Jack Swaab, Royal Artillery officer who survived numerous brushes with death and was awarded an MC for his service in Africa and Europe – obituary
Jack Swaab, who has died aged 104, had almost miraculous escapes from death or serious injury in the Second World War; a gunner officer, he was awarded an MC and subsequently had a successful career in the advertising industry.
Swaab embarked for the Middle East as part of a draft of reinforcements, and in December 1942 he was posted to 127 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, part of the 51st Highland Division. In a transit camp near Alexandria in Egypt, the nights were bitterly cold with a heavy dew. For some weeks, he had no tent and had to sleep in a trench under a tarpaulin which quickly became soaked. Boots had to be shaken before they were put on because scorpions liked to nest in them.
He took part in the long pursuit westwards to Tripoli and Tunis, the Battle of the Mareth Line, and the hard fighting in the hills around Enfidaville. On one occasion, he was held up for a few moments by the need to mend a broken cable. The soldier walking a few yards ahead of him stepped on a mine and was badly injured. On another, a large shell splinter hit his helmet. He was knocked out but otherwise unhurt.
In July 1943, Swaab was promoted to Command Post Officer, co-ordinator of the eight 25-pounder field guns in his battery, for the allied landings in Sicily. It was a rough crossing followed by more than a month of heavy fighting. One day, he was clearing civilian looters from a house when one of them “went up on a booby trap.” Another moment, Swaab commented, “and I might have gone up too”.
He kept a diary – which was strictly against regulations – and wrote it up every day. One entry reads: “I was with the Padre when he pattered out a few perfunctory words over the small grave with its wooden cross. The hot sun beat down, a breeze from the sea carried the thump of guns and shells to our ears and the droning of the Lord’s Prayer mingled with the stern voice of the Spitfires overhead. All around is the desolation of empty gun pits, burned trucks, paper flapping in the wind and the black scars on the hillside where the shells have fallen.”
Swaab’s regiment returned to England in November to train for the Normandy landings and, on June 8 1944, D+2, he landed on Sword Beach. A week later, he took over the command post. There was a comfortable barn to sleep in, but he had a premonition and, to the irritation of his men, insisted that they move out and bunk down in a large hole which he had ordered to be dug by a bulldozer.
That night, there was a big enemy bombing raid. The barn received a direct hit and collapsed. Had he and his men been inside they would all have been killed. A few days later, he was seriously ill with a bad dose of malaria which he had probably contracted in Sicily.
He was flown back to England but, having recovered, he rejoined his unit in August in time for the break-out from Normandy. The following month, he became his battery’s Forward Observation Officer (FOO). The need to select observation posts (OPs) like church spires or tall buildings, which became prime targets for enemy aircraft or artillery, made it a most hazardous task.
In November, near Heythuysen in the Netherlands, on the River Maas battle-front, Swaab was FOO for a night assault across a canal. In the artificial moonlight, in cold, drenching rain, he walked ahead of his carrier while a flail tank beat the track in front of him. In the first hour about 100 shells came in, most of them close, one only seven yards from his carrier.
Trees were sawn in half by the vicious, slashing splinters, and pieces of hot steel tinkled down, mingling with the rain. The faces of the dead took on a waxen appearance in the eerie light. The stretcher bearers plodded back with the wounded through the mud.
At the canal bank, both the tank and the carrier became bogged down. As a half-track struggled to pull them out, the men were caught in a barrage of some 50 shells, so close that they threw themselves flat on the ground. “Our bodies strained to press lower,” he wrote, “as the fragments whizzed only inches overhead … nerves shrinking … hope fading …several times in those few minutes I thought: ‘This one is it, this time it will hit me.’ ”
In ruined and deserted villages, sparrows hopped about in rooms deep in bricks, mortar and smashed furniture. Many of the houses concealed booby traps and deadly Schü-mines.
On leave in Antwerp, Swaab was out of his hotel when it was hit by a V-1 rocket and his bedroom was showered with broken glass. He planned to go to the cinema but got the time wrong and went shopping around the corner instead. There was a loud explosion and the shop windows collapsed. The cinema had been hit by a V-2 and there were hundreds of casualties.
After the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, in February 1945 he took part in Operation Veritable, the Battle of the Reichswald, one of the most violent campaigns in the war. He was wounded in the leg at Gennep, south-east of Nijmegen, but was back with his battery in time to take part in the forced crossing of the Rhine.
