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From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] COLDWELL-HORSEFALL: John Henry Coldwell-Horsfall18/12/2006
Date: Sun, 28 Jan 2007 03:21:45 -0800
Colonel John Coldwell-Horsfall
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 22/01/2007
Colonel John Coldwell-Horsfall, who has died aged 91, won a Military Cross
in France in 1940, and a bar to his MC in Tunisia in 1943, while serving
with the Royal Irish Fusiliers; in 1944, by then commanding a battalion of
the London Irish Rifles, he won a DSO at Cassino.
In May 1940, during the retreat to Dunkirk, Horsfall - a pre-war regular
officer - was commanding his regiment's D Company, which was defending key
bridges over the river Dendre at Ninove, west of Brussels. The Germans
enjoyed great superiority in air power and field artillery and Horsfall's
"warriors" - as he liked to call his men - were for much of the time under
heavy fire. When German machine-gun detachments infiltrated around his
battalion's flank, Horsfall, revolver in hand, led a counter-attack that
drove them off with heavy casualties.
Having held the bridges until the forward elements of the British
Expeditionary Force had withdrawn across them, Horsfall had to extricate his
own company and fall back to new positions on the La Bassée canal at Gorre.
A believer in aggressive forward defence, Horsfall impressed on his men the
importance of killing the enemy at the earliest opportunity. His positions
on the south side of the canal had great success throughout the ensuing
battle, enabling the remnants of the BEF to pass through.
After holding the bridges until the last possible moment, Horsfall burned a
number of canal barges that might have been used by the enemy, and withdrew
five miles to a position guarding bridges over the river Lys, where he
fought yet another holding action. By now the BEF was surrounded, and after
fighting their way down the corridor to Dunkirk Horsfall and his company
were evacuated with the rest of their battalion. For his conduct at the
three defence lines during which, in the words of the citation, he
"displayed conspicuous coolness and exemplary cheerfulness" Horsfall was
awarded his first MC.
By February 1943 Horsfall's regiment was fighting in Tunisia as part of the
38th (Irish) Brigade, with the 78th "Battleaxe" division of First Army. Near
Bou Arada on the night of February 28/March 1 Horsfall - now a major - led a
patrol consisting of his D Company, less one platoon, to harrass enemy
supply lines. Despite taking casualties from an enemy machine-gun post,
Horsfall led his men on to a position close to an enemy-occupied farm and
succeeded in ambushing a lorry full of Germans. While withdrawing, his
patrol managed, by skilful use of ground, to capture two men from an enemy
fighting patrol which had been sent out to deal with them. On the afternoon
of March 2 Horsfall took out a second patrol which he led over mountainous
terrain five miles beyond the British front lines. As darkness fell he
carried out a thorough recce of the area, bringing back much valuable
information. For these two actions he was awarded a bar to his MC.
Further heavy fighting followed before Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered,
and in an attack on the mountainous feature of Kef el Tior, Horsfall was
wounded by a grenade. After three months out of the line he rejoined the
Irish Brigade in Italy as second-in-command of 2nd Battalion, the London
Irish Rifles. The brigade was assembled on the line of the Rapido river at
Cassino. The Germans were still holding the monastery, which overlooked the
whole battlefield, and it had been decided that the Irish Brigade should try
to break through the enemy's Gustav Line up the Liri Valley, on the southern
flank. The 6th Inniskillings began the assault; 2nd London Irish were to
follow up and push through, but Horsfall's commanding officer was killed on
the start line. Horsfall took over command of the battalion in time to
command its attack on the village of Sinagoga on the Gustav Line itself.
Supported by divisional artillery and a dozen tanks of the 16th/5th Lancers,
Horsfall's men seized their objectives with outstanding speed, but it was
only after a four-hour battle, in which the battalion captured many
prisoners and knocked out a number of German self-propelled guns, that the
position was secured.
By then H Company - which had seized the village - had lost 100 men and was
only 12 men strong. "I'm afraid I've lost almost all my company," Desmond
Woods, the H Company commander said to Horsfall when they met in Sinagoga.
"Never mind," replied Horsfall. "You're here, which is what I told you to
do - well done!" For his conduct of this crucial battle in which, in the
words of the citation, he "commanded his battalion with great skill and set
a magnificent example of personal bravery and leadership", Horsfall was
awarded an immediate DSO.
John Henry Coldwell-Horsfall was born at Putney on February 21 1915, and
educated at Harrow. A keen shot - he was chosen for the school shooting
Eight in 1931 - he went on to Sandhurst and, in 1935, was commissioned into
1st Battalion the Royal Irish Fusiliers, known as the "Faughs" from their
battle cry "Faugh-a-Ballagh" ("Clear the Way"). In 1936 he went with his
regiment to Palestine to help quell the Arab revolt. From 1937 to 1939 they
were in Guernsey and Jersey where Horsfall devoted his energies to teaching
the men to shoot, bringing most of them up to marksman standard. In October
1939 the battalion went to France, as part of the BEF and in the following
spring took part in the retreat to Dunkirk. Back in England the battalion
was initially deployed on the south coast, and then began a period of
In November 1942 - after a period of intensive training in Scotland - the
Faughs took part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa,
and the subsequent advance to Tunis. To help keep his men fit on the ship
going out to North Africa, Horsfall - a keen upholder of tradition -
organised Irish dancing on the upper decks, to tunes provided by the
regimental pipers. During his time as a company commander in Tunisia
Horsfall was to demonstrate those powers of leadership which were to make
him - when he took over command of the London Irish in Italy - one of a trio
of Irish Brigade commanding officers who achieved almost legendary status,
the others being TPD "Pat" Scott and HEN "Bala" Bredin.
Under fire, as one of his platoon commanders recalled, Horsfall would walk
about "as unconcerned as if on a stroll in the park". A tall man, of
aristocratic bearing, he generally wore a peaked cap, only donning a steel
helmet when leading an attack.
After the fall of Cassino, Horsfall remained in command of the London Irish
until the 78th Division was withdrawn to Egypt, where he was appointed to
the command his own battalion, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers. Back in Italy
in autumn 1944, they were in time to take part in the fierce fighting for
the Gothic Line. In December 1944 Horsfall was wounded in both legs during
an attack on Casa Tamagnin - wounds which kept him out of the remainder of
the fighting in Italy. In 1946 Horsfall returned to England with his wife
Mary, a Third Officer WRNS whom he had married in Alexandria, to take over
the running of the family firm, Webster and Horsfall of Hay Mills,
Birmingham. The firm, a manufacturer of Atlantic cable, mining ropes and
many types of industrial wire, was in severe difficulties at a time of
rising post-war demand.
Horsfall immediately embarked on a programme of modernisation, scrapping old
plant, reducing overmanning whilst maintaining good relations with the
trades unions, and taking no salary himself until the firm was back in
profit and had cleared its debts. It was back in profit by the end of the
year, and by 1966 was enjoying the prosperity it had had in its heyday under
his father. In 1964 Horsfall renewed his connection with his beloved Faughs,
becoming Honorary Colonel of the 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers (TA) and later -
when the Irish Territorial Battalions merged - of the North Irish Militia.
He was High Sheriff of the West Midlands in 1976 and a member of the ancient
archery society, the Woodmen of Arden.
>From 1954 much of his life was occupied with running the Dalchosnie estate
in Perthshire, which he bought in order to pursue his interests of shooting
and stalking. Horsfall wrote three books on his wartime experiences Say Not
the Struggle (1977) about Dunkirk, The Wild Geese are Flighting (1976) about
Tunisia, and Fling our Banner to the Wind (1978) about Italy. He also wrote
The Ironmasters of Penns (1971) a history of Webster and Horsfall, to
celebrate its 270th anniversary.
John Coldwell-Horsfall, who died on December 18, married, in 1945, Mary
Charlotte Poole, who survives him together with their daughter. Their son
was killed while training in Scotland with the Royal Irish Rangers in 1973.
|[W-OBITS] COLDWELL-HORSEFALL: John Henry Coldwell-Horsfall18/12/2006 by "Peter McCrae" <>|