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Obituary – Daily Telegraph 6/7/1994

 

Colonel The Reverend Neville Metcalfe

 

Colonel the Reverend Neville Metcalfe, who has died aged 80, was awarded an immediate DSO in Burma in March 1942 as Chaplain to the 7th Hussars, who were fighting a rearguard action in the epic 1,000 mile retreat from the numerically superior Japanese forces.

Metcalfe had arrived in Rangoon when it was bombed and set on fire, and was stinking from the dead bodies in the streets. The 7th Hussars found released lunatics prowling in the streets; criminals looting; wild dogs gnawing at the dead; lepers from the hospital begging; vultures hovering overhead. Animals in the zoo had broken out and Metcalfe, about to sit on a convenient log, discovered just in time it was an alligator.

When one of the doctors was killed by a sniper Metcalfe did his best to replace him, working under heavy fire. He collected identity discs from the dead. After their trek along burning roads and slippery, thorny jungle paths they reached Impal, where they lay on the bare ground, attacked by mosquitoes and leeches in monsoon rain.

Metcalfe conducted a communion service attended by generals Alexander and Wavell. Army biscuits were used as wafers and some local whiskey was procured from the friendly Naga headhunters, to be used in lieu of wine. Despite being watered down, it took  the lining off a silver sports cup which had been pressed into use as a chalice.

 The citation for Metcalfe’s DSO recorded that after conducting a burial service close to the firing-line north of Pegu, “ he returned to Pegu and helped look after the wounded and administer first aid throughout the day… Throughout the night of March 6/7 Capt Metcalfe continued to look after the wounded and performed burial services for the dead. On the morning of March 7, after the 7th Hussars had withdrawn, Metcalfe remained behind to assist loading the wounded into lorries and sending them across the bridge at Pegu.

“ Metcalfe remained with the last ambulances and succeeded in getting them away under heavy fire. South of the bridge the ambulances again came under heavy fire and were held up. Metcalfe collected some food from a knocked out tank and went around distributing it among the wounded. Metcalfe was himself slightly wounded by mortar fire.

“After the ambulances had got clear Metcalfe walked back with the last Infantry to withdraw along the railway and subsequently arrived at Hlegu, a distance of 25 miles.

“The conduct of this chaplain has been magnificent throughout the operations. His courage, unfailing cheerfulness and complete disregard for his own safety have been an inspiration and encouragement to all ranks.”

Metcalfe marched the last 12 miles barefoot, having lost his boots in an explosion which also wounded and deafened him. A number of the retreating column said:  “In spite of his difficulties he plodded cheerfully along, radiating good spirits and encouraged and undoubtedly inspire all around him.”

Neville Sidney Metcalfe was born on March 23 1914 at Westward Ho, Devon, where his father was vicar. He was educated at St John’s, Leatherhead, and St Peter’s Hall, Oxford. After attending Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, he was ordained deacon in 1938 and began his clerical career in Nottinghamshire.

In 1939 he joined the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department and was appointed Chaplain to the 7th Battalion, Green Howards. The next year he served in France, at first near Arras. After the German invasion of Belgium he found himself employed as a dispatch rider.

After retreating to Bray Dunes, Metcalfe helped to destroy the regimental transport with a sledgehammer, work which at first exhilarated him.

He was then evacuated from Dunkirk. At the end of 1940 he was posted to the 7th Hussars, which he joined in Egypt. He was provided with a motorcycle but after losing his way in the desert several times while visiting his parishioners he took off the silencer so they would hear and guide him. 

He tended the wounded and buried the dead at the Battle of Sidi Rezagh, where the regiment was outgunned and lost many tanks.

Re-equipped, the regiment was dispatched to Burma. On the three-week voyage he was entertainment officer, organising whist drives and a boxing tournament in which he collected two black eyes. In October 1942 he went to the regiment to Basra and then to Baghdad, where at Christmas he organised carol singing. The regiment played rugby on iron-hard pitches and sometimes the Iraqis joined in. The next stop was Aleppo, from where the regiment moved to Baalbek, where he led climbing in the Lebanon Mountains.

Returning to Egypt for further training, Metcalfe organised expedition to Mount Sinai. A visit to the charnel house in the monastery nauseated even the most hardened Hussars but at the summit their escort, a monk, produced a bottle of arrak from beneath his cassock and toasts were drunk.

In May 1944 Metcalfe landed at Taranto, Italy, and began the advance up the Adriatic coast. The regiment lost a number of tanks and sustain heavy casualties against well dug-in Germans. In Sept 1944 they were withdrawn to Lake Bracciano, where they trained with amphibious tanks before being sent to Ostra to fight an infantry on terrain unsuitable for tanks.

In March 1945 they returned to Bracciano for the refresher course and then crossed the Po, where all the bridges had been demolished. Before the assault they were bombarded with propaganda leaflets describing the horrors of what would happen to them if they tried to advance. In the event they had only two casualties, both from drowning, as the enemy had withdrawn. Their campaign ended in Venice.

After the war Metcalfe stayed in the Army and was posted to the Duke of York’s Military School (Dover) in 1945. Three years later he became Chaplain to the Rifle Brigade at Minden BAOR, and in 1949 Senior Chaplain to the Forces at Hanover. In 1951 he moved to Verden, BAOR, as Senior Chaplain to 7th Armoured Division.

After a spell at Deepcut Garrison Church he was successively deputy assistant Chaplain General, Highland District, at Perth, and Senior Chaplain in Jamaica. This was followed by a three-year appointment as DACG in the South-East District, based at Aldershot, and another three at Lubbecke, BAOR.

Before his retirement in 1972 Metcalfe was DACG, South-East District; Assistant Chaplain General, Western Command, Chester; and ACG, Northern Command, York.

He remained at York as hospital chaplain and curate. A keen gardener, he worked in the city’s museum gardens and then in the grounds of the Rowntree Trust.

Neville Metcalfe was not merely a man of outstanding courage and endurance, but also a person who kindled and awakened faith in men whose war experience might well have made them cynical.

He was totally unpompous, a good all round sportsman (boxing, rugby, cricket and hockey) and an intrepid mountaineer.

In addition to his DSO he was twice mentioned in dispatches, in France in 1940 and Burma in 1942.

He married, in 1940, Hilda Mary Atkinson; they had four sons. He married secondly, in 1975, Frances Munro.