The Bill and Angela Strong Medal Collection

Image 1

  • Image 2
  • Image 3
  • Image 4

Click Image to Zoom

Date of Auction: 18th May 2011

Sold for £33,000

Estimate: £10,000 - £12,000

The excessively rare Second World War escaper’s D.S.O. group of five awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel R. B. “Ronnie” Littledale, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who famously made a successful bid for freedom with “Pat” Reid and two others from Colditz in October 1942 - a breakout enacted under the cover of the P.O.Ws’ orchestra conducted by Douglas Bader and culminating with the four men squeezing naked through a narrow air vent ‘like toothpaste out of a tube!’: believed to be one of just two officers similarly decorated for a home run in the last war, the gallant Littledale was killed in action in France in September 1944

Distinguished Service Order, G.VI.R., 1st issue, the reverse of the suspension bar officially dated ‘1943’, with its Garrard & Co. case of issue; General Service 1918-62, 1 clasp, Palestine (Capt. R. B. Littledale, K.R.R.C.); 1939-45 Star; France and Germany Star; War Medal 1939-45, together with original Army Council condolence slips in respect of his Palestine and 1939-45 War awards, both in the name of ‘Lt. Col. R. B. Littledale, D.S.O.’, extremely fine (5) £10000-12000

Footnote

D.S.O. London Gazette 4 May 1943.

An award made from the P.O.W. Pool in recognition of his escape from Oflag IVC Colditz (accompanying M.O.D. letter refers).

Ronald Bolton “Ronnie” Littledale was born at Sandiway House, Hartford, Cheshire in June 1902 and was educated at Eton and the R.M.C. Sandhurst. Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in February 1923, he had risen to the rank of Captain by the time of his participation in the Palestine and Trans-Jordan operations in the late 1930s and, shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, was appointed a Major and Company Commander in the 2nd Battalion.

P.O.W.

Ordered to France, where he was detached for service as a Transport Officer in the 30th Infantry Brigade, Littledale was captured in the gallant last stand made at Calais in late May 1940 and, after a forced march, found himself incarcerated in Oflag VII C at Laufen. A few days later, with some fellow riflemen, Littledale commenced work on a tunnel from the camp’s music room, but just three days later the Germans were tipped-off and arrived on the scene - since he was actually working at the tunnel head at the time, Litterdale managed to remain concealed from the enemy, but his two comrades were marched off to 42 days in solitary.

Then in March 1941, he was transferred to Stalag XXI D at Posen, shortly to be the scene of his next escape attempt. Foot and Langley’s definitive history M.I. 9 - Escape and Evasion 1939-45 takes up the story:

‘Two old Wykehamists, gifted to an unusual degree with that intelligent pertinacity which is one of the school’s hallmarks, who were in the same regiment - the King’s Royal Rifle Corps - escaped together from Stalag XXD at Posen on 28 May 1941, by hiding successfully in the rubbish dump: two subalterns, A. M. Sinclair and E. G. B. Davies-Scourfield, who got out with their Major, R. B. Littledale. Though the Nazis had annexed western Poland, its Germanisation was still far from complete, and these escapers got a great deal of help from the Poles: one of the joys of escaping in Poland was that the population was so strongly anti-German. They were passed on to Warsaw, where they spent several months in an Englishwoman’s flat, frequently being entertained to more or less formal dinners by a succession of hosts, and engaged in incessant discussions about when it would be safe to move on and in what direction. Eventually, in January 1942, they cast up in Sofia, where the Bulgarian police promised them asylum and then promptly sold them to the Gestapo. Littledale and Michael Sinclair escaped again on 17 January, from a train near Vienna; Sinclair was almost at once recaptured, but Littledale was at large for nearly six months more, in Bohemia ... ’

Much of the above period on the run is described in detail by fellow-K.R.R.C. prisoner Gris Davies-Scourfield’s In Presence of My Foes, including the train-jumping incident:

‘Mike had been immediately recaught and that invoked an immediate hue and cry with the German police, some with alsatian dogs, rushing about in all directions. Ronnie had hidden on the outside platform between two carriages, and just as the police were about to reach his hiding place (Ronnie no doubt praying fervently not to be discovered) there was a loud hissing noise and a jet of steam shot out from under the carriage and completely hid him from their view.’

