Daniel Meinertzhagen was the eldest son of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen DSO, of 17 Kensington Park Gardens, London. His father (1878-1967) was a soldier, intellegence officer, ornithologist and Zionist. In the First World War he was Chief Political Officer to General Allenby in Palestine, where he famously helped in a deception plan to trick the Turks at Gaza; he was chased by Turkish troops and let fall a despatch case containing false Allied plans. When he later met Hitler he greeted him with a “Heil Meinertzhagen’ and allegedly considered killing him on the spot.
Meinertzhagen had two sons and a daughter by his second wife, Annie Constance Meinertzhagen (née Jackson): Dan, ‘Ran’ (R.R.M. Meinertzhagen, C1941-45) and Anne. Dan’s mother Annie, an expert on wading birds, died in a shooting accident in 1928.
Dan came from Aysgarth School to Southgate Hill (Du Boulay’s) in May 1938. He rowed, and took his place in most school games but his main interest was in Natural History. From his first term, his “toys” was seldom without some animal or bird in the process of being skinned. He left Winchester in 1942, the Senior Prefect of his House. His father later wrote: I regard Dan’s prefecture at Winchester as one of the most important events in his short life, and as being largely responsible for his success when he joined the army”.
He had gained an exhibition to New College, Oxford but instead joined the Coldstream Guards straight from school. He joined at Caterham on 24th January 1943 for seven weeks basic training and went on to Pirbright on 15th March before completing his training at Sandhurst. At the end of his course he won the Belt of Honour, the war-time equivalent of the prestigious Sword of Honour. His father watched the passing-out parade on November 20th: “The drill was superb; I have never seen anything like it. I stood next to a Colonel in the Grenadier Guards and asked him how the parade compared with the Guards at their best. He admitted that what we had seen today could not be surpassed by any Guards regiment at its best. Dan looked terribly smart and it must have been a great day for him. The Belt of Honour was given to the boy by Lieutenant-General Crocker. When the passing-out company did a slow march into the main building to the slow-time strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ I nearly wept with emotion. Those boys looked so splendid. How many of them would be alive in a year’s time? Many of the women were weeping and some of the old soldiers had tears in their eyes.”
4th Coldstreams moved in January 1944 to Rufford Abbey near Sheffield, where they trained other units in tank co-operation. In early February Meinertzhagen went on leave in Oban and Mull with his father. There were problems in April with tanks being promised, issued and then taken away again, of which Dan wrote: “Anything more calculated to ruin the morale of a battalion I have yet to see. This battalion has now spent four years in England training, it has been highly trained three times and it has been changed from infantry to motorized infantry and from motorized infantry to tanks. That it has kept such a high standard of training up to now and that it has such a high morale seems to me most remarkable. But if the authorities had wished to destroy it once and for all they could not have chosen a better way of doing so.”
In early May the battalion drove its Churchill tanks down to Charing, near Maidstone, in a convoy a mile long, via Stevenage and the centre of London. The Guards were still horrified at their inadequate equipment: “We are now on the brink of the Second Front and the final decisive battle. We shall fight the Germans under conditions where we can be penetrated at any range by their guns whilst our maximum penetration range is little more than five hundred yards. At the last moment 75mm guns are being pushed into our tanks so that at least we may have a gun firing high explosive. Both the Germans and Americans had them in Africa over a year ago.”
He last saw his father on June 25th, and that day, in case he was killed, he destroyed those pages of his diary which said unkind things about other people. “I’m going to be killed all right, and I don’t mind a bit if it means that Anne and Ran will live in a better world; it’s well worth it… I’d sooner be killed than not do my best and if one does one’s best one is almost certain to be killed. But don’t worry. I’ve had a damned good life – Aysgarth, Winchester and the Coldstream Guards – and a damned good Daddy.”
The battalion embarked on its sea transport on July 19th 1944 and landed on Juno beach at 1700 on the 20th. They first saw action on July 30th near Caumont: “We have just completed our first attack… I was just approaching a house when I saw Michael’s tank stop, heard a bang and saw one or two flames coming out of the tank. Two men threw themselves out of the tank and I thought I saw a third try. I fired smoke to cover them and then tried to get my ‘Baker’ tank to outflank. Unfortunately, owing to the terrific bumpings my tank had sustained, my wireless was not working… I shall never forget seeing those two men trying to get out of their burning tank… None of my wireless sets works and so I had to do all my signals by hand out of the top of the turret. This was none too pleasant with the number of bullets flying around…”
Indeed, another Wykehamist, Captain the Hon. George Charles Grey MP (D1932-1937), 4th (Armoured) Battalion, Grenadier Guards, was killed by a sniper during that same action, doing exactly the same as Meinertzhagen.
