Dicky Spender was a talented, larger than life figure who was killed aged 21 while charging German positions in Tunisia during Operation Torch in 1943. His loss was keenly felt by men and officers of the 2nd Battalion. Victor Dover, a fellow officer in the battalion, recorded many years later: “His death left a gap of friendship which was never filled. A character who was so much more colourful than fiction.” His friends saw him as a kind, sensitive, energetic and happy person. These positive qualities endured even during the intense fighting and hardships of Operation Torch. One soldier who served under him commented: “He was different from any other officer I served with…. a real character and a brave man.”
The youngest of four children and born in 1921, he was educated at King Edward VI School, Stratford from 1930 to 1940 where he was Captain of School. One of the School’s Houses is named after him.
Spender was an accomplished sportsman: a keen oarsman who loved rowing on the Avon, a good boxer and a better than average rugby forward according to his contemporaries. In addition he was a musician and a published poet held in high regard. He was once referred to in the Daily Telegraph as the Rupert Brooke of the Second World War and his poems were published by Sidgwick and Jackson in 3 books:‘Laughing Blood’ (1942) ‘Parachute Battalion; last poems from England and Tunisia’ (1943) ‘The Collected Poems‘(1944)
He enlisted at the age of 19, even though he had been accepted as an Exhibitioner in Modern History at St Catherine’s College Oxford, and was initially posted to the Glosters. He then attended 163 Officer Cadet Training Unit (RMC) Sandhurst from January to April 1941 and was subsequently commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles and posted to a battalion of the London Irish Rifles (which had been amalgamated into the Ulster Rifles in 1937). In the autumn of 1941 he became an instructor, first with 47 Division and then at the GHQ Battle School. While at the Battle School he ‘starred’ in an Army Training Film called ‘The Fighting Section Leader’ taking the part of ‘Casey’. He joined the 2nd Parachute Battalion in September 1942.
The 2nd Battalion was transported to North Africa by ship for Operation Torch and on the 29 November 1942 was parachuted behind enemy lines to destroy aircraft at Depienne and Oudna airfields and link up with the British 1st Army at St. Cyprien. However, the advance of the 1st Army was delayed and the battalion found itself heavily outnumbered 60 miles behind enemy lines. The two day withdrawal back to Allied lines cost the battalion 16 officers and 250 men. Following this bloody retreat, from which the Regiment gained a battle honour, Spender wrote his poem ‘The Parachute Battalion’.
Subsequently the battalions of the 1st Parachute Brigade were committed to an infantry role; in February and March the 2nd Battalion was involved in intense fighting with German, Italian and Austrian forces in North East Tunisia and the battalion regularly sent out patrols into enemy held positions.
In these early days, before the Regiment was issued with the distinctive maroon beret now associated with airborne forces, soldiers wore the head dress of their parent regiment. As a platoon commander in C Company, Spender would often be seen going out on night patrol wearing his distinctive Caubeen with its green hackle (see his photo) and his black thorn walking stick. On one occasion they came back in through a sector occupied by French soldiers who were shocked to see him playing a flute at the head of a column of weary British Paras!
Later the battalion was moved to the Tamera Valley and instructed to take over a hill feature with steep sides at Sidi Mohammed el Kassim from the Lincolns, which was covered in cork oak woods. Unsurprisingly this home became known to the men as ‘Cork Wood’.
During the 1st phase of the Battle of Tamera the enemy had launched a number of infantry assaults, including three major attacks, in an attempt to dislodge the Paras from their defensive positions. Although all of these had failed, the rate of attrition on the 2nd Battalion and the rest of the Brigade was unsustainable. From the 8th March to the 18th March the 2nd Battalion had suffered more than 150 casualties.
On the 18th March orders were received to withdraw to new positions known as ‘the Pimples’. The plan was that the battalion would rendezvous at a nearby viaduct, march alongside a river (Oued el Madene), join up with a railway line at Nefza station until eventually they reached their new destination.
The withdrawal along the river bed, christened ‘Shit Creek” by the men, was an exhausting process, wading through water up to their chests with rifles held above their head while being heavily shelled and mortared by the Germans. Fortunately a large percentage of the shells failed to explode inspiring Dicky Spender with his indomitable humour to quip:‘Thud In the Mud Another Dud Thank Gud.’
But for these duds casualties would have been significantly higher.
The 2nd Battalion handed over its position on the Pimples to the 2/5 Leics on the 19 March to take 6 days well earned rest at Tabarka.
The battalion was back into action again on the 27th March taking over from the area held by the 2/5th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry with an objective to reoccupy the positions previously held at Sidi Mohammed el Kassim (Cork Wood). This engagement is also known as the second phase of the Battle of Tamera.
Spender took part in further intense fighting on the 27th and 28th March as the battalion struggled to achieve its objective against fierce enemy resistance.
C Company met strong opposition as they proceeded up the hill and eventually faced a counter attack by Witzig’s parachute engineer troops reinforced with ordinary infantry. At one point the counter attack almost enveloped C Company’s right flank and Dicky Spender responded by charging enemy machine gun positions to push them back. According to his Commanding Officer, Spender killed 4 Germans in his charge before he was slain. He was one of 16 men from the 2nd Battalion killed in the assault.
The battalion achieved the objective of occupying its old positions on the 29th March.
Dicky Spender is buried at the Tabaraka Ras Rajel Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery (Grave Reference 3.B.20)