Percy Legard

Charles Percy Digby Legard was born in Saltash on the 17th of June 1906. His father was a naval officer, his mother the daughter of a Stockholm businessman. Educated at Cheltenham College public school, Percy Legard otherwise spent his childhood in Sweden, where he developed expertise in skiing and other Nordic sports. He returned to England to attend the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, afterwards joining the elite cavalry regiment which, after a couple of name-changes, became known as the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.

Legard became the British ski-jump champion at St Moritz in January 1929, one of the first three British men to achieve a 50 metre jump, together with Guy Nixon and Colin Wyatt. These three were considered sufficiently accomplished to represent Britain in the 1931 World Ski Championships at Oberhof in Germany. Legard also competed in the 1934 Championships, held at Sollefteå in Sweden.

Following the 1931 Championships, Legard began training for Modern Pentathlon in the Summer Olympics. He competed at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, where he won the 4 kilometre cross-country element and came 8th overall, and at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Legard later liked to recall that during the opening ceremonial march-past at Berlin, in front of Hitler, he "gave the bastard a V-sign salute!"

He also represented Britain at the 1936 Winter Olympics, in the Nordic Combined event, which married a 15 kilometre cross-country ski-race with 2 attempts at the ski-jump. Legard still bears the distinction of being the only Briton ever to have competed in this event at the Olympics.

Legard had married Gertrude Kate Thomson on the 5th of June 1934, and their first daughter, Sarah Anthea, was born just before the start of the Second World War in 1939. By the end of the war their family would be complete, Dinah Annabel being born in 1941 and Lavinia Anlaby in 1944.

Legard's regiment had only pensioned off its horses in 1938, in favour of Mark VI light tanks. Sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the regiment was caught up in the general confusion and retreat, and was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. Back in Britain, the armoured units waited to be re-equipped.

Meanwhile, the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was forming a new force of Commandos, volunteers for special service who would be trained and equipped to carry out raids against German-occupied Europe. Legard volunteered and, as an experienced officer, was given command of №4 Commando.

James Dunning, in his book 'The Fighting Fourth' recalls: "The assembly was held in the Weymouth Pavilion, on the sea front, which had been requisitioned as Commando Headquarters. As we waited for the 'welcome' talk from our new commanding officer, there was an unforgettable air of excitement, an exhilatating atmosphere and a babble of animated conversation, which came to an abrupt halt and hush when the newly appointed RSM, 'Jumbo' Morris of the Royal Tank Regiment, from the stage and in full view, bellowed out, 'Parade . . . 'Shun', before saluting and handing over to the commanding officer. For most of us it was the first glimpse of the CO, Lt Col C.P.D. Legard, of the 5th Iniskillen Dragoon Guards, a tall, lean and fit-looking officer with an elegant, yet dashing, appearance in his service dress uniform, shining Sam Browne belt and the distinctive green trousers of that famous cavalry regiment the history of which went back to the seventeenth century."

After Weymouth, №4 Commando underwent training in Scotland. "On one occasion a deer stalk was organised for potential snipers. They returned with three stags, including a magnificent twelve-pointer," says Dunning, and Lt Col Legard "received a rocket from the District Commander over the affair." At the end of their training, however, №4 and №7 Commandos were amalgamated to form the 3rd Special Service Battalion. Lt Col Dudley Lister, CO of №7, was selected to command the new battalion and, reluctantly, Legard returned to his regiment.

Re-equipped with Cromwell and Sherman tanks, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards returned to France shortly after the Normandy landings in 1944. They fought across France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany with the 7th Armoured Division, and were in Hamburg at the time of Germany's surrender in May 1945.

At the 1948 Winter Olympics in St Moritz, the Winter Pentathlon made its only Olympic appearance – as a Demonstration Sport. Legard was one of the 11 men who completed all the events.

The Badminton Horse Trials were inaugurated in May 1949 by the 10th Duke of Beaufort in order to let British riders train for international events. Legard was one of the 22 starters, but his horse, Varne, became stuck and (together with 7 others) failed to complete the cross-country course.

In 1950, after a long decline, British interest in ski-jumping revived. Harry Stone, in his book 'Ski Joy', notes that "Colonel Percy Legard, with the blessing of the Downhill Only Club, took to coaching the British over a baby jump just outside Mary's Cafe at Wengen. Anyone inclined could try for their bronze or silver Ski Club medals. In the evening Percy would reappear, this time playing the drums in the pink-washed cellar bar at The Palace."

Widowed in 1969, Percy Legard died in Ryedale, Yorkshire in 1980.

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page updated 2016-06-07

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