LifestylePersonaVideo January, 15th 2012 by

Colditz to Callas “The Prominente” George Lascelles (1923-2011)

Harewood House in West Yorkshire


There will be war if I forget. You see I have an important birthday to remember in June. My youngest son. But this summer while we celebrate the event at home in Spain I will spare a thought for another anniversary that same month. But this one is an event which occured in far less comfortable surroundings, a shooting in fact, on a cold bloody battlefield in Italy almost seventy years ago and one that resulted in the victim and subject matter of this article waking up to find himself incarcerated behind the walls of the most famous prisoner of war camp in World War II.

In case you are anticipating an Alec Guinness WWII film plot this is not a story of conflict or oppression but rather a celebration. Its a tale about a man of music, a very famous man yes in the eyes of Adolf Hitler´s SS as they manicled him for his journey over the border into Saxony. But at heart this is still a simple man and one with a love of simple things, including the beautiful game, and a man courageous enough to demonstrate his passion to the distress and disapproval of the Queen of England.

George Lascelles with Queen Elizabeth at his Harewood House estate.

I was fourteen the first time we met face to face. It was 1980. I was doing my summer job litter picking on his ten thousand acre West Yorkshire estate. I was armed with a plastic bin bag and a tough piece of bamboo cane with a six inch nail hammered into the end. Him. He was armed with a hide bound shooting stick. He was George Henry Hubert Lascelles, Lord Harewood the eldest nephew of King George VI and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.  Still litter picking I could see through the corner of my eye he was walking in my direction straight across the field in front of his stately home and family residence at Harewood House near Leeds. Now well into his sixties he was walking apace bearing the shooting stick like a crutch. But he clearly meant business.

Even on the couple of ocassions he and his second wife Countess Patricia “Bambi” Tuckwell visited my parents home I remember like all his staff he addressed my father by his surname “Grimshaw”.   The seventeenth century converted stableyard beside Harewood House where we lived for fifteen years was where my parents often hand reared  new born exotica  like marmosets, emu´s and flamingo´s from George Lascelles  famous animal collection.

I knew on top of getting away with calling my father Grimshaw, living in that big house of his he must be quite an important person. I also knew that I had seen him with the Queen of Englands children Charles and Anne at his house. It seemed normal for me as a child growing up in such surroundings but when I look back now it appears there were always famous royal faces littered around the place. And right now the one belonging to his Lordship was heading my way like a steam roller.

The front field which aprons Harewood House is enormous and what started out a dot on the horizon was clearly the shape of Lordy himself coming towards me bracing his shooting stick and marching on like the fate of the realm depended on him.

Although I was quite sure my fathers boss was not coming to talk to me nonetheless I thought it would make good sense to speed up the litter picking process a bit.  As I walked away my bamboo cane was a blur and I do recall the six inch nail getting pushed up the end of the cane as I rapidly spiked litter with it like a road drill.

I was a shy lad anyway and as Lord Harewood finally reached me after a five minute hike across what amouted to his own front lawn I buried my head in the litter bag and began raking around as if carrying out some important executive litter pickers maintenance check.  I was not a great teenage conversationalist its true to say. But then again I was not the only person ignoring Lord Harewood.

For many years George Lascelles had been publically ostracised by the House of Windsor. The Queen had considered Lascelles divorce from his first wife concert pianist Maria Donata Stein in 1967 a scandal. Maria was the daughter of Vienesse musician, writer and publisher Erwin Stein and the Church of England´s views on divorce it was said at the time forced George Lascelles out of England to remarry his pregnant mistress Patricia Tuckwell abroad.

Queen Elizabeth II could never have known the irony in her actions as one day her own families very public private lives would themselves break down leaving several high profile marriages heading for the divorce courts. What she should have known however was amongst his peers George Lascelles was a man of great moral courage.

That courage had manifested in unpopular but no doubt just as painful decisions in his personal life. But in public here was a man who mixed his lifelong love of art and music, and specifically opera music , with his public passion for one of the common mans favourite passtimes, football.

George Lascelles liberated to Switzerland from Colditz

Perhaps is was on the WWII battlefields of Italy where he first got a taste for conflict and combat as a Grenadier Guard. He had rose to the rank of Captain when on 18th June  1944 he was shot and captured by the Nazi´s while serving in Italy.

Oflag IV-C is better known to most as Colditz Castle and it was here in the famous prisoner of war camp that George Lascelles joined other “prominentes” or celebrities as Hitler tagged them including Douglas Barder and Airey Neave. They were all special inmates now detained and earmarked as powerful tactical bargaining chips.