Littledale was eventually re-captured in Prague in May 1942, in the wake of Heydrich’s assassination, the S.S. rampaging through the city in search of suspects - as noted in his M.I. 9 debrief, Littledale was shocked at the ‘almost insane’ brutality of the S.S. and was himself given a hard time: namely three days of being interrogated by the Gestapo and then six weeks in solitary confinement on a starvation diet.

Colditz

Arriving at Colditz a few weeks later, in mid-July 1942, Littledale quickly befriended another recent arrival, Lieutenant-Commander W. L. “Billie” Stephens, D.S.C., R.N.V.R., who had been captured in the St. Nazaire raid. And fortuitously for posterity’s sake - though no Colditz reference work is short of material regarding Littledale - Stephens later wrote a private account of their subsequent escape (copied relevant pages included). Here, then, his opening tribute:

‘Ronnie Littledale had, like me, only recently arrived at Colditz, after a truly remarkable escaping career, during the course of which he had been in practically every country in Europe without ever having had that little extra bit of luck which would have got him across the frontier into a neutral country. I must say something further about Ronnie, he was such a very outstanding person in every way. He had had a very hard time both during his periods at liberty as well as on recapture by the Germans, and when I met him he was dreadfully thin and looking very tired and worn. Despite all the hardships he had suffered he never lost his incentive to escape; this was his one idea and it governed his whole life. He thought about it all day long and I am sure he must have dreamed about it most nights ... ’
The Plan

Stephens continues:

‘It was during one of our walks down to the park that Ronnie and I got our big idea; the kitchen, where the German cooks prepared our food, faced the court-yard on the one side and the Kommandantur Building on the other; we knew that we could get into it and we thought that if we could saw through the window bars and get out on the other side, we might, if we were lucky, avoid being seen by the sentries ... The window we proposed to get out of was some twelve feet from the ground and backing up against it was a “lean-to” affair with a corrugated iron roof, which was used for storing coal. There were three sentries standing or, as was supposed to be the case, patrolling the roadway which ran past this “lean-to” hut. After we got out of the window we should be in full view of two of these men as we crawled across the roof; we should then have to drop from the roof to the ground, a matter of about eight feet, cross the road on which the sentries were standing, passing within six yards of one of them, before we could gain the comparative safety of the Kommandantur garden. This was all made more difficult by the fact that the whole area was brilliantly floodlit and should the sentries chance to look in the direction of the coal house roof they could not fail to see us. I confess that I thought the scheme a little wild and the more people I talked to about it the more convinced I became that I was right. Ronnie, however, was absolutely determined to try it, basing all his hopes on the fact that the guards, who had probably been pacing up and down that self same beat for months if not years, would never think of anyone trying to get away with such a crazy idea and would consequently be slack; that they were slack there was no doubt. We used to take it in turns to watch them at nights and we found they spent most of their time stamping their feet to keep warm and furtively lighting cigarettes. Ronnie was absolutely determined to have a go at it and I soon found myself fired by his enthusiasm ... ’

A meeting of the Escape Committee having been convened, it was decided to give the scheme an airing, though the team was increased to four members, namely the addition of Captain P. R. “Pat” Reid, R.A.S.C., in lieu of his skills as a locksmith, and Flight Lieutenant H. D. “Hank” Wardle, R.C.A.F., to represent the Air Force. Clothing and false papers were quickly set in motion, Littledale and Stephens adopting the identities of French workmen returning home on leave by train - ‘and we decided to go flat out to make Switzerland in three or four days’ - when Stephens pointed out to Littledale that it was customary for rail travellers to exclaim “Heil Hitler” as they boarded or got off a train, the latter strongly objected: ‘I don’t mind holding up my hand but I’m b------d if I’ll say “Heil Hitler”! And so we compromised.’
Home Run

Of subsequent events, “Pat” Reid wrote in Colditz - The Full Story:

‘After evening Appell on 14 October we all made the highly dangerous run to the ktichen: Malcolm McColm was with us to cover our traces. Balaklava helmets and gloves covered out white skins. Hank and I got out through the window, made our way across the low roofs and dropped to the ground. A British orchestra - which the Germans had had several nights to get used to - was playing in the Saalhaus, conducted by Douglas Bader. Bader had a clear view of the sentry for the whole of his beat. The idea was to use the music for signalling: when they stopped playing it meant the escapers could cross his path.

