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The search for our father: Guardsman Arthur Thomas Dench

Guardsman Arthur Thomas Dench

Reconciling the various conflicting sources of information

There were two major problems in determining the final days of our Dad and the manner of his death in the Battle for Termoli: (i) whether Dad was a member of the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS) or of the 2nd SAS Regiment at the time of his death; and (ii) what exactly was the sequence of events leading to his death. The solution to the first problem only emerged after consideration of the second problem.

Which regiment? The records of the Grenadier Guards Association show Dad as posted to the 2nd SAS from 18 September 1943 until he met his death on 5 October 1943. They admit, however, that their records are ‘…not always 100% accurate owing to the time lag from actual posting to the information being promulgated.’ (private communication). The posting, however, is confirmed by Dad’s last letter home during those eighteen days giving his address as ’H.Q. Squadron 2nd SAS’. This is contradicted by the SAS Regimental Association who report that Dad was ‘…a member of the SRS formed from volunteers of 1st and 2nd SAS, who was killed on an operation called Termoli in Italy on 5.10.43’ (private communication). I have found no evidence that the SRS was ever a combination of 1st SAS and 2nd SAS soldiers other than the fact that the two groups of 2nd SAS soldiers, in Termoli at the same time on other operations, joined temporarily with the SRS to repulse the German counter-attack.

Which sequence? I researched the World Wide Web extensively, particularly the ‘Battle for Termoli’ site. The information that I gleaned there and from reading more than twenty books about the SAS enabled me to assemble five key source documents which needed to be reconciled, with each with other, if I was to construct a plausible sequence of events. These were:

1) the letter of consolation to our mother from a senior officer giving details of the circumstances of Dad’s death;

2) the book ‘Winged Dagger’, a first person account of Roy Farran’s campaign with the SAS covering his group’s part in the Battle for Termoli;

3) Operation ‘Devon’, in Mars & Minerva, Journal of the SAS Regiment, Vol 6 No 3 Summer 1984, which gives a detailed account of the participation of the SRS (formerly the 1st SAS) in the Battle for Termoli;

4) War Diary WO 218/176 ‘Taranto to Termoli’, reporting the participation of ‘D’ Squadron 2nd SAS who were in Termoli as part of Operation ‘Begonia’, a POW rescue mission, and who were temporarily drafted to support the SRS during the height of the German counterattack; and

5) War Diary of ‘B’ Squadron 2nd SAS, WO 218/181 Operation ‘Jonquil’, who were also in Termoli as part of the same POW rescue mission and who were also drafted to support the SRS later in the battle.

The extensively researched ‘The SAS at War 1941-1945’ by Anthony Kemp was very useful in identifying source documents which I needed to see to come to a final conclusion. However, in respect of the Battle for Termoli it was constructed from the same sources so I did not consider it in my analysis.

I focussed on the events from 1 October to 6 October 1943. The first difficulty that became apparent were differences in the dates and sequence of events between the various accounts. Obviously battlefields are confusing places and retrospective accounts of action are subject to human error, no matter how close to their occurrence they were written. The ‘Taranto to Termoli’ source is the most inconsistent. It has the Battle for Termoli starting a day earlier than any other account and lasting a day longer; and although the descriptions of the separate events are very similar, the order of occurrence it gives for some events is at odds with the rest of the sources.

The second difficulty that became apparent was that although the Operation ‘Devon’ report is very detailed about the location of battle events, the individual soldier’s fortunes, those captured, missing, injured and killed (including their burial place), at no point does it mention events in the harbour. In particular there is no mention of the presence of the POW rescue fleet and the dive-bombing attacks in which our father met his death, a strange omission for a soldier supposedly with the SRS. There is no intersection between this report and the letter of consolation to our mother. It does, however, record the front-line participation of Roy Farran’s ‘D’ Squadron at the peak of the enemy counter attack.

The first significant step forward in my research emerged from Roy Farran’s account of the arrival of the small fleet of fishing boats manned by 2nd SAS soldiers. He went on to describe the dive-bombing attacks on the harbour in which Dad was killed: he had to be rescued himself while attempting the rescue of an injured crewman. This occurred earlier in the day in which he was later to be involved in front-line defence of the captured town. In a personal communication he suggested that the almost indecipherable signature on the letter of consolation was probably that of Simon Baillie. He also speculated that the confusion as to whether Dad was SRS or 2nd SAS may have arisen because a shell attack on a truck, about the same time, had led to several SRS deaths. The small fleet of fishing boats as part of a 2nd SAS operation was later confirmed by examination of the ‘Taranto to Termoli’ and Op ‘Jonquil’ diaries which both mentioned the dive-bombing attack with just one man killed. The ‘Jonquil’ report stated specifically that it was ‘…Capt Baillie’s batman, Dench…’ who was killed. There was no remaining doubt in my mind that Dad was a member of the 2nd SAS regiment and not with the SRS when he was killed: he was with Op ‘Jonquil’ not Op ‘Devon’. The first problem was resolved by the establishment of the relationship between Dad and Capt. Baillie and also by an excellent match of the ‘scribbled signature’ on the consolation letter to the name ‘Simon Baillie’.

