Major Hancock tells in an interview how he was involved in the Coats Mission to evacuate the Royal Family away from the enemy.
Transcribed from the IWM Tape supplied by Richard Hancock [Reel 11 – 19:54]
MEH: … anyway sometime in the spring of 1941 I was asked if would like to join the Coats mission. Well now, the Coats Mission was an organisation which was formed for the personal protection of the Royal Family, that is King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. And the intention was that if by any chance a parachute landing or such eventuality should take place and the Royal Family had to be evacuated from London for any particular reason, they would be whisked away to one of four country houses which had been selected for them to go to and we, the Coats Mission, would go with them and take up the defence of that particular house and we would remain there in their defence, according to whatever the dangers were, up to the last man and the last round. That was the kind of thing.
Well now it was called the Coats Mission because the original three officers were Major Coats of the Coldstream Guards, Captain Tatham and Lieutenant Thompson. Now they formed this of one company of Coldstream Guards of which the company commander was Captain Tatham, there were three platoons of which Jim Thompson commanded one, I can’t remember who the original platoon commanders were. We had also a detachment of 12th Lancers who were stationed at Combermere Barracks, and they were going to be responsible for the actual transporting of the Royal family by two motor cars from London to whichever house had been chosen, and they were at Combermere.
We, the Coldstream Company, and also a detachment of despatch riders were stationed at Bushy, where we undertook, again, very strenuous, very mobile operations. The one thing that we had to do was to be able to up sticks at any moment, take up the defence of this, whatever house had been chosen and to be absolutely armed to the teeth of course and fully capable of going to any part of the country as required. Well that of course included, meant a lot of training and hard work which of course was very good. In the event, thank goodness, we never were put to the real test of having to defend the Royal Family in any particular house because no invasion took place and no parachute landing took place. So that was very good.
But whenever the Royal Family left London, if they went to Sandringham, the Coats Mission would accompany them, and that was most interesting from our point of view and in the winter of 1941/2 the King, Queen and two processes went to Sandringham, not to the big house but to Appleton House, which was one of the houses on the estate, and we accompanied them and set up a guard there. The plan was that we had the three platoons, one was on duty, one was ready to take over from them, and the other was resting. We, the officers’ mess and billets were in York Cottage which, many people will remember, was where King George V made his Christmas broadcasts from, where they first started. Anyway that was very interesting indeed and most of the time the Royal Family spent there was occupied in with shooting parties. And I was the company commander of the Coldsteam Company and I used to find the beaters for these shoots that took place, and I must say it was a remarkable experience and I was most impressed with the extraordinary ability of George VI as a shot. He would deliberately take a difficult bird and shoot it stone dead, which the ordinary person wouldn’t attempt to do. He had a remarkable knowledge of the country there, he arranged all the drives which took place. He used to get his head keeper the night before to arrange exactly where all the drives would take place and he would personally place the guns at all these various drives that we had. It was most instructive. I remember one occasion we had lunch out and we had lunch in the old Wolferton Railway Station, which was the line on the outskirts of the Sandringham Estate which was used for the Royal Train when it took then to Sandringham. Well that continued on for me until I think it was May …
Q: Can I just ask you a couple more questions abut the Coats Mission? Can you remember any of the houses that were selected beforehand?
MEH: Oh yes indeed, yes I can. There were four, I can only remember three unfortunately. One was Madresfield Court which was near Malvern, which was where Lord and Lady Beauchamp lived. Another was Pitchford Hall which I think was on the borders of Shropshire, occupied by Lady Grant, a sister of Lord Rosebury. The third one was Castle Howard, I thinks it’s Yorkshire, I’m not quite sure is it Yorkshire? The fourth one I can’t remember but I think it must have been somewhere in Cambridgeshire. Anyway we occasionally used to have to go round to these various houses to see that the …
[Colonel Hancock Reel 12]
Q: Could you tell me something about the preparations at these houses for the Coats mission?
MEH: Yes, the thing was that each of those four houses had to be made into, as it were, a local fortress and it had to be done with the great secrecy. It was absolutely vital that as few people as possible knew where they were and we had to most careful about everything we did or said. Well now each of those houses had to be reconnoitred by mostly Gussy Tatham and myself and we used to go occasionally to see that all was well. It consisted of a series of slip trenches placed at strategic points around the perimeter of the house and the grounds so they could not be seen from outside. There were barbed wire entanglements of course, I don’t think they were actually in place or would not be put into place until we were actually called upon to defend that particular house in order that nothing untoward should appear to be going on at these places. The security was so vital.
