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Tuesday, 1 December 2009


The name Edgar popped into my head the other day, reminding me that I had a great uncle of that name about whom I knew next to nothing. Edgar Collins Castle (1886-1959) was a policeman in Rhodesia. That was it, the sum total of my knowledge, unless you count the rather unreliable suggestion of my father’s that he had had to leave Blighty under a cloud – unreliable, because my father had a very low opinion of that branch of the family anyway.

Whatever the reason, he went out to Rhodesia as a sub-inspector in 1911. By 1913 he was a 2nd Lieutenant, rising and serving with distinction until his retirement, with the rank of Captain Officer Commanding all Town and District Police throughout the Territory, in 1931. His service medals were auctioned in 2007, I think after the death of his second wife.

Edgar Castle's British War and Victory medals
He married his first wife Elsie Mansbridge in 1914, when he had been promoted to the rank of Temporary Captain at the outbreak of the Great War, and in 1919 they had a son, David, their only child. On his retirement in 1931 the family returned to England and settled in Guildford. I don’t know for certain, but given that David and my father were almost the same age and that Edgar was my father’s uncle, it seems probable that the cousins played together as children.

At the outbreak of the Second World War David signed up (as did my father). David’s father had of course served in uniform. One uncle, Edgar’s brother Tudor, had died in the First World War; and another, Edgar’s brother-in-law Fred (my grandfather), had survived it severely disabled. There was a family tradition of military service, and there remained a strong sense of national duty.
A Matilda tank, the vehicle of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment

David emerged from his Officer Cadet Training Unit as a 2nd Lieutenant, no doubt stirring the proud heart of his father the former 2nd Lieutenant. He was posted to the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, which in 1941 was dispatched to Egypt. The Desert War in northern Africa was going badly: everywhere had fallen to Rommel except Tobruk, which had been completely surrounded since April that year. In June David was involved in the second of two failed attempts to break into the city via the strategic Halfaya Pass, when it was only the rearguard action of his regiment that allowed British troops to escape back over the Egyptian border.

By September Britain decided on a different strategy – rather than try to break in to relieve the city, they would attempt to break out. Over the next few weeks the 4th Royal Tank were smuggled into the city from the sea under cover of darkness, successfully avoiding the watchful gaze of patrolling German U-boats, and began making tentative night patrols from the city into the surrounding desert. Finally on 21st November 1941 the operation began to break out and link up with the advancing 8th Army.

The operation was not successful. Minefields and the intervention of Rommel's Afrika Korps between the two converging forces thwarted the plan. Of the 50 tanks of 4th Royal Tank Regiment that started the day, only 25 were still able to limp back to Tobruk at the end of it. David, badly wounded, was hospitalised in Tobruk and died there four days later. He is buried in Tobruk War Cemetery.

The siege of Tobruk, the longest in British military history, was eventually lifted on the 6th December. Tobruk fell again to the German army six months later, before finally being recaptured after the Battle of El Alamein.

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