The sequence of events still remained unclear. Despite the lack of any explicit agreement between them I decided to accept the timelines offered by Op ‘Devon’ and Op ‘Jonquil’ as essentially correct because the schedules of their separate sea-borne travels implicitly agreed. The Op ‘Devon’ attack fleet of LCIs left Manfredonia at 12.00 hrs on the 2 October and arrived off the beaches of Termoli at 02.45 hrs on 3 October. The Op ‘Jonquil’ rescue fleet left Bari at 23.59 hrs on 2 October, logically after the attack fleet had left. The latter group stopped at Lake Varano on 3 October where they waited for a rendezvous party of ‘A’ Force commanded by Major Symes, which did not arrive until dawn the next day.

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Having collected their passengers they sailed at 08.00 hrs on 4 October to arrive at the captured port of Termoli at 16.00 hrs. This is a day later than Roy Farran reports and two days later than the ‘Taranto to Termoli’ report suggests. Nevertheless I must accept the Op ‘Jonquil’ timeline because:

1) the rescue fleet is unlikely to have departed before the attack fleet;

2) with slower boats and at least twice as far to travel than the attack fleet and a long delayed rendezvous mid-trip they could not possibly have arrived earlier than they reported they had; and

3) both it and the Op ‘Devon’ diaries are reporting details of their own operation and are less likely to be wrong particularly about their departure time.

I am satisfied that the following description gives the most probable sequence of events leading up to Dad’s death.


Last Days: The Battle for Termoli

I have established above that Dad was a member of ‘B’ Brigade 2nd SAS involved in Operation ‘Jonquil’ when he was killed in the Battle for Termoli. In these following paragraphs I will track the paths of the three groups of SAS soldiers that came together for the climax of that battle.

The first group of SAS to reach Termoli were the SRS (formerly 1st SAS) as part of the S.S. Bde who set sail from Manfredonia in a small fleet of LCIs and LCAs at 12.00 hrs on 2 October. The force consisted of the 207 men of the SRS in LCI 179 together with the soldiers of No. 3 Commando and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando in the other vessels. Their aim was to take the port and secure two key bridges over the River Biferno in preparation for the advance of the Eighth Army. They landed behind enemy lines on the beaches of Termoli just before dawn on 3 October. By the end of the day the town of Termoli was secured. For a full account of the battle read Operation ‘Devon’, in Mars & Minerva, Journal of the SAS Regiment, Vol 6 No 3 Summer 1984.

The second group of SAS to arrive in Termoli was the twenty men of ‘D’ Squadron 2nd SAS commanded by Roy Farran. After an intensive campaign behind German lines they had rested for a couple of days 12 miles south of Bari. On 1 October they joined the Eighth Army push towards Termoli but were held up by blown-up bridges, torrential rain and ‘General Mud’. Their objective was to set up a H.Q in Termoli for Operations ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Jonquil’, the rescue of escaped POWs behind enemy lines. Capt. Farran, his men and their Jeeps were finally ferried across the swollen Biferno River, 7 miles south of Termoli, about 15.00 hrs on 3 October ahead of the Eighth Army and became the first troops to link up with the SRS. They were not involved in the capture of the town.

The third group of SAS, ‘B’ Squadron 2nd SAS, had commandeered a two-mast schooner near Bari. On 26 September they had sailed her to Molfetta making slow progress due to her fouled bottom. Her bottom had to be scrubbed down and her engine repaired before they could go further. They finally departed from Bari at 23.59 hrs on 2 October with an assortment of small craft - the schooner and a small fleet of caiques (fishing boats) - and arrived at Lake Varano the next day to rendezvous with Major Symes and ‘A’ force, who had not yet arrived. The rendezvous party finally turned up at dawn on the 4 October having been delayed by getting stuck in a river. The now-complete group departed from Lake Varano at 08.00 hrs and sailed into Termoli harbour at sunset about 16.00 hrs. It had been a relatively quiet day in Termoli the calm before the storm but they were greeted by an enemy dive-bombing attack shortly after arrival. Both groups of 2nd SAS soldiers, now present in Termoli, were there to support the rescue of mass escaped Allied prisoners-of-war behind enemy lines: Capt. Farran’s ‘D’ Squadron for Op. ‘Begonia’, the parachute inland phase of the rescue, and ‘B’ Squadron for Operation ‘Jonquil’, the sea-borne phase. Dad was a member of the Op. ‘Jonquil’ team: we can only guess at how soon he had joined the ‘fishing fleet’ after his posting to the 2nd SAS on 18 September.

