Who Dares, Wins
Soldier created havoc behind the lines
Joanne Hatherly, Times Colonist Published: Friday, February 23, 2007
He stood on the edge of a field and watched Jeeps fall from a starlit sky.
His boss told him, "I think you should be shot," and had the means to make it happen.
He was the object of a manhunt that spanned three decades.
Major Henry C. Druce's motto was "Who dares wins." He dared. Sometimes he lost, but mostly he won.
In 1939, at the age of 18, Druce played a reconaissance game to find out where a young British woman named Mary Docker would be, so he could be sure to meet her, seemingly by chance. He kept it up until she married him in a small country church in a pine forest.
On another reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines in occupied France, Druce found himself surrounded by German soldiers. When their officer pronounced Druce a prisoner, Druce countered by offering to take the officer and his soldiers as prisoners. The German officer declined. Druce argued it was most practical if his would-be captors surrendered, as their army was all but defeated. The German officer argued Druce was outnumbered in the immediate vicinity and should surrender.
The record shows Druce was taken captive, but his son says, "In fact, he jumped out the window, the door not being available to him at that moment, so he was never really captured."
Druce, who was born to a Dutch mother and English father in the Hague on May 20, 1921, was schooled at Cheam. A class photo shows Druce seated on the floor in the front row of a small group of boys. In the back row is a dead-ringer for Prince Charles. The dead-ringer is the prince's father, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Druce went on to be schooled at Sherborne and then the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, from which he graduated in February 1940. He was commissioned into the same regiment as his father, the Middlesex Regiment in Mill Hill, Middlesex. He volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment and was posted to the 21st Independent Parachute Company. He served with the Special Air Service and MI-6, which sent him behind the lines to Holland and France.
When a troop commander pulled out of a reconnaissance mission in occupied France, Druce quickly stepped in.
"He was a natural leader -- cool, calm, collected," says Lew Fiddick, 90, who was a Canadian bomber pilot who joined Druce's group after being shot down over France. He says Druce's French was so good that "he wandered around occupied France the way you would walk around the streets of London."
Fiddick was with Druce as they waited to "take delivery" of those Jeeps that starry night. That meant radioing a position to their headquarters and then waiting for the Jeeps to be dropped from the sky. It was a cloudless night when Druce and Fiddick stood and waited, chatting matter-of-factly about evading the Germans and which of the French might be collaborators.
Soon, they heard the unlit Halifax bombers. They signalled briefly with a light, and the bombers flew down to about 600 feet and dropped the Jeeps, which were fitted with a parachute on each corner.
"They dropped fairly straight," recalls Fiddick. "Although mine ended up the hill in a tree. That was something to get it down, but even worse was getting rid of the parachute, so the Germans wouldn't know we had been there. It was all tangled in the branches."
With those Jeeps, each fitted with four Vickers machine guns, Druce and his men inflicted casualties and charged at German troops with such confidence that the enemy withdrew in some quarters, convinced that Druce's band was the spearhead of a larger military force.
"His job was to create havoc," says Fiddick, "which he did."
As the war wound down, Druce was ordered by Brigadier Mike Calvert to penetrate the German lines from Arnhem. When Druce protested on the grounds that it was a needless risk as the war was almost over, Calvert said, "I think you should be shot." Druce complied. He accomplished that mission with what was to be described as "devastating effect," and he did it all dressed in a black silk top hat and corduroy trousers.
It was the top hat that made Druce a hunted man for three decades, although he was unaware of it. In 1970, a Kodak film roll marked "exposed 1945" was discovered under the floor of a former German building near Deelen Airport in the Netherlands. That film roll yielded only one scratchy image of "a man, sitting on a motorbike, wearing military boots and a black top hat," wrote Marco Houtgraaf in 2001.
Stories of the man in the top hat had taken a mythic air in the area, and Houtgraaf, a researcher for the airport's museum, was excited to find evidence of his existence, but the name of the man eluded Houtgraaf, who asked about the officer in the top hat until a chance encounter uncovered the name of a relative who confirmed Druce's Second World War role. The mystery solved, Druce became a fact, not a legend, in the Deelen Airport museum's archives.
His wartime exploits are written up in five books. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Croix de Guerre for his work with the French Resistance, and was made an officer of the Netherland's Order of Orange-Nassau for his work in Indonesia, which he took up after the war until 1949. France honoured him in 1951, inviting him to rekindle the flame at the Arc de Triomphe.
In 1951, he, Mary and their three children Richard, Nicola (now Connolly of Boston) and Victoria (now Place of Australia) moved to Canada, where Druce launched a marine shipping business. He retired to Victoria in 1981, where he enjoyed golfing and stamp-collecting.
He died in Victoria on Jan. 4, at the age of 85. Besides his wife and children, he leaves grandchildren Michael, Jennifer, Ian, Kim, Kevin, Samantha, Stuart and great-grandchildren Sam, Sophie, Anouk, Alexandre and Ariane. His is also survived by his brother Charles in Windsor, England.
Druce relished "freelancing" in the field, says his family. He didn't parachute after the war, even though he described the experience as "marvellous."
"It wasn't the same when no one was shooting at him, I suppose," Mary wryly observes.
His son, Richard Druce, 63, says, "The Special Air Service motto is 'Who dares wins.' My father took that motto and lived it his entire life."
Island Lives is a weekly series celebrating the lives of Island people who have died recently. The series focuses not on the famous, but on our neighbours who have led interesting lives or made a difference in their communities. If you know of someone whose life should be celebrated, let us know by e-mail at email@example.com or by mail.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007
PHOTO CREDIT: Major Henry Druce was a guest of the French at the Arc de Triomphe in 1951 (Druce is third from left).
Photograph by : Druce family
It really amazes me just how many unsung heroes are out there that nobody has ever heard of and just why it took someone so long to check it out. Good post Malahat.
I remember my father (a British WW2 vet) talking about sabotage units. IIRC, he said that often it was only 1 or 2 people roaming around totally devoid of detection right under the enemy's nose creating total havoc.
Coming from a British Commando, to hear him call them "spectacular at their jobs;" they must have been incredible. They never got any public credit because "officially" they didn't "exist."
We will never know about all of the brave soldeirs, sailors, airmen and Marines who went "behind the lines" in advance of military ops to do recon and fight for us.
We owe them all a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.