Captain Wilson defends Observation Hill

The British Somaliland Camel Corps was led by 14 British officers. Although only lightly armed they inflicted significant casualties on the invading Italians.

In British Somaliland a fighting retreat was being conducted in the face of the superior forces of the invading Italians, who had crossed the border on 3rd August.

The gap in the hills at Tug Argan provided a natural defensive position.

A stand was made at the Tug Argan Gap on 11th August where the 27 year old acting Captain Wilson deployed his Somaliland Camel Corps machine gun sections. He was wounded by artillery fire that killed some of those around him but continued to lead resistance from the position. He never received orders that were issued to withdraw on the 13th. He was finally knocked unconscious by an assault on the position on the 15th August. His citation reads:

The KING has been pleased to approve of the award of The Victoria Cross to: – Lieutenant (acting Captain) Eric Charles Twelves Wilson, The East Surrey Regiment (attached Somaliland Camel Corps).

For most conspicuous gallantry on active service in Somaliland. Captain Wilson was in command of machine-gun posts manned by Somali soldiers in the key position of Observation Hill, a defended post in the defensive organisation of the Tug Argan Gap in British Somaliland. The enemy attacked Observation Hill on August 11th, 1940. Captain Wilson and Somali gunners under his command beat off the attack and opened fire on the enemy troops attacking Mill Hill, another post within his range.

He inflicted such heavy casualties that the enemy, determined to put his guns out of action, brought up a pack battery to within seven hundred yards, and scored two direct hits through the loopholes of his defences, which, bursting within the post, wounded Captain Wilson severely in the right shoulder and in the left eye, several of his team also being wounded. His guns were blown off their stands but he repaired and replaced them and, regardless of his wounds, carried on, whilst his Somali sergeant was killed beside him.

On August 12th and 14th the enemy again concentrated field artillery fire on Captain Wilson’s guns, but he continued, with his wounds attended, to man them. On August 15th two of his machine-gun posts were blown to pieces, yet Captain Wilson, now suffering from malaria in addition to wounds, still kept his own post in action. The enemy finally over-ran the post at 5 p.m. on the 15th August when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed.

The London Gazette: 14 OCTOBER, 1940

Eric Wilson VC

In fact Captain Wilson had survived, coming round amidst a pile of bodies he emerged to be taken prisoner. The British authorities were not made aware of his survival until he was liberated from a POW camp in 1941 and he did not receive his Victoria Cross from the King at Buckingham Palace until 1942. The publicity surrounding the award of the ‘posthumous VC’ convinced many people that he was dead and he was subsequently accused of being an imposter on at least one occasion.

Wilson went on to serve with the Long Range Desert Group and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. He died in 2008, aged 96, following a career with the Colonial Service.

HMS Foylebank bombed in Portland Harbour

HMS Foyle Bank Anti Aircraft ship
The auxiliary AA ship HMS FOYLE BANK, a former grain carrier converted to an Anti-Aircraft ship, on which Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won the Victoria Cross

On the morning of the 4th July 1940 the auxiliary AA ship FOYLE BANK, anchored off the breakwater within Portland Harbour, was attacked by 33 Ju87 divebombers.

Naval Harbourmaster Edward Palmer was on duty in Portland harbour

I was proceeding down the inside harbour at about 08.30 in the morning, a lovely day, a normal day. I noticed the guard ship was flying the yellow flag, [Yellow flags were for aircraft reported, Red flags were for Air raid imminent] but did not take much notice, for she had been flying that on a number of days lately.

When out of the sun they came, enemy dive bombers. Diving straight down onto the guard ship, machine gunning and bombing. Hell let loose, about 20 planes, they appeared to have caught us napping. I immediately told my crew that we were going in to pick up the hands and ratings who were jumping and being blown into the water alongside of her. There was a barge with work people alongside of Foyle Bank, a bomb dropped alongside the barge turning it upside down.

We got in alongside started to pick up the survivors and dive bombers kept coming, machine gunning and bombing, lifting the launch almost out of the water. Well we loaded the hands on board until we could not carry any more and made for the nearest jetty. Some of the poor fellows were in a sad mess. We landed as quickly as we could and went back for more. By this time the enemy dive bombers had done what they had come to do, the Foyle Bank was on fire and sinking. She went down later in the day. The Lord looked after us that day.

Edward Sidney Palmer won the British Empire medal for his work that day. His full story is at Eddie Palmer.

Launches go to the rescue of survivors from the Foyle Bank as she is dive bombed and machine gunned in Portland harbour.

During the action Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won the Victoria Cross. His citation reads:

Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom‑pom when FOYLEBANK was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July, 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only; for the ship’s electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die; but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.

The London Gazette, Tuesday 3 September, 1940

See also BBC Peoples war for an account of the raising of HMS Foylebank.

HMS Foylebank was apparently hit by a total of 22 bombs. With one of the attackers shot down, she sank to the bottom with 176 men killed out of a total crew of 19 officers and 279 other ranks.