So Tatham and I used to go round these places now and again to see that all was well, to see that the trenches hadn’t fallen in or something like that, to see that the roads were, to be sure of our road from Bushy, where we were stationed, to that particular house. We knew exactly where to go. We had a number of despatch riders with us, brilliant motorcycle riders whose object was to go in front of our convoy, we were in, we were transported in buses, or would be. They went ahead of our convoy. When we came to a crossroads they would stop all traffic in any direction so we could go straight across a crossroads, in other words we’d go nonstop from our base at Bushy to whichever house we were going to. Time was absolutely or would have been absolutely vital. And they did a marvellous job in that way. That’s all we could do until such time as we had to put our preparations to the test, to see whether they would work all right. As I said before, thank goodness they didn’t ever have to come to that unfortunate situation. There were two motorcars, two saloon motorcars, kept at Combermere barracks and captain Morris of the 12th Lancers would drive one of them with The king and Queen in, and Lieutenant Humblecroft, also the 12th Lancers, would follow in the second one with the two Princesses. And they would make their way as fast and as quickly as they could. We would make our way and we’d hope to fetch up there together.
Q: Do you have any particular recollections of Tatham, Captain Tatham, because we do have an interview with Tatham.
MEH: Oh yes, he had been a regular solder with the Coldstream for a good a many years. He previous had been a great athlete and he was in our Olympic team, I can’t remember when, as a mile and a quarter runner and he was a man of very good physique. The only thing that we didn’t like about him was he had absolutely no sense of humour of any sort, but apart from that he was a very efficient soldier and he gave tremendous thought to all these arrangements which we had to make. But he was a very brave man and he had a very very good war record indeed. Later on, when the Coats Mission was dispended he was given the appointment of second in command to one of the Hampshire Regiments, one of the Hampshire Battalions, and I think I’m right saying that he was in the North African landing called Overlord where he was very badly wounded and he did jolly well. Incidentally, my there platoon commanders were Jim Thompson, who I’ve already mentioned, he lived near Sandringham and he was a very big farmer there. No 2 platoon was commanded by Lieutenant Ian Liddell, who subsequently won the VC in Germany, and the third was commanded by Julian Holland-Hibbert who is now Lord Knucksford, Knutsford, I’ll shall get it right in a moment. He was terribly badly wounded in North Africa and he’s been in an invalid chair ever since, his spine was very badly damaged. Those were my three platoon commanders.
Q: Did you ever meet the Royal Family personally?
MEH: Oh yes indeed, we met them when we were at Sandringham. We met them frequently and we used to, were asked to go and have tea or dinner at some of the houses, at Appleton House, and there was a marvellous relaxed family atmosphere, it was most noticeable how, what a united family they were, and how kindly and understanding, and we felt so very much at ease with them. And of course on Sundays we used to go to the old church at Sandringham, the Royal Family walked there, we walked up there and it was all, there was no formality, and even then Queen Elizabeth was famous for her lovely smile, and we appreciated those times very much.
They came to our mess occasionally. I remember on one occasion the two princesses came down to have tea. Well they would be aged I suppose then, Princess Margaret I’m only guessing but I should think she’d be a about six for seven, Princess Elizabeth a little bit older. Ian Liddell who was, he got on jolly well with them, and we had a game of animal grab, I remember, on a table in the officers’ mess there, and Princess Margaret so excited on one occasion she jumped on the table. But there was a lot of informality. During that time it was very cold, I remember the weather very cold and the lake opposite to York House, York Lodge, York House can’t remember, froze over and we played ice hockey and Princess Elizabeth took part and we had tremendous excitement, not very high class hockey a but an awful lot of fun.
Q: How did you feel about being a member of a force whose declared aim was to fight to the last round and the last man? Did this …
MEH: We thought it was a marvellous honour to be chosen to be part of an organisation with that object in view, it was a marvellous thing. All my company were absolutely handpicked and there was tremendous competition amongst the guardsmen to get into the Coats Mission Company, a result of which of course we had practically no trouble of any kind. And the one object was that we comport ourselves honourably when it came to doing our job.
Q: What happened following your period of service with The Coats Mission?
MEH: Well the Coats Mission eventually, I left it before it was disbanded and went back then to the holding battalion which was at Regent’s Park.