In the final phase of the war, danger came in many guises. In one town, arsenic had been put in the water supply. Sometimes, seemingly friendly civilians offered soldiers a cigarette and a light. The lighter had a poisonous pellet beneath the wick. Whoever took it could be dead within the hour.
The award to Swaab of a Military Cross was gazetted in January 1946; the citation paid tribute to his outstanding service in every battle from the Rhine crossing to the end of the war in Europe. It stated that he never hesitated to occupy isolated and exposed OPs in order to support the infantry, and that his skill and courage had enabled the 5th Battalion The Black Watch to gain their objectives against highly trained and tenacious opposition.
Jack Siegfried Swaab, the youngest of four children, was born in Bognor (before it became Bognor Regis), West Sussex, on March 15 1918. His father, Samuel, was of Dutch-Jewish descent. Aged 15, Samuel went to South Africa to work on the railways. Expelled by the British during the Boer War, he married in the Netherlands.
He and his wife went to England and were naturalised as British citizens around the turn of the 20th century. Young Jack was sent to boarding school at Weymouth College in Dorset. There were cold baths every morning, and in the Easter term these were often topped by a thin layer of ice. Jack went up to Keble College, Oxford – where he and the college porter quickly took a dislike to each other.
On Guy Fawkes Night, Swaab recruited a band of fellow rebels and, on the stroke of nine o’clock, they launched a fusillade of rockets at the porter’s lodge. The man came close to a nervous breakdown.
Swaab did very little work: a whole term’s reading for his exams was crammed into one Benzedrine-fuelled night and he was rusticated and subsequently sent down.
In 1938, he was taken on by the magazine, Cavalcade, which had offices just off Fleet Street. He was paid a guinea a week for reviewing films and writing sensational articles. The money went a long way at a time when lunch at Lyons Corner House might cost as little as nine old pence.
The magazine broke the story of the clandestine affair between the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson, which gave it a boost to circulation. After taking a course in journalism at King’s College London, Swaab became a reporter for a short time before returning to Cavalcade.
In December 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War, he enlisted in the Royal Artillery. At Oxford, he had joined the OTC, but to his chagrin he discovered that he would not receive an immediate commission but would serve with the “other ranks” in a training regiment.
At Dover, in the frosty early morning, amid high snowdrifts and under the eye of a ferocious ex-Indian Army NCO, Swaab and his fellow recruits did PT in their shorts and, equipped with elderly Lee-Enfield rifles, learnt the rudiments of gun drill and ballistics.
At church parades, the sergeant-major bellowed, “RCs, Parsees, Push Baptists and Sun Worshippers, one pace forward, march!” Swaab refused to be categorised and had his identity disc stamped “AGN”, for agnostic. The penalty for missing church parade was cleaning the latrines, and he became an efficient cleaner.
Selected for officer training, he was commissioned in 1941 and posted to 132 Field Regiment RA in Dorset. The battery clerk there, Harry Secombe, was a pale, bespectacled young Welshman with a precocious talent for mimicry.
After the end of the war in Europe, Swaab spent a year in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation; he was the last adjutant of his regiment before it was disbanded. He was demobilised in May 1946 and joined an advertising agency in London. As manager of the overseas department, he travelled extensively.
In 1958, he became general manager of CPV International, part of Colman, Prentis and Varley, another advertising agency, and within two years he was appointed director and, later, joint managing director. He worked for British American Tobacco from 1968 to 1979 and then in a bookshop in Esher, Surrey, for eight years. His final job, in his seventies, was as a racing tipster for an early on-line betting service where he rejoiced in the name of Professor Pink.
For many years he devoted himself to caring for his wife, Zena, who died in 2009. In 2019, he was appointed to the Légion d’honneur in recognition of the part that he played in the liberation of France.
Swaab enjoyed playing bridge and betting on the horses. He was also widely read and a fluent and entertaining speaker. He delighted in church music and his favourite hymns but found it difficult to accept much of the teachings of Christianity. He felt that organised religion had been responsible for many of the conflicts that afflicted the human race.
He published an autobiography, Slouching in the Undergrowth (2012), and Field of Fire (2005), his wartime diary. A distinguished military historian wrote that the diary was one of the great personal narratives of the experience of war to come out of the British Army in the years 1939 to 1945.
Jack Swaab married, in 1948, Zena Urquhart, at the Church of St Simon Zelotes, Chelsea, and he is survived by their two sons.
Jack Swaab, born March 15 1918, died October 29 2022