain frequent references to good news and ‘mad optimism’.57 He wrote of how tiring it was chasing fast-moving retreating Germans across France, that morale in the German army was low and S.S. officers were being shot by the Wehrmacht, and that German prisoners were either very old or very young, ‘frightened [...] and very ragged’, and more liable to give in.58 Yet, around the same time he wrote ‘fighting all the way to Berlin seems probable’ and ‘Having partially liberated three flaming countries I suppose we shall be launched to conquer Germany’.59 He also recognized the German army’s stamina and its tenacious fighting spirit, and noted his begrudging admiration for an enemy which could withstand being on the receiving end of fifty shells for every one it launched.60 The conflicting, see-sawing emotions, the highs and lows, and the rapid changes from one to the other can only be seen as a consequence of living in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily dangerous, times. The constant battle between hope and realism that is played out in war was clearly felt by Renshaw.

    Renshaw’s war was characterized by, as he put it, ‘great contrasts.’ Whether it was the variable quality of accommodation, the frequent movement between optimism and pessimism about how long the war would last, or the wild variations in weather, nothing seemed settled and constant. Renshaw himself summed up these contrasts in a more elemental way, highlighting how quickly his life was able to change from an apparently civilized existence to a basic matter of survival:

    One night I eat partridge, quail etc and wash it down with champagne, wine, brandy, Cointreau, Benedictine etc [...] The next moment one is lying in a hole or fingering the trigger of a gun.61

    The wartime papers end in August 1944 so there is no record of Renshaw’s personal progress through the last nine months of the war. It is known that he was promoted Major in 1945, although, according to one correspondent, he was unlikely to be impressed by such recognition, and he was twice mentioned in despatches for service in north west Europe. He left the army in November 1945 with the rank of Honorary Major.62 ..."
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