Stainforth, Peter Terrick – 8 July 1921 to 13 December 2017
Peter Stainforth was born in Tunbridge Wells on the 8th July 1921, the only son of Archie Stainforth, MC, a distinguished military officer and colonialist, and Hope Glover, the daughter of the famous missionary, A.E.Glover. When Peter was young it was considered normal for the children of parents, whose colonial duties kept them overseas for long periods of time, to remain in England, under the care of family, friends and schools which exercised varying degrees of care. Peter was such a child and, while his peripatetic life might have made him the resourceful, robust, self-reliant young man that he grew into, his sensitive nature never really adjusted to the years he spent missing his adored parents. However, there were highlights and, as a nine-year-old, Peter was very proud to have been invited to sit in the cockpit of his uncle George’s Supermarine S6B in which he, as one of the RAF’s foremost pilots of the time, had been a member of England’s Schneider Trophy team between 1928 and 1931 and who, famously, broke the world flying speed record (at 407.5 mph.) In his later years one of Peter’s proudest duties, annually, was to present the “Stainforth Trophy”, an inter-Station competition instituted by the RAF in memory of his distinguished uncle.
Peter attended Fernden Preparatory School in Haslemere before moving on to Tonbridge School in 1935. He was noted for being a conscientious student and a good all-round performer in gymnastics, boxing and cricket. He was also a promising artist, a skill he pursued as a hobby into adulthood with some merit. Indeed, his Impressionist version of paratroopers descending through flak in Sicily would adorn a wall in the War Office for many years after the war.
Having set his heart on a career in the Royal Engineers he passed for “The Shop” in 1939. However, the Second World War had already begun and he embarked upon the “Wartime Short Engineering Course” at Cambridge, beginning in October 1940. He was finally commissioned into the Corps in February 1942. Full of youthful zest and determined to do his bit, it was not long before he volunteered for the embryo Airborne Forces. Four days after his 21st birthday he qualified as a parachutist at Ringway and joined The 1st Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers.
As a section officer in B Troop of The Squadron, he was soon on his way to North Africa with the rest of the 1st Parachute Brigade. His troop supported the 2nd Parachute Battalion which was commanded by Lt Col (later Maj Gen) ‘Johnny’ Frost. It was with this Battalion that he took part in the parachute assault on Depienne airfield, then the forced march to Oudna where the Germans were present in strength, reinforced by tanks. There followed a gruelling, five-day withdrawal in contact to regain the safety of Allied lines at Medjez-el-Bab. Of the six hundred officers and men who set out on 29th November only a quarter of the force stumbled battered, bruised and exhausted into Medjez on 3rd December. For Peter and his Airborne comrades it was just the start of the Tunisian campaign and a winter of hard fighting before the campaign was victoriously brought to a close in April 1943.
Peter had been wounded in March 1943 but he was fully recovered by the end of April and back with The Squadron for its recuperation and re-training for the invasion of Sicily on 12/13 July. The Squadron’s mission here was to assist with the capture of the Primosole Bridge and, specifically, to remove the demolition charges from the bridge to prevent the defenders destroying it. In the event, parachutists and gliders were dispersed widely and Peter was one of very few parachutists who formed a disparate group of Brigade Headquarters, the Defence Platoon and half a dozen Sappers to press home the attack on the southern end of the bridge. They were successful and, immediately, Peter and his men secured the firing point at the north end of the bridge and removed the demolition charges from it. Thereafter this tiny element of the 1st Parachute Brigade held out throughout a long hot day under intense artillery and armoured attack. Finally, at dusk, when the defenders had run out of ammunition and the Allied ground forces had failed to reach the bridge, the order was given to abandon the position. The survivors were to make their way back to Allied lines in small parties and Peter successfully led a group of Sappers, Signallers and Infantrymen on this gruelling withdrawal.
After a short recuperation period in North Africa, and nine months of intensive training in Donington, Lincolnshire, the 1st Parachute Squadron RE descended upon Arnhem in September 1944 as part of the 1st Airborne Division’s famous Bridge Too Far battle. Despite fighting with a fierce courage that remains an inspiration to modern Airborne Forces, the Division was overwhelmed. Peter was badly wounded and spent the rest of the War as a PoW in Germany.
After the war, Peter wrote a comprehensive and compelling account of his wartime career with 1st Parachute Brigade in the acclaimed book Wings of the Wind.
In civilian life he spent many satisfying years as a designer for the Plastics Division of ICI in Welwyn Garden City. He was particularly involved with the machinery developed to handle the new man-made fibres, Nylon and Terylene. It was exciting pioneering work and Peter loved it, travelling widely to share his expertise with others. His marriage in 1948 to June Spink, [daughter of Harold Spink, chairman of Spink & Sons] was rewarded, on the 12th of November 1949, with twin boys, John and Gordon, who clearly inherited their father’s love of challenge and the outdoors – and a remarkable ability to survive all dangers - by successfully tackling some intrepid mountain climbs together in their post-adolescent years. This was also the time when Peter developed Gypsy Cottage as the family home in Hertfordshire: a labour of love that gave him so much pleasure for more than 60 years. Very sadly, June died of cancer in March 1966, leaving Peter bereft. Much later he told how this bereavement did have one positive outcome. On the day of June’s death, quite suddenly, he overcame the debilitating stammer that had plagued him since the unpleasantness of his early schooldays. It was so typical of Peter to find even the most slender of ‘silver linings’ among the ‘darkest clouds’ that occasionally invaded his life. Happily, in early 1970, Peter met Dorothy Snoxell, a BBC Production Assistant on television documentary films. They clicked immediately and were married in September of that year. It was a gentle match made in Heaven and one which endured very happily until the end of his life.
For over 70 years Peter was a stalwart of the 1st Parachute Squadron RE Club and, every year in September, he joined other veterans at Donington to recall their youth, their wartime exploits and to pay their respects to their fallen friends. Peter’s charm, loyalty, sense of humour and intense pride in having been one of The Fighting First was the unique ‘cement’ that held them together as, inevitably, the ranks thinned with the passing of time. His final years were spent, most contentedly, in the company of the lovely Dorothy in a delightful nursing home in Hertfordshire where, typically, he retained a warm interest in the welfare of his friends, despite declining health, until his peaceful passing on the 13th of December 2017. At his death Peter was one of the few remaining members of a generation that has all but disappeared and taken with it a set of values and experiences that are very different from those of the current generation.
Peter is survived by his adoring wife, Dorothy, sons John and Gordon, and grandchildren, Debby, Laura and Tim. He will be remembered with much affection and respect by all who had the privilege of knowing this brave, charming and quintessentially-English gentleman.