Lieutenant Colonel John Congreve, who died aged 79, was awarded an immediate DSO on 22/23 November 1941 when commanding ‘C’ Squadron of the 7th Hussars in the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, Libya.
Five days earlier Auchinleck had begun the ‘Crusaders’ offensive to relieve the besieged port of Tobruk and to clear the Germans and Italians out of Libya: the capture of the high ground south of Sidi Rezegh was essential to this plan.
The operation was ultimately successful but the early stages were costly; the German aircraft, guns and tanks were much superior to those of the British.
After the British had captured Sidi Rezegh, Rommel organised a disconcerting counter-stroke, using the full power of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. The 7th Hussars, which had already been dive-bombed by Stukas, stood in the path of the combined onslaught and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy armoured columns, although they themselves were totally destroyed.
The 7th’s tanks were left smoking wrecks and the survivors of the regiment rescued the wounded under a continuous stream of machine gun fire.
In the course of the battle Congreve, in the leading Crusader tank, had the microphone he was using to broadcast orders shot out of his hand; he was unscathed. Later he was drawing close to the Panzers when a direct hit destroyed his tank, killing every man in it except himself. He saw that there was nothing he could do for the others, climbed into another tank and continued with the battle.
Once again his tank was knocked out; once more, although badly shaken, he climbed into another. Seeing that the tank containing his second-in-command had been hit, Congreve left his own tank and, under heavy fire, dragged the second-in-command from the burning wreck.
Congreve was awarded a DSO; many thought a VC would have been more appropriate.
When Rommel withdrew the 7th was told to form a squadron of American M3 Honey tanks but was sent to Cairo for full reequipping before using them in active operations.
The 7th was then despatched to Burma, where the scanty British force had begun a 1,300-mile fighting withdrawal in the face of a determined and well-equipped Japanese army.
In spite of the difficult, unfamiliar terrain, the 7th performed the classic cavalry role of protecting the flanks, harassing the attackers and rescuing units which were on the verge of being cut off or overwhelmed. They destroyed roadblocks that the Japanese had set up behind the retreating forces, and preserved bridges which would otherwise have been destroyed.
Congreve was in his element in this mobile battle, in which speed of thought and shrewd judgment were vital. He also maintained high morale among his men, which was of great importance since the Japanese had carefully infiltrated the region and it was difficult to tell friend from foe.
Wavell described the performance of the 7th as being vital to the successful withdrawal of the British force. In the process, only one tank of the 7th survived. Nicknamed ‘The Curse of Scotland’, it later became the Command Tank of the Indian 7th Cavalry and by the end of the war had fought its way back to Rangoon.
The 7th Hussars were then dispatched to Iraq as part of the force to deter possible German aggression but Congreve was soon sent to the Middle East Staff College at Haifa, from which he emerged as GSO 2 (Operations) posted to the 8th Army in Italy. He did not enjoy being a staff officer and referred to the HQ as the “monkey house”.
He was then given a more exciting appointment as one of Montgomery’s liaison officers, with the task of visiting various parts of the forward areas and reporting back to Montgomery on the state of the battle.
1st May 1944 Congreve returned to the regiment, now in Italy, as OC ‘A’ Squadron: by July he was second-in-command and by October CO. The regiment fought from Pescara to the Gothic line, spent several months in the Winter Line as infantry (which Congreve relished), trained with amphibious tanks, fought in the battle of the Po plains and crossed the river, finally reaching and liberating Venice.
At the end of the campaign he was appointed OBE: many thought it should have been a Bar to his DSO.
John Congreve was born May 13th, 1914, into a family of military distinction. One forebear was Sir William Congreve. designer of the highly efficient rockets which were used to bombard Boulogne, Copenhagen and Danely in the Napoleonic wars, and were referred to in The Star Spangled Banner, the
American national anthem, as the “rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting air”. He also invented armour plating for warships.
In 1899 another ancestor, General Sir Walter Congreve, had won the Victoria Cross at Colenso, and his son, Billy, won the VC, the DSO and the MC before being killed by a sniper in 1918.
Young John’s father was a tea planter in Ceylon and the boy was mainly brought up by his uncle; he was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. After being commissioned into the 7th Hussars he spent the early part of his military service in Egypt.
From 1950 to 1951 Congreve was brigade major of the 9th Armoured Brigade, TA, and then commanded the regiment again at Fallingbostel and in Hong Kong. In 1956 he became chief instructor at the Senior Officers’ School, then served on the staff in Salisbury Plain District before becoming GSO 1 in 1st Division.
An excellent shot and trout fisherman (who had also caught a 33lb salmon in the Wye), Congreve was renowned as a man who never sat down. At school he had been a useful boxer; he once defeated a boy who later killed a tiger at close quarters.
Congreve’s polo handicap in Egypt was three, and he won several squash championships.
During the Italian campaign, he had noticed that horses had been turned loose by the retreating Germans, and acquired six, transporting them in 3-ton trucks converted into horseboxes.
By the end of the campaign, the number of horses unofficially on the strength had risen to 60 and when the fighting stopped Congreve organised a series of equestrian events which kept his men entertained and actively employed. Thanks to Congreve’s enterprise men who had never before seen a horse at close
quarters rapidly became skilled in the equestrian arts.
John Congreve, sometimes known as Jungle John’ by the officers and ‘Old Bloody’ by the troopers (with whom he was very popular), had a somewhat irascible temperament and never hesitated to speak his mind; this did not endear him to senior officers and on more than one occasion he came near to being
court-martialled. He was particularly alert to any interference detrimental to his regiment.
He was, however, likeable, versatile and Imperturbable under fire: in Italy, a mortar bomb which landed close to him was greeted with an outburst of language which made even hardened cavalrymen wince.
In 1959 he retired from the army and managed the 2,500-acre Hales Estate in Shropshire, where he showed a special interest in forestry. He also ran the area’s TA, was a reforming chairman of the local prison and was a churchwarden for 30 years.
He got married in 1944, to Judith Baker-Baker; they had a son.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Daily Telegraph