Young George "Viscount Lascelles" between his brother and mother H.R.H. The Princess Royal

June 18th 1944 is a day not only engraved on George Lascelles mind as in the hands of the Nazi´s he was transported to Colditz but also on his late fathers too.  Coincidentally he too had been wounded during WWI on June 18th 1915.  Its an amazing twist of fate but also a fact that one hundred years earlier on June 18th 1815 George Lascelles great grandfather was also shot in the Battle of Waterloo. Although the irony was not wasted on him Lascelles had no time to dwell on the past when the following year in March 1945 under attack and cornered Hitler signed Lascelles death warrant and SS commander Gottlobb Berger was ordered to execute all the prominentes.

History shows that threat never materialised as Berger took what was later considered by some a tactical decision and forseeing Hitlers imminent demise instead risked his own life and spirited George Lascelles and the other prominentes out of Colditz and into Switzerland from where they were eventually rescued. It was an act that arguably contributed to saving Bergers life at the Nuremberg trials.

Lascelles time in Colditz was no tea party and in later life contributed to the persona of a man who had demonstrated he was not just physically brave in wartime but morally courageous in life.  He was not frightened to make unpopular decisions even in the face of the Queens disapproval as his broken marriage attested. In many respects he was more of an artist than many others who openly celebrated themselves as being a cultural compass. He did not employ a tea party persona to maintain appearances or popularity and in my fifteen years living as his neighbour I myself witnessed many of his outbursts and rants. For a man now Managing Director of Sadlers Wells Opera, English National Opera and Founder of Opera North working alongside the worlds most talented writers and opera singers on a daily basis, on ocassions he would not have been out of place on the terraces of a third division football match. Yes royalty has its own blue blood and its true to say traditionally a perfectly matching blue vocabulary also.

Later in his life Lord Harewood however was not wearing blue but favoured yellow and white as he combined his interest in music with an appointment as Chairman of his beloved Leeds United Football Club, the then First Division clubs ground Elland Road just a twenty minute drive to work.

Those handfull of times he could not make the Leeds United match due to ill health or work I was the lucky beneficiary of his matchday ticket and accompanied his butler Frank Widdop into the clubs directors box. Surrounded by Leeds United fans myself and my late father Eric would sit wearing a poker face as, aside from Frank, we were both actually lifelong Manchester United supporters. At the time of his death George Lascelles had a reputation as a much braver man and one who pinned his colours firmly to the mast. Which brings me back to the pointed end of my litter picking stick.

The six inch nail in the end was a blur as if it were collecting five pound notes from the grass. Lord Harewood had walked from the horizon and was now finally standing in front of me still panting a little. Even out of breath he was an imposing figure of a man and stood up straight and tall got his second wind and gripping his shooting stick like a conductors baton looked me up and down.

“…Grimshaw? Your Grimshaw´s boy aren´t you….? Ive been watching you.  I’ve been watching you from my window up there…”

Before I gave him an answer I looked around and checked the acres of rolling green land I had been litter picking for the previous four or five hours. There was still a few sweet wrappers blowing in the wind but nothing too bad I thought.

In the distance my old boss Ken Dalby appeared and was craning his neck waving at me wildly pointing out Lordy, as if I had not already seen him coming. He  jumped in his battered Land Rover aiming to see what Lordy wanted with me.  I knew Ken would never have walked that far even in his heyday . But Lord Harewood had. The man that survived Colditz.

The 17th Century Converted Stable Yard and Home To A Tired "Litter Picker"

“Yes Ive been watching you from my window all morning.  With that stick of yours” he said. “Now, here. Take it.”

He raised his hand with the shooting stick still grasped in it and carefully planted it in the grass at my feet.

“There. There you go young man. Keep it. Won´t it be much easier for you using this next time? ”

Ken Dalby´s old blue Land Rover was falling to bits and landed in a steaming heap beside us just as Lord Harewood smiled politely and left doffing his brown furry hat on the way. Ken was an overweight Northern version of Albert Steptoe, the rag and bone man played by the great actor Wilfrid Brambell in the famous British tv series.

“Well? Well lad? What was he doing here? Lordy, what did you say to him?”

I never did tell Ken what I said to him.  I just got on with the job, determined to get that litter picking finished before dinner time.

But this summer when I set about planning my son Lukes birthday I will also spare a thought on the 18th of June for the late George Lascelles who died at his home on the family estate at Harewood House just last year. I will use the memory of the place I spent my childhood and of Lord Harewood and the shooting stick to remind my youngest boy whatever it is you are aiming for in your life you might have to walk a long way. But its important to not stand around idly talking about it but to get on and finish the job. Thanks for the memories and friendly encouragement Mr. Lascelles. Have a safe journey back and rest in peace. 

Paul Grimshaw

Optioned screenwriter, film producer and film script consultant. Latest feature film project "Shill" in development with executive producer Mac Chakaveh CEO New World Films and CEO Marbella International Film Festival.

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