The orchestra was playing as arranged, but each time I started across on the cessation of the music, it started again. Then I heard German voices. It was an off duty officer on his rounds. Suspicious, he was questioning the sentry. Five minutes later the music stopped again, but this time I was caught napping, and dared not risk a late dash. I waited a long time and the music did not begin again. Obviously things had gone wrong for the orchestra. I decided to wait an hour, to let suspicions die down.

In the hope that we could hide in that time from any passing Goon, I tried the handle of the door in the angle of the wall where we were hiding. It opened, and we entered warily. It was pitch-black inside. We went through a second door and took refuge in a room which seemed to contain no more than rubbish.

When the hour was up, we crept out again, and moved to the end of the wall as the sentry’s footsteps indicated that he was turning on his beat. I peered round the corner, saw the soldier ten yards off marching away, and with Hank close behind tiptoed across the pathway (we wore socks over our shoes). Soon we were hiding in a small shrubbery near the entrance to the Kommandantur. Ronnie and Billie clambered across the roofs from the kitchen when they saw us cross the path, and in no time we were all in the pit.

My next job was to see if I could open the door into the building from which Dominic Bruce had escaped. It was fifteen yards away. I reached it, and apart from a hair-raising interruption when I heard Priem returning from an evening in town, I worked for an hour without success. We would have to find another way out.

A tunnel led from our pit under a verandah. We felt our way along until we came to a cellar. At the far end was an air-vent or chimney flue. At first it seemed impossible for a man to negotiate this shaft, but after a few moments of despair I found that by removing some of my clothing I could slide up easily enough. I could see that it led to a bared opening at the level of the ground outside - that is, on the far side of the building, where lay the moat for which we were heading. One of the bars was loose in its mortar socket; I freed one end and bent it nearly double. We could just squeeze through!

It was an enormous struggle, and we each had to strip naked, but by 3.30 a.m. we were all lying in bushes on the moat side of the Kommandantur. Indeed we were on the very edge of the moat. We peered over. Luckily the moat wall was stepped into three successive descents; the drops were about twelve feet and the steps were about two yards wide. We made a couple of sheet-ropes and climbed down, fully clothed once more. It was 4.30 a.m. By 5.15 a.m. we were over the outer boundary wall - none too soon, because we had a long way to go before dawn ... ’

The daring breakout of “The Four” had quickly prompted the appearance of a Gestapo “wanted” poster on 16 October, complete with their photographs and descriptions - thus ‘LITTLEDALE, Ronald, Major. Born 14 June 1902 at Sandiway. P.O.W. No. 811.XXI D. Height 1.78m; stocky; mousey hair; blue eyes ... All means are to be taken to capture the escapers and to prevent them crossing the border!’

But, as confirmed by M.I. 9 records, team Littledale-Stephens was already ahead of the game:


‘After separating from Reid and Wardle, we walked into Rochlitz, which was reached at 0730 hours. We were wearing civilian clothes brought in our attache cases. At 1805 hours we left the train for Chemnitz, arriving at 0920 hours. We took tickets for Stuttgart. We were questioned by the railway police, but our papers were satisfactory. We left Chemnitz at 0940 hours. We had to change at Hof at 1500 hours and until 1930 hours, when the Danzig express left for Nurenberg, we walked round in the town and drank beer in the station restaurant. We reached Nurenberg at 2300 hours.

We slept in the station restaurant until 0530 hours on 16 October, when we left by Schnellzug (fast train) for Stuttgart arriving at 10.15 hours. We had been told by a Polish officer in the camp that Stuttgart main station was strictly controlled, and to avoid booking from there to the frontier, so we went by train to the suburb of Esslingden, where we travelled by electric train to Plockingen, Reutlingen and Tubingen. From Tubingen we went to Tuttlingen. We took the wrong road out of Tuttlingen and had to spend the night of 16-17 October in a wood 6 k.m. S.E. of the town.

At daylight we made out our position by aid of a small map and home-made compass, and we went on foot across country to the railway just south of Immendigen. Here we rested until dark, when we moved on down the valley, in which the railway ran to a wood above Engen.

We lay up in the wood until dark on 18 October. The day was uneventful except that a man was shooting rooks with a rifle, and later a terrier came to look for us, but made no sign. We walked in the fields parallel to the railway and came into sight of Singen shunting yard about midnight. We retraced our steps and in crossing over the main line by a bridge were stopped by a sentry. We showed him our papers and satisfied him that we had lost our way to Singen station. After crossing the railway further north, we found the point where the Helsingen-Singen road meets the wood, shown to us as leading to the frontier.

