15th July 1918
Colonel Donald Easten is one of the most distinguished characters from the Second World War left today and to be allowed to write about his life is a most remarkable privilege. I hope as you read this, you like me, will realise just how much we owe all those who fought so gallantly in both Wars, and for the freedom we so enjoy, today.
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Born in Chislehurst, Kent at a time when the First World War was nearing its end, Donald’s early memories of Military life are as vivid in 2014 as they were almost ninety years ago. Those six horse teams of guns, hacking down from Woolwich to train on Chislehurst Common, unknowingly left an impenetrable mark on this potentially very brave young soldier. Donald liked to follow them on his bicycle, he would then sit for hours watching them practise with the heavy gunfire they would later require when they were called up for further action. Military training was very much part of everyday life in that part of England at the time and what he quietly observed stood him in good stead for the ensuing years in the forces.
It was whilst growing up here that the Royal Artillery Draghounds would also make an appearance in the village, being kennelled at the Barracks at Woolwich. The West Kent Foxhounds and the Bolebroke Beagles were close by too and this is where Donald’s lifelong interest in hunting began. However he had to pay to follow the beagles but as it was free to follow the foxhounds on foot and it was they who became his favoured choice of activity for a while. During his early school days at Bloxham, on the borders of the Heythrop and Warwickshire, many a happy hour was spent skiving off to hunt with either one or other pack. Lord Willoughby de Broke was Master of the Warwickshire at the time and it was he who not only encouraged many of the younger generation but was also responsible for the quote, “for hunting to survive it must be totally and utterly inclusive and if it wasn’t it would lose its reason for being there”. Wise words indeed and something Donald was certainly to practice during his long stint in the beagling world that was to come later in his life.
On finishing his education Donald went into the City and joined the Norwich Union as a junior clerk and stayed with them until war broke out in September 1939. During this time he had joined the Territorial Army and served with the Honourable Artillery Company. The HAC, as it was known, was a unit committed to producing officers of the highest calibre. The reason being that during World War 1, they were sent into battle as an ‘ordinary battalion,’ without a lot of training and a very large amount of potential officers were lost. To Donald this showed that the army had listened to what had happened and learnt from those tragic circumstances. In 1940 he was commissioned as an officer and was posted to Northern France. These are his own words describing the situation, “At the time it appeared to us that we were going the wrong way as the others were all returning from Dunkirk!” So it was off to Dover for a while to be based at the Citadel and here he and his unit served under a rather flamboyant commanding officer who one day announced that, “If there are any officers left when the Germans arrive, we will die together under the flag”! When asked if any of them had any questions the Quarter Master quickly replied “That’s all very well Sir, but we haven’t got a flag!”
Donald was then posted to the Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment and sent on a course to Sandhurst where he joined the 44th Division. Almost straight away he was sent out to the Middle East and the Western Desert. However, on exercise just before they left, Donald happened to be lying in a muddy Kent field, when Montgomery and his ADC appeared out of the blue. The ADC came across to Donald and said that Montgomery had requested he become his second ADC. Donald soon responded, saying he could do no such thing until he had at least been shot at! The reply came back, “quite right too!” Any lack of action whilst at Dover was soon reversed when Donald and his unit went into battle at Amal el Halfa. This was a relatively short campaign which preceded Alamein and was an attempt by the Germans to quickly try and outflank the Eighth Army. Happily this didn’t work for them and so with no respite, it was straight into the Battle of Alamein with Montgomery very much in charge of operations. A little while later, when lying in a trench in the desert with a bad dose of dysentery, Montgomery’s ADC suddenly appeared again. Donald was in a bad way and Monty’s ADC was instructed to take him back initially to Eighth Army Headquarters and then on to the shores of the Mediterranean where he was to stay in one of the famous caravans to give him time to recover. After a week there were still serious concerns for Donald’s health and Monty came around to see him again and decided he should be sent to see the Full Colonel Doctor in Alexandria. He returned from there with a note, only to be sent back to hospital for further recuperation. By this time Donald had undertaken the journey three times at seventy miles each way! He was finally discharged and sent back to the Headquarters of the Eighth Army to ensure his health continued to improve, which it did, and it was not long before he was back into the action.
With the all important role of Liaison Officer he was soon sent out to Iraq, then to Egypt before returning to Baghdad. Donald’s Commanding Officer at the time was someone with a very deep faith and as a result he ensured that they stopped at all the sites of religious significance. The arrangements of which were duly taken care of by the sergeant who, on arrival at a certain spot, would instruct the lads in his own amusing way by announcing “Come on now out you get lads, more of that Jesus stuff!” They were in Iraq for three months where nothing happened, and then transferred to North East India. It was here that life changed dramatically and on reaching Kohima they were to find themselves under siege for two weeks, totally surrounded by the Japanese. The Japanese were then trying to force a way through from Burma into India. With concerted effort and great determination the British Second Division eventually managed to fight their way through and eventually lift the siege, although at great expense to human life. This had been one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War and the number of British casualties was extremely large to say the least. It is said that an army should never march on an empty stomach, let alone fight! So when Donald and his men found some cattle grazing between enemy lines, this was fair game and it was not long before one should end up in their cook house!
