Persse, John Henry
‘Johnnie’ Persse was the son of Henry Seymour (‘Atty’) Persse, of Chattis Hill, Stockbridge, Hampshire, and Upper Lambourn, Berkshire. His mother was Emily Henrietta Persse (daughter of Sir George Brooke), who had six Wykehamist brothers in ‘H’ between 1896 and 1913. She was a West End actress before her marriage in 1921.
Persse’s cousin was Geoffrey Brooke DSC, who had a distinguished naval career and wrote a superb memoir of his service in the Second World War. This book – “Alarm Starboard!” (Patrick Stephens, 1982) – contains many references to Persse, to whom it is dedicated. The first mention of Persse discusses his family and character: “John Persse was my first cousin; his father was the well-known trainer and character ‘Atty’ Persse; his mother (my father’s eldest sister) had a short but brilliant career on the stage, and John, their only son [this is at variance with the Winchester Register which describes him as the second son] had received all their talents plus some more. Popular and gregarious, he was a natural comic, who could take off anyone after the briefest observation. I was also an only son, and we were very close – closer than brothers, I sometimes think…”
From any early age, Brooke noticed, Persse displayed strong qualities of leadership: “Where John was concerned, there was never any question of not having a go; he was not unreasonably forceful, but afterwards you realized it had never entered your head to refuse.”
Persse came from Twyford to Mr. Robinson’s House in 1935. He was described in the Wykehamist War Service Record and Roll of Honour as “a conscientious plodder with no great intellectual or athletic gifts; but his high spirits and puckish sense of humour (shown particularly by a remarkable talent for mimicry) could not fail to enliven any society. Underlying these were a thoughtful kindliness and serious purpose which made him a real influence; and he became both a House and a School Prefect.”
With his background in racing, he was passionately interested in horses, and would have followed his father’s footsteps as a trainer. The racing correspondent of The Times wrote in 1944 that ” he took a great interest in his father’s famous racing stable, and this year had his first race-horse running, the two-year-old Queen of the Nile.”
Brooke recalled his leaves at Chattis Hill in 1940: “Though I stayed at Chattis Hill, on the Stockbridge Downs, every leave, we never saw enough of each other to take things too much for granted. A sojourn there had all the ingredients of a wonderful time – horses galore, considerable opulence (my uncle was usually near the top of the trainers’ list), glamorous personalities from the racing scene, and, above all, the happiest of family atmospheres. Now in his last term at Winchester, John was clearly destined for a career on the Turf… It was back at Portsmouth that the Battle of Britain put on, for me, its most impressive display. My Aunt Emily Persse and her younger sister drove over to see me and we went up to picnic on the Portsdown Hills, that rise steeply behind the town… In seconds the air over the town was filled with twisting, diving planes as a score of fighters, appearing as from nowhere, set to… After a few moments, the ‘All Clear’ sounded, and we reckoned that my aunt, from neutral Ireland, had had her money’s worth!”
In July 1941 Persse enlisted in the Rifle Brigade, and secured his commission as a Second Lieutenant in 1942. The officer who trained him, Colonel Charles McGregor, recalled “I had about a thousand young officers through my hands during the time I commanded, out of which about ten or a dozen were outstanding – and he was one of them. He had an amazing control of men for a boy of his age.”
In a letter to Brooke in April 1942, Persse’s aunt wrote: “John is now an officer in the Rifle Brigade. Smart, spick and span and quite keen. Getting his cap at just the right angle! And his little cane under his arm!”
Brooke himself heard from Persse in July 1942: “Have had a letter from John who is “under canvas and water” near Sheriff Hutton.”
He went to North Africa in April 1943 to join 7th Battalion, Rifle Brigade which was recovering in Egypt from its arduous campaign in Tunisia. In May 1944 7RB crossed to Italy to join 6th Armoured Brigade near Aquino.
He was killed by mortar-fire while going out under fire to help a wounded private. Keith Egleston, a friend of Persse’s in 7RB described his death in a letter to Brooke: “The attack that Johnnie was killed in was a memorable one, for the Battalion captured that night a hill that dominated the whole of the ground north of Perugia, and held it against all counter-attacks. We were personally congratulated by the Army and Corps commanders, and, unlike so many casualties that happen in war through odd stray shells, mines, etc., Johnnie’s was attacking a house that was held by German snipers, and they had to cross a flat piece of ground to approach it. The Germans brought down very heavy mortar fire, and wounded several men in his platoon. During this very critical stage, he was quite magnificent, and kept the platoon together. They got the house, and were pushing on past it when a bomb wounded one of his men close to him; he immediately went to help him and render First Aid, and whilst doing this a bomb landed right on top of him. He was killed outright.
After his death, the platoon went completely to pieces – so much so that they had to be disbanded and split up amongst the rest of the company – which shows what a tremendous influence he had on them.
I managed to get his body in two days later (it was not, unfortunately, possible before owing to accursed snipers from neighbouring hills), and he is now buried in Perugia.”
Persse was twenty-two years of age when he died, and now rests in grave VII.A.4 of the Assisi War Cemetery. Brooke took the news very hard: “On June 26th I ended a letter home: “John is evidently seeing a good deal of fighting. I see his regiment and the 16th Lancers were the first into Perugia.” It was only too true that John had been seeing a good deal of fighting. It never entered my head that anything was wrong when I was told there was a telegram for me. It said he had been killed on the 20th. I could not believe it, staring at the form quite numb. Surely there must be some mistake; other people got killed, but not John. I told myself I would not see him again, but it just did not seem possible; his laughing face kept coming between me and anything I did. The thought of him lying buried in some Italian hill-side was just a bad dream that would somehow come right and, clutching again at any straw, I read again his last letter, full of life if ever a letter was. Soon I began to receive letters from others in the family, and these seemed to really bring it home. Then, crowning misery, there arrived one from John himself, written a few days before he was killed. It said, “The going is hard”, and I knew it must have been very hard. A light seemed to go out of my life from that day.”
- Surname: Persse
- Forenames or initials: John Henry
- House: H
- Years in School: 1935-1940
- Rank: Lieutenant
- Regiment: Rifle Brigade
- Date of Birth: 4th May 1922
- Date of Death: 20th June 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner B1
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Assisi War Cemetery: Grave VII.A.4