The BEF start to withdraw

Bomb craters on aerial picture of Arreux
The village of Arreux, with bomb craters beside the roads following an attack by Blenheims of 82 Squadron, 15th May in an attack on German road transport- illustrating the difficulty conventional bombers faced in dealing with such targets.

Meanwhile the situation was rapidly changing for the British Expeditionary Force. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders came into contact with the enemy for the first time and then found themselves withdrawing:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Wednesday 15th May.

About 9.30 a.m. the C.O. arrived with the message that “B” Company was going forward to Ottenburg to become Brigade Reserve. I went on with C.O., saw the new area, and the company marched up. Whilst visiting had lunch in the W. [?] mess. Ottenburg shelled steadily all day, but quite light stuff. Took Hughes up as runner. His and my first experience of shelling. Did not care much for the position. Kerr, on the right, was isolated, forward up the road, with Fleming behind him about 1/2 a mile and 10 Pl on the left. The previous Company had obviously left in a great hurry, not having time to collect all their kit. Company H.Q. was extremely comfortable and we looked forward to a good night. Did not keep any tpt [transport] forward except for the 8cwt. Continue reading “The BEF start to withdraw”

Death of a Danish hero – Anders Lassen VC

Corporal Aubrey of the SBS (Special Boat Service) sharpens his fighting knife as he prepares for combat.
Corporal Aubrey of the SBS (Special Boat Service) sharpens his fighting knife as he prepares for combat.

On the night of 8th – 9th April 1945 eighteen men from the Special Boat Service set out across Lake Comacchio to attack heavily defended German positions. The assault was led by a Danish national, 24 year old Major Anders Lassen, already a legend within the British Special Forces, three times decorated with the Military Cross for his exploits during raiding parties on enemy occupied ships and positions.

He was originally recruited by the Special Operations Executive after he arrived in Britain as a merchant seaman in 1940. They judged his independent character unsuitable for covert spying but well suited to raiding and patrolling. He began his career for the British with a raid on a Spanish ship in African waters – and then graduated to the Small Scale Raiding Force which made covert cross Channel raids on the Channel Islands and the French coast, before joining the new Special Boat Service in the Mediterranean in 1942.

A recent biography of Lassen has collected a number of recollections by men who served with him:

He had the character of a first rate soldier and reacted in a flash. I never saw Andy hesitate to open fire, and as such he could have been labeled a killing machine; but that was the only way to survive.

one of those people who are quite fearless and also, at times, quite ruthless, a potential berserker. A truly heroic figure in the Iliadic sense, the sheer force of his personality meant that uneducated Greeks could usually understand him, even though he spoke only a few words of their language. This struck me quite strongly during the hours I was with him. He was tall and blonde and intrepid-looking, but the Nazi occupation of Denmark had made him a bit unbalanced in certain respects.

Thus it was that while he and his sergeant were going through the small rooms of the German and Italian barrack-building outside Phira, a couple of nights before, Lassen had orders his companions to wake up the sleeping enemy soldiers before cutting their throats, so that they should know what was happening to them. The sergeant had refused. Nothing was said at the time, but when I met up with the party at the Perissa monastery Lassen was insisting on putting his sergeant on a charge for disobeying orders. The other officers had tried to dissuade him without much success.

He told me about the incident at some length, during our leisurely afternoon together; naturally I too advised him to calm down, that the sergeant had after all been completely right. Eventually he did calm down, or at least not press the charge, but it reminded one that war was a dirty business all right.

A very youthful looking person with a gentle voice; which gave a somewhat false impression of him! I still believe that he was one of the toughest and bravest men I have ever had the honour of knowing. Even in the SBS (the British Special Boat Service), which were handpicked, hardened men who hit the Germans hard with everything they had at each given opportunity, he succeeded in standing out. I can’t imagine any higher praise.

Read more of these accounts in Anders Lassen’s War, there are more stories and excerpts on the website of author Thomas Harder.

The night of 8th/9th April, fifth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Denmark, saw Lassen’s luck run out. He was killed after approaching a German machine gun nest that was apparently surrendering. Nevertheless his raiding force had achieved their objective, simulating a much larger attack and diverting German attention from the main attack that was to follow.

Anders Lassen, VC
Anders Lassen, VC

This is the citation for the Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to Lassen for the action on the 8/9th April 1945:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to: Major (temporary) Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau LASSEN, M.C. (234907), General List. In Italy, on the night of 8/9 April 1945, Major Lassen was ordered to take out a patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks to raid the north shore of Lake Comacchio. His tasks were to cause as many casualties and as much confusion as possible, to give the impression of a major landing, and to capture prisoners.

No previous reconnaissance was possible, and the party found itself on a narrow road flanked on both sides by water. Preceded by two scouts, Major Lassen led his men along the road towards the town. They were challenged after approximately 500 yards from a position on the side of the road. An attempt to allay suspicion by answering that they were fishermen returning home failed, for when moving forward again to overpower the sentry, machinegun fire started from the position, and also from two other blockhouses to the rear. Major Lassen himself then attacked with grenades, and annihilated the first position containing four Germans and two machineguns.

Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping fire road from three enemy positions, an additional one having come into action from 300 yards down the road, he raced forward to engage the second position under covering fire from the remainder of the force. Throwing in- more grenades he silenced this position which was then overrun by his patrol. Two enemy were killed, two captured and two more machine-guns silenced. By this time the force had suffered casualties and its firepower was very considerably reduced.

Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied and reorganised his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward himself he flung in more grenades which produced a cry of ” Kamerad “. He then went forward to within three or four yards of the position to order the enemy outside, and to take their surrender. Whilst shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of spandau fire from the left of the position and he fell mortally wounded, but even whilst falling he flung a grenade, wounding some of the occupants, and enabling his patrol to dash in and capture this final position.

Major Lassen refused to be evacuated as he said it would impede the withdrawal and endanger further lives, and as ammunition was nearly exhausted the force had to withdraw. By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Lassen had, in the face of overwhelming superiority, achieved his objects.

Three positions were wiped out, accounting for six machine guns, killing eight and wounding others of the enemy, and two prisoners were taken. The high sense of devotion to duty and the esteem in which he was held by the men he led, added to his own magnificent courage, enabled Major Lassen to carry out all the tasks he had been given with complete success.

'Fantails' or Buffalo amphibians transport German prisoners through a flooded landscape south of Lake Comacchio, 11 April 1945.
‘Fantails’ or Buffalo amphibians transport German prisoners through a flooded landscape south of Lake Comacchio, 11 April 1945.

Individual attacks make the difference on two fronts

Ram Kangaroo personnel carriers carrying troops of the 9th Durham Light Infantry near Weske, 31 March 1945.
Ram Kangaroo personnel carriers carrying troops of the 9th Durham Light Infantry near Weske, 31 March 1945.
Comet tanks of 11th Armoured Division advance towards Osnabruck, 2 - 3 April 1945.
Comet tanks of 11th Armoured Division advance towards Osnabruck, 2 – 3 April 1945.
A long column of German POWs captured on the outskirts of Munster, 2 April 1945.
A long column of German POWs captured on the outskirts of Munster, 2 April 1945.
A Cromwell tank crew of 11th Armoured Division prepare a quick meal during the advance towards Osnabruck, 2 - 3 April 1945.
A Cromwell tank crew of 11th Armoured Division prepare a quick meal during the advance towards Osnabruck, 2 – 3 April 1945.

The push into Germany was now gathering pace, with the defences encountered being very unpredictable. The situation in Italy was very similar. Two British soldiers were to make courageous attacks of a very similar nature, fate dealt very different outcomes to the two individuals .

Corporal Edward Chapman VC
Corporal Edward Chapman VC

On 2nd April 1945, a Company of the Monmouthshire Regiment crossed the Dortmund- Ems canal and was ordered to assault the ridge of the Teutoberger Wald, which dominates the surrounding country. This ridge is steep thickly wooded and is ideal defensive country. It was, moreover, defended by a battalion of German officer cadets and their instructors, all of them picked men and fanatical Nazis.

Corporal Chapman was advancing with his section in single file along a narrow track when the enemy suddenly opened fire with machine guns at short range, inflicting heavy casualties and causing some confusion. Corporal Chapman immediately ordered his section to take cover and, seizing the Bren gun, he advanced alone, firing the gun from his hip, and mowed down the enemy at point blank range, forcing them to retire in disorder. At this point, however, his Company was ordered to withdraw but Corporal Chapman and his section were still left in their advanced position, as the order could not be got forward to them.

The enemy then began to close up to Corporal Chapman and his isolated section and, under cover of intense machine gun fire, they made determined charges with the bayonet. Corporal Chapman again rose with his Bren gun to meet the assaults and on each occasion halted their advance. He had now nearly run out of ammunition. Shouting to his section for more bandoliers, he dropped into a fold in the ground and covered those bringing up the ammunition by lying on his back and firing the Bren gun over his shoulder.

A party of Germans made every effort to eliminate him with grenades, but with reloaded magazine he closed with them and once again drove the enemy back with considerable casualties. During the withdrawal of his Company, the Company Commander had been severely wounded and left lying in the open a short distance from Corporal Chapman.

Satisfied that his section was now secure, at any rate for the moment, he went out alone under withering fire and carried his Company Commander for 50 yards to comparative safety. On the way a sniper hit the officer again, wounding Corporal Chapman in the hip and, when he reached our lines, it was discovered that the officer had been killed. In spite of his wound, Corporal Chapman refused to be evacuated and went back to his Company until the position was fully restored two hours later.

Throughout the action Corporal Chapman displayed outstanding gallantry and superb courage. Single-handed he repulsed the attacks of well-led, determined troops and gave his battalion time to reorganise on a vital piece of ground overlooking the only bridge across the canal. His magnificent bravery played a very large part in the capture of this vital ridge and in the successful development of subsequent operations.

