Brigadier Mervyn Christopher Thursby-Pelham OBE went to Wellington in 1934 and was in the Stanley, where he was a dormitory prefect, a humble apprenticeship in authority for the future Commanding Officer of the Welsh Guards. From there he went up to Merton. Almost inevitably he was christened ‘the Thirsty Pelican’ although, as several of his junior officers noted, “hardly ever in front of him…”
He joined the Lodge in 1958, and became Worshipful Master in 1965. He was an initiate of the Old Wellingtonian Lodge’s Mother Lodge, Household Brigade Lodge No 2614.
His military life is best left to those that served with him:
“Christopher Thursby-Pelham who died aged 95 on 24th April 2016 was an immensely respected and much-loved Welsh Guardsman, whose service to and love of the Regiment continued long into his retirement. He was an inspiration to young and old alike.
Christopher was born on 23rd March 1921, in London. His father, Captain Nevill Thursby-Pelham served in the Regiment in the First World War and his cousin, Walter, whose father, the Reverend A H Thursby-Pelham had been Padre to the 1st Battalion in 1917, also served in the Regiment in the Second World War.
Christopher spent much of his childhood at the family home in Carmarthenshire where he learnt to fish on the Towy, and later on the Usk where he was much involved in the Usk Valley Casting Club. He was also a highly skilled sailor and kept a house on the Isle of Wight, where he took part in many yachting events and was a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron.
After education at Wellington and Merton College, Oxford Christopher was commissioned into the Welsh Guards in March 1941 and in January 1942 he was posted to the newly formed 3rd Battalion. In March 1943 the Battalion disembarked in Tunisia as part of 1st Guards Brigade. Christopher served throughout the North African and Italian Campaigns, becoming Adjutant in 1944. This outstanding fighting Battalion ended the war in Austria and was then disbanded in 1946.
After the war Christopher remained in the Regiment attending the Staff College in 1950. Numerous Staff and Regimental postings followed before he became Regimental Adjutant in 1956. In 1961 he was appointed Commandant of the Guards Depot at Pirbright, a job he loved and where he made many friends throughout the Household Division. This was followed by a posting to the Allied Staff Headquarters in Berlin and then in 1964 he became the Regimental Lieutenant Colonel. On promotion to Brigadier he became the Chief of Staff Headquarters London District. His final job in the Army was Deputy Fortress Commander Gibraltar.
On leaving the Army in 1976, Christopher worked for the British Heart Foundation, first as Appeals Director and then later as Director General. When he joined the charity, its annual income was only about £1m. After he became the DG he co-opted another very popular Welsh Guardsman, James Malcolm, and together they built up the charity to become one of the biggest medical charities in the UK.
Christopher was immensely popular, both with the employed staff, and with the many volunteers – virtually all of whom had some direct link with heart disease. By the time he retired in 1988 the charity’s annual income was in excess of £50m and when he left he was awarded a much-deserved OBE.
However, it was his continuing involvement with the Regiment which gave him great pleasure and satisfaction in his retirement. He was always devoted to and tremendously proud of the 3rd Battalion. He was instrumental in setting up the annual dinner, which latterly became a lunch, at Boodles, but his particular work was the exceptionally popular battlefield tours to North Africa and Italy which he organised and led. These tours followed the path of the 3rd Battalion through Fondouk and Hammam Lif in Tunisia, followed by the terrible battles up Italy to Florence and then across the River Po to Austria, and they were enjoyed by many former members of the Regiment and many younger Welsh Guardsmen. His unrivalled knowledge, his inspirational leadership and his love of Italy made these tours so memorable. Christopher’s strong Christian faith opened the door to reconciliation with his former enemies and few will forget the Church Services with representatives of the German Army which were held at Monte Battaglia and other battlefields in Italy.
Christopher’s knowledge and love of Wales and Welshmen had been an underlying thread of his career in the Regiment and had been so important to him when he was Regimental Lieutenant Colonel. It gave him great pleasure to be President of the Monmouthshire Branch of the Welsh Guards Association from 1985-1998 where he was much loved and respected, and he was never happier than with his old friends.
He married Rachel Willson, whose two brothers were Grenadiers, in the Guards Chapel in January 1943 when he was aged 21, thus incurring the wrath of the Regimental Lieutenant Colonel. It was an enduring marriage and in 2000 Christopher and Ray moved to Suffolk to be close to their daughter, Philippa. Ray died in 2011 after a long illness and Christopher’s devoted care for her is an example to us all. After Ray’s death Philippa, with her husband Tim, looked after Christopher so wonderfully well in the evening of his life.
Christopher Thursby-Pelham was an exceptionally kind and thoughtful person. He is survived by his daughter Philippa and son David. His death brings to a close the history of 3rd Battalion Welsh Guards and the ever smaller number of Second World War soldiers. He was a soldier who throughout his service sought nothing for himself but simply gave his all to the Regiment, the Regimental family, his friends and his own family.” 1
The only addition to this full portrait of a fine man should be left to Philip Brutton who served with him in Italy from 1943 to the end of the war, and who wrote a fine memoir of that conflict Ensign in Italy in which he recalls Thursby-Pelham’s fishing prowess in uncertain conditions. On 18 March 1944 Thursby-Pelham went fishing with Joe Gurney, a fellow officer, using a rowing boat, some sticks of gelignite (number not specified), and half a plan to explode the latter by means of a battery and some wires from the boat. Obviously Physics lessons at Wellington had not attained their current state of elevated prowess, but Brutton notes that all the other officers had observed the conductive characteristics of electricity in water:
“the Adriatic proved no exception. Christopher created his electrical circuit. The wires touched the rudder. The Gelignite did not sink. The boat blew up. There were casualties among the fish and Christopher and Joe joined them in the drink, suffering nothing more than badly bruised backs, a small hole in their pockets to pay for the boat and a major rocket from the Commanding Officer.” 2
The story was immortalised by a cartoon drawn by Colonel Val French-Blake CO 17th/21st Lancers:
- Lieutenant Colonel C F B Stephens, Guards Magazine
- Ensign In Italy, Philip Brutton. Pen & Sword Books