He was the son of Captain Charles Henry Fenwick (C1875) and Winifred Fenwick (née Ryrie), and came to Moberly’s from Mr. F.H. Gresson’s school at Crowborough in May 1924, making a name for himself as a cricketer and as an artist.
From Winchester he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, and then settled down to study art, studying in particular at Berlin and at Leicester. In the next few years he spent much time in Switzerland and Austria and became an expert skier.
A childhood friend was the actor, David Niven, who later wrote about him:
“At the age of nine I played in a children’s tennis tournament at Bembridge, I. of W. I was beaten 6–0 in the first round and thereupon retired from serious tennis for ever. My conqueror was Ian Fenwick. Later we became great friends and many happy summer holidays were spent by the seaside taking the corks out of people’s rowing boats and smoking blotting paper up trees. I remember we laughed a good deal at most things; but even in those days Ian was especially fascinated by big moustaches… After he left Winchester, where he had begun scribbling on instead of smoking blotting paper, he decided to study seriously to improve the art this scribbling had revealed. He worked hard and soon developed his own distinctive style….”
At the outbreak of war, according to the “Wykehamist War Service Record and Roll of Honour”,“a secret duty took him to Russia and Turkey, and on his return he joined the 60th Rifles, his father’s regiment. In 1942 he joined the Parachute Regiment…”
In fact, Fenwick had been doing something far more unusual. Early in the war the British, faced with the possibility of invasion, had set up the “Auxiliary Units” (AUs). Nominally part of the Home Guard (201-203 GHQ Special Reserve Battalions), they were intended to be the core of Britain’s resistance movement. They were composed for the most part of locals who knew their areas well, but were backed up by small training and leadership cells of regular army personnel. Fenwick had been Intelligence Officer for the north and east Somerset AU.
As the threat of invasion receded, members of the AUs were allowed to join the regular forces (up to then they had been exempt from call-up), though the AUs were not officially stood-down until November 1944. The SAS Brigade, desperate for high quality recruits, plundered at least three hundred AUs.
In February 1944 Fenwick was returned to his parent unit, and was almost immediately invited to join the 1st Special Air Service Regiment. His AU background made him ideal SAS material; he was a saboteur, trained to operate behind enemy lines. “Despite a superficially somewhat unlikely background as a book illustrator and cartoonist, he fitted in well in the Mess…” (Roger Ford: “Fire from the Forest: The SAS Brigade in France, 1944” Cassel 2003).
Fenwick was dropped, on the night of June 17th 1944, behind the German lines west of Pithiviers (near Orleans, south of Paris) as part of Operation Gain. Again, according to the “Wykehamist War Service Record and Roll of Honour”, “As a description of the work of such a unit and as an appreciation of Ian’s work in particular, nothing could be better than the Foreword to “Enter Trubshaw”, written after Ian’s death by Lieutenant-Colonel I.G. Collins”, which begins as follows: “Major Fenwick joined the First Special Air Service Regiment in February, 1944. He was in command of an SAS squadron which operated for nearly three months behind the enemy lines, harassing their communications, cutting vital railway lines, helping to organize and arm the FFI and sending back daily important intelligence reports on enemy troop movements. The constant strain and anxiety of this type of operation can be readily appreciated. Success depends inevitably on the personality and initiative of the leader. For him there is never a moment’s real rest. If he is not out operating himself, he is planning some future action for his troops. Ian’s infectious cheerfulness, wit and ability were an inspiration to his men and to the whole regiment.”
Operating at first largely on foot, the party concentrated on blowing up the small railway lines which criss-crossed the area (the main lines had for the most part been put out of action by air attack). Fenwick and Almonds (his NCO) personally blew the line between Orléans and Montargis on the night of June 18th. At the end of the month, however, jeeps were dropped, giving them much better mobility. Fenwick’s troops then moved south into the Foret d’Orléans. There were concerns about security and how far the local resistance fighters could be trusted; several groups from “Gain” disappeared, captured by the Germans.
In the middle of July, Fenwick and Almonds decided to attack a tyre factory in Montargis. At dawn, just as they were about to reconnoitre, they realized that Germans were sharing their wood near the factory. Fenwick simply drove past, his red beret turned inside-out, and proceeded through the centre of Montargis, returning salutes from German sentries and becoming bogged down, at one point, in a German troop convoy. The SAS men escaped unscathed.
More jeeps and men increased Fenwick’s capability, and by late July nightly jeep patrols were shooting up German transports by road and rail. Fenwick and Almonds specialized for a time in driving along parallel to trains, shooting them up with the Vickers ‘K’ machine-guns mounted on the jeeps.
However, at the end of the month Fenwick got wind of a planned German sweep through the forest and decided to disperse, leaving only one troop and the HQ behind. The German attack came on Sunday August 6th and the location of Fenwick’s camp must have been well-known to them by then, given the length of time for which it had been in use. By chance, Fenwick was away, visiting the rest of his force at Thimory. He received word on August 7th that the men at his camp-site had been captured (in fact, all of the SAS men had escaped, with two jeeps, despite being heavily outnumbered and out-gunned). Lt Col. Collins wrote: “Ian Fenwick was out on an operational patrol at the time. On his way back he received garbled reports which must have indicated that most of his party had been captured. It was typical of him that his first thought should be for the safety of his men. It was in an attempt to relieve them immediately that, after successfully attacking an enemy column, he was ambushed in his jeep and killed instantaneously. Thus died a very gallant Englishman.
Ford, in “Fire from the Forest” describes in more detail what happened:
“Fenwick then set off, with Cpl. Duffy [another SAS “Original”] as driver, Sgt. Dunkley manning the rear Vickers, L/Cpl. Menginou of 4SAS as interpreter, and an FFI sergeant [resistance member] as guide, both to make a first-hand appraisal of the situation and to look for anyone who might have survived. The jeep made good time on back roads, but was spotted from the air by a Fieseler Fi.156 Storch observation aircraft, which radioed a report to elements on the ground. Just short of Chambon-la-Foret and not far from the camp-site, [the jeep] was flagged down by a lone Frenchwoman. The Germans, she said, had taken all the men and boys in the village captive and were ‘waiting for them’. Whether Fenwick took her literally and simply did not care, or whether he thought she simply meant that there was some German presence there, one that he could defeat, we will never know. For his part, he is reported to have said something like ‘Thank you, Madame, but I intend to attack them’, and ordered Duffy to drive on.
The jeep drove into the village at speed, and was met by machine-gun and 2cm cannon fire. Major Ian Fenwick and the two Frenchmen were killed instantly, Fenwick apparently taking a single 2cm round to the head. Duffy was wounded and crashed the jeep, but saw Sgt. Frank Dunkley led away in handcuffs before he lapsed into unconsciousness. Dunkley was never seen again, and is presumed to have been unlawfully executed under the Kommandobefehl [Hitler’s order that all British commandos, even if wearing uniform, were to be shot on capture]; no body was ever found… Cpl. Duffy… eventually escaped…”
He lies in Plot D, grave 1 of the Chambon-la-Foret Communal Cemetery.
- Surname: Fenwick
- Forenames or initials: Ian
- House: B
- Years in School: 1924-1929
- Rank: Major
- Regiment: 1st Special Air Service Regiment
- Date of Birth: 11th August 1910
- Date of Death: 7th August 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner E2
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Chambon-la-Foret Communal Cemetery