Marine Corporal Thomas Hunter V.C,
Marine Corporal Thomas Hunter V.C,

The late Corporal (Temporary) Thomas Peck HUNTER, CH/X. 110296, Royal Marines (attached Special Service Troops) (43rd Royal Marine Commando) (Edinburgh).

In Italy during the advance by the Commando to its final objective, Corporal Hunter of “C” Troop was in charge of a Bren group of the leading sub-section of the Commando. Having advanced to within 400 yards of the canal, he observed the enemy were holding a group of houses South of the canal.

Realising that his Troop behind him were in the open, as the country there was completely devoid of cover, and that the enemy would cause heavy casualties as soon as they opened fire, Corporal Hunter seized the Bren gun and charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground. Three Spandaus from the houses, and at least six from the North bank of the canal opened fire and at the same time the enemy mortars started to fire at the Troop.

Corporal Hunter attracted most of the fire, and so determined was his charge and his firing from the hip that the enemy in the houses became demoralised. Showing complete disregard for the intense enemy fire, he ran through the houses, changing magazines as he ran, and alone cleared the houses. Six Germans surrendered to him and the remainder fled across a footbridge onto the North bank of the canal.

The Troop dashing up behind Corporal Hunter now became the target for all the Spandaus on the North of the canal. Again, offering himself as a target, he lay in full view of the enemy on a heap of rubble and fired at the concrete pillboxes on the other side. He again drew most of the fire, but by now the greater part of the Troop had made for the safety of the houses. During this period he shouted encouragement to the remainder, and called only for more Bren magazines with which he could engage the Spandaus. Firing with great accuracy up to the last, Corporal Hunter was finally hit in the head by a burst of Spandau fire and killed instantly.

There can be no doubt that Corporal Hunter offered himself as a target in order to save his Troop, and only the speed of his movement prevented him being hit earlier. The skill and accuracy with which he used his Bren gun is proved by the way he demoralised the enemy, and later did definitely silence many of the Spandaus firing on his Troop as they crossed open ground, so much so that under his covering fire elements of the Troop made their final objective before he was killed.

Throughout the operation his magnificent courage, leadership and cheerfulness had been an inspiration to his comrades.

Commando signallers prepare to release a carrier pigeon, Lake Comacchio area, 4 April 1945.
Commando signallers prepare to release a carrier pigeon, Lake Comacchio area, 4 April 1945.
A British Bren gun crew keep watch in a trench at Anzio.
A British Bren gun crew keep watch in a trench at Anzio.

Sgt Aubrey Cosens shatters the Germans at Moosdorf

The devastated town of Kleve, Germany, photographed from an Auster AOP aircraft, after capture. The wrecked railway station and yards lie in the foreground. The fortified town was heavily bombed by 285 Avro Lancasters of No. 1 Group, led by 10 De Havilland Mosquitos of No.8 Group on the night of 7/8 February 1945, and captured the following day by troops of the Canadian 1st Army.
The devastated town of Kleve, Germany, photographed from an Auster AOP aircraft, after capture. The wrecked railway station and yards lie in the foreground. The fortified town was heavily bombed by 285 Avro Lancasters of No. 1 Group, led by 10 De Havilland Mosquitos of No.8 Group on the night of 7/8 February 1945, and captured the following day by troops of the Canadian 1st Army.
A Canadian soldier escorts captured German parachute troops during fighting near Uedem, 28 February 1945.
A Canadian soldier escorts captured German parachute troops during fighting near Uedem, 28 February 1945.

In north west Germany the attack that had begun with Operation Veritable shifted focus to the Canadians with Operation Blockbuster.

On the 25th February 1945 the Queens Own Rifles of Canada prepared to assault the hamlet of Moosdorf, Germany. They faced German parachute troops who had spent time preparing the isolated villages and hamlets into substantial defensive positions. By this time the Queens Own Rifles were battle hardened veterans, after landing on D-Day in June 1944 they had suffered 76% casualties in Normandy alone. On this day the 115 men of D Company would be reduced to 36 men by the end of the action.

Aubrey Cosens VC
Aubrey Cosens VC

With the officer commanding his platoon wounded, Sergeant Aubrey Cosens took over the attack. The original recommendation for the Victoria Cross tells the story better than the shortened version that was adopted for the citation:

On the night of February 25/26, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada launched an attack to secure ground, the possession of which was essential for the large-scale operations in the immediate future. The first phase of the attack was made by “D” Company with two platoons up. Sergeant Aubrey Cosens was sergeant of Number 16 Platoon which had, under command, two tanks of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment, with orders to capture the hamlet of Mooshof.

The platoon was to cross its start line, which was about half a mile from the objective, at 0430 hours. Before reaching the start line, it came under heavy enemy shell fire, but the attack went in on time and was pressed home through the darkness in the face of intense artillery, mortar and small arms fire.

