Ernest Lorne Edlmann was born on April 28 1914 at Abbotabad, India (now Pakistan), on the North-West Frontier, where his father was serving as a mountain gunner. Of Austrian extraction, Ernest was only a year old when his father was killed on active service in Mesopotamia. After leaving Wellington, he wanted to be a doctor, but his family could not afford the long training and he was commissioned from Sandhurst into the Royal East Kent Regiment (the Buffs). He visited Germany several times before the war and spoke the language well. On one occasion, when he visited the opera in Munich, Hitler was in the dress circle.
In May 1940 Edlmann was an intelligence officer serving with the 2nd Battalion the Royal East Kent Regiment (REKR) at Petegem, near Oudenarde, on the Belgian frontier with France. On the evening of May 20 1940, "the Germans attacked in the darkness," Edlmann wrote afterwards, "there was banging and shouting and screaming and evidence that we were having to fall back." Radio communication had been lost, the situation was very confused, but the CO had to know what was happening. Edlmann was dispatched on his motorcycle to find out. He ran into a platoon which was leaderless and had started to come back on its own. He rallied them, placed them in position, told their sergeant to take over and ordered them to hold on.
Further down the road, he came to a small village, on the west of the river Schelde. One of the company HQs should have been there, but it was empty; instead he heard voices and shouts in German. The enemy had crossed the river and got a toehold. Edlmann raced back to his HQ to report what he had discovered. Artillery fire was called down on the village and a counter-attack organised. But the men were tired and casualties rose alarmingly. All the company commanders had been killed or wounded and, at first light, it was clear that the Germans had broken through and were advancing across the fields. Edlmann grabbed a Bren gun. "I was a good shot," he wrote afterwards, "and I was knocking them over, but we were losing a lot of chaps." The remnants of the battalion held the position until nightfall, but orders to fight their way out never reached them, as the dispatch rider drove straight into the Germans and was captured.
By the time the order to withdraw reached them, the battalion had ceased to exist as a fighting unit. The survivors marched back to Courtrai under constant harassment from dive-bombing Stukas. Completely exhausted, they slept on pavements littered with German propaganda leaflets that had been dropped from the sky. "British soldiers," the notes read, "you are encircled. Why fight on? The match is finished." Edlmann had been in action for 24 hours without respite. The remnants of the battalion were reorganised within their division, and for the next week they were withdrawing under constant shelling and air attacks. On May 28, his CO said that the only hope was to divide the men into small groups under an NCO and tell them to try to break out to the north.
The CO's legs had given out. He was covered in mud and blood, and he ordered Edlmann, who was by then his adjutant, to clear out and save himself, but Edlmann refused to go. Their weapons were useless, all their ammunition had been used up. Edlmann was conferring with his RSM about what to do next when a convoy of German troops came down the road. A German officer jumped out of his car, came up to them, saluted and said: "What are you doing here? We thought all the British troops had gone." Edlmann said afterwards: "And they bloody well had." He spent the rest of the war as a PoW. When he was captured, he and his comrades were taken to Oflag VIIC at Laufen, Bavaria. The camp was full of Polish officers, some of whom so hated the Germans that when they saw a group of them gathered in the courtyard of the castle they would hurl themselves out of a window four storeys high and kill themselves by landing on top of them.
Edlmann was moved to Oflag VIB at Warburg-Doessel, Westphalia. At dusk, one evening in April 1942, he and another officer dressed as workmen, and furnished with forged papers, currency, a map disguised as playing cards and a compass hidden in a signet ring, crawled under the wire and escaped. The highlanders danced a reel to divert the attention of one of the sentries and Wing Commander Douglas Bader removed both his wooden legs and waved these and two fingers at the other. "The German in his sentry box," recalled Edlmann, "his eyes were popping out like organ stops."
That night, they boarded a goods train travelling west and concealed themselves in a brake van. After 60 miles, they jumped off but were spotted by a policeman near the ticket office and taken to the police station. Outside the entrance there were two bicycles. They leapt on them and pedalled away as fast as they could, but were caught. After interrogation by the local Gestapo they were sent to a civilian jail in Paderborn to serve 14 days in solitary confinement. Edlmann escaped again, but was cornered in a cul-de-sac by a German sergeant. The man was on the point of shooting him with his Mauser pistol when Edlmann called out: "One moment! Hold on one moment! I am doing my duty that is all! German officers in prison camps in England do the same." The man put his gun away.
In March 1945, as the American forces got closer, the PoWs were marched out. Edlmann and a friend, Frederick Corfield (who later became a Conservative minister), hid in a culvert under the road until the column had passed on. They bribed a farmer to let them stay in his barn, but the sounds of battle grew louder and then a troop of American tanks came down the road.
"Half the village was on fire," Edlmann said afterwards, "the Germans were in the village and still resisting and we were in danger of being cremated or shot. The Americans were not expecting to find two British officers. Germans were masquerading as Allied soldiers and the Americans were very light-triggered. I said to them, 'I have been waiting for you for five years. If you pull that trigger, I will haunt you for the rest of your bloody life!'" His award of an MC was gazetted in November 1945.
After he was repatriated, Edlmann saw active service in Java and then moved to Copenhagen as military attache. He served in Kenya during the Mau Mau Emergency and, in 1957, took command of the 1st Battalion and served in BAOR and Aden. Edlmann retired from the Army in 1959. For the next 10 years he was the chief recruiting officer at Western Command and, for a further 10, schools liaison officer. He was appointed OBE in 1970. Settled in Shropshire, he enjoyed fishing, music and gardening. He died April 28 2012. He married, in 1947, Molly Grylls, who survives him with their three daughters.
Regimental Details | Commanding Officers