Women in The Military; Sally Thorneloe
July 9, 2012
Continuing my ‘Women in the Military’ series is a woman who was never officially part of a regiment, instead she bore the rather disparaging name ‘dependent’ that is inflicted upon all spouses and their offspring no matter how independent they may be. Sally Thorneloe was married to a commanding officer. Being the partner of someone in a position of responsibility means that you need to work as a team to make life a success. Their failures are your failures and their triumphs are enjoyed together, you rely on that teamwork to succeed. Sally Thorneloe became something harder still than a commanding officer’s wife. She became his widow.
On Sunday 2nd August 2009 I remember exactly where I was. I was sat at my breakfast table with a copy of The Sunday Telegraph in my hand. I remember picking up the newspaper and seeing Sally Thorneloe’s picture. It was a moment that will stay with me for a long time.
I only know three Welsh Guards, and of those three I only know one well. I don’t know Sally Thorneloe, but there was something about the way she was looking into the camera that instantly, deeply affected me. I did not need to read the headline, or the caption. I did not even really need to read the rest of the article, and by the end of it I was sobbing. What had happened to her was glaringly obvious from the look in her eyes. The character, the defiance. The indescribable pain, yet the overriding determination not to be seen as weak. I won’t pretend I know what it’s like to lose the love of your life, but I felt a sudden affinity with those eyes. They told the story of every military partner’s worst nightmare, but they also told of strength.
I won’t rip off the Sunday Telegraph article so delicately composed by Olga Craig just weeks after Lt Col Thorneloe’s death, so instead of retelling her story I have included it below, linked and verbatim. I would simply like to pay tribute to a lady who lost ‘her best friend, her soul mate and her hero’ almost exactly three years ago, on the 1st July 2009. The Welsh Guards are currently deployed again in Afghanistan.
Widow of Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe: ‘Rupert found his moment of Heaven in Helmand’
By Olga Craig, Assistant Editor, The Sunday Telegraph
7:00AM BST 02 Aug 2009
It was one of those perfect English summer Sundays: the sort that are heaven-sent for a languid, laughter-filled family day out. Sally Thorneloe and her daughters, Hannah and Sophie, had spent the day with family friends in Ketterick. Hannah, four, and the boisterous two-year-old Sophie, had squealed with delight as they bounced on a trampoline in the back garden. ”They kept calling out: ‘Daddy’s coming home soon. Daddy’s coming home’,” Mrs Thorneloe says, a slow, bittersweet smile spreading across her face at the memory. On the way back to their Aldershot home, stuck in a long traffic jam, Mrs Thorneloe pulled into a lay-by and tried to entertain her exhausted daughters with word games. ”Then my mobile rang. And it was Rupert. It was such a lovely, lovely surprise,” she says.
No one knows when an innocuous phone call, an everyday, chance conversation, may be the last words one will exchange with a loved one. But, as the wife of a British officer on active service in the desert heat and horror of Helmand province, Sally Thorneloe knew that each phone call from her husband, no matter how brief or how snatched, were words to be cherished.
”And as the date of his return home comes closer and closer those calls become more buoyant, more carefree,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”When your husband first leaves you feel the separation so keenly. It’s difficult not to become frustrated and a little terse at times on the phone. But as the homecoming comes closer, you become closer. You make plans. There was our fifth wedding anniversary on his first week home. And the girls were so excited.” As Mrs Thorneloe chatted to her husband, gaily reminding him that it was less than three weeks until he would be home, Sophie began calling out: ”Daddy, Daddy.”
”It was her new word. She had learned it since she had last spoken to her father. Rupert heard her in the background and he just couldn’t believe it. I put her on and she was shouting: ”Daddy, Daddy.” Rupert was so thrilled. It was the first time he had heard her say it. He told me he couldn’t wait to see and hear Sophie call him Daddy when he got home. Then he talked to Hannah and she told him all about her day. It was such a lovely, relaxed, family phone call and I’m so glad I wasn’t cross with Rupert about anything.”
