Knight from Northamptonshire who won Military Cross for defeating Rommel dies, aged 101

A decorated soldier who became better known in Northamptonshire for being a major landowner and sheriff of the county has passed away.

Friday, 22nd December 2017, 1:13 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd December 2017, 1:21 pm
Sir Hereward in the gardens of his home in Courteenhall, ahead of the 1990 fete in aid of the Courteenhall Church.

Hereward Wake was also a board member of several charitable organisations, including his local British Legion branch, Northamptonshire Community Foundation and St Andrew's Hospital.

But many seeing his face in the Chronicle & Echo over the years will not know that Sir Hereward had led a battalion against Rommel's tanks and soldiers in Egypt in 1942, defeating them over three days. He was afterwards awarded the Military Cross.

Born in 1916, he also went by the name Toby, thought up by his mother to get around the problem of having two Hereward's - the other being his father - in the house.

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The main gates to the Courteenhall Estate.

Sir Hereward was brought up at the the family seat in Courteenhall House. The estate did - and still does - dominate the surrounding countryside and the family have been synonymous with the village for hundreds of years.

Sent to Eton, Sir Hereward represented the school at several sports and was shortlisted for the pentathlon team for the 1936 Olympics, before injury took him out of contention.

Graduating from Sandhurst he joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and was commanding a company in the Battle of Alam Halfa (part of the Western Desert Campaign in Libya and Egypt) in late August 1942 when his greatest moment arrived.

German general Erwin Rommel was trying to take Alexandria and had sent soldiers to break through the Himeimat minefield. Using vehicles armed with machine guns - but lightly armoured - his company charged the enemy, taking them by surprise and driving them away.

The main gates to the Courteenhall Estate.

The English killed many enemy soldiers before Hereward's men held and supressed them for several hours with machine gun fire.

The two sides battled for three days, but Rommel was out of fuel by daybreak on September 3 and, having suffered the loss of many tanks, withdrew.

Sir Hereward was recommended to be awarded the Military Cross as a result, for his “boldness and leadership”.

Already sent home once after being badly hurt at the battle for Tunis in 1943, he eventually left the army as a Major while serving in the Greek civil war because of deafness. This was caused by the noise of a nearby German shell exploding, apparently while he was hunting ducks on the front line.

In 1952 he married Julia Lees and had three daughters (Diana, Caroline and Sarah) and a son, Hereward Charles Wake, who now has the baronetcy of Wake of Clevedon, Somerset, and Piddington in Northamptonshire.

In the ensuing decades he planted thousands of trees at Courteenhall, transforming its grounds, and granted permission to open the house up as a wedding venue and filming location.

Serving his county for the rest of his life, he was high sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1955, deputy lieutenant from 1969 to 1984, then vice-lord lieutenant from 1984 to 1991.

Like many surviving veterans in recent years, he was given the Legion of Honour by France in 2015 for partaking in its liberation.

Sir Hereward inherited the baronetcy from his father in 1963 - along with the name, which came from the fact the family are descended from Hereward the Wake, a rebel against William the Conqueror. The previous five generations used the name 'Hereward' - a fact was not always given complete reverence.

Speaking about his family to a Blisworth history group in 2005, he told them: "My father, when a boy, used to say the Lord's Prayer thus: 'Our Father who Art in Heaven, Hereward be Thy Name. . .'"

Hereward Wake was born on October 7, 1916. He died on December 11, 2017 aged 101.