Shebbeare, William Godolphin Conway
‘Bill’ Shebbeare was the son of the Reverend Dr. Charles John Shebbeare DD, Chaplain to the King, and Evelyne Shebbeare (née Joyce); his parents lived at Holywell Lodge, 5 St. Cross Road, Oxford, before moving towards the end of the Second World War to Westbury Farm, Purley-on-Thames, Reading.
He came to Southgate House from Aysgarth in 1918, becoming a prefect. While at Winchester he took up the Labour cause. In 1944 he wrote: “When I was sixteen, I became a socialist, and when I went two years later to a university I spent almost all my spare time, and a great deal of what was supposed to be working time, on political activity.” (Shebbeare, “A Soldier Looks Ahead”).
He went to Christ Church, Oxford in 1933 where he did well but his political activities, and the activities of the Oxford Union of which he became president, took up much of his time.
“He had the intellectual ability which placed a “first” in schools within his grasp. He preferred to give precedence to other activities in the University. The result was a second, but a good one. In his first year at Christ Church, Shebbeare was awarded a Trials Eight cap; he thus narrowly missed coxing the Oxford boat in 1934.” (The Times)
“In appearance he was slight, boyish, but when he took the field in debate his stature grew to powerful dimensions. The white fire of his sincerity consumed the arguments of lesser men. He debated from the same despatch box with Sir Stafford Cripps and Lord Simon, and did not suffer by comparison.” (The Times)
He became editor of Isis, and after leaving Oxford worked as a leader writer for the Daily Herald. He became a Borough Councillor of Holborn at the age of twenty-five and a parliamentary candidate in 1943.
He joined the Yorkshire Hussars in 1939, and having come to hate the Nazis said his life was well lost if he could but contribute to the overthrow of Nazism.
On March 16th 1940 he married Florence Violet Norma Morrison, the daughter of Robert Clement Morrison. He and Norma lived at 12 Great Ormond Street, London WC1. In 1941 he transferred to 23rd Hussars, in which he eventually rose to the rank of Major. 23rd Hussars had been formed in Staffordshire on December 1st 1940 around a small core of regulars drawn from 10th Royal Hussars and 15th/19th Royal Hussars, together with a direct intake of “hostilities only” personnel such as Shebbeare.
In September 1941, the regiment was in Whitby in North Yorkshire. The commander of ‘C’ Squadron was the regular cavalryman Cecil ‘Monkey’ Blacker (later General Sir Cecil Blacker), and Shebbeare was one of his officers. Another was ‘Jock’ Addison, later to become famous as the Academy award-winning composer John Addison. Blacker described them both in his memoirs, “Monkey Business” (Quiller Press, 1993): “Another officer was Jock Addison’s political mentor, Bill Shebbeare. This modest little figure concealed a remarkable if unmilitary character. Small and slight, with a head that seemed too big for his body, complexion pasty, his full lips could break into a most charming smile which lit up his whole face. He looked very like a garden gnome. Bill had been President of the Oxford Union and was considered brilliant, both intellectually and as a speaker. Although the child of conservative country gentry, he had become a socialist at sixteen, worked as a journalist for the Daily Herald and for his Trade Union, and was a Labour parliamentary candidate. He kept this innocuous if unusual background a closely-guarded secret from all but Jock Addison. Presumably he felt that a regiment run by regular army officers would be bound to disapprove. The more percipient could penetrate the charm and wit of this engaging little man, and sense beneath them a formidable brain and a determined will. Although he and I became close friends, he could never bring himself to discuss politics with me, and clammed up as soon as the subject was mentioned. I discovered later that he had a secret which at that time probably did need concealing. He was a member of the Communist Party… At that period, public knowledge could have risked his commission.” (Blacker, “Monkey Business”)
As D-Day approached, Shebbeare was secretly writing a book “The Soldier Looks Ahead”, by “Captain X” (RKP, 1944): it examined what sort of army ought to exist after the war, and how the soldier’s life could be improved. In the introduction, Shebbeare wrote: “Although I have been cut off from political life for four-and-a-half years, I have maintained my Socialist faith undimmed. My hatred of Nazism burns even more fiercely than it did in 1939, and my dearest wish is that I shall soon attack it – this time, not from a platform in a market-place, but from the turret of a tank.”
He was disappointed to be told he was not going out to Normandy with his regiment; Blacker’s memoirs say he took the news very badly, and it almost unhinged him.
Blacker went on to lead 23rd Hussars through their first battles but in July found himself handing over command to Shebbeare who had managed get out from England a week before he was expected and had been appointed C Squadron leader.
He was killed during the Battle for Caen on 18th July 1944 when his tank squadron came under heavy enemy fire between the villages of Fours and Soliers. His tank took a direct hit and Shebbeare was killed instantly.
He has no known grave and is commemorated on panel 8, column 1 of the Bayeux Memorial.
Blacker reflected on his friend’s wasted potential: “Often since, I have wondered about the career that German shell cut short: personally known to Attlee, almost certainly eventually a junior minister in the post-war Labour government, he had a brilliant mind and would have started on level terms with others of his age and with a Service background such as Denis Healey. Too nice, perhaps, for politics, but beneath the charm there was a tough streak. Anyway – it was not to be. The guiding force in his life was his genuine love of his fellow men. The tragedy of his death is great, viewed in the light of his achievements, but in the prospect of what he might have achieved, how much greater, and how incalculable the loss”. (The Times)
- Surname: Shebbeare
- Forenames or initials: William Godolphin Conway
- House: F
- Years in School: 1928-1933
- Rank: Major
- Regiment: 23rd Hussars
- Date of Birth: 18th May 1915
- Date of Death: 18th July 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner F2
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Unknown but commemorated on the Bayeux Memorial, Panel 8, column 1