Erik G:son Lewenhaupt, a captain in the British parachute forces, jumped over Normandy on 6 June 1944. He later also took part in the largest airborne operation in Western Europe as the commander of air-landed armored vehicles. In this photograph he is in Denmark in May 1945.
Count Erik G:son [sic] Lewenhaupt’s life was full of unbelievable twists. Having once been marked as a military washout he eventually became an advisor to the creator of the Swedish Airborne Ranger School. His extensive experience in war in both Europe and Asia is well summarized in a remark by a British sergeant: “Find a war and you’ll find Erik Lewenhaupt in it.”
One would have thought that Erik G:son Lewenhaupt was born with a silver spoon in his mouth as the son of a count who was court hunting master and owner of a castle (Aske Castle, outside Kungsängen). When he reached thirty-four years of age, however, his assets amounted to zero. His family had lived with expenses that could not be sustained.
Without any property to manage Lewenhaupt sought a military career, a strong tradition in his family. He soon had to leave the army because of a serious illness, so in Sweden there was no such future for him. The French Foreign Legion remained.
Well on his way to one of the legion’s units in Algeria, literally at the gate, he was not prepared to take the last step into the world of la Légion. Vague information indicates that he could not immediately return to Sweden without first serving on one side or the other in the Spanish Civil War. There is no doubt, however, that he was in the Winter War from 1939 to 1940 along with two other Lewenhaupts—as a volunteer for Finland. Since he had no real military training or competence he could only become a squad leader with a transport company, but there he was appreciated because of his solid knowledge and ability with vehicles.
It must have been the combination of his years at Oxford, continued unemployment, and his Norwegian brothers-in-arms from Finland that made him decide to join the war in Norway.
Lewenhaupt proved to be a natural leader in the forest fighting around Kongsvinger. His composure and energy led to him being promoted to captain in the Norwegian Army in just a few days. Like so many of the other Swedes in southern Norway, he became tired of the chaos that prevailed there. Together with fellow Swede Hans Thuring he requested and was granted a transfer to a company from the Scots Guards on their way to the north, as a guide and interpreter. It was with the Scots, literally at the Polar Circle, that Lewenhaupt earned his first Military Cross, one of Great Britain’s highest awards. Lewenhaupt got the company back to the battalion after they had been cut off. On one occasion he alone covered the retreat of his company with a machine gun. During one of the long hunger marches with the Scots Guards he was requested to take over a British platoon and follow along to France.
On 5 June Lewenhaupt and his British unit stepped on board the passenger ship Franconia, with the destination unknown. He knew that Belgium had recently capitulated and that the situation in France was precarious, but still chose to follow the British. The trip ended in Scotland and they remained there for a while because France had by then fallen. Lewenhaupt was reassigned to a newly established Norwegian training battalion.
As chief for a company of young Norwegian former whalers Lewenhaupt became popular with his men, despite his emphasis on “spit and polish.” Had he only been a caricature of an aristocratic guards officer his popularity hardly would have been possible. It is noted in many Norwegian, British as well as Swedish sources that Lewenhaupt possessed both charm and brains and was considerate. This made a deep impression on almost everyone who met him. The charm also conquered a Norwegian Red Cross nurse, Aase Kløvstad, who married him in September 1940. On his own responsibility Lewenhaupt released a fellow Swede from jail, Birger Sjöberg (later with SOE). This caused a schism between Lewenhaupt and his Norwegian officer colleagues, which led to Lewenhaupt leaving the Norwegian Army in June 1941.
In order to switch armies and once more lead British soldiers, Erik Lewenhaupt had to start all over. Count Lewenhaupt became a private soldier again, at the age of thirty-eight! After twelve months as a private and noncommissioned officer in the First Airborne Division he became a cadet at the War College in Southend-on-Sea. Thereafter the records indicate that Lewenhaupt was “on loan” to the SOE and parachuted into Denmark. His task was probably to get important Danes out of the country and to Britain.
The next, certain, information is that Lewenhaupt was made a second lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps within the Sixth Airborne Division. Two months later he was a captain again and his job to provide close in defense for the 716th Independent Pathfinder Company, the guide company for the division. The company mission after landing was to gather and distribute all the equipment that belonged to the division. Lewenhaupt’s duty was partly to provide security for the company so that it could carry out its mission and partly to locate new bases.
On 5 June, the day before D-day, Lewenhaupt wrote to his best friend, the Norwegian Lieutenant “Jojo” Dahl, “I have the finest soldiers to be found, so I am certain that everything will go well and am proud that I have been given this job. I nearly got tears in my eyes when I saw a Norwegian flag, because as you know it is basically for that flag that I fight.”
Lewenhaupt’s plane, a lone C-47 Dakota took off at 2230 hours with twenty paratroopers, radar beacons, and lanterns with colored glass. On 6 June at 0020 hours the aircraft was over Ranville in Normandy and the green light in the aircraft turned on. Lewenhaupt fell through a net of searchlight beams from German Flak units.
Two German machine guns were located in the area where Lewenhaupt landed, he said, but one machine-gun team fled and “the other we quickly rendered harmless.”
While Lewenhaupt’s platoon was busy clearing the area of anything that might hinder a follow-up larger parachute landing they came under fire again and a dozen men were hit immediately. At the same moment, however, an Allied fighter aircraft arrived and the Germans were forced to leave. Thirty minutes later Lewenhaupt witnessed the landing of seven parachute battalions released over his area, well cleared and secured by his men.
