He was the eldest son of Major-General Sir Reginald John Pinney KCB, JP, DL (B1877-81; shown with his son in the attached photograph) and Lady Hester Pinney, the daughter of Henry Head of Buckingham. He had two brothers, Robert Pinney (I1920-1925) and John Pinney (I1934-1939). The family home, Racedown, in Bridport, Dorset, had once been lent by the Pinney family rent-free to the poet Wordsworth and his sister.
Pinney came to Winchester from Copthorne, played against Eton in Claude Ashton’s winning Lords XI in 1920 and again in 1921, and was in the soccer XI in the same years. A useful batsman, his obituary in Wisden said of his cricket that he played for Winchester in 1920, both Harrow and Eton being beaten.
From RMA Woolwich he joined the gunners and served in Egypt and India. From 1933 Pinney did two tours of duty with the Sudan Defence Force on the Abyssinian border: these tours he much enjoyed. His second tour of the Sudan prevented him from going to Sandhurst but by 1938 he was serving at home as a Captain in the Royal Horse Artillery. He went abroad as a Major with the BEF in September 1939 and won an MC in command of an anti-tank battery at Dunkirk.
He married Rosemary Segrave, the only daughter of Vice Admiral John Roderick Segrave CB, and lived at Chetnole, Dorset, and then at Hartley Court, Three Mile Cross near Reading. He left a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, born in June 1941.
Pinney was wounded in Syria in June 1941, and was then placed in command of ‘J’ Battery, 3RHA, in the Libyan campaign. Whilst there he met his brother, Robert, (a Corporal in the New Zealand forces) whom he had not seen for ten years.
3rd Battalion RHA had seen heavy fighting in the Western Desert and Cyrenaica throughout the war up to that period but by the summer of 1941 was for the most part in Tobruk. It was not until September that the regiment was pulled out of its various locations and assembled at Almaza in Egypt, where efforts were now directed at preparing for a fresh offensive. Nowadays referred to by its code name of Operation Crusader, it was intended to break through German and Italian defences in Libya to relieve the besieged Tobruk. Crusader began in heavy rain on 18th November. The Battle of Sidi Rezegh, as this turned into, was a confused armoured battle fought around the airfield of the same name.
The regiment’s history recounts what happened that afternoon: “In the second attack, early in the afternoon, referred to by Sergeant Finagin, the tank force came on directly for the guns of ‘A’ Troop. As they approached, they concentrated their HE fire on to the troop who, undeterred, continued firing, putting up a magnificent defence against the heavier metal and very heavy odds. As one man fell, another took his place, until soon three of the four portees (lorry mounted guns) were ablaze. Major Pinney, 2nd Lieutenant Gunn and Sergeant Grey manned one of these – of which all the crew had been killed or wounded – until that too, was afire and Gunn killed.” During the engagement Ward Gunn had driven from position to position in an unarmoured vehicle, encouraging his men. But the crew of the last remaining twopounder, except Sergeant Grey, were by now all dead or wounded: “All the crew of the remaining gun were either killed or wounded, and the driver, not unnaturally, began to drive it out of the battle. Ward Gunn, at Battalion Headquarters, was joined at that moment by Bernard Pinney… He said to Ward: “Go and stop that blighter”, and even then it seemed hard to be so described for driving a useless gun and dead crew out of action.” (“The Rifle Brigade in the Second World War, by Major R H W S Hastings DSO, OBE, MC.)
Gunn ran over and stopped the driver, and the pair dragged the dead from the portee. They then got the gun back into action, with Pinney serving as their loader. 2RB did not dare to watch: “No one could gauge the effect of this fire, because to look over the edge of a slit trench was suicidal… The Germans concentrated their fire on the burning vehicles of Battalion Headquarters and the one remaining gun. But at least the two nearest enemy tanks were blazing. In a matter of seconds the portee was on fire, the off-side front wheel had been hit, and the tyre was blazing; two boxes of ammunition held in brackets behind the passenger seat were also in flames. Pinney took the Pyrene fire extinguisher and got the fire in the tyre under control; but the ammunition boxes continued to burn. Ward Gunn, who had kept on firing throughout, was hit in the forehead and killed instantly. Pinney pushed his body out of the way and went on firing until further hits made the gun unusable. He drove away unscathed.” (Hastings)
One of those officers of 2RB who saw the whole action and acted as a witness for the Victoria Cross recommendations which followed was Captain Tom Bird (T.A. Bird, E1932-1936, DSO, MC and Bar). He wrote: “I should not have thought it possible to carry on under such heavy fire and remain so calm and unconcerned as Bernard.”
