Tex Banwell Dies at 80; British Wartime Daredevil



By William H. Honan,, August 24, 1999

Keith Deamer (Tex) Banwell, a British army World War II escape artist whose many exploits included serving as a double for Field Marshal Montgomery and twice facing a Gestapo firing squad and living to tell about it, died on July 25 in a hospital in North London. He was 80.

His death was reported in London on Monday by The Daily Telegraph and confirmed by Geoffrey Picot, a longtime friend.

Banwell's death-defying exploits -- some of which were recounted by Leo Heaps in his book "The Grey Goose of Arnhem" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977) -- began in 1942. He was captured during a British raid on Tobruk, Libya. British forces there were seeking to dislodge Field Marshal Rommel, who was shoring up Mussolini's crumbling North African empire.

With a friend, Banwell managed to steal a German vehicle and return to the safety of British lines. On a subsequent raid on Crete, he told friends, he was taken prisoner at Candia, also known as Iraklion.

He was put under the personal supervision of Max Schmeling, the 1930s world heavyweight champion, who was serving in the Wehrmacht.

Banwell and a few of his comrades managed to slip away from their captors and steal an assault landing craft. With the help of Cretan fishermen, they made their getaway. But the craft ran out of fuel and drifted for nine days before reaching the North African coast.

It took Banwell 12 weeks in a British hospital to recover fully. When he had done so, someone noticed that he bore a striking resemblance to Montgomery.

So Banwell was sent to Cairo to meet him. Given the appropriate clothing, insignia and general's badges, he was then sent on trips around the Middle East to confuse enemy spies.

However, since Banwell was taller than Montgomery, he was told that he must never leave the field marshal's car. No assignment could have been less congenial for Banwell, and he was soon back in the infantry.

There he was introduced to parachuting and joined a parachute regiment. He kept in shape with regimental boxing and cross-country running.

The events leading up to his encounters with the Gestapo began in September 1944, when Banwell and several other paratroopers were dropped near Arnhem in the Netherlands. In a well-known fiasco, American forces failed to come to their aid as planned and they were captured en masse.

Banwell was wounded and taken prisoner. He later escaped by jumping from a moving train as it entered Germany. He then joined the Dutch Resistance, adopting the code name Tex, which he used for the rest of his life.

Once, while escorting a party of escaping prisoners, he was again captured by the Germans. Since he was not in uniform, his captors said he had forfeited his military status and, after a speedy court martial, he was sentenced to death.

He was told, however, that if he disclosed the names of his Resistance contacts the sentence would not be carried out. When Banwell refused, he was placed in front of a firing squad, which was given all the orders except the one to fire.

Banwell was sent back to his cell until the next morning, when he was told that this time he really would be shot unless he gave the information.

The next day, the ritual was again enacted, this time with the squad firing blanks.

Afterward, Banwell was taken to Auschwitz. In an effort to make him tell what he knew, his captors confined him in a 6-foot-square cage and denied him food. When the Russians liberated the camp, Banwell rejoined a British paratroop unit.

On one jump, he later told friends, he was knocked unconscious, declared dead, and taken to the morgue. There, an attendant noticed a flutter in one of his eyelids, and he revived.

Keith Deamer Banwell was born on Oct. 8, 1918, and began his military career in 1936 in the elite Coldstream Guards.

Banwell, whose highest rank was sergeant, was awarded a British Empire Medal in 1969, and in 1992 the Netherlands Silver Cross for his services to the Dutch Resistance.

After the war, he worked for the British postal service, but he continued to tempt death. In 1984, he made his 1,000th jump at Arnhem on the 40th anniversary of the battle. He went on to jump again, when in his mid-70s, on the 50th anniversary in 1994.

Banwell is survived by his wife, Anne, of London, and three children from a previous marriage, Ian, Linda and Avril, all of Hartfordshire.

Toward the end of World War II, Banwell was asked to fill out an army questionnaire. One question asked how military training could be improved. Banwell wrote: "More street and woodland fighting."

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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov