A HISTORIAN from the Netherlands is trying to obtain a photograph of a Wells soldier who died during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944. Wim Rhebergen works at the National Military Museum at the former Royal Netherlands Air Force base Soesterberg. In the course of his research, he has discovered a lot of information about Private Ronald Lansdowne – but no photo. He is making a public appeal for a photograph of Ronald if anybody has one. Here, he takes up Ronald’s story:
RONALD Albert Frank Lansdowne was born in Wells on February 3, 1923, to Ernest Frank Lansdowne and Alice Florence (née Berry). Ronald’s father had three brothers (Ronald’s uncles), Thomas, Reginald and Albert, and seven sisters (Ronald’s aunts), Nelly, Edith, Beatrice, Winifred, Hilda, Kate and Florence. Ronald’s father was a paper mill worker who died of tuberculosis in late 1927.
Ronald had a younger brother, Harold (whom the family called Jack), who was born in 1925. Soon after Harold’s birth they moved to 36 Southover, Wells. I have been told that Ronald had another brother who became one of the ‘Bevin Boys’ who worked in the mines; he contracted tuberculosis and died at a young age.
Ronald went to Wells Central Boys’ School and on leaving school he joined the Post Office (Wells Postal Service), first as a messenger and then as a postman. Ronald belonged to the congregation of the Wells Methodist Church. In September 1939, he was living with his mother and brother at 25 Southover.
In 1941, probably as soon as he was 18, he joined the 4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, and then transferred on October 10, 1942, to the 2nd (Airborne) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, which were glider infantry. Originally the 2nd Battalion was part of the 1st Airborne Division and provided the Divisional Defence Platoon, whose job was to protect the Divisional Headquarters. This they continued to do after the 2nd Battalion was transferred to the 6th Airborne Division in 1943. By September 1944, the Divisional Defence Platoon was still mainly made up of men from the 2nd Battalion.
Ronald was a member of the Defence Platoon, and this is why, on Sunday, September 17, 1944, the first day of the Battle for Arnhem, Ronald landed in a Horsa glider at Landing Zone ‘Z’ about one mile south-west of Wolfheze, even though his regiment was not present.
The objectives of the 1st Airborne Division were to capture and hold the bridges over the river Rhine at Arnhem. However, in the end, only a force slightly over battalion strength managed to reach and hold the northern approaches to the road bridge.
On September 20, after it had been cut to pieces trying to get to Arnhem, the 1st Airborne Division withdrew to the Oosterbeek perimeter. On September 21 all resistance at the road bridge ceased.
On the night of September 25/26, after fighting for nine days, what was left of the 1st Airborne Division were withdrawn across the Rhine (Operation Berlin). Just under 2,000 men were safely withdrawn out of a division that originally numbered about 9,000.
News of what happened to Ronald on that night was given in the Wells Journal of October 1945:
It was stated that a member of the Unit last saw Pte Lansdowne near a river immediately prior to the evacuation of Arnhem. The operation involved the crossing of the river at night, during which many casualties were sustained and unhappily no further information concerning Pte Lansdowne has been received from the survivors.
Ronald landed on the first day of the Battle for Arnhem, and died on the last day of the battle when he drowned during the night-time withdrawal over the Rhine. His body floated down the Rhine for about 38 miles to Hagestein close to Vianen where it was found by German soldiers on November 27, 1944. The Germans buried Ronald by a brick work’s chimney stack (brick factory ‘De Ossenwaard’) about 100 yards from the south bank of the river, which in Hagestein is called the Lek.
His Casualty Card states: “Missing N.W.E. 25.9.1944” and later is added: “Presumed Killed in Action on 25/26-9-1944.”
On January 8, 1946, Ronald’s helmet and balaclava were sent to his mother.
On November 27, 1946, Ronald was reburied at the Amersfoort (Oud Leusden) General Cemetery in Plot 13, Row B, Grave 1. He has a memorial plaque in the Wells Methodist Church, and is also remembered on the rolls of honour at Wells Town Hall and Wells Cemetery.
In birth records, army record and the Wells Journal, Ronald’s surname is always spelt with an ‘e’ at the end, but on his memorial plaque, his surname is spelt ‘Lansdown’.
Many years ago I tracked down Christine, daughter of Kate (aunt) who spoke to Francis, son of Florence (aunt). Francis was 80 at that time. The family told me that the name Lansdowne did have a mis-spelling with an ‘e’ on the census forms that is possibly why Ronald’s surname was spelt that way.
All the military graves at the Amersfoort (Oud Leusden) General Cemetery, over 200, are RAF personnel except the grave of Private Lansdowne and that is remarkable. I’ve always wondered why he was reburied there and not with his comrades at the Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery in Oosterbeek. The reason for this is not known.
Ronald was also marked as “R.A.F.” but I believe that this is simply confusion with his initials, Ronald Albert Frank.
I became interested in him and started an investigation years ago. I consulted Dutch and British archives and tracked down Christine (see above). Last year I came into possession of a few personal letters Private Lansdowne wrote to his mother and brother Jack. Those are original letters. I got them from an Englishman who bought them at a collector’s fair.
He received the following awards: Africa Star; 1939-1945 Star; France and Germany Star 1939-1945. I am still missing a photograph of Pte RAF Lansdowne. Can anybody help me? Please get in touch if you can – M: 06 57247981; T: +31 33 4554399; E: firstname.lastname@example.org