Nigel Henson,           

     The death advisory as it appeared in late January 2024 in The London Times was as they all tend to be- bland and without emotion.

    “HENSON Thomas John Brooke died peacefully on 11 January, aged 92, at his home in Norfolk. He was an Oxford Scholar, decorated ‘call up boy’ with the Royal Norfolk Regiment on Korea, aesthete and linguist. He will be sorely missed by his wife, his two children, seven grand-children, and his brother and sister, Nigel and Jane. A.E. Houseman will be read at his private funeral. Donations to the British Legion”

    Really? Is that the sum total of an active life, well lived-a courageous human being, loved by man and bird and beast? Of course not, for in the London Daily Telegraph of earlier this month, there appeared a most comprehensive account of Tom’s bravery as a young 20 old junior officer in Korea, in 1951. (See attached extract for further detail.)

    Tom Henson was my elder brother by some 12 years or so, both of us sharing the same father, but borne by different mothers. Tom was born in 1931 in Fort Victoria, Rhodesia, and returned with his parents and younger sister to England on the outbreak of WW2.

   My father went on to marry my mother in 1941 and I was born in 1946, his new family returning to Rhodesia shortly after the war.  Much of our early life was spent on a tobacco farm near Gwelo, Rhodesia.

    It was only after my father’s death in 1977 that I became aware of the existence of pater’s earlier family, but little was mentioned of their lives. I lived in blissful ignorance of who they were, how and where they lived, or whether they still in fact existed.

    Tom Henson was no slouch: he attended Oxford, graduated with Honours and was fluent in nine languages. And there is still more; his granddaughter, Olivia is be to married in June to the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, about which a great deal has already been flighted in the Press.

     In 2014, Tom contacted me, gave proof of his provenance and hoped that one day we would meet. It transpired that he was retired, and lived quietly in a small village, Buxton, in Norfolk. My wife, Dionne and my son James, visited Tom in Norfolk, when I was on a trip to Britain in 2015. From that visit sprang a healthy and frequent relationship, by way of Mail and Zoom, and the occasional telephone call. Although we only met once, it was as if we were old friends. We shared many common interests; the military of course, and our mutual love of fly fishing, spaniels, outdoor and country life, and of course a passion for single malt whiskeys.  Tom was then 84, and, in common with those of that age, no longer as active as he had once been.

    History is often understood to be a study of past events-very narrow in the extreme, for a five-year-old is making history of a sort at this very moment, much as is a seventy-five-year-old, who has already made considerable history, and is still capable of making more.

   History is a living, diverse and dynamic condition: what occurs today will perhaps not occur tomorrow; as you read this and I write, history is being made-it is so much more than last year or the decade before. It is a living thing- an evolutionary movement that encompasses every human being.

And yet, history is more than that: for Tom and I, history was opportunity lost, for two brothers could have had so much fun together; we could have laughed and cried and shared all manner of experience, good and bad. Waste- such tragic waste.  Yet, so much of our past still remains connected to the present.

Part of history is the harking back to those fighting men whom selflessly fell whilst fighting for a cause, that they believed would rid their world of the forces of evil and secure a peaceful future for their descendants. Like Tom Henson, many men of all races born in Rhodesia volunteered and served with distinction in both World Wars; in the Great War 10,000 odd did just that, and (about 1000 never returned); further in WW2, over 26 000 Rhodesians enlisted, and served with great distinction in elite units such as the LRDG, the SAS, and the Royal Air Force.

Annually, on Armistice Day at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the fallen of all allied forces are the subject of a Remembrance service where wreaths are laid with solemn ceremony. Yet, after UDI and until 1981, commemoration of the Rhodesian fallen was verboten for the FCO deemed that Mr Smith was so evil that any Rhodesian presence was unwelcome. The same rule was re enacted when the evil Mr Mugabe really did the evil, and destroyed his country and many lives for generations to come by acts that can only be described as illegal, murderous and brazen theft.

Yet, some FCO mandarin takes it upon himself to dis-allow Rhodesians/Zimbabweans this simple right of attendance on the grounds that today’s unacceptable administration is reason enough to deny remembrance of those who died nearly a century before. That is spite, pure and simple. It is immoral. It would not stand in any Court of Law.     

