Gwyer, Geoffrey Charles Francis
He was the only son of Lieutenant Cyril Gwyer (I 1900-1902), Grenadier Guards who was killed in action in 1918, and of Mrs Constance Frances Kennedy née Monckton, mother also of John Kennedy, I 1936-40, killed in action over Norway in December 1944, of Welburn Manor, Kirkbymoorside, Yorkshire. Gwyer’s uncle, Captain Charles Percy Gwyer (I 1896-1900), Welsh Regiment, was killed in action on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915.
He entered Major Robertson’s House as a “War Commoner”. He left as a prefect, having made his mark as a good naturalist, a plucky cross-country runner, and a good swimmer. He went to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, gaining Colours for running and on joining his father’s old battalion, 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, at Alexandria in 1936, became Sports Officer.
After a period of service at the Tower, he went to France with the Guards Brigade in 1939, and was recommended for more than the mention in despatches he received for fine work on the retreat from Brussels to Dunkirk and on the beaches, where at the end he was very severely wounded. He was in Epsom hospital for over six months recovering from a shattered leg, and it was considered a miracle that he ever walked, let alone served, again.
By 1941 he was instructing at Windsor, and by the middle of 1942 he was out in North Africa, and soon commanding a company in 6th Battalion, taking part in the successful but bloody Tunisian campaign in 1943. 6th Grenadier Guards suffered heavy casualties in its first battle on the Mareth Line in March 1943.
On March 11th, a fellow Wykehamist in 6th Grenadier Guards – Lieutenant Basil Julian David Brooke (F 1933-1938) – was killed when his jeep ran over a land-mine (see individual entry).
Montgomery launched his own attack, code-named “Operation Pugilist”, against the Mareth Line in the night of 19th/20th March 1943. As part of the preparation for this attack, on 16th/17th March, 201 (Guards) Brigade was tasked to capture the outlying “Horseshoe” feature, a commanding collection of small hills overlooking the Wadi Zeuss some four miles in front of the main Mareth Line positions along the Wadi Zigzaou. The Horseshoe was held by three German battalions, of 90th Light Division, but air reconnaissance had failed to spot that the ground was heavily mined and well fortified, and reconnaissance on foot was impossible given the dominance of the feature. Indeed, 6th Grenadier Guards, who had not yet seen battle, were given the task as it seemed likely to be quite a gentle introduction to combat. Montgomery visited the battalion and told its officers: “When I give a party, it is a good party; and this is going to be a good party.”
A huge artillery bombardment signalled the start of the action with the 6th Grenadiers reaching their first target, the Wadi Zeuss, under sporadic fire. However, as soon as they got to the western bank, which had not been scouted, the trouble started, as an account written by a Grenadier guardsman explains: “On the west side of the Wadi, a trip-wire six inches high was encountered. It seemed to stretch along the whole front. This wire, in case it was booby-trapped, was cut, but it afterwards transpired that it marked a deadly minefield. Up to now, everything had gone splendidly…
The leading companies now formed up on the enemy side of the Wadi, and from a number of explosions – apart from enemy shelling – it became apparent that they were on the edge of an enemy mine-field. Tall columns of black smoke went up and hung in the air, and there were a number of casualties. The mines were mixed; they included Tellers, ‘S’ mines and Italian AP box mines.”
The mines were so thick that over seven hundred had to be lifted to allow the dead Grenadiers to be removed after the battle.
The Grenadiers pressed on, reaching most of their objectives during the night. However, they had overlooked some German positions in the darkness, and were thus unable to consolidate their positions. Heavy weapons did not make it past the minefields, and there were no reserves, so when the inevitable German counter-attacks came, the Guards were forced to retire at 0525.
Gwyer had successfully led his company through the wire and minefields and refused to leave his men when he was wounded. When the battalion pulled out, the survivors of his company were surrounded and over-run. Gwyer died that morning, aged twenty-seven. His Colonel wrote of “the affection and admiration in which we all held him” and of “the greatest possible confidence” he felt in his judgement. Of his courage there was never any doubt. 6th Grenadier Guards had lost twenty-seven of their thirty-four officers that night, including all of those in the three assault companies (fourteen of them dead).
Gwyer now rests in grave XIII.D.8 of the Sfax War Cemetery, Tunisia.
Near the steps of the Guards Museum in Wellington Barracks, London, stands the Mareth Cross. The Mareth Cross commemorates the men of 6th Battalion who were killed that night in March 1943. The Cross was carved from local stone by the pioneers of 6th Battalion and was left standing on the battlefield. It was brought back to the Guards Depot at Caterham in 1957, badly in need of repair, and was then moved to the Guards Depot at Pirbright in 1959. It subsequently moved to its present site in Wellington Barracks.
- Surname: Gwyer
- Forenames or initials: Geoffrey Charles Francis
- House: H
- Years in School: 1930-1934
- Rank: Captain
- Regiment: Grenadier Guards
- Date of Birth: 12th February 1916
- Date of Death: 17th March 1943
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner G1
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Sfax War Cemetery, Tunisia: Grave XIII.D.8