Sophie’s father never did get to see her say Daddy. That final, fateful phone call, on Sunday, June 28, was his last to his family. Three days later, on July 1, Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the charismatic Commanding Officer 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, died when his Viking armoured vehicle was blasted from beneath by a Taliban improvised explosive device (IED).
His death has meant that Sally Thorneloe, loving wife and devoted mother will, for ever more, be defined by the unenviable sobriquet that history has thrust upon her: widow of the highest ranking British officer to be killed on active service for more than a quarter of a century. Not since Lt Colonel H Jones died in 1982, during an assault at Goose Green in the Falklands War, has the Army lost such a senior officer on the battlefield.
When Lt Colonel Thorneloe, 39, died, alongside his driver, Trooper Joshua Hammond, 18, en route to the front to rendezvous with his men, the Army lost an inspirational and outstandingly talented officer. At his funeral service in the Guards Chapel at the Wellington Barracks in London on July 16, which was attended by Prince Charles, Colonel in Chief and a close friend, the then head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt and scores of senior officers,
Lt Colonel Thorneloe was described as ”quite simply the best of his generation” and as a leader who was ”calm in a crisis and, in success, modest”.
Sally Thorneloe, however, lost much, much more. She lost the man she says was: ”my best friend, my soul mate and my hero. The man who always made me feel like I was the best person ever when I was with him. He was such a big man in every sense. I felt so protected and secure and loved around Rupert. And I miss him so very, very much. Shortly before he died, he told me in a phone call that he had been ‘out on his travels’, as he called being on patrol, the night before. ‘Oh Sal,’ he said, ‘last night I slept in a mulberry grove. And it was so beautiful. It was a little like waking in the Garden of gethsemane. I fell asleep listening to Pachelbel’s Canon on my iPod.’ I found the thought of that so comforting: there he was, in Helmand, yet he had found his moment of Heaven.”
Lost in silence for a moment, tears threatening and her lips trembling, Mrs Thorneloe turns to the mantelpiece, picking up a framed photograph taken on her wedding day – July 24, 2004. The black and white picture of her and Rupert – she clutching her bouquet and hitching up her wedding gown, he, a big bear of a man in top hat and tails, beaming proudly – was taken in Oxford moments after the ceremony in St Giles church. ”I love this photograph but I only spotted something in it last week,” she says, her voice breaking now. ”We are walking past a placard advertising a recital of the Canon. We had just had it played at our wedding, it was Rupert’s favourite piece of music. And, then, of course,” she says, the tears now falling, ”it was played in the Guards Chapel, at Rupert’s funeral.”
In the weeks since her husband died Mrs Thorneloe, 43, has learned more than one would ever want to know of the anguished world of the bereaved. ”I have been given a life that I don’t want,” she says. ”Facing the future is a bleak and unforgiving thought. I keep thinking how long will I feel like this? But my girls are my salvation and they are my future. Sophie is so terribly young and, realistically, the possibility of her having any meaningful memories of Rupert are so heartbreakingly low. She still runs around the house calling for her Daddy and when she sees him on television she jumps up and down with excitement, but she is much too young to understand death. She knows something is wrong. She knows that Daddy hasn’t come home. She knows that everyone is sad, that everything is different. And I know that nothing will ever be the same.”
Telling her older daughter Hannah of her father’s death was, Mrs Thorneloe admits, one of the most painful moments of her life. ”I was told of Rupert’s death late in the evening of the day before Hannah’s school broke up. The next day, when she came home, the padre was with me. I sat her down on the sofa, where she always lay with Rupert, and said: ”I have something very sad to tell you. You know that Daddy’s been at work in Afghanistan. Very sadly Daddy has died and he can’t come back.’
”Hannah looked so bereft, so bewildered. She got upset and then asked if she could do some colouring. Children live in the moment and are naïve about pain, and I’m so grateful for that. Since then we have talked such a lot about Rupert. At first I was terrified that somehow she would forget her memories of him. But I know she won’t. She was such a Daddy’s girl. She adored Rupert, she was utterly obsessed with him. She looks so like him and has so many of his mannerisms.”