On reaching Mooshof the enemy was found to have prepared positions throughout the area and to have strongpoints in three farm buildings. The platoon attacked these building twice but, on each occasion, was beaten back by fanatical enemy resistance.

The enemy then counter-attacked in strength. In the darkness, and aided by their knowledge of the ground, the Germans succeeded in infiltrating into the positions which Number 16 platoon had hastily taken up. In bitter and confused fighting, this counter-attack was beaten off but not until the platoon had suffered heavy casualties, including the platoon commander.

Sergeant Cosens at once assumed command of the platoon. To a lesser spirit, the situation would have seemed hopeless as the enemy was obviously present in force, and he was able to find only four survivors of his platoon. In addition, one of his two tanks had been separated from the infantry during the fighting, and the area was being swept from all sides by intense enemy fire.

Not daunted, and determined to carry on with the attack notwithstanding the odds, Sergeant Cosens organized his four men in a covering fire position and himself ran across twenty-five yards of open, flat, bullet-swept ground to his one available tank. Here, with magnificent contempt for the very great danger, he took up an exposed position on the tank, sitting in front of the turret and, with great daring, calmly directed the fire of the tank against enemy positions which had been pinpointed in the previous fighting or which disclosed themselves by their fire.

Once again, the enemy counter-attacked savagely in force. Remaining on the tank and completely disregarding the enemy’s superiority in numbers and the withering fire Sergeant Aubrey Cosens led and inspired the defence. He plunged the tank, in the blackness, into the middle of the attackers. His bold tactics resulted in the complete disorganisation of the enemy force, which broke and fled after sustaining many casualties.

Turning promptly and with great courage to the offensive, and notwithstanding the sustained enemy fire from all direction and the obvious risks in the darkness from concealed enemy posts and from snipers, Sergeant Cosens determined to clear the three buildings. To do so, he ordered his four men to follow the tank on which he was riding. He ordered the tank to ram the first building, a one-storey farmhouse and, when it had done so, aided by thee covering fire of his men, he entered the building entirely alone, killed several of the defenders, and took the rest prisoner.

Sergeant Cosens then pressed relentlessly on and directed the tank, under continuous heavy fire, towards the second building. En route, he saw in the flash of shell fire, the body of one of his comrades who had been killed in one of the first abortive attacks, on this position, lying in the path of the tank. Calmly he halted the tank and removed the body. Continuing, he had the tank fire into this building and then he entered it alone to find that the occupants had fled.

With splendid persistence, he then advanced to the third building, which was a two storey farmhouse and strongly held by the enemy. Under cover from the tank and from his little band of four men. He again made a one-man entry into this building and personally killed or captured its occupants.

The hard core of the German resistance in the immediate area was thus broken. Sergeant Cosens promptly gave his small force orders for the consolidation of the position and started off to report to his company commander. He had not travelled more than twenty feet when he was shot through the head by an enemy sniper. He died almost instantly. The German force in the Moosdorf area had by this time become so compietelv shattered and dispirited, however, that there was no further counter-attack against this position.

The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada was able to pass through to its next objective and the other attacks were able to proceed according to plan.

Throughout this action Sergeant Aubrey Cosens displayed unsurpassed leadership, initiative and devotion to duty. He was faced by an enemy force which was numerically, and in firepower, far superior to his own and was composed of resolute men who had every possible advantage of ground cover. Never for a moment, however, did he hesitate and he fought his tiny force under the most difficult conditions with the utmost skill and determination absolutely refusing to consider the possibility of defeat.

In the actual fighting, his personal gallantry was of the highest order. He was always to the forefront of the battle and in the course of the operation, he personally killed at least twenty of the enemy and took an equal number of prisoners.

Sergeant Aubrey Cosens’ heroism and his brilliant conduct of this successful action have been an inspiration to his regiment and will remain for all time a glorious example to the Canadian Army.

A Churchill tank and a Valentine Mk XI Royal Artillery OP tank (left) in Goch, 21 February 1945.
A Churchill tank and a Valentine Mk XI Royal Artillery OP tank (left) in Goch, 21 February 1945.
An Archer 17-pdr self-propelled gun being ferried on a raft across flooded countryside near Kranenburg in Germany, 23 February 1945.
An Archer 17-pdr self-propelled gun being ferried on a raft across flooded countryside near Kranenburg in Germany, 23 February 1945.

Burma – the Fourteenth Army get across the Irrawaddy

Troops crossing the Irrawaddy River at Katha by boat, January 1945.
Troops crossing the Irrawaddy River at Katha by boat, January 1945.
A lorry of 36th Infantry Division enters the town of Tigyiang during the advance down the Irrawaddy Valley towards Mandalay, 22 December 1944.
A lorry of 36th Infantry Division enters the town of Tigyiang during the advance down the Irrawaddy Valley towards Mandalay, 22 December 1944.

