I’ve been editing Stanley Christopherson’s amazing diaries, and they’re now published in a very handsome tome. This is the Introduction I wrote for them:
In early June 2004, I was in Normandy with a small group of friends, one of whom was David Christopherson; of our group, his was the only father who had both fought in the war and had landed on D-Day, and David was understandably keen to see some of the places where his father, Stanley, had been in action. Knowing my particular interest in the war, David shared with me some of the passages of his father’s wartime diaries, which he had brought along. It seemed the Sherwood Ranger’s Yeomanry had got through D-Day itself without suffering too many casualties, but then had been involved in a particularly tough fight near a village called Tilly-sur-Seules, to the south of Bayeux. By chance we were staying very close by and so together, David and I found our way to Point 103, a hill overlooking the village of St Pierre, where the Sherwood Rangers and Stanley had been sent on 8th June 1944.
They had moved into positions on this piece of high ground using trees as cover. Sixty years on, David and I found the spot easily; a thick line of trees ran off the road to St Pierre and Tilly along a slightly sunken track. From here, along this ridgeline, it required little imagination to picture the tanks and men of the Sherwood Rangers, positioned along here, the hulls of the Sherman tanks on the track, the barrels of their guns hidden by the foliage and branches of the beeches. And from between the trees, there was a clear view down to the villages and the rolling Normandy countryside beyond.
David was both excited and wistful about the discovery. He’d been to Normandy with his father, but only once and some years before and he’d not asked Stanley enough questions. Stanley had passed away fourteen years earlier, in 1990, and during his lifetime had not talked to his son much about his war. Now, as we walked the old battleground, it was too late to ask Stanley about his memories and about what he’d experienced all those years before.
Walking along Point 103 fired both our interest. David explained that his father had served throughout the war, and that he wished he now knew more. The pages of the diary he’d brought with him were just a fragment – there was a mass of it, from 1940 until the end, and mostly transcribed too: Palestine, Tobruk, Alamein, Tunisia, Normandy, Operation Market Garden, the crossing of the Rhine. David vowed to re-read it; I urged him to send me a copy. He was as good as his word.
Together, the diaries amount to more than three-hundred thousand words of one of the most astonishing war records I have ever read by a British soldier in the Second World War.
Stanley Christopherson was born in 1912 into a comfortable middle-class family. A large part of his childhood was spent in South Africa, where his father became Managing Director of Consolidated Goldfields. Father and son were close, and Stanley once wrote, ‘I would rather be alone with my father for company than any other man.’ From him, Stanley inherited the charming, humorous and optimistic outlook that exudes from his diaries.
Like most boys of his age and class, he was however educated in England, first at Lockers Park Prep School, where one of his many uncles was headmaster, and then Winchester College. By this time, the Christophersons had returned from South Africa – Consolidated Goldfields had an office in London, although Stanley’s father was often based in South Africa for long periods.
With the family based in England, however, holidays were now spent at their home at Belmont Paddocks, near Faversham. Stanley adored it there in the country. Here he was surrounded by family, friends and endless games of golf, cricket matches and tennis; they had dogs and horses so there was hunting and shooting, and weekend parties with croquet, after-dinner cards and other games; the Christophersons were nothing if not sociable, and the impression from his early letters and diaries is of an idyllic time that offered no hint of what was to come in the War.
Although Stanley won a place to Oxford, he decided to sail to South Africa instead, to be with his beloved father. A year was spent out there before returning to England, and in 1935, aged twenty-three, he took up a post with Rowe Swann & Co, stockbrokers with links to South Africa. It was during this time that he joined the Inns of Court, a Territorial Army regiment that recruited not only barristers, but solicitors, stockbrokers, and former public school and Oxbridge men living and working in the City. A cavalry unit, it aimed to train these young men at weekends and at an annual summer camp so that in the case of war, they should have at least some military experience.
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, all members of the Inns of Court were immediately called up, although there was never any question of this TA unit ever becoming a regular regiment. Instead, the three squadrons were split up for further training after which these former London professionals would be posted to various yeomanry regiments now mobilising for war.
Stanley Christopherson began the war as ‘acting Lance-Corporal unpaid’ and ended it a lieutenant-colonel and commanding the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. Almost no member of the Rangers managed to get through the war unscathed, and Stanley was no exception, although he was one of the very few to be still standing at the end. The Sherwood Rangers had an extraordinary war. They began as little more than amateurs – horse and sport-loving country folk with little understanding of what was about to unfold. A picture of them taken at the 1939 Annual Summer Camp shows them lined up on their horse, Sam Browne belts and riding boots gleaming looking as though they are heading off to the Boer War of forty years earlier. Yet, six years later, they finished the war as the single unit of the British Army with more battle honours than any other, having fought through the war in the Middle East and North Africa, landed on D-Day and then led the British charge through the Low Countries and into Belgium.
In many ways, the Sherwood Rangers can be seen as a leitmotif of the British Army in the Second World War. They began rooted in an earlier age with little understanding of what modern war had become, but gradually, often painfully, learned the lessons, and evolved into a highly efficient outfit. The Sherwood Rangers were rarely complacent and the diaries repeatedly show how much training there was and the extent to which there was a strong desire amongst her officers and men to improve, and become a more effective and efficient fighting machine. The transformation over the course of nearly six long years is startling.
Guiding us through this time is Stanley Christopherson. He was twenty-six when the war began – still young, but old enough to have lost the callowness of youth; by the war’s outbreak, he had seen something of the world, had the makings of a career, and was able to view his experiences with a degree of objectivity often missing in the writings of those a few years younger than him. As with the very best diaries, his character shines through: charming, intelligent, thoughtful, and possessed of a great sense of humour.
There is also ambition there too. From the outset, Stanley wants to become a better soldier. When sent on courses, he is determined to do well and to achieve as high a mark as possible. He wants to move up the ranks and is never more thrilled than when given command of his own squadron. There is ambition for the regiment too. The Sherwood Rangers may have gone to war on horseback, but there is never any question of standing still. One of the most remarkable features of the diaries is the amount of training and analysis of combat that goes on, especially once they become mechanised and are given a front-line role in 8th Armoured Brigade. The British Army in the Second World War has often been criticised for complacency, and for consisting largely of reluctant conscripts more interested in stopping to drink tea than getting on with the business of defeating the Axis. Stanley’s diaries reveal a no less humane bunch of soldiers, but an increasingly professional outfit that evolves into one of the finest armoured regiments in the entire British Army.
Few regiments can have provided as many wartime memoirs as the Sherwood Rangers. Hermione Ranfurly wrote about her husband, Dan, a member of the regiment, in To War with Whitaker. Miles Hildyard, another Ranger, published his letters home, It’s Bliss Here, while Stuart Hills wrote an account of his time from D-Day to the war’s end in By Tank to Normandy. Several others from the regiment self-published memoirs. Another member of the Sherwood Rangers was Keith Douglas, perhaps the finest British poet of the war. Douglas also published a brilliant memoir of the regiment’s time in North Africa, From Alamein to Zem Zem.
None of these, however, can rival Stanley Christopherson’s diaries for the completeness of the story or the immediacy and lack of self-consciousness. As such, they provide a remarkable record of one man’s, and one’s regiment’s, passage through almost the entire war.