And yet, there is still more to history, for the interrogation and conversation with persons advanced in years brings history to life-these exchanges give history a colour, a substance, a hue, that can never be captured in any book, nor on any length of celluloid. These conversations are history’s mother lode.

As a teenager, I remember my father recounting to me, that as a small boy, he would have long discussions with the old man who tended the graveyard at my grandfather’s parsonage in Shropshire.

Now here is a most profound thing- that old man was a Dragoon from a mounted regiment that saw action at the battle of Balaclava some fifty years before.  Conversations with those sorts of old codgers are priceless, to be treasured, for they will be lost when death inevitably intervenes.

And now-back to Tom. Bravery takes many forms, but a read of the attached will reveals a young man whose bravery knew no bounds. Today, Tom’s kind of heroism would invoke an even more prestigious award.

 I have encountered, befriended, walked beside and fought next to a great many brave men, some highly decorated, others not so: I have met many brave men from the rank and file whose bravery went unacknowledged and unrewarded. That is, and will remain, a shameful condition, remaining one of warfare’s cruellest fates.

And so – farewell to a brother whom I knew, but never shared a life as brothers should. His likes shall not be seen again.

Rest in peace, Tom. I am so very proud to have called you my brother.

And on a lighter note, a few lessons for us all:

-Avoid Chinese with burp guns, they are many, and unless you are of great cunning, will swamp you

-Serving milk with a knife is a challenging experience

-DO NOT, in a battle situation arm yourself with a Sten gun-they look good in movies, but are really Kak when it comes to the real stuff. They were issued for the English could not afford the Tommy gun.

-Blankets should be used as doors as a last resort. They tend to blow open when you are strolling around in the altogether.

And on that note, I trust you had a good Easter, and gave a few vets any number of hot-cross buns.

See you next week.  

FROM SOUP TO NUTS – Available Now

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1-783x1108.jpg
A lifetime in a book … from schooling in Rhodesia to fighting as the country’s longest serving Fire – Force Commander during the bush-war of the 1970’s
Nigel Henson was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1946, and educated at Plumtree School. He was awarded the Sword of Honour at the School of Infantry and was commissioned into the Rhodesian Light Infantry, serving as a troop commander in the Bush War of the 1970s.He moved to the Middle East to join the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces as a company commander in Dhofar in1968/9 at the age of 21, before returning to the RLI as a training officer, rising to staff officer in army headquarters.
In May 1977, Major Nigel Henson took command of the Support Commando engaged in Fire-Force operations, most of which he commanded from the air and involved parachuting into Mozambique and Zambia.
In early 1980, Henson, along with other officers and soldiers, was decorated at Army Headquarters Salisbury after the Commonwealth Monitoring Force had arrived. Now retired, Nigel lives in Gauteng. He relishes his fly-fishing, his lovof fine whiskeys, and the occasional poor game of golf.
‘‘…Major Henson has acted as the airborne controller and has been subjected to considerable ground fire from the enemy. In spite of this, Major Henson’s tactical handling of his troops
on the ground, and his determined leadership have been of the highest order...’’ – Legion of Merit: Military” (OLM) awarded at Special Awards Cerem
  1. Another interesting history lesson/story Nigel, cut from the same wood, you and Ouboet.

  2. What wonderful memories of the Henson family reading about Tom’s death. Memories of Plumtree associations with the Hammond family – and more pertinent memories for me of darling Mrs Henson, who was hostel matron at Beit House. For someone who hated most moments of being at boarding school, Mrs Hensons kept me sane with her gentle, good humoured advice and care. Thank you for picking this up, and expanding on it Nigel – was with you in spirit.

    1. Hi

      My uncle William was Housemaster at Grey for over 20 years. Would have been Grey, not Beit.

  3. Nigel
    I knew of a young Henson at REPS in the early 1960’s. Any relative ?

  4. I’d be very interested to know what Tom did for a living. Being able to speak nine languages is quite stunning. Couldn’t find the attachment Nigel.

    1. He looked after the family business in Yorkshire. Traveled a great deal to W Africa and the Orient. Nothing language related!

Comments are closed.