Pinney and Gunn had done all that they could, but the situation remained critical.
“Colonel Wilson and Major Pinney, who were on the spot, made efforts to produce one gun and portee capable of going back into action instantly with scratch crews from Battery HQ and Regimental HQ. Sergeant Keirle took over this gun, while Turner was relieved by Driver Hoole. This was not all, and what followed was not easy to perform, but the situation was serious. The new detachment were of necessity given the task of preparing their gun for action, and therefore, to remove from it the remains of their predecessors. The stern and urgent needs of battle were paramount, and in utter silence they made ready for their contribution and complied with the order: ““You men get these men’s bodies scraped off the gun and get it back into action as quickly as possible.”
They did just that……………. The enemy had taken such a knock in this struggle with ‘A’ Troop that their attack was not pressed on to the gun position, but later in the afternoon they made yet another effort. This time however, there was not so much determination shown and, as the remains of ‘C’ and ‘A’ Troops, reinforced by some Battery HQ men, engaged them, with ‘D’ Battery doing likewise on their left, while withdrawing slowly on to the guns of ‘Jerboa’ (‘DD’) Battery 4RHA, the enemy decided they had had enough and withdrew.
After nightfall, in leaguer, Major Pinney paid a visit to his Battery, accompanied by ‘Jock’ [Campbell] who praised their work “in changing” as he put it “the whole course of the day”. (Hastings).
For his actions that day Pinney was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but instead was simply mentioned in despatches. Lieutenant Ward Gunn was awarded a posthumous VC. After the war, Pinney’s ‘J’ Battery, 3RHA, was officially renamed “Sidi Rezegh ‘J’ Battery”, because of its conspicuous role in the battle.
Pinney did not live to know of his Victoria Cross recommendation. He was struck by shell-fire the following day (November 22nd), and killed at the age of thirty-eight.
“‘C’ Troop awoke to find a German tank leaguer about three or four thousand yards away. This was instantly engaged by 60 Field Regiment and ‘C’ Troop, who drove out for the purpose. The enemy eventually withdrew. At about 0730, however, Major Pinney took another portee and gun up to the position occupied by ‘C’ Troop, and about 0745, when the firing had died down, it was noticed he was missing. A search of the area found his body on a gun position of ‘C’ Battery 4RHA. He had been killed by an extremely small shell splinter in the base of his skull”.
A fellow Wykehamist, Captain Thomas William Gerard Hulbert (D1931-1937), of 2RHA, was also killed in action at Sidi Rezegh (see individual entry).
By dawn on November 23rd, 7th Armoured Division was in considerable disarray. 4 Armoured Brigade was scattered everywhere; 7 Armoured Brigade had only fifteen battle-worthy tanks; 22 Armoured Brigade was reduced to thirty-four tanks; the Support Group was virtually non-existent. It had been some of the toughest fighting of the desert war.
Pinney’s grave was lost after the fighting, and he is commemorated in Column 1 of the Alamein Memorial. A memorial service was held for him at Broadwindsor Church after his death was announced.
- Surname: Pinney
- Forenames or initials: Bernard
- House: I
- Years in School: 1916-1921
- Rank: Major
- Regiment: Royal Horse Artillery
- Date of Birth: 14th May 1903
- Date of Death: 22nd November 1941
- How Died: Died of Wounds
- Location in War Cloister: Inner D2
- Decoration: MC
- Burial Site: Unknown but commemorated on Column 1 of the Alamein Memorial