On 6 November 1989, Dom Joseph Coombe-Tennant died at Downside Abbey, near Bath, where he had lived since 1961. He was 76. The serenity of his life at the Abbey was in stark contrast to the turmoil he had experienced at earlier stages of his remarkable life.
He was born in 1913 at Cadoxton, Neath, the fourth child of Charles and Winifred Coombe Tennant. The names chosen for him were Augustus Henry Serocold Tennant – the “Coombe” was added much later by deed poll. He was referred to formally as “Henry” by the family, though “Wise One” was their nickname for him even as a young child.
The most remarkable fact about his life was the one that seemed to have had the least impact on him: he had been born to a “plan” that was supposed to see him become the new Messiah. His mother Winifred, a friend of David Lloyd George, was a parliamentary candidate, a Suffragist, a justice of the peace and the first female delegate to be sent by the British government to the League of Nations. She was also – secretly – a noted psychic medium whose work was studied by the learned members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for 30 years. She performed her mediumship as “Mrs Willett” and was often assisted by a member of the SPR, which was occasionally British statesman Gerald Balfour, the brother of former prime minister Arthur Balfour. Winifred and Gerald, as well as studying psychic material, also developed a romantic relationship, despite both being married.
Winifred believed that one of her contacts in the psychic world was the spirit of Frederic Myers, a former family friend and past president of the SPR. She thought that the spirit of Myers was encouraging her to have another child and that the child would be guided to greatness by Myers and others from the spirit world. The child was to be Henry, his biological father being Gerald Balfour. Henry never became the new Messiah, of course, but his life was nonetheless extraordinary.
Even while at preparatory school Henry showed signs of being precocious. In 1925, at the age of 12, he displayed his skill at the piano for Sir Hugh Allen, the unofficial head of the music profession in Britain, leaving that gentleman to conclude that “he has the music all right” and should be given every encouragement. At Eton, he taught himself Chinese to a level where he was able to provide private tuition to another student. At Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1930s, he earned a double-first in Moral Sciences and was secretary of the Moral Sciences Club, in which one of the modern giants of philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was also heavily involved.
In 1936, spurning the possibility of a career in academia, Henry joined the Welsh Guards as a second lieutenant. After the German invasion of Belgium, Holland and France in May 1940, Henry and his comrades were sent to the Hook of Holland to try and stiffen Dutch resolve in the face of the invader. Though they did help facilitate the evacuation of the Queen of the Netherlands, the Hook was a lost cause and the battalion was soon brought back to England.
With the German army advancing at an alarming pace, towards the end of May Henry was sent to Boulogne with the intention of preventing the port from falling into enemy hands. This proved impossible and Henry and around 30 of his comrades found themselves trapped in the town. After taking shelter in some bomb-damaged houses, the arrival of enemy tanks and infantry left Henry’s commanding officer with no option other than surrender. On 25 May 1940, Henry Coombe-Tennant became a prisoner of war. He spent some time in the prisoner-of-war camp in Laufen, Germany, before being transferred to a camp at Warburg, Westphalia. There, he entertained camp inmates with his piano-playing skills, but soon turned his thoughts to escape.
A fellow prisoner was an electrical engineer and noticed – much to his surprise – that the power supply to the camp could be easily short-circuited from inside a hut where prisoners worked. In this way, inmates could cut power to the perimeter fence lights at any time they chose. On the night of 30 August 1942, the camp lights were extinguished and over 30 escapees climbed over the double perimeter fence, using ladders and duckboards.
By 15 October, Henry and two comrades had walked as far as Holland, travelling only by night in their British Army battledress, but they were cold, hungry and almost exhausted. Luckily, they were picked up by members of the Comet escape line and, despite several very tense near misses with the German authorities, made it through occupied Belgium and France and crossed the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. They got back to Britain via Gibraltar – the only three of the 30 escapees from Warburg not to be recaptured.
Henry received a Military Cross from the King in March 1943 for his escape exploits before joining the Special Operations Executive, the organisation tasked with taking the fight to the enemy in the occupied countries. He volunteered for service on Operation Jedburgh – a plan that would see 300 elite soldiers parachuted behind enemy lines to aid the Allied advance. The training was on a “no holds barred” basis and emphasised that operating in enemy territory was a “kill or be killed” situation. Every man was issued with a cyanide capsule to bite into in the event of capture.
Henry led a three-man team that was dropped into the French Ardennes in August 1944. They helped the French Resistance in several engagements with the enemy before meeting up with advancing US army units. For his efforts, he was awarded a Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French.