The time was approaching now when the beginning of the end of the War was drawing near, however they continued to push the Japanese right back to Rangoon and the danger to India ceased. In Rangoon, after continuous action, the news came through that it was all over. It was not too long before celebrations commenced with forty gallon drums of rum being brought in and consumed. Donald admits that he was to enjoy his fair share and this was just as well, as during the party, he happened to find himself being sawn in two by an Indian Concert Party who had been in the area and decided to join in. Afterwards he felt so drunk, that for a while, he could not remember a thing about what had happened, let alone how they had won the battle, or even the war for that matter! His actions during those last few months had not gone unnoticed though and as a result he was awarded the MC for two separate acts of bravery, one at Arakan and the other at Kohima. This tells us a great deal about Donald Easten and the men he led into battle.
Once the celebrations were over, they transferred by assault craft to Singapore, only to find the Japanese already there. They were bowing and scraping and obviously deeply upset, saying, “Oh dear, we are so sorry, we fought on the wrong side”. He will never forget this occasion for it was when his opposite number in the Japanese Army approached Donald, drew out his sword and proceeded to present him with it. It is something he is proud to still have in his possession today. After some mopping up duties Donald returned to England but continued his soldiering with the Queens Own Royal West Kent’s until 1948. He was then transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps and for a while was based at Taunton. The Bolebroke Beagles, although kennelled in Kent became very much part of his life again, and whilst on leave from Taunton he enjoyed many happy days with them. This of course was the pack that he had first hunted with as a child, all those years before. After eight years as a Full Colonel, Donald was then transferred from Taunton to Kempston in Bedfordshire which allowed him more time to devote to beagling, and it wasn’t long before he became Master of the North Bucks. This was a position which he much enjoyed, especially when hunting the hounds which he undertook with great success for three seasons. In 1973 he retired from full-time soldiering and was appointed to a retired officers job on the Staff of the Eastern Region of the Army and Combined Cadet Force, which at the time were based at Colchester.
The Army had their own pack of Beagles here, namely the Colchester Garrison which later amalgamated with the Sproughton Foot to become the Stour Valley. It seemed most appropriate that Donald should be appointed initially as sole Master and then Joint. Donald hunted hounds on Wednesdays and Peter Ellrich, who had come from Badminton, on Saturdays and here he experienced his greatest memories of beagling. He describes the beagles as being like a lot of school boys being let out of school for the day and his green coat acted as a magnet to his hounds, in the same way a pretty young lady in a short skirt does to a group of young fellars! For fifteen years Donald committed himself to some very high standards as one would expect from such a man. His advice for anyone wanting to become a Master in the twenty first century is as important today as it was then. “The farmers, landowners, and those that live and work in the countryside, whatever their occupation are the ones who must be looked after in the proper manner, and this must be remembered at all times, for they are the core of the hunt and hunting overall. We ignore them at our peril!”
Whilst hunting at Tolleshunt Darcy in Essex one day, the hounds had run onto land where they were not meant to be. The concerned farmer arrived in a bit of a hurry and came face to face with Donald who started to apologise but was soon told “ I am not worried about you beaglers it those b….. foxhunters that bother me!
Donald is and has been a man of intense bravery who dedicated himself to his country in a way that all of us today should be deeply grateful. If ever there was any one person who deserved to be awarded the MC for two completely separate incidents, it could not have been given to anybody better than Colonel Donald Easten. He is a kind, modest man, whose courage and most generous spirit is an example to us all. It was just as our conversation was drawing to a close that he told me in his own very typical quiet way, of an incident that occurred during the height of the battle for Kohima. One of his men, a Lance Corporal John Harman, son of Pennington Harman, the owner of Lundy Island, decided single handedly that he would take on a Japanese machine gun post, which was about to fire on his company. Harman attacked the group of five Japanese with grenades and bayonet and was successful in killing all five, but as he returned to his company he was shot in the back from another enemy position. Despite being seriously wounded he made the last few yards, and whilst he lay dying in Donald’s arms, he turned to him and said, “It was worth it Sir – I got the lot.” Lance Corporal Harman’s actions were those of such extreme bravery that Donald, as his company commander, proposed him for a VC, which was posthumously awarded.
I would like to take this opportunity of thanking Donald for allowing me the great honour of writing this piece. I hope in a very small way it has allowed us all to learn just a little bit more about this remarkable man.