AS A Christian, I believe that God implants a unique vocation inside each of us. As we go through life, various things can help “trigger” our vocations. Sometimes, the realisation of our Christian vocations can be easy; but, for most of us, the journey can be tangled and twisty, as we learn to cooperate with God’s grace. In Bernard Lewis’s book Wales’ Unknown Hero, we observe Henry Coombe-Tennant discovering his Benedictine vocation towards the end of a fascinating military and intelligence career.
Lewis writes that “the circumstances of . . . [Henry’s] conception and birth were very unusual.” His mother, Winifred Coombe Tennant, was a psychic medium known as “Mrs Willett”. After the death of a daughter in 1908, she became convinced that messages from beyond the grave wanted her to bear a child who would have messianic qualities, fathered not by her husband, but by Gerald Balfour, who was also interested in psychic research. In July 1912, Balfour visited Winifred in Wales, and Henry was born on 9 April 1913. In later life, Henry shared his mother’s interest in psychic research, which caused raised eyebrows at Downside Abbey.
Henry early appears to have had a self-contained personality. In 1936, he was commissioned into the Welsh Guards and was posted to France at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was captured during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940 and sent to several prisoner-of-war camps. In 1942, he escaped from Warburg Camp and managed to make his way home to England, via Belgium, France, and Spain, earning the Military Cross.
In August 1944, Henry was back in France, helping the Resistance in the Ardennes. He later rejoined the Welsh Guards for the rest of the war. Wales’ Unknown Hero is especially valuable for its account of the winter 1944-45 campaign in France and Belgium, which is sometimes skated over by historians.
In 1945, Henry was sent to Palestine, which was administrated by Great Britain under a League of Nations “Mandate” and was increasingly the scene of violence between Arabs and Jews. At some point, he was recruited for intelligence work, which subsequently took him to Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Iraq.
Henry was confirmed, aged 13, in the Church of England. He ceased churchgoing in his late teens, but significantly described himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. His time in Palestine rekindled thoughts of religion, as he wrote to his mother around 1947: “I have spoken of finding oneself — I mean one must escape from oneself in the sense of that phase that Jesus must have had in mind when he said that if you would find yourself you must first lose yourself, or words to that effect.”
Something happened to Henry in Baghdad in 1958 while he was engaged in intelligence work, resulting in what he called “a period of profound mental and physical suffering”. He declined to discuss this, but recorded that in 1959 he began to pray again. The following year, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1961 he entered Downside. He was ordained in 1966 and served in the parishes of Radstock and Little Malvern. It would have been nice to know more about Henry’s religious views, but this side of his life is unknown to us. He died at Downside early on 6 November 1989 — appropriately, while praying.
The author, Bernard Lewis, lives in Neath and is the author of five books of local history. Wales’ Unknown Hero is a gripping book about a fascinating man, which I highly recommend.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Catsfield and Crowhurst in East Sussex.
Wales’ Unknown Hero: Soldier, spy, monk — The life of Henry Coombe-Tennant, MC, of Neath
Y Lolfa Cyf £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69