In Burma the tables had turned. After the desperate battles at Kohima and Imphal to prevent the Japanese mounting an invasion of India, the Japanese had pulled back into Burma. The British Fourteenth Army was now advancing south through Burma. There were tremendous transportation problems, and in many areas they were forced to build their own roads. To add to the difficulties the bulk of their air transport was suddenly and unexpectedly transferred to the Chinese front, to shore up positions there. However the largest natural obstacle was the great Irrawaddy River. There was virtually no specialised transport available and the Engineers had to build a range of relatively crude rafts in short order.

On the 14th January the Indian 19th Division had begun crossing at one of the river’s narrower points, where it was only some 500 yards across in the low season of January. General Sir William Slim describes the importance of securing the bridgehead on the other side:

A third battalion crossed on the night of the 16th/17th and, for the first time, on the 17th, the enemy, realizing that a serious attempt at crossing was in progress, collected his rather scattered troops and attacked heavily. This he continued at intervals throughout the day, but all these attacks were beaten off.

By the 19th, the whole of 64 Brigade was in the Kyaukmyaung bridgehead, and was steadily expanding it against increasing opposition. On the night of the 20th/21st, after heavy artillery preparation, the Japanese put in several determined attacks, which were again repulsed with heavy loss after hand-to-hand fighting.

In spite of mounting resistance and growing casualties, the brigade pressed outwards and seized a ridge of scrub-covered rock, eight hundred feet high, parallel to the river, three miles inland, and a bare peak rising abruptly from the river bank, two and a half miles south of the original crossing. These successes deprived the Japanese of direct observation over the bridgehead, blinded their artillery and thus, in fact, ensured its retention.

Farther north, the bridgehead at Thabeikkyin had been reinforced just in time to throw back a series of savage counter-attacks. The Japanese, confused by numerous feints and patrol crossings elsewhere, had not been quick to decide which were the real crossings, and even then the took some time to concentrate against them.

Every hour of this delay was invaluable to the sweating 19th Division, ceaselessly ferrying men and supplies across the river on almost anything that would float.

See William Slim: Defeat Into Victory

The men in the vanguard could have little doubt about the importance of their role. One man was to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his ‘selfless devotion to duty’ in fighting off the Japanese counter-attacks:

In Burma, on the night of 19th / 20th January 1945, Lance Naik Sher Shah commanded the left forward section of his platoon. At 19:30 hours a Japanese platoon attacked his post. Realizing that overwhelming numbers would probably destroy his section, he, by himself, stalked the enemy from their rear and broke up their attack by firing into their midst. He killed the platoon commander and six other Japanese and, after their withdrawal, crawled back to his section post.

At 00:15 hours the Japanese, who were now reinforced with a company, started to form up for another attack. Sher Shah heard their officers giving orders and bayonets being fixed prior to the assault. Again he left his section post and, in spite of Japanese covering from small arms and mortars, crawled forward and saw Japanese officers and men grouped together. He fired into this group and they again broke up and started to withdraw in disorder.

Whilst on his way back for the second time he was hit by a mortar bomb, which shattered his right leg. He regained his position and propping himself against the side of the trench, continued firing and encouraging his men. When asked whether he was hurt, he replied that it was only slight. Some time afterwards it was discovered his right leg was missing.

The Japanese again started forming up for another attack. In spite of his severe wounds and considerable loss of blood, and very heavy Japanese supporting fire, Lance Naik Sher Shah again left his section post and crawled forward, firing into their midst at point blank range. He continued firing until for the third time the Japanese attack was broken up and until he was shot through the head, from which he subsequently died. Twenty-three dead and four wounded Japanese, including an officer, were found in daylight immediately in front of his position.

His initiative and indomitable courage throughout this very critical situation undoubtedly averted the over-running of his platoon, and was the deciding factor in defeating the Japanese attacks. His supreme self-sacrifice, disregard of danger and selfless devotion to duty, were an inspiration to all his comrades throughout the Battalion.

Sher Shah was born on 14 February 1917 in Chakrala Village, near Mianwali, North Punjab, India ( now North West Frontier, Pakistan ). Sher Shah’s Battalion 7/16 Punjab Regiment, affectionately known as “Saat Solah Punjab” is now a part of the Pakistan Army, proudly known as the “Sher Shah Battalion”.

Indian troops coax mules into the water for the 500 yard swim across the Irrawaddy River, January 1945.
Indian troops coax mules into the water for the 500 yard swim across the Irrawaddy River, January 1945.
Gurkhas hold onto their mules as they swim across the Irrawaddy River in Burma during the advance towards Mandalay, January 1945.
Gurkhas hold onto their mules as they swim across the Irrawaddy River in Burma during the advance towards Mandalay, January 1945.