We followed the wood, but it eventually became clear that we were wrong. We therefore lay up until dawn on 19 October and then reconnoitred to fix our position. Having done that we lay up until dark, and then, following a more easterly branch of the wood, arrived on the frontier road at 2100 hours. We were challenged by a frontier sentry, but owing to his credulity we were able to move away. We remained hidden until the moon went down, and crossed to the wood north of Ramsen, where we arrived about 0300 hours on 20 October. We remained hidden until dawn and then reported to the Swiss police in Ramsen.’

Reid and Wardle had also made Switzerland the previous evening, thus contributing to a record home-run tally for Colditz. But further adventures remained, the escapers having to continue their journey from the safety of the British Consulate in Berne to Spain, via France. Littledale was the first to depart, in company with another escaper, Flight Lieutenant H. N. “Bill” Fowler, who had exited Colditz in September (see Dix Noonan Webb, 22 September 2006, for his Honours & Awards):

‘They crossed the Swiss frontier into France on 25 January 1943. The British consular staff in Geneva arranged this crossing into France at Annemasse. A guide took them in hand. They crossed the Spanish frontier on 30 January. They marched the whole day, reaching the La Jungqueras-Figueras road at 4 p.m., and, while crossing it, they were arrested by Spanish soldiers who were patrolling the district in a lorry picking up numerous refugees in the neighbourhood. They seemed familiar with this routine and were not even armed.

They were taken to Figueras, where their heads were shaved and they were inoculated (Bill was tenth in line for the same needle). They were locked up in a cell with fourteen other men for almost three weeks. There was no furniture and little light; a single bucket, removed once every twenty-four hours, was provided for all natural functions. Prisoners were sick intermittently all day long. Two men died. Not until 22 February were they turned over to the British consul’ (Reid’s Colditz - The Full Story, refers).

Having then been driven to Gibraltar, Littledale finally reached the U.K. on 24 May 1943, his resultant debrief by M.I. 9 running to 10 pages - a debrief that also resulted in the award of his D.S.O., which honour he received at Buckingham Palace on 18 April 1944. He had, meanwhile, returned to regimental duty.

Killed in action

As C.O. of the 2nd Battalion, K.R.R.C., Littledale participated in the heavy fighting around Falaise in August 1944, glimpses of him in action being found in the regimental history. Thus a close shave when a shell landed in soft ground as his jeep went by and the occasion he confronted a surrendering German sniper - ‘Colonel Ronnie seized his rifle and fairly pumped him for information in what I thought was an unhealthy place. I think they were rather shaken.’

Sadly, too, the regimental history records Littledale’s death in action at Airaines on 1 September 1944:

‘Lieutenant-Colonel Littledale went forward with Major Bernays (O.C. ‘D’ Company) and the Anti-Tank Battery Commander and an escort of machine-gun carriers. They went down the main road, and rounding the bend on the southern edge of the village a German anti-tank gun opened up at point-blank range.

Colonel Littledale and the Anti-Tank Battery Commander and the Colonel’s driver were killed outright; Major Bernays, managed to back his scout car, and got the rest of the party away. Colonel Littledale’s death was a great blow to us all. During his month in command he had shown himself a very able Commanding Officer, and a man whom every Rifleman had grown to love.’


The same source continues:

‘At dawn next morning ‘A’ Company sent a patrol to Airaines and found most of the enemy had gone. The village was occupied and 22 prisoners taken. Colonel Littledale’s half-track was found. The bodies had been removed by the French to a civilian hospital. The Mayor said that they would like to have a public funeral of the “British Officers and Tommies” who had given their lives for the liberation of their village. The funeral was arranged for the next day ... eye witnesses say it was a most impressive sight. The whole village turned out and marched in procession behind the coffins, which were draped in Union Jacks. The flowers were piled high on the graves, and it seemed that every family in the village had given a wreath or a bunch of flowers to pay tribute.’

The final words, which appeared in a tribute published in
The Times, rest with “Billie” Stephens, his old Colditz comrade and fellow escaper:

‘He was one of the finest, most loyal and most unselfish men I have met during my entire life. His wonderful example and his absolute single-mindedness to his duty were a great help to us all ... He died for his ideals: he would ask for no finer ending.’

Sold with a large quantity of related research and copies of P. R. Reid’s Colditz and Gris Davies-Scourfield’s In Presence of My Foes.