Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Woollcombe

‘As a fighting commander he was beyond praise
– courageous, courteous,
loyal and an inspiration to all ‘

(Extract from a letter written to Mrs Violet Woollcombe, Geoffrey Woollcombe’s mother,
by  Lieutenant Colonel D B Robertson 2G)

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Harley Douglas Woollcombe was born on 27 November 1898, son of G D Woollcombe, a solicitor of Cranmere, Newton Abbot, Devon.  He was the cousin of Captain MHA Woollcombe who served in the 3rd Battalion, commanding A Company at the Battle of Tamandu and also of Captain DB Harley of the 1st Battalion who was Signals Officer at the Battle of Monte Cassino.  He was educated at Marlborough College.  He never married.

Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Woollcombe

Geoffrey Woollcombe was gazetted to the Unattached List for the Indian Army from the Cadet College, Wellington, Tamil Nadu, South India and posted to the 2nd Goorkhas.  In November 1916 he joined the 2nd Battalion in Dehra Dun. He was cross-posted to the 3rd Battalion when it was raised in June 1917 as Quartermaster, but owing to ill health he shortly afterwards rejoined the 2nd Battalion when it went to Burhan near Rawalpindi in the North West Frontier Province.

In March 1918 Woollcombe was with the 2nd Battalion when it joined the Marri Field Force in Baluchistan.  He also served in the Third Afghan War (May-August 1919) for which he was mentioned in despatches.  He was appointed officiating Adjutant and confirmed in that appointment in October 1921 and remained at battalion duties until April 1933 when he officiated as GSO3 (a Captain’s staff appointment) at HQ Peshawar District until November 1933, taking part in operations against the Mohmand and Bajaur tribesmen.  From April to August 1936 he temporarily commanded the 2nd Battalion 9th Gurkha Rifles.  He was subsequently Assistant Military Secretary to the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Northern Command, General Sir Kenneth Wigram of the 2nd Goorkhas (q.v.) from October 1936 to October 1940.  He then rejoined the 2nd Battalion at Razmak, Waziristan.

Woollcombe was appointed Commandant of the 2nd Battalion in January 1941 and moved with it in April 1941 to Bolarum Camp near Secunderabad where it was warned to prepare for operations in North Africa.  But in July 1941 it was mobilized for Malaya.  It sailed on the SS Egra from Bombay and in September 1941 arrived at Port Swettenham prior to moving to Ipoh in Perak State.

The Japanese landed on 8 December 1941.  The 2nd Battalion, part of 28th Indian Brigade, came to 24hrs notice to move but the planned pre-emptive strike by the British never materialised.  Instead the Battalion was ordered to defend Alor Star and the airfield at Sungei Patani.  The frontages were too great to defend against the speed, effective use of tanks and outflanking tactics of the Japanese, which surprised and overwhelmed the British forces.  Most battalions (the 2nd Battalion being an exception) were soon down to only 300 men from their normal complement of about 600.

There then followed a series of contacts with the enemy as the British withdrew down the western coast of the Malay peninsula.  The 2nd Battalion fought without rest or relief, acquitting itself well during this otherwise disastrous campaign, in large measure because of Woollcombe’s inspiring leadership.  During seven weeks of harrowing and exhausting withdrawal he commanded his battalion ‘with skill and temerity of purpose which elicited the trust and regard of all ranks’.  The British eventually withdrew to Singapore but on 6th  February 1942 the Japanese crossed the Causeway and began to probe the perimeter established by the British in the northern part of the island.  The 2nd Battalion denied the enemy any opportunity to breach that part of the perimeter for which it was responsible.  Woollcombe, who had become very sick, reluctantly handed over command to his Second-in-Command, Major DB Robertson.  The 2nd Battalion fought on bravely, but on 17th February was obliged to surrender alongside the other British Forces, and entered Japanese captivity.

Woollcombe had received a secret order to form part of an ‘escape‘ party of 400 selected specialists and senior officers who were to be withdrawn to India on a Royal Navy destroyer, to ensure that their expertise was not lost in the anticipated fall of British Malaya.  However, the docks came under heavy enemy air and artillery bombardment which meant all naval ships had to sail in order to avoid being caught at the quayside.  The escape party commandeered local pilot cutters and sailed for Sumatra, then believed to be still in Dutch hands.  On arrival Woollcombe was transferred to a Dutch gunboat but when its fuel ran out they were obliged to make their way overland using jungle paths to the port town of Padang located on the south coast.  By this time he was very sick indeed and had to be carried for much of the time.  The available evidence indicates that Woollcombe managed to leave Padang aboard the Dutch freighter SS Rooseboom which was later sunk by a Japanese submarine as it was en route to Ceylon.  His death on 28 February 1942 is recorded as ‘presumed drowned‘.

After the war, in November 1945, Robertson, who had been Acting Commandant 2nd Battalion during the time spent in captivity, wrote to Woollcombe’s mother about the fate of her son.  In July 1944 he had interviewed a new arrival at the Changi prisoner of war camp who claimed to be one of only four survivors of the sinking of the Rooseboom.  He remembered a ‘Gurkha Colonel‘ and accurately described Woollcombe.  This witness, a Lieutenant WG Gibson of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, was later found to be something of a Walter Mitty character who on arrival at Changi had promote himself from Corporal to Lieutenant and whose 1952 book about the sinking of the Rooseboom was riddled with inconsistencies and untruths.  Major Robertson did not take to Gibson although he saw no reason to disbelieve what he said about Geoffrey Woollcombe.

In this letter Robertson described his former Commanding Officer:

‘He will be a terrible loss to the Regiment to which he gave such devoted and invaluable service.  He was the finest type of Regimental Officer and throughout his service set a magnificent example to everyone.  As a fighting commander he was beyond praise – courageous, courteous, loyal and an inspiration to all.  Geoffrey came through to the end of a campaign full of disaster from start to finish which inevitably put an intolerable strain on commanders and was prolific in recriminations, retaining the respect, admiration and affection of every one of his officers and men without exception. Other commanders could claim one or even two of these, but few could have retained all three under such circumstances’

In 2019 Brigadier Christopher Bullock, late 2nd Goorkhas, arranged for a plaque commemorating Geoffrey Woollcombe to be unveiled in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Ashbury, near the now-demolished family house of the Woollcombe family, who had owned land in the area.  Members of the Regiment and the Woollcombe family were present and the last post and reveille were sounded on the silver bugle Geoffrey Woollcombe had presented to the Regiment many years previously.  A full account of the event was published in the 2020 edition of the Regimental Journal, ‘The Sirmooree’.

The memorial plaque


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