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John Frederick Boyce Combe
Brigadier Combe (left) with Lieutenant General Philip Neame (centre), Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor (centre, middle distance), and Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry (right) following their capture by the Germans, 6 April 1941
Born (1895-08-01)August 1, 1895
Died July 12, 1967(1967-07-12) (aged 71)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1914 - 1947
Rank Major General
Commands held 11th Hussars
Combe Force
2nd Armoured Brigade
78th Infantry Division
46th Infantry Division
British Troops in Austria
Awards CB (1947)[1]
DSO (1941)[2]
DSO (1941)[3]
MID (1945)[4]
LM (Officer) (USA) (1948)[5]

Major-General John Frederick Boyce Combe CB DSO & Bar (1 August 1895 – 12 July 1967) was a British Army officer before and during World War II. He was twice awarded the DSO for his service in the Western Desert Campaign before being captured in April 1941 and spending nearly two and a half years as a prisoner of war in Italy. Released in September 1943 when Italy withdrew from the Axis, he made his way back to Allied territory and from October 1944 until the end of the war commanded an amoured brigade.

Early life

John Frederick Boyce Combe was the son of Captain Christian Combe and Lady Jane Seymour Conyngham.

In 1914, Combe joined the B Squadron of the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own).

World War II

Lieutenant Colonel Combe was the commanding officer of the 11th Hussars for the initial stages of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. He had been promoted lieutenant-colonel to take command in September 1939[6] and was partly responsible for the high level of training that prepared the regiment for the battles in North Africa. Under Combe's command, the regiment played a part during the early British raids into Libya and as part of the cover force for the Western Desert Force (WDF) during the Italian invasion of Egypt. The 11th Hussars were part of the divisional troops of the WDF's 7th Armoured Division

Combe Force

Combe played a major part in the defeat of the Italian Tenth Army during Operation Compass. He was appointed to command an ad hoc mobile flying column known as "Combe Force," comprising a squadron of 11 Hussars, B Squadron 1st King's Dragoon Guards, C Battery Royal Horse Artillery (RHA), some anti-tank guns from 106th Regiment RHA and the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade.[7] In February 1941, Combe and "Combe Force" cut off the retreating Italians at Beda Fomm. The Italians were forced to halt and in spite very determined attempts over two days, were unable to break through Combe Force's defensive lines. Unable to move forward and picked off by attacks from their flank by 4th Armoured Brigade and from the rear by the 7th Support Group, the bulk of the Tenth Army surrendered. Some 25,000 prisoners were taken and more than 100 medium tanks as well as over 100 guns were destroyed or captured.[8]

Prisoner of War

Combe was promoted to temporary brigadier on 3 April 1941, handing over command of the 11th Hussars to Lieutenant Colonel W. I. Leetham. As a result of Erwin Rommel's advance from El Agheila, he was appointed by the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, Archibald Wavell, to accompany another desert-experienced officer, Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor (the former commander of the Western Desert Force which had become the XIII Corps) as adviser to Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame, the commander of HQ Cyrenaica Command (the successor to XIII Corps). On the night of 6 April 1941, Combe was travelling by car with Neame and O'Connor from their Advanced HQ at Msus to its new location at Tmimi. They were captured by the Germans[9] and taken to mainland Italy to be held as prisoners of war (POW).

He was initially sent to the Villa Orsini near Sulmona in the Abruzzo, where he was amongst other distinguished officers, apart from Neame and O'Connor they included, Air Marshall Owen Tudor Boyd, and Major-General Adrian Carton de Wiart. He was later transferred to another camp, Castello di Vincigliata PG12 near Florence. He settled into camp life becoming one of the gardeners,[10] as well as keeping sixteen hens, ‘and tended them like a mother.’.[11] He was an enthusiastic escaper, taking it turns in tunnelling and one of the six officers to escape in April 1943. Unfortunately he was caught the next morning in Milan railway station, whilst studying a timetable.[12]

Partisans in Italy

He escaped from Vincigliata again with all remaining officers and men during the Italian Armistice in September 1943. He reached Camaldoli with Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Neame, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O'Connor and other British officers. In Romagna, he joined the Italian partisans led by Libero as Riccardo Fedel was known.[13] During the winter of 1943/4 this partisan group helped Combe and other allied prisoners to escape. They included Brigadier ‘Rudolf’ Vaughan, Brigadier ‘Ted’ Todhunter, Captain Guy Ruggles-Brise and Lieutenant ‘Dan’ Ranfurly. In March 1944 with the help of Italian guides they made an astonishing 250 mile walk across the mountains in snow to keep a rendezvous with agents on the coast. The group acquired a leaking fishing boat and eventually arrived at Allied lines in May 1944. Combe arrived in Algiers 12 May with Todhunter and Ranfurly and was flown to England.[14]