Youngest Victoria Cross in the war is posthumous

5.5-inch howitzers of 236 Battery, 59th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, firing at dawn, before 12 Corps' attack in the Sittard area of Holland, 16 January 1945.
5.5-inch howitzers of 236 Battery, 59th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, firing at dawn, before 12 Corps’ attack in the Sittard area of Holland, 16 January 1945.
Infantry of 6th Cameronians, 52nd (Lowland) Division, passing Sherman tanks near Havert in Germany, 18 January 1945.
Infantry of 6th Cameronians, 52nd (Lowland) Division, passing Sherman tanks near Havert in Germany, 18 January 1945.
Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers pass between a Sherman and a Churchill tank during 52nd (Lowland) Division's attack towards Stein from Tuddern, 18 January 1945
Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers pass between a Sherman and a Churchill tank during 52nd (Lowland) Division’s attack towards Stein from Tuddern, 18 January 1945

While the US Army were fighting against determined German resistance in the ‘Saar Triangle’, further north the British were encountering similar difficulties in the Roer Triangle, on the border of Holland and Germany, between the Maas and the Roer rivers. Operation Blackcock had been launched on the 14th and also sought to breach the Siegfried Line and push into Germany.

Nineteen year old Dennis Donnini was from Easington Colliery, County Durham, the son of an Italian immigrant father, Alfredo Donnini, and English mother, Catherine Brown. He had two older brothers, Alfred had been captured at Dunkirk in 1940 and was a prisoner of war, and Louis had been killed in May 1944. His two sisters served in the ATS in Britain. There was little doubting the family’s loyalty to the Crown, yet his father Alfredo had been interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ because he had been born in Italy, even though he had lived in Britain for over 40 years.

Dennis Donnini
Dennis Donnini

At just 4ft 10ins tall Dennis Donnini would only just have made it into the British Army. He seems to have been full of determination, he told his mother when he left home for the last time “When I get there, I’ll finish the war”:

In North-West Europe, on 18th January 1945, a Battalion of The Royal Scots Fusiliers supported by tanks was the leading Battalion in the assault of the German positions between the rivers Roer and Maas. This consisted of a broad belt of minefields and wire on the other side of a stream.

As the result of a thaw the armour was unable to cross the stream and the infantry had to continue the assault without the support of the tanks. Fusilier Donnini’s platoon was ordered to attack a small village.

As they left their trenches the platoon came under concentrated machine gun and rifle fire from the houses and Fusilier Donnini was hit by a bullet in the head. After a few minutes he recovered consciousness, charged down thirty yards of open road and threw a grenade into the nearest window.

The enemy fled through the gardens of four houses, closely pursued by Fusilier Donnini and the survivors of his platoon. Under heavy fire at seventy yards range Fusilier Donnini and two companions crossed an open space and reached the cover of a wooden barn, thirty yards from the enemy trenches.

Fusilier Donnini, still bleeding profusely from his wound, went into the open under intense close range fire and carried one of his companions, who had been wounded, into the barn. Taking a Bren gun he again went into the open, firing as he went.

He was wounded a second time but recovered and went on firing until a third bullet hit a grenade which he was carrying and killed him.

The superb gallantry and self-sacrifice of Fusilier Donnini drew the enemy fire away from his companions on to himself. As the result of this, the platoon were able to capture the position, accounting for thirty Germans and two machine guns.

Throughout this action, fought from beginning to end at point blank range, the dash, determination and magnificent courage of Fusilier Donnini enabled his comrades to overcome an enemy more than twice their own number.

Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers interrogate German prisoners during 52nd (Lowland) Division's attack towards Stein from Tuddern, Germany, 18 January 1945
Men of 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers interrogate German prisoners during 52nd (Lowland) Division’s attack towards Stein from Tuddern, Germany, 18 January 1945
Men of 7th Armoured Division stand over the corpse of one of the defenders of Schilberg, 19 January 1945.
Men of 7th Armoured Division stand over the corpse of one of the defenders of Schilberg, 19 January 1945.

One man versus three machine guns

Churchill tanks and infantry advance during the attack by 3rd Division on an enemy pocket near Overloon, 14 October 1944.
Churchill tanks and infantry advance during the attack by 3rd Division on an enemy pocket near Overloon, 14 October 1944.
A 5.5-inch gun of 77th (Duke of Lancashire's Own Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery being manhandled into position to fire in support of 3rd Division advancing on Venray, 16 October 1944.
A 5.5-inch gun of 77th (Duke of Lancashire’s Own Yeomanry) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery being manhandled into position to fire in support of 3rd Division advancing on Venray, 16 October 1944.

Operation Market Garden had opened up a salient in the German lines in Holland. The Germans had fought hard to retrieve their position and had established a bridgehead on the west bank of the River Maas. Now the Allies attacked again in a bitter confrontation that saw heavy casualties.

The Battle of Overloon saw the US 7th Armoured Division beaten off, before the British 11th Armoured and 3rd Infantry Divisions took over and eventually succeeded. It was by far the largest tank battle fought on Dutch soil and at the time was compared to the struggle for Caen, fought in Normandy earlier. Today it is much less well remembered.

Private (acting Sergeant) George Eardley VC, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry
Private (acting Sergeant) George Eardley VC, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry

Many Victoria Cross citations are concerned with lone attacks on machine gun nests, all too often awarded posthumously. Private George Eardley must be regarded as very lucky, as well as incredibly brave, for his actions:

No. 6092111 Private (acting Sergeant) George Harold Eardley, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (Congleton, Cheshire).

