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Saturday, 10 June 2006

Richard Tolson, who died on 10th June 2006, was the last of a trio of particularly scholarly and talented officers, all close friends, who have left us during the past two years. They were Matthew Lees (fine art and water colour painting); John Ainsworth (history, archives and travel writing); with Richard whose interests were literature, poetry and music.

Richard, whose grandfather commanded 1st Royal Sussex in 1884-90 and whose father was wounded on the Somme with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was born in 1919. He was educated at the Dragon School, Brighton College and Sandhurst, from where he passed out high in the order of merit, and joined 2nd Royal Sussex at Devonport. Come the War he was posted to the 6th Battalion, which with the 7th Battalion was bombed when approaching Amiens by train. The French engine drivers deserted and Lt Col Keith Wannop invited Richard to take over – he had done a one-day railway course! Richard recalled ‘I drove a train that day – the men hated it!’ In fact he drove it back to Chartres, from where the battalion marched to St Nazaire to be evacuated to England, witnessing the bombing of the ‘Lancastrian’ as they left. He recalled, ‘my platoon were good Sussex country boys who eschewed water in any form, and none of them could swim’.

In 1943 he was posted to the Middle East where he volunteered for SOE. After training he was dropped into Northern Italy; his first training jump was the first time he had ever flown! From September 1944 to April 1945 his team supported the Partisans with weapon and equipment drops. That winter had been particularly cold and they had little to eat. From the hills they gazed down towards Venice, and fantasised about the restaurants there. After VE Richard was flown to the Far East, tasked to drop (with his darkest forebodings) into Celebes, but ‘the bomb’ intervened. He had been recommended for the MC for his service with SOE but there weren’t sufficient in the ‘ration’ to go round! But his time in Italy left him with a very great love of the country and its people, and he often returned there to stay with his ex-Partisan friends.

After the war Richard served in Trieste, Malta with the 2nd Battalion, and Aqaba and Suez, where he was Adjutant of the 1st Battalion. He left the Army in 1952, feeling that peacetime soldiering didn’t really suit him.

Richard’s first appointment in civil life was ADC to the Governor of the Leeward Islands, based in Antigua. It was here that in 1955 Rosalind and he were married, in St John’s Cathedral. They had met in Oxford. Rosalind was a teacher and she took up a post in Antigua – what a very happy coincidence! After that Richard’s career, in which he shone, was in the London Probation Service, becoming Senior Welfare Officer at the Royal Courts of Justice, until retiring in 1984. He was for some years Chairman of the London Branch of the Regimental Association.

Mention has been made of Richard’s literary and musical interests; but it was as a leader and counsellor, in the kindest and most human possible way that he will be remembered. Charles Foster (NS 1st Bn, 1950-51), who gave the address at the funeral at St Margaret’s Church, Oxford, recalled that in Suez as Adjutant, unlike other field officers, Richard was never happier of an evening, pink gin in hand, than when surrounded by a group of junior subalterns, and was always pleased to discuss with them as friendly equals, any subject of mutual interest and to quote from one of his colleagues in the Royal Courts of Justice... "I shall always remember Richard for his wise advice and kindness to so many distressed families and children. He was a wonderful leader of an excellent team of welfare officers. It was a great privilege to have worked with him".

Obituary taken from the Roussillon Gazette, the Royal Sussex Regimental magazine.

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