Sally Thorneloe knew little, she confesses, of the rigours and demands of being an Army wife when she married. She and her husband met ”through friends of friends” and their mutual love of sailing in the autumn of 2001. ”I kept hearing of this wonderful man called Rupert,” she says. ”The first time I met him I was struck by his beaming smile. It lit up his face and seemed to light up everyone else’s. We spent a lot of time sailing: around the Isle of Wight, drinking tea in the cockpit of Valentina, his boat. And then coming home for a big glass of red burgundy. I just adored him.”
After a two-year courtship, with a tour of Germany in the offing, Rupert proposed, producing a surprise platinum and diamond engagement ring. ”He just announced: ‘I’ve got something for you,’ she laughs. He was good at surprises.” Four weeks before Mrs Thorneloe’s 39th birthday, the couple married. Hannah, a honeymoon baby, was born on May 5, 2005 – Father’s Day in Germany. ”We had just sold the boat because we needed a car. And a pram, too, as it turned out.” On May 10, 2007, Mrs Thorneloe gave birth to Sophie. ”I was a little worried that Rupert might be disappointed not to have a son but he laughed at me and said: ‘No, I always wanted girls.’”
As an Army wife, one must be resilient. To acknowledge that there will be long and lonely separations and that there will be, too, the distinct possibility of violent death on a distant battlefield. ”I remember Rupert almost warning me off a little before we married,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”But if you fall in love with a surgeon you don’t decide not to marry him because he works long hours and might be home late in the evening. Being a soldier was part and parcel of who Rupert was. You couldn’t separate the man from the officer. He was deeply passionate about the Army, he couldn’t possibly have been anything other than a soldier.”
But death was something neither truly contemplated. ”We never really spoke of the possibility of Rupert dying. Because neither of us ever, for a moment, thought that he would. If you dwell on that sort of thing you would never get out of bed in the morning. The only time we touched on it was when Rupert told me whose funerals he would come back for. I remember saying: ‘Gosh, in the unimaginable event, what am I going to do Rupert? Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? He didn’t say much. Just something about how Wiltshire, where we often talked of moving to, would be a nice place to live. We just never, ever thought Rupert would die.
”The Army was his passion. Yet in a strange but sad way it has only been since Rupert’s death that I have truly grown to admire and understand why he loved the military so much. And the wealth of support and compassion I have received from the Army has been truly overwhelming.”
Lt Colonel Thorneloe, however, came from a family steeped in military tradition. His father is a retired major who was immensely proud of his son. The colonel had been educated at Radley and the University of Reading before being commissioned into the Welsh Guards in 1992. He served in Germany, Northern Ireland and Iraq (for which he was awarded the MBE in 2006). Before being sent to Helmand, he served as an aide to Des Browne, then Defence Secretary, in Whitehall.
”That was Rupert’s ultimate job,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”For him it was the pinnacle: it combined his twin loves, the Army and politics. When he was in Whitehall Rupert would call Hannah every night, on the dot of seven. She used to ask? ‘Will Daddy be home before I go to bed.’ Some nights she would hear his key in the latch. He would drop his bike and run upstairs to see her. For Hannah, being older, his leaving to go on tour was so very difficult. She and her Daddy were inseparable.”
While in Helmand, of course, the phone conversations were all too often snatched and the homecomings few and far between. Colonel Thorneloe’s last leave was at Christmas. ”It was a real family affair, with stockings for the girls and lots of present opening,” Mrs Thorneloe recalls. All too soon, however, her husband had to return to the front line. ”I always tried not to get too emotional when Rupert left, but we sat drinking tea for an hour together before he went and I told him how much I loved him and how much the girls loved him. He knew that, but I got to tell him that which is important.”
Then, of course, came Wednesday, July 1: the day Colonel Thorneloe died. ”They ring the door bell, that is how you know,” she says simply. It was 9.20 in the evening when two officers from the Welsh Guards came to break the news. ”I saw the green shadows through the glass and I remember thinking it’s late for welfare to call. The second I opened the door and saw their faces, I knew. I just knew.”