On the morning of 5 October 1943 the German forces counter-attacked, shelling the town and its defences and dive-bombing the harbour. Three extant records of the circumstances of Dad’s death exist. The first is contained in the letter to Mum from Dad’s senior officer, Capt. Simon Baillie to whom Dad was assigned as a batman. Baillie writes:
“…the harbour was dive-bombed and unfortunately the boat, on which your husband was on board while looking after some stores received a direct hit, and sank like a stone. At the time, I was behind the enemy lines on air operation, so didn’t hear about it until I came back about a month later…”
The second is the War Diary of ‘B’ Squadron 2nd SAS, Op. Jonquil, of which he was a member. This is the ‘official’ report of Dad’s death, and reads:
“…Four fighter-bomber attacks during day. H.Q. schooner hit about midday. Capt Baillie's batman, Dench, killed, two american [sic] interpreters, and three Italian crew wounded…”
The third is from a different SAS War Diary WO 218/176 ‘Taranto to Termoli’, and states
“…Remainder of Sqn. arrived. 4 dive bombing attacks by Focke-Wulfs on harbour during day. Caique of ‘B’ Sqn. Struck (1 killed and 5 wounded). Shelling of town began in the evening…”

Roy Farran, who commanded the Jeep-borne 2nd SAS soldiers in Termoli, describes the dive-bombing attack. He recalls that “…Several times during the day a pair of Focke-Wulfs swooped in at ground level to bomb the shipping in the harbour. They landed one small stick astride the jetty, sinking one of our fishing boats with a direct hit. I dived into the water to rescue a wounded man but neglected to remove my German jackboots. In consequence they filled with water to weigh me down so much that I also had to be rescued…” (Winged Dagger, Ch. 5).

Later, on the 5 October, Roy Farran and his twenty soldiers joined with the SRS to plug a gap in the perimeter defenses of Termoli during the peak of the German counter attack. Even later that day twelve men of ‘B’ Squadron, under the command of Lieut. Hibbert, and thirteen men of ‘A’ force were drafted in to further reinforce the perimeter. All three groups of SAS troops in town were now involved in the Battle for Termoli. At 22.00 hrs the 38 Brigade, Royal Irish Rangers, arrived in the harbour and moved out of town at about dawn on the 6 October to strengthen the front-line. By that evening the main Eighth Army force had caught up with the soldiers who had captured and held the port of Termoli for three and a half days; the counter-attack had been repulsed.

Valete

I like to think that Dad’s last few days were quite pleasant. At some time after 18 September he joined ‘B’ Squadron possibly before the schooner was commandeered at Bari. Perhaps he helped to scour her bottom after their first abortive voyage on 26 September. Their little fleet finally set out from Bari at midnight on 2 October, rendezvoused with a late-arriving group at Lake Varano (now a marine nature reserve) on the 3 October, departed the lake at 08.00 hrs on the 4 October and arrived in Termoli at 16.00 hrs. Roy Farran reflected as he waited for their tiny fleet to arrive. ‘…They came in just as the sun was setting in a golden ball in the west, casting a gilded sheen on the water. Four little caiques heeled over against the wind led in by a tall schooner. I envied the others their opportunity to play pirates…” (Winged Dagger, Ch. 5). Dad was killed just twenty hours later, about midday on Tuesday 5 October 1943, by a direct hit from a dive-bombing attack on the schooner that he was guarding at the time.

Something of the character and ability of Guardsman Arthur Thomas Dench, the father we barely knew, is indicated by his role as a volunteer in the SAS, an elite band of soldiers. His death is commemorated on the Cassino Memorial with other Grenadier Guardsmen with no known grave (Panel 3). The memorial panels are surrounded by the graves of other fallen soldiers. The inscription lists just his name but a ‘Book of Remembrance’ in a small shelter beside the graves records the following:

" Arthur Thomas Dench, Guardsman 2617852 Grenadier Guards and, Special Air Service Regiment, A.A.C. who died on Tuesday, 5th October 1943, Age 33. Son of Arthur and Kate Dench; husband of Marjorie Joyce Dench, of Bexhill-on-Sea, Sussex".

Dad was awarded the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star with 8th Army Clasp, the Italy Star, The Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939-45. Mum received a pension of £1-6-8, a children’s allowance of £1-13-0 and remained a widow for the rest of her life, not for want of offers.

Paul C Dench