Back with Eighth Army

After his escape Combe re-joined Eighth Army. In October 1944 he was given command of 2nd Armoured Brigade (which position he held until after the German surrender) and had his substantive (permanent) rank advanced from lieutenant-colonel to colonel.[15]

Post war

After the end of hostilities in Europe Combe had brief periods as an acting major-general commanding successively 78th Infantry Division and 46th Infantry Division in Austria. In October 1946 his rank of major-general was made permanent[16] and he was appointed Deputy GOC British Troops Austria. He retired from the army in October 1947[17] but continued to hold the ceremonial post of Colonel of the Regiment of the 11th Hussars to which he had been appointed in July 1945[18] and was to hold for twelve years.[19] It was as Colonel of the Regiment that he took part in the procession behind the coffin at the funeral of King George VI in 1952.[20] He died on 12 July 1967.[21]


On 21 July 1947, Combe married Helen Violet St. Maur, daughter of Major Lord Percy St. Maur and Hon. Violet White.

See also



  • Carton de Wiart, Lt-Gen. Sir Adrian (2007) [1950]. Happy Odyssey. Pen & Sword Books. ISBN 1-84415-539-0. 
  • Macksey, Major Kenneth (1971). Beda Fomm: Classic Victory. Ballentine's Illustrated History of the Violent Century, Battle Book Number 22. Ballantine Books. 
  • Mead, Richard (2007). Churchill's Lions: A biographical guide to the key British generals of World War II. Stroud (UK): Spellmount. ISBN 978-1-86227-431-0. 
  • Neame, Sir Philip (1947). Playing with Strife, The Autobiografy of A Soldier. London-Sidney: George G. Harrap. 
  • Playfair, Major-General I.S.O.; with Stitt, Commander G.M.S; Molony, Brigadier C.J.C. & Toomer, Air Vice-Marshall S.E. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO:1954]. Butler, J.R.M. ed. Mediterranean and Middle East Volume I: The Early Successes Against Italy (to May 1941). History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. Uckfield, UK: Naval & Military Press. ISBN 1-84574-065-3. 
  • Ranfurly, Hermione (1994). To War with Whitaker: The wartime diaries of The Countess of Ranfurly 1939 -1945. London: William Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-00224-0. 
  • Walker, Ian W. (2003). Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts : Mussolini's elite armoured divisions in North Africa. Marlborough: Crowood. ISBN 1-86126-646-4. 

External references and sources

  • Playing with Strife', The Autobiography of a Soldier, Lt-Gen. Sir Philip Neame, V.C., K.B.E., C.B., D.S.O., George G Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1947, 353 pages, (written whilst a POW, the best narrative of Vincigliata as Campo PG12, contains a scale plan of Castello di Vincigliata, and photographs taken by the author just after the war)
  • 'Farewell Campo 12', Brigadier James Hargest, C.B.E., D.S.O. M.C., Michael Joseph Ltd, 1945, 184 pages contains a sketch map of Castello Vincigliata page 85, route of capture and escape 'Sidi Azir - London (inside front cover),(no index)
  • 'Always To-Morrow', 1951, John F Leeming, George G Harrap & Co. Ltd, London, 188p, Illustrated with photographs and maps, (Tells of the authors' experiences as a prisoner of the Italians during World War II)
  • 'War in Italy 1943-1945', 1994, A Brutal Story, Richard Lamb, Saint Martin's Press, New York, 328 pages, ISBN 978-0-312-11093-2
  • Natale Graziani, La Resistenza armata nell'Appennino forlivese e cesenate dal Rapporto segreto dei generali inglesi di Brigata J.F.B. Combe e E.J. Todhunter, in "Studi Romagnoli", LX, Società di Studi Romagnoli, 2009, p. 1 e ss.
  • Natale Graziani, La prima Resistenza armata in Romagna. Autunno 1943-primavera 1944, Milano, Fondazione Comandante Libero, 2010, ISBN 978-88-906018-0-4
Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Archibald Home
Colonel of the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own)
Succeeded by
Adam Smail

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