Percy Hansen: Valour Personified

Two men who raced each other in the Kingswood Sculls at Henley’s 1919 Peace Regatta: William Duthie Kinnear (main picture) and Percy Howard Hansen (inset).

3 February 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch discovers a largely forgotten hero.

I recently found that a particular hero of mine, WD ‘Wally’ Kinnear, once raced along the famous Henley reach against a man who was also regarded as a hero – though more widely so and for actions considerably more courageous than winning boat races.

Between 1910 and 1912, Wally Kinnear was probably the best amateur sculler in the world, winning Henley’s Diamond Sculls and the Metropolitan Regatta’s London Cup in 1910 and 1911, the Wingfield Sculls three times in a row, 1910 – 1912, and the Olympic Sculls at Stockholm in 1912.

I call Kinnear a ‘hero’ not just for these impressive wins but because he achieved them on a ‘playing field’ that was far from level. He had to combine training with working long hours as a humble travelling salesman in the drapery trade at a time when most of his opponents were gentlemen of independent means or working in professions that did not seem to require their constant attention. In an age when men engaged in ‘menial’ trades were ruled not to be true amateurs in sport, Kinnear was regarded with suspicion and snobbery by some. However, the former apprentice blacksmith from rural Aberdeenshire always conducted himself with great dignity and restraint and was eventually accepted by the British rowing establishment as one of its ‘grand old men’.

A programme for the 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta.

In the year following the end of the 1914 – 1918 War, it had been decided that it was too soon to attempt to put on a Henley Regatta on pre-war lines. However, it was thought that a regatta with different trophies to those usually offered and with some events restricted to armed services crews would be good for morale, particularly among the many soldiers of the British Empire who were part of the huge backlog of troops waiting to be shipped home.

A loss of form, family responsibilities and the pressure of work meant that Kinnear had retired from competitive sculling in 1914. However, in 1919 he decided that he would enter that year’s Peace Regatta. Even though he was 39 and suffering from lumbago, some regarded Kinnear as the ‘second favourite’ to win the ‘Kingswood Sculls’, the regatta’s equivalent of the Diamond Sculls. The clear favourite to win was Darcy Hadfield of New Zealand; The Times called him ‘wonderfully fit’ and ‘the only really first-class sculler in the event (as) Mr Powell (Diamonds 1912) and Mr Kinnear (Diamonds 1910 and 1911) are almost veterans.’ Kinnear easily won his first two rounds but, predictably, lost to Hadfield in the semi-finals, the New Zealander going onto win the final.

The man that Kinnear knocked out in the first round of the Kingswood Sculls was Major PH Hansen of the Lincolnshire Regiment. This I knew, but I recently looked at the results as reported in The Times of 3 July 1919 and I saw that the paper had also listed Hansen’s military decorations: VC, DSO, MC.

Major Percy Howard Hansen VC, DSO, MC, MiD, Croix de Guerre.

In the First World War, Percy Hansen had won all of the awards for Gallantry or Meritorious Service that a British Army officer could receive at the time.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for valour ‘in the presence of the enemy’. At Gallipoli in August 1915, Hansen and some volunteers repeatedly moved back and forth under heavy fire to successfully rescue six wounded men from capture or death by burning.

In 1970, the “Victor” comic told the story of Hansen’s VC in its own way.

The Military Cross (MC) is granted in recognition of ‘an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations’. Hansen’s MC was for performing a dangerous solo reconnaissance mission at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, in September 1915.

The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) is awarded for ‘meritorious or distinguished service’ by officers during wartime, typically in actual combat. Hansen received this for another daring reconnaissance mission, this during the Battle of Passchendaele in France in 1917.

Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD) describes a soldier whose name appears in an official report in which their gallant or meritorious action under fire is described. Hansen was mentioned in dispatches five times.

In addition, Hansen was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, roughly the equivalent to a MiD.

This picture was published in 1924 but may have been taken earlier. It shows Hansen perhaps wearing a rowing vest. However, he was a keen athlete so it could have been for another sport.

Percy Hansen was a professional soldier who served in the British Army from 1911 to 1946. He was born in 1890 to a wealthy Danish family that had settled in South Africa. When Percy was ten, the Hansens moved to London and when he was 14, he was sent to Eton. According to vconline.org.uk:

While his academic career (at Eton) continued unremarkably, (Percy) proved a keen rower, superb horseman and a great marksman before he left for (the British Army Officer Training College) Sandhurst. It was while he was (there) that his father successfully applied for British citizenship in order that Percy could take up a commission in the British Army.

Sadly, this is one of only two references that I can find to Hansen’s interest in rowing (apart from reports on his race in the 1919 Peace Regatta). In 1924, Hansen and his fiancée ended a long engagement to be married and several reports on this, probably from the same source, rather strangely referred to him as ‘a famous sculling man’. While it is not surprising that he enjoyed rowing while at Eton, there is no evidence that I can find that he was a competitive sculler – famous or obscure – before or after his 1919 race.

Hansen pictured with his fiancée, Sylvia, Countess Poulett, a former Gaiety Theatre chorus girl, on their betrothal in 1921. They had an illegitimate daughter in 1923, but six months later their engagement was called off. If she remarried, Sylvia would have forfeited the bulk of her income under the terms of her late husband’s will.

Hansen was nicknamed ‘Piccadilly Percy’ due to his high-society connections. Apart from the scandal involving Countess Poulett, his relationship with the Danish Royal, Princess Margrethe, was the subject of much rumour.

During the 1939 – 1945 War, Hansen served in the UK, becoming a Brigadier in 1941. From 1943 to 1945 he worked in General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters as head of the Mission to Norway Civil Affairs Unit. After the war he was awarded the US Legion of Merit and the Norwegian Royal Order of St Olav for this work.

Hansen died from pneumonia at age 60 in London, on 12 February 1951. His cremated remains were buried with his parents in Copenhagen.

This memorial in Churchill Park, Copenhagen, honours the two men of Danish birth that were awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War. Hansen’s name is also on Eton College’s Victoria Cross and George Cross memorial. The second name on the memorial in Churchill Park is Thomas Dinesen, who was the younger brother of author Karen Blixen (who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen). While Thomas Dinesen is mentioned as ‘private’ on the memorial, he later achieved the rank of lieutenant. Picture: @Denmark1418.

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