Bodley, John Edward Courtenay
John Edward Courtenay Bodley (F 1937-1941) was born on 3rd October 1922, the younger son of John Edward Courtenay Bodley, who wrote extensively on French history and was a descendant of Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, and his wife Phyllis Helen, daughter of the Reverend H J Lomax of Buxted.
The Bodley boys’ parents had married in the English church at Bordeaux on March 29th 1920. The boys’ father died on May 28th 1925 and shortly afterwards the family moved to ‘Farm Gate’, Haywards Heath.
John came to Winchester from Hillcrest Preparatory School, where he was Head Boy. He was a member of the Boy Scouts and was a keen rider. He was an active member of the school and of his House. He was on Dress for XV’s, rowed in the 2nd School IV, commanded his House Platoon and was Captain of Bisley. He was a Commoner Prefect and Senior Prefect of his House.
He was commissioned in the Rifle Brigade, a career which he loved. He was selected to represent his battalion on a course at a ‘battle school’ (where officers learned how to conduct rigorous and realistic training), and did so well that he was invited to become an instructor, an invitation he refused as he wanted to be part of the fighting.
He was posted to North Africa with 10th Battalion where the Allies were fighting the German Army under the command of Rommel, and taking part in a fierce and costly campaign. He was awarded the Military Cross for outstanding bravery for his actions during the final drive on Tunis, where the objective was to prevent Axis forces from retreating up the Cape Bon Peninsula. A fellow officer recalled: “He was really the bravest soldier I have ever known. Never have I seen a trace of fear in his eyes. I shall never forget how towards the end of the Tunisian campaign his platoon alone captured the best part of two Italian battalions and quite a lot of Germans. To do this he went straight through a heavily mined area of which he was perfectly aware, and where tanks which followed later were blown up. Not content with this, and knowing the area was going to be heavily bombed, he went back through the mines to bring back as many of those who had surrendered as possible”.
In a letter home he wrote of a lucky escape he and his Company had when they stopped, with a group of tanks, in a cornfield to fill up with petrol. “I was sitting on the left front mudguard of the troop carrier”, he wrote, “Jack Toms (an Army colleague) was sitting in the centre. Then two Messerchmitts came of the sun and dropped two 250 lb bombs 20 feet in front of the carrier. Jack was killed outright, but by the grace of God I was flung to the ground and escaped with a piece of shrapnel behind my right ear, which has now completely healed. My water bottle had a large piece of shrapnel in it and I had two holes in my shirt but not a mark on my back. I was sitting three feet from Jack”.
Later, telling his mother that another OW had been killed (Edward Peter Blake Frewen (E 1935-1940 – see individual entry) he wrote “I was sent forward with my own carriers in front of the 16th/5th Lancers’ tanks to locate and draw the fire of the German anti-tank guns. We moved for about a mile and a half through olive groves when suddenly an anti-tank gun opened up with one shot, which fortunately missed my carrier. Then all my fellows opened up and within half an hour out came about 150 Germans and one wretched Italian looking very sorry for himself”.
After the surrender of the Axis forces in Tunisia, 10RB rested for a considerable period before moving to Italy to rejoin the fighting. They landed at Naples on 14th March 1944, going into line south of Monte Cassino on 7th April where they stayed for ten days before a further rest period prior to preparations for an attack on Cassino. However, by May 13th, after two whole days of fighting, the Allied bridge-head across the Rapido river was still only eight hundred yards deep. The scout platoons – including Bodley’s – were the first to cross the river on May 13th. Three days later, during an attack on Point 83, overlooking the Aquina road, Bodley was wounded. He was awarded the MC for his splendid work during this action. A couple of days later he sustained a more serious injury when he was hit during heavy shell-fire while organising a diversion for his column of men. He was carried away on a stretcher giving the Churchill “V” sign. His Company Commander, Jim Lonsdale, recorded that “No sooner had he arrived in hospital than he started writing to me discussing ways and means of getting back to the fight. Eventually he bullied the doctors into discharging him before he was anything like fit, and hitch-hiked his way back to the battalion”. Lonsdale described his return: “We all felt that he had done more than his share, and he was offered a job which would have been less of a strain and also less dangerous, but he would not hear of it. I have never known an officer so idolized by his men, and when he returned to them they were absolutely delighted and immediately became twice the force they had been in his absence, and when he was killed it completely demoralized them. One man, speaking for them all, told me they would rather it had been any one of them.”
Bodley’s luck ran out at Montevarchi, on July 30th 1944, during the battalion’s advance to the German Gothic Line. 10RB were advancing westwards along the north bank of the River Arno. The circumstances of his death were recorded by Fellow Wykehamist Henry Anthony (Tony) Pawson (B 1934-1940, Staff 1949) in “Indelible Memories” privately published in 2004: “It was during the drive to the Gothic Line that the Company lost that very respected Wykehamist friend and fellow officer, John Bodley. He was killed when his carrier ran over a single undetected mine. John had built a reputation in North Africa, fully confirmed in Italy, as the most fearless man in the Battalion. Early on, his devil-may-care attitude to danger made him unnecessarily reckless on occasion. When he was sent on a Company Commander’s course, the report included: “I can think of no one with whom I would rather be in a tight corner, and no one more likely to get me into one. In Italy the first part remained true, but his judgement now was cool and calculated, making him an outstanding leader… It was ironic that he should be killed by a mine. Like me, he had been on a mine course and reached a similar conclusion. While before we had a cavalier attitude to mines, we then became very cautious of these revolting and very lethal weapons, which the Germans used by the millions to protect themselves.”
Lieutenant General Sir James Wilson KBE., MC., DL., MA G 1934-1930) also of 10RB wrote: “The loss of John Bodley, blown up with his carrier on a mine, was a special tragedy….. he had been involved in so many near things that everyone had begun to feel he bore a charmed life.” Lonsdale was stunned by Bodley’s death: “As for myself, it has taken me quite a while to realize I shall not be seeing that cheerful smile again. He was so sure nothing would hit him that one had almost come to believe it oneself. I can only say how proud I am to have known him. He rests in a small cemetery in an orchard by the river with thirty other officers and men of the division.”
He lies in grave VI.A.26 of the Arezzo War Cemetery.
Seven weeks later his brother Thomas Miles Courtenay Bodley (F 1934-1939) died of wounds in Belgium. In the brothers’ memory, their mother presented the College with a silver gilt chalice and paten, both replicas of the 1611 chalices and covers already in the Collection.
A notice of his death appeared in the Times on 14th August 1944 and an obituary of both brothers was published in the Wykehamist of February 1948. The Green Jacket archives in Winchester hold a book of remembrance of the two brothers, containing many letters from John Bodley.
A collection of letters and diaries is in Winchester College Archives and can be consulted on application to the Archivist: Suzanne Foster on firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Surname: Bodley
- Forenames or initials: John Edward Courtenay
- House: F
- Years in School: 1937-1941
- Rank: Lieutenant
- Regiment: Rifle Brigade
- Date of Birth: 3rd October 1922
- Date of Death: 30th July 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner B2
- Decoration: MC
- Burial Site: Arezzo War Cemetery: Grave VI.A.26