Lewenhaupt’s group fought on 6 June “in the dikes, on back streets, and in sewers.” and spent the first night in positions a little south of Amfreville. The night was filled with close combat using bayonets.
A week after the invasion Lewenhaupt was driving deep into enemy territory with his jeep on reconnaissance missions. Sergeant Jack Kelly wrote about these trips, “I loved that guy [Lewenhaupt] especially when he would come to my dugout at 0200 hours and say, ‘Jack, get a jeep, we’re going on a recon’. I used to tell him that he would get us both killed, but he would just laugh and ignore everything I said.”
On 19 June Lewenhaupt wrote from France to his best friend, “Jojo” Dahl:
The Germans are unfortunately magnificent soldiers. We know this from experience, because we have been kicked around pretty hard. Yet we have been able to get through it all, and that is the main thing. We in the Airborne are very popular with the Frenchmen and there is a great difference when we pass through a town and when other troops do the same. For me personally everything has gone excellently here and I have done one very responsible job after the other…for the moment the Germans have their artillery directed against this place so everything is shaking. Lost a man from my unit at 2230 hours due to these incoming shells. It is interesting to see how little people respond to all this now. The main thing for them is that they get their food and cigarettes.
During the continuing combat in Normandy Lewenhaupt proved he had an amazing ability to predict German movements, and because he depended upon his intuition he frequently did not go “by the book” in his actions.
Another example of Lewenhaupt’s lively technical interests are two small gadgets he constructed when he was in British service: a combination inspection stick and pocket flashlight as well as a very short casting rod not to catch fish but to trigger booby traps.
After three months of continuous combat the Sixth Airborne Division reached the River Seine, and the division was withdrawn from the line and sent back to England for reorganization and replacement of personnel.
During Hitler’s desperate Ardennes offensive in December 1944 Lewenhaupt led a successful operation to liberate prisoners. In March 1945 he participated in Operation VARSITY, the last large air-delivered deployment in the war. Not fewer than 1,300 gliders were used and measures were taken to ensure that they would not be spread out as they had been at Normandy and Arnhem. The gliders were loaded with men, jeeps, artillery, and light armored vehicles. The objective was to take the high ground dominating the German side of the Rhine River, the last significant terrain barrier before the Ruhr region, Germany’s industrial heartland. Lewenhaupt would lead a platoon of air-delivered armored infantry vehicles. The weather was ideal, and the Germans already were weak and demoralized. For the most part both the gliders and paratroops landed as planned. A reconnaissance unit that did not land in time was replaced by Lewenhaupt’s platoon.
VARSITY became the most successful Allied air landing during the war. On its conclusion Montgomery ordered the Sixth Airborne Division to use all possible means to get to Denmark before the approaching Russians. The rivalry between the Western Allies and Stalin was becoming evident. On 30 March Lewenhaupt and his reconnaissance unit, serving as the advance party for the division, reached their objective, a bridge over the River Ems. Lewenhaupt came directly upon a German unit that seemed to want to surrender, yet there were some in that unit not willing to give up. These soldiers took Lewenhaupt by surprise and took him prisoner. Even though the end of the war was near he decided to escape and found the opportunity during an Allied air attack. The escape was just about to succeed when he was captured again.
On 2 May Lewenhaupt wrote in his dairy: “1720 hours the first tank arrived from the Eleventh Army (?). I am free. Much to do with the disarming of the Germans.” After a proper welcome ceremony from his company at their temporary mess facility he was transported to Copenhagen by air, probably because of his language ability and previous experience of Denmark. On 5 May he wrote, “Landed at Kastrup at 1605 hours. Easy job. Celebrated like crazy with the Danes.” In a later letter he wrote that his detachment only had to fire three shots in Denmark.
The War Office, the British war ministry, did not want to release Lewenhaupt yet and ordered him to Burma, despite the fact that he still was a Swedish citizen. He was part of the operation that liberated Singapore and disarmed the Japanese. He was made a major in Indonesia and commander of eighteen hundred men, and was given the mission to clear out and rebuild the Semarang area. Lewenhaupt received the temporary rank of brigadier general and was then assigned as head of the War College in Hong Kong with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
After he had completed his maximum tour length in Asia of three years he returned to Great Britain in 1948. He left the British Army with the title of Honorary Major. Above a row of common British, Norwegian, and Finnish medals Lewenhaupt held the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom and two separate awards of the Military Cross.
After his return to Sweden he was appointed Ryttmästare (cavalry captain) in the reserve and in 1951 he was attached as an advisor to Nils-Ivar Carlborg when he was to start up the Airborne Ranger School in Karlsborg. Carlborg wrote about that time:
It was with mixed feelings that I had to accept Army Chief of Staff Viking Tamm’s suggestion to make use of Lewenhaupt. It was probably not going to be that easy to be the boss, being only a captain and having done only five parachute jumps, when my assistant had been a British lieutenant colonel and moreover had done five jumps in combat. The apprehension was not warranted, however. Erik knew who was the boss and was one hundred percent loyal. He was able to teach me a lot in his quiet manner. The style that we strove for right from the start was very British, and was to a great extent inspired by Erik.
Nils-Ivar Carlborg was initially also skeptical about a lot of the war stories told by Lewenhaupt, but in time he became convinced that the Count had really experienced all those improbable episodes.