Hereward Wake 1937


Sir Hereward Wake, Bt, Soldier and landowner Courteen Hall

7th October 1916 - 11th December 2017


Major Sir Hereward Wake, 14th Bt, who has died aged 101, was a countryman and a soldier who was awarded a Military Cross in the North Africa Campaign.

On the night of August 31 1942, Wake was serving with the 1st Bn King’s Royal Rifle Corps (1 KRRC) when Axis forces broke through the minefield at the village of Himeimat, Egypt, and threatened to cut off the withdrawal of Allied units on the high ground. Wake, then a captain, was ordered to counter-attack with his lightly armoured Bren-gun carriers.

Portrait of Major Hereward Wake

He led them through the hills with great dash and charged the enemy, driving them before him and inflicting considerable casualties. His small force held the minefield until dawn and throughout the action he was under heavy fire from a 20-mm gun and a tank. He was awarded the Military Cross. The citation stated that his boldness and leadership had averted a dangerous situation and had enabled the battalion to withdraw without loss.

Hereward Wake was born in London on October 7 1916. Better known as Toby, he was the eldest son of Major General Sir Hereward Wake Bt CB CMG DSO, the 13th baronet. Toby’s father was wounded by a bullet in the neck in the Boer War while serving on Lord Roberts’ staff, but survived to reach the rank of major general and was Colonel Commandant of 1 KRRC from 1938 to 1946.

The first known Wake was Geoffrey Wac, an 11th century Norman knight. The Baronetcy of Clevedon in Somerset was created in 1621 in the reign of James I. Courteenhall, the family seat near Northampton, was acquired during the Civil War.

Over the years, the Wakes produced some unusual characters. Drury Wake, a dispatch rider, rode from Constantinople across the Balkans in six days and nights on the eve of the Crimean War and permanently damaged his spine. During the Indian Mutiny, Herewald (sic), fearing that he might be murdered at any moment, wrote up his diary with the stump of a pencil on the wall of his bungalow.

Baldwin Wake, a bad sleeper, was in the habit of drinking his shampoo. It contained chloroform and one night he took too much and died from an overdose. William, the 11th baronet, purchased a human skeleton but was unable to find the money to pay for it and was clapped in a debtor’s jail. He escaped by ordering a piano and then sending it back, having first concealed himself in the packing case.

Joan, the 13th baronet’s sister, single-handedly set up the Northamptonshire Records Society. She had some difficulty cataloguing historical documents because she was in the habit of applying liberal quantities of face powder while still wearing her spectacles.

Hereward Wake at Courteenhall

Young Toby was brought up in the belief that he was descended from Hereward the Wake, the leader of a resistance movement in the fens against William the Conqueror. He was educated at Eton where association   football and athletics played a big part in his life. At Sandhurst, he was shortlisted for the British Olympic Pentathlon Team but an injury prevented him from continuing.

 In 1937 he was commissioned as a regular officer into the KRRC. The first 10 years of his service were spent with the 1st Bn in Burma and then in Egypt where the battalion was “motorised” under command of  Lt Col “Strafer” Gott. In the Western Desert, he served with 9 KRRC and then with “D” Coy 1 KRRC as a company commander at the Battle of El Alamein, and the remainder of the campaign in North Africa.

In April 1943, while commanding “C” Company 1 KRRC during the battle for Tunis, he was shot in the shoulder at point blank range. He reckoned this was poor marksmanship but he had to be evacuated back to Britain. He spent the first night in the wing of a mental hospital in Preston, which was the only accommodation available. After recovering, he joined 2 KRRC and commanded a company in Normandy.

One of his platoon commanders was Lieutenant Edwin Bramall, later Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the Chief of the Defence Staff from 1982 to 1985. After a spell as 2nd in command of 2 KRRC, he served as GS02 to the GOC 11 Armoured Division and then as a liaison officer at Montgomery’s TAC HQ.

During a lull in hostilities, his men’s rations were running low and he went out into No Man’s land to try to bag a few duck. A shell exploded close by, he suffered damage to his ears and, after a posting to 11 KRRC in Greece, in 1947 he was invalided out of the Army.

Sir Hereward and Lady Wake in 1967

Sir Hereward and Lady Wake in 1967

He then studied Estate Management and Agriculture and farmed at Courteenhall. In 1958 the Ministry of Transport served a compulsory acquisition order for a proposed route of the M1, bisecting the estate and affecting five of the seven farms. The house and its woodland were great passions in his life and, in an effort to hide the road, diminish the noise and screen the ever expanding Northampton, he planted a quarter of a million trees – some of them rare species collected on his travels and destined for his arboretum.

Wake was appointed High Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1955 and succeeded in the baronetcy on the death of his father in 1963. He was Deputy Lieutenant of the county from 1969 to 1984 and Vice-Lord Lieutenant from 1984 to 1991. He was president of the Northamptonshire Record Society, the County Landowners Association, the Northamptonshire Association of Youth Clubs and the local Royal British Legion. He was also Vice-President of St Andrew’s Hospital. In 2015 he was appointed to the Légion d’Honneur by the French government. 

Wake loved a party and was an excellent dancer. He also had some good conjuring tricks – like eating a burning cigarette – and as a younger man played tennis and squash for his county. He hunted and played polo, and enjoyed fishing, shooting and stalking.

He married, in 1952, Julia Lees, who survives him with three daughters and a son, Hereward Charles Wake, who succeeds in the baronetcy.  Sir Hereward Wake, Bt, born October 7 1916, died December 11 2017     

Sir Hereward Wake in 2012

Sir Hereward Wake in 2012

Copyright St Lawrence College 2018