The Lost Squadron

Sir J Duncan St John and Morton

Topic February / March 2020The Lost Squadron and Major E. H. Rhodes-Wood.

It is too much to ask you to write to Woodall in India, Brown in Russia, Smith in Malaya, Jones in China and Robinson in Patagonia. Few of us are so keen on letter-writing as to take on a formidable task like that, but most of us would like to hear from or of these men, to share their lives and share ours with them, to make our membership of the Legion of Frontiersmen something real and vital through squadron membership with them and men like them, the real Frontiersmen of today, the salt of our Corps, the men who, their wanderings done, will one day return to the Old Country, and become our leaders of tomorrow.¹

It has always been a problem for the Legion that, by nature of their being Frontiersmen, there were members whose jobs took them to the wildernesses of the world. They could not attend Squadron or Troop meetings or wander down to the local hostelry to share a pint and a chat with fellow Frontiersmen. The first real attempt at a solution, made in 1929, was that all “singletons” around the world should be attached to the Westminster Squadron and attend their meetings on any occasion that they were passing through London. This was not a success, so it was not until the mid-thirties that Frontiersman E.H. Rhodes-Wood offered to organise what he called the “Lost Squadron” and keep up a regular correspondence with these wanderers around the world. It became such a success that by the end of 1936 he could report having just sent out 131 letters around the world, with more to follow. Unfortunately Rhodes-Wood was not popular with the hierarchy, particularly Commandant-General Morton, who Rhodes-Wood was never afraid to criticise in print. In hindsight we can say quite justifiably so. It is never any use accepting a senior position in the Legion without being ready to accept criticism, but the Lost Squadron never became an official unit and Rhodes-Wood never more than Frontiersman in U.K..

Rhodes-Wood was born in 1894 and qualified as an accountant. In 1914 he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and was commissioned in 1916. After the War he sailed for Canada to seek his fortune, although in this he was apparently unsuccessful. In 1927 he was back in Britain and became a Tax officer and civil servant (although we won’t hold that against him). For two or three years Rhodes-Wood’s articles headed “The Lost Squadron” appeared regularly in “The Frontiersman” magazine and it soon became apparent that it was not only the lonely Frontiersmen around the world who were writing to him. His willingness to criticize the “top brass”, often probably with justification, meant that he was soon receiving snippets of information from members in established Squadrons. His accumulated knowledge and readiness to publicise it did not enamour him to senior officers. For many years it has puzzled readers and researchers why the last two pages of the December 1932 magazine were completely blank with a brief note that the contents had been removed due to being controversial. In fact, this was an item which had attracted censorship. It was not until years later, and then only to readers of the New Zealand Frontiersman magazine, that the probable contents of those blank pages were disclosed. New Zealand did not believe in censorship!

In some way Rhodes-Wood had acquired or had viewed an official letter to the Legion by the British Army Chief-of-Staff 1933-1936, Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd. Now we must say at once that we cannot verify the truth of this letter from other sources, but Rhodes-Wood was respected everywhere, both in the army and in civilian life and we can be pretty certain that his sources were accurate ones. The letter does not seem to have survived and there is no reference to the Legion or Brigadier Morton, the Legion Cdt-General in the Montgomery-Massingberd archives. He was a passionate horseman and the Legion’s regular successes at gymkhanas may have brought the Legion to his attention. In May 1939, Rhodes-Wood wrote the following:

…In this connection it is interesting to review a series of articles which were written for “The Frontiersman” (London) nearly six years ago [sic] but which the then Chief of Imperial Staff refused to publish on the grounds that they were contrary to the policy of the Legion in Britain which was being directed towards some form of amalgamation with, or service under, civilian nursing services such as the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and the British Red Cross Society.

There are a number of photographs of C-G Brigadier Morton deep in conversation with Major-General Sir John Duncan, Chief Commissioner of St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. Like Morton, Duncan had been a career soldier and like Morton had become the head of a volunteer organisation. That the two men had discussed some kind of link-up between the Frontiersmen and St. John’s is quite probable, especially as Morton was not a conventional Frontiersman, but a martinet of an army officer who it is believed had been “parachuted in” to the Legion to sort out its endless squabbles. In this he only had limited success and one great failure.

Through the good offices of General [sic] Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff of the British Army, the opportunity had presented itself to the Legion of Frontiersmen to train for anti-aircraft gunnery, “provided”, as Sir Archibald wrote, “the Corps voluntarily evinces a desire to adopt this form of training whole-heartedly, and to the exclusion of other military exercises which can be of little or no use to it.”