The Army, a well-oiled machine when one of its own is lost, immediately enveloped the family, preparing them for the repatriation of the bodies.
”The part of that day that I will never forget is the sound of the aeroplane as it approached,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”It was very important to me to have Rupert home. We stood side by side with Joshua’s family, the Hammonds, and we both watched our men come home.”
Mrs Thorneloe spent some private time alone with her husband and, on July 16, the day of his funeral, she stood ramrod straight as his coffin was carried into the Guards Chapel by eight Welsh Guards. Sombre in black, she stood by her mother-in-law, Veronica, both women clasping hands as they bade their final farewells. ”It was really important to me that I was strong for Rupert. That might sound ridiculous but I felt so much that that was what Rupert deserved: that we who loved him most stood proud.”
After the service Prince Charles, who attended with his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, spoke privately to the Thorneloe family. ”He was incredibly compassionate. Very caring and sensitive. Rupert would have been humbled,” Mrs Thorneloe says.
In the bleak days that have followed there have been many emotional moments. Unlike many of his comrades, Colonel Thorneloe did not leave a letter for his wife. ”At first I was desperate, I so wanted to have one to read, to have it in my hand. But I know how much Rupert loved me and the girls, and that is what matters.” On July 24, which would have been the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, Mrs Thorneloe spent several hours at her husband’s graveside at the family plot in west Oxfordshire. ”Rupert always loved the rain and, strangely, it has rained every day since he died,” she says. ”As I stood there, in a downpour, I suddenly felt that, somehow, in that rain I was closer to Rupert. I used to hate the rain, now I have come to love it. It reminds me of Rupert, carrying one of the girls, when they were babies, in a papoose. With a great big umbrella to shelter them from the rain.”
There can be no doubt that Rupert Thorneloe was an inspirational leader: as Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of Task Force Helmand, said: ”He died as he had lived, leading from the front.” The fact that he did so. That on the day he died he was travelling to meet his men, cost him his life.
”Of course I think of that,” Mrs Thorneloe says. ”But Rupert was passionate about what the Army was doing in Afghanistan. He believed utterly in the job that he was doing in Helmand. He was truly living his dream.”
Mrs Thorneloe is well aware, of course of the mounting controversy over what is perceived as the Government’s lack of support for the Armed forces. Indeed her father-in-law has stated publicly that it has failed to ”put defence first”. July was the bloodiest month so far in the fight against the Taliban. During the five weeks of Operation Panther’s Claw, which plunged British forces into ferocious combat, 22 soldiers died and 57 were injured. As the coffins of yet more young soldiers, covered by the Union flag and carried by comrades, make the solemn journey through the streets of Wootton Bassett, so the clamour for more helicopters, for more heavily armoured vehicles and more troops has grown from a public that, increasingly, believes its soldiers are being sent to war ill-armed and ill-equipped.
Many argue that, had more helicopters been available, Lt Colonel Thorneloe would not have been travelling in a Viking – a vehicle that is inadequately armoured to withstand IEDs and which is due to be replaced next year by the more robust Warthog. It is not a subject Mrs Thorneloe wishes to discuss. All she will say is one, carefully constructed sentence. ”I have thought about it,” she concedes. ”But I will let other people talk.” Her husband, she emphasised, was committed to the Army’s role in Afghanistan. ”He believed in it utterly.”
In the past week the Welsh Guards have built a trampoline in the Thorneloes’ back garden. ”The girls and I bounce on it and reach up to the sky, to be nearer to Daddy, I tell them. I am just so devastated that Rupert is not here. But I can’t be cross with him for doing what he passionately believed in. When he got into that vehicle that day he wasn’t thinking: ‘today’s the day.’ He was just thinking I want to go to see my soldiers. The quickest way that I can. That was Rupert.”
The Welsh Guards are in the process of setting up the Welsh Guards Afghanistan appeal. Donations can be sent to Regimental HQ, Welsh Guards, Birdcage Walk, London SW1E 6HQ. Cheques may be made payable to ”The Welsh Guards Afghanistan Appeal.”