Obituary: Professor John Cloudsley-Thompson, tank commander

Born: 23 May, 1921. Died: 4 October, 2013, in London, aged 92
Professor John Cloudsley-Thompson: Heroic tank commander and Last Titan of the Sahara who retained his spirit of adventureProfessor John Cloudsley-Thompson: Heroic tank commander and Last Titan of the Sahara who retained his spirit of adventure
Professor John Cloudsley-Thompson: Heroic tank commander and Last Titan of the Sahara who retained his spirit of adventure

Professor John Cloudsley-Thompson was a desert naturalist who carried out extensive research in the Sahara on how creatures adapt to the challenging conditions of the habitat. He also saw distinguished service in the Second World War in North Africa and in Normandy.

He first encountered the Germans in the Western Desert in 1942 when, as a young tank commander, his tank was damaged by a bomb and he suffered a severe leg wound. Unperturbed, Cloudsley-Thompson scrambled on to another tank and then underwent surgery in Cairo.

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After the D-Day landings Cloudsley-Thompson then confronted the enemy when he faced one of the most respected officers in the Afrika Korps, Michael Wittmann. The German had accounted for numerous tanks in the Western Desert and Cloudsley-Thompson faced him near Caen, a critical area for the Allies’ advance.

The conflict at Villers-Bocage was strategically vital and as Cloudsley-Thompson carefully progressed up a road he spied from his tank Wittmann in his Tiger tank causing havoc with the advancing troops and knocking out many heavy vehicles.

Cloudsley-Thompson wrote in his autobiography (Sharpshooter): “I fired the 2 in bomb-thrower. The smoke bomb passed clean over the Tiger which very slightly traversed its gun. Wham! We were hit. A sheet of flame licked over the turret. ‘Bail out!’ I yelled and leapt clear. Then a machine gun fired at me. The Tiger rumbled past… then I heard my name called softly and looked round. There were my crew, hiding under a currant bush. Miraculously they were all safe.”

John Leonard Cloudsley-Thompson was educated at Marlborough and Pembroke College, Cambridge. His studies at the latter were interrupted by the outbreak of war and he volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment. After training at Sandhurst Cloudsley-Thompson was commissioned into the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars and immediately transferred to the 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats.

After service in Africa Cloudsley-Thompson was severely ill for some months but convinced the medics that he was fit to join his battalion for the D-Day offensive. He led his men on to the beaches of Normandy and within a week was confronting Wittmann’s Tiger.

In July 1944 Cloudsley-Thompson was involved in Operation Goodwood – which many military historians consider the largest tank battle that the British Army has ever fought. Cloudsley-Thompson was ordered to establish a foothold on a crucially important bridgehead.

In a ferocious battle that lasted three weeks the Allies eventually secured control of the area.

After being demobbed Cloudsley-Thompson completed his degree at Cambridge and in 1950 was appointed a lecturer in ­zoology at King’s College, London. His interest in the natural world had been much enhanced by his experience in the desert and his study of how creatures survived under such harsh conditions became a life-long passion.

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He grew to love north Africa and its people and felt at home confronting the rigours of the Sahara. In the Sixties he became an authority on desert wildlife when he was seconded to Khartoum University and was also keeper of the Sudan Natural History Museum.

He researched extensively into scorpions, centi­pedes, spiders and woodlice, and also studied crocodiles. After some foul weather a crocodile escaped to be found by police in the centre of the city. Much to his consternation they shot the crocodile.

Cloudsley-Thompson wrote widely about north Africa, its environment, animals and social conditions, writing more than 50 books, and grew to love Sudan, doing much to encourage students and colleagues in their studies. Cloudsley-Thompson and his wife also fostered and supported the Sudan Natural History Museum.

He collected many Sudanese artfefacts and took pride in displaying them in his home. In 1972 he returned to the UK and became Professor of Zoology at Birkbeck College, London (emeritus 1986) and was a regular guest lecturer at many places of learning.

At Birkbeck he was a much respected colleague, arriving in some style every morning in full leather on his motorbike.

Cloudsley-Thompson, who was invariably modest and a delight to know, retained his spirit of adventure and thirst for knowledge after he retired. His achievements as a soldier were heroic and as a pioneering researcher into desert wildlife he was an acknowledged world authority.

He was known by colleagues as “the desert naturalist” or “the Last Titan of the Sahara”. He was a natural adventurer-scientist who suffered the desert conditions with a child-like glee.

Amongst the many academic honours he received, Cloudsley-Thompson was particularly proud to have been awarded a special fellowship from the British Naturalists’ Association.

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The citation, to mark his 90th birthday, was “in recognition of his outstanding lifetime contribution to the understanding of natural history”.

He married Anne during the war. She predeceased him and he is survived by their three sons.