On July 31st Meinertzhagen had a closer experience of death: “Half way back the first bomb dropped. We were then mortared and shelled continuously for about an hour. It was a terrific concentration and shook up the men rather a lot. I was behind a bank most of the time with Mark who would not let me return to my troop. One of his crew seemed to have succumbed completely with his head on the ground and Mark had covered him with his blanket. A revolting sight. When I arrived back to my troop I found them dispersed, and Harris, my front gunner, lying dead face down behind the tank. He had been lying underneath the tank when a mortar struck just in front of him and a large splinter had taken away most of his forehead. We had to leave him there then but later in the day I went over his pockets and looked for his identity discs – a horrible job; I felt like some sort of vulture. We were mortared and shelled all day. Reports came in about a huge concentration of tanks which were about to attack us but nothing happened. Everyone was becoming tired by this time; bushes were identified as Panthers or Tigers. I fired at one myself after having my opinion confirmed by four other officers.”
On August 13th he again saw fierce fighting, after the battalion had been split up and its squadrons allocated to various infantry brigades of 3rd Division. 2 Squadron had been assigned to 185 Infantry Brigade, and spent an uncomfortable night in an isolated position supporting 2nd Warwickshires.
The battalion then rested until late September, moving forwards across the Seine in the wake of the ‘Great Swan’, as the rapid progress across France and Belgium was known. On September 25th he wrote: “We are off again at last. This time I think we may see some fighting, since we are travelling on transporters to somewhere near Brussels or beyond. We shall probably attack either in the coastal area or be used if they try a break-through in the Siegfried Line.”
On October 1st he wrote his last diary entry: “We have been on the move ever since I last wrote and we are now in Holland eight miles from the German frontier and still going forward. The journey as far as the Albert Canal was on transporters, more comfortable travelling than in one’s own tanks. The first part was uneventful – Amiens, Valenciennes – all over the battlefields of the last war. As we drew nearer to the Belgian frontier the people seemed more enthusiastic and just over the frontier there were people all along the road – however, the motive was, I suspect, largely for cigarettes. We passed through Mons, an unattractive town, and spent the second night between that town and Brussels.”
The battalion moved on to less than a mile from the German frontier, at the northern end of the Reichswald Forest. Meinertzhagen’s father takes up the story of what happened on October 2nd 1944: “Dan went forward with Mark Millbank and three other officers to make a reconnaissance near the village of Mook on the Maas and some four miles south of Nijmegen in Holland. They had only been there a few minutes when the Germans opened on them with mortar fire. The party dived for cover. When the firing ceased Dan was missing but was eventually found with a dead American soldier at the bottom of a slit-trench. Death had been instantaneous. He was buried where he fell.
He was nineteen years old. He rests in grave VI.C.11 of the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery.
A school friend wrote: “I had a greater admiration for Fawn, with his all-round qualities, than for any other of my time”. His headmaster at Winchester, Canon Spencer Leeson, wrote: “Dan Meinertzhagen was the heir and possessor of so much – a background that was English of the best in its variety and individuality and love of outdoor life and beauty, ability of a high order, and a personality that the years would have enriched and crowned. With a great company of his contemporaries he gladly gave it all up, leaving to us, his friends, an inspired memory. I do not know what other readers will think; but I for one can never believe that in the deep counsels of Good all that is lost”.
He made the same impression in his regiment. The following tribute was compiled from letters sent to his father after his death:
“Dan was well-endowed from the start with everything which makes for success in life and he made the best use of it, always giving to life so much more than he took… He had a wonderful and rare disposition and though entirely masculine in all his interests and ideals, he was immeasurably kind and was almost as gentle as a woman. One seldom met such charm and intelligence combined in one person… His personality had a special flavour… He had taken full advantage of his education and being a gifted boy with great range and originality, had sought the truth, never accepting facts without ascertaining their reality… He was one of the most sympathetic boys, managing to infuse into his sympathy a sort of whimsical humour which made him doubly endearing to his friends… He knew no fear, or if he did he never showed it. He had done magnificently in battle and was in the top rank of young officers. He would have gone a long way in any class. He was in all things up to the high standard of Wykehamists who join the Coldstream… Dan was the sort which the country can ill afford to lose. The future of our race so much depends on the survival of boys like Dan, with their high unspoiled grace. They might have helped to refurnish the world in purer style… These boys who have given their lives so willingly make us feel so humble. Let us hope their great example and abilities are being put to greater use on the other side and that this gallant band of youth are together and trying to help our stricken world.”
Most of the above material has been taken from the memoir compiled by Daniel Meinertzhagen’s father, entitled “The Life of a Boy: Daniel Meinertzhagen 1925-1944” (Oliver & Boyd 1947), a copy of which is in Moberly Library.
- Surname: Meinertzhagen
- Forenames or initials: Daniel
- House: C
- Years in School: 1938-1942
- Rank: Lieutenant
- Regiment: Coldstream Guards
- Date of Birth: 7th January 1925
- Date of Death: 2nd October 1944
- How Died: Killed in Action
- Location in War Cloister: Inner C1
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery: Grave VI.C.11