In 1945, while on leave from the army in England, his car broke down and he was picked up by an Auxiliary Territorial Service vehicle in which HRH Princess Elizabeth was a passenger. He was taken for tea at Sandringham, where he renewed his acquaintance with her father, the King. Later, in 1952, Henry was to stand vigil by the King’s coffin in Westminster Hall in his Welsh Guards uniform.
As the Allies’ victory started to look inevitable, in April 1945 Henry volunteered for the Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force (SAARF), a unit that would drop around 100 elite soldiers into Germany in the event of its collapse. Henry was pencilled in for a mission with intrepid SOE agent (and later noted travel writer) Paddy Leigh Fermor. In 1944, Paddy had kidnapped the German commandant of Crete, audaciously passing through over 20 enemy checkpoints in his official car, wearing the general’s cap and returning salutes.
The target for Henry and Paddy was to be Colditz Castle and the plan was to persuade the Germans not to murder their VIP captives in a disintegrating Third Reich. The rapid advance of the Allied armies meant that in the end this particular mission was not necessary, though Henry did spend some time in May 1945 collecting captured SOE agents from prisons and camps around Germany.
In the post-war period, he served with the Welsh Guards in Palestine and Saudi Arabia. On a visit to Jordan, he became the first non-Bedouin to climb the mountain Jebel Rum. By 1956, he was with MI6 at the Hague and in 1959 became “our man in Baghdad” after the blood-soaked Iraqi revolution of 1958. He wrote that in Baghdad he underwent “profound mental and physical suffering”, though he refused to elaborate further. It was the catalyst that finally caused Henry – an agnostic for 30 years – to turn to religion.
He had been brought up in an Anglican family and his father had been a “strict Sunday churchgoer”, often reading the lesson at St Catwg’s church at Cadoxton, Neath. As a young boy, Henry “did not like the archaic language of the prayer book, the Victorian hymns and anthems, and the sentimental harmonies of the village organist. I was bored, and in the winter cold. I acquired a dislike of church services which, to be candid, I have never really lost.”
At Eton College things did not improve: “I did not like chapel services at Eton any better than those at my village church, and I resented having to go – once a day and twice on Sundays. However, I did from time to time get up early on Sundays to go to Holy Communion, which was voluntary. I think I ceased to do so at about the age of 17, and after Eton I seldom set foot in a church until nearly 30 years later.”
Despite his earlier antipathy towards organised religion, in May 1960 he was received into the Catholic faith by the rector of the American Jesuit College in Baghdad. Back in Britain in 1961, having retired, he visited Downside Abbey as a guest, soon entered it as a postulant and eventually took solemn vows in 1965 before being priested in 1966 and taking over a parish in 1969. He took the monastic name of Dom Joseph Coombe-Tennant.
Despite his sincere religious belief, he still took a pragmatic approach to his situation, noting, “Even now, as a monk, fear of Hell is not a serious factor in my life (though perhaps it ought to be), nor is the prospect of eternal bliss one that I find particularly stirring.”
And what of “The Plan” that would have seen him guided by his mother’s spirit-world contacts to be the new Messiah? Lady Jean Balfour thought him the most beautiful human being she had ever seen, with a real presence about him. But he seemed to her to lack the inner drive needed to become a great leader. If “The Plan” was in any way viable, perhaps Henry (who only learned of it as a mature adult) did little to help secure its realisation.
By the 1980s his health was failing and hip problems reduced his mobility. He wrote: “Why fear death? What is the point of being a Christian and going on about resurrection and the joys of Heaven if one can’t face the prospect of death?” He died at Downside Abbey on 6 November 1989, while reciting prayers, and was buried in the monks’ burial ground.
In 1908, before Henry’s birth, his mother had told his older brother Christopher (who was killed in action in the Great War in 1917) that the death of his sister Daphne, aged only 18 months, was not an end and that they would surely meet again after their own deaths. Given her firm belief in the survival of the human spirit, she told him that Daphne was “still part of our lives and she is still with us, though unseen… And you and I will find the Darling waiting for us [and] we shall cling to each other in the great joy of reunion.”
When Henry’s spirit departed his body in 1989, one can only imagine the happiness that ensued when he found his loving family waiting for him in his new beginning and they all experienced “the great joy of reunion”. A remarkable man. A remarkable life.
Bernard Lewis is a retired local government officer and the author of several books on the history of Swansea and Neath. His book Wales’ Unknown Hero: Soldier, Spy, Monk – The Life of Henry Coombe-Tennant, MC, of Neath is published by Y Lolfa on 15 October
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