This was obviously a veiled suggestion that the Legion’s continued love of the horse as their means of transport in Britain and the Legion’s insistence that everyone who joined the Legion had to be a competent horseman was somewhat outdated. Of course in Canada and other countries with wide-open spaces the horse still did, and still does, have its uses.

Official military quarters were at that period gravely concerned at the scarcity of anti-aircraft artillery in the United Kingdom (there were only two brigades, each of three batteries, in the entire country!), and would have welcomed our co-operation with open arms. The articles to “The Frontiersman” were in the form of an invitation to the Corps to accept this great and honourable task.

Regrettably the invitation was never issued, owing to the veto from Imperial Headquarters, and the finest opportunity the Legion ever had to establish a definite place for itself in Britain’s defence system passed never to return.

Rhodes-Wood was himself a Gunner, and had been a gunnery officer in the First War. By the time he wrote this he had rejoined the Territorial Army and was employed as a gunnery instructor. He was soon given commissioned rank and after the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (later to become the Royal Pioneer Corps and composed of men between 35 and 50) was formed in November 1939 he was posted to them. He served with distinction throughout the Second World War ending as a Major. In 1943 he was offered a senior Civil Service post in London but declined, preferring still to be an active army officer.

He was highly critical of the ways and plans of Legion Imperial Headquarters in London for what the Legion could achieve in the coming war.

Never a doubt but our members will do what they can within the confined limits available to them, but nowhere will the Legion of Frontiersmen appear [as a named unit] in the fighting or defence forces of the nation…

Nice enough we looked when it came to a question of mess kit and exhibiting a row of medals on a neat blue tunic, but when it came to a question of brown dungarees and a greasy gun, and a job of work to do – that was a horse of an entirely different colour.²

There is no doubt that Rhodes-Wood was not popular with the top brass of the Legion, who have traditionally seldom sat down and listened quietly to those who have disputed their ways. They had agreed to meet the Executive for what he called a “show down” at I.H.Q. before the 1938 A.G.M.. The Executive categorically refused to give official sanction to the “Lost Squadron”, but they did agree to the formation in every Command of a “U” (unattached) unit of lone members in the area. In this they were following Canada, a country of vast spaces and with members miles apart from each other, and who had set up this system years before. There is no record of this meeting and no record of “U” Squadrons being formed and one wonders whether Rhodes-Wood, who we know did not have a high opinion of Brigadier Morton, was being sarcastic when he wrote:

It will be seen, therefore, that the Lost Squadron is not dead but instead has, under General Morton’s organising genius, become an integral part of the Legion of Frontiersmen throughout the world.³

In any case, World War was soon to descend and any lone Frontiersmen had other duties to perform. Brigadier Morton may have breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of Rhodes-Wood, especially as much of Rhodes-Wood’s time was taken up by his T.A. duties – but Rhodes-Wood’s duties in the Legion were not over. The New Zealand Frontiersmen were delighted with him and the forthright opinions he wrote in their magazine. He had also during his time with the Lost Squadron made many New Zealander Frontiersmen friends, with whom he corresponded. New Zealand duly appointed him as their official Liaison Officer, based in U.K., a duty he performed for many years, most notably in February 1953. That month he visited the British House of Commons and on behalf of New Zealand Frontiersmen, presented Winston Churchill with a cigar box made of New Zealand Kauri wood. A photograph of the occasion appeared in a New Zealand Frontiersman magazine. 4 Rhodes-Wood may also have been representing the Pioneer Corps as they, too, have a photograph of the occasion. 5

Rhodes-Wood died in 1961, survived by his second wife, his first wife having died in 1949. His only child, a daughter, had tragically died in 1938, aged only seven. No wonder he threw himself into his Territorial Army duties that year and was comforted by the many letters he received from around the world from his “Lost Squadron” friends. The two books he wrote are still popular and are recommended. 6 Even though his views were often opposed to what the Legion “High Command” considered were correct, he should be remembered with pride as another of the Legion’s “independent thinkers”. The Legion needs such men and should always welcome them.

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1 “The Frontiersman” (U.K.) February 1936
2 “The Frontiersman” (New Zealand) June-July 1939
3 “The Frontiersman” (New Zealand) August-September 1938
4 “The Frontiersman” (New Zealand) April 1953
5 “The Pioneer”, Journal of the Royal Pioneer Corps, April 2014
6 “It Don’t Cost You a Penny”, written as Eddie Harwood and “A War History of the Royal Pioneer Corps 1939-45” under his own name as Major E.H. Rhodes-Wood. Both books are out of print, but electronic copies can be obtained from the Royal Pioneer Corps Association

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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