In North-West Europe, on 16th October, 1944, during an attack on the wooded area East of Overloon, strong opposition was met from well sited defensive positions in orchards. The enemy were paratroops and well equipped with machine guns.

A Platoon of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry was ordered to clear these orchards and so restore the momentum of the advance, but was halted some 80 yards from its objective by automatic fire from enemy machine gun posts. This fire was so heavy that it appeared impossible for any man to expose himself and remain unscathed.

Notwithstanding this, Sergeant Eardley, who had spotted one machine gun post, moved forward, firing his Sten gun, and killed the occupants of the post with a grenade. A second machine gun post beyond the first immediately opened up, spraying the area with fire. Sergeant Eardley, who was in a most exposed position, at once charged over 30 yards of open ground and silenced both the enemy gunners.

The attack was continued by the Platoon but was again held up by a third machine gun post, and a section sent in to dispose of it, was beaten back, losing four casualties. Sergeant Eardley, ordering the section he was with to lie down, then crawled forward alone and silenced the occupants of the post with a grenade.

The destruction of these three machine gun posts singlehanded by Sergeant Eardley, carried out under fire so heavy that it daunted those who were with him, enabled his Platoon to achieve its objective, and in so doing, ensured the success of the whole attack.

His outstanding initiative and magnificent bravery were the admiration of all who saw his gallant actions.

Privates V Studd and J Rowlandson of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment eat apples in their slit trench during the fighting for the town of Venray, 16 October 1944.
Privates V Studd and J Rowlandson of the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment eat apples in their slit trench during the fighting for the town of Venray, 16 October 1944.
Men of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry march back from the front line for a four day rest , Sint-Jozefparochien of Duerne, Holland, 26 October 1944.
Men of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry march back from the front line for a four day rest , Sint-Jozefparochien of Duerne, Holland, 26 October 1944.

Italy – another hill top attack in mud and rain

A 25pdr of 83/85 Battery, 11th Field Regiment in a waterlogged position near Scorticate, 3-8 October 1944.
A 25pdr of 83/85 Battery, 11th Field Regiment in a waterlogged position near Scorticate, 3-8 October 1944.
Pantelleria and Lampedusa May - June 1943: Men of 1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington's Regiment, advance past a burning fuel store on Pantelleria. Left to right: Lance Sergeant A Haywood, Private C Norman and Private H Maw.
Pantelleria and Lampedusa May – June 1943: Men of 1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, advance past a burning fuel store on Pantelleria. Left to right: Lance Sergeant A Haywood, Private C Norman and Private H Maw.

The weather was deteriorating in Italy and the Allies were struggling to break through the Gothic Line. Despite the withdrawal of troops to southern France the Germans did not notice that the Allied attacks were particularly weakened. In his memoirs the German commander Albert Kesselring played grudging tribute to the assault on his line at this time. Right through to the end of October he was to have some anxious moments as the Allies nearly found their breakthrough:

The fierceness of the battles and the large commitment of men and material revealed the importance of the Italian theatre to the Allies, which had not declined with the invasion of the south of France. While the forces expended on it were replaced by foreign divisions (Brazilian, Italian), the close-support activity of the air force after a temporary slackening had been very quickly stepped up again to its former intensity, though their naval forces lay curiously doggo. Meanwhile guerilla warfare grew sharper with the expansion of the Partisan organisation.

Allied strategy showed a remarkable improvement. True they had not been able to carry out their original far-flung plans, having conspicuously neglected to exploit the help of the navy and the air force to out-flank or overhaul our troops in the peninsula. Tanks were still regularly employed on a narrow front. But – operations were in themselves more compact, each army’s assignment was adjusted to its means, and attacks were delivered at points of main effort in noteworthy breadth and depth.

The old Mediterranean divisions had further perfected their fighting efficiency and tactics. The support of the infantry by artillery and tanks was now supplemented by air reconnaissance, air artillery spotting and close support from the air with a degree of co-ordination by now classical. Technical expedients had reached a high stage of development and were used with great skill.

On the other hand the initiative of smaller unit commanders showed no particular improvement, nor was this compensated by the excellent signals network allowing wireless communication through multifarious types of instruments – which was more of a hindrance than a help.

It was also to our advantage that the enemy continued to respect the customary right of units to be relieved after a certain period in the line, regardless of the local situation. Their troops were, indeed, badly in need of rest, as their replacements were of acclimatisation and training. On the other hand, it was increasingly important for them to curtail the rest periods of the German troops, to harass their recuperation and to prevent them accumulating any large stores of ammunition and fuel.

See The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Kesselring

On this day their was yet another outstanding example of what this meant on the ground:

Private Richard Henry Burton VC
Private Richard Henry Burton VC

In Italy on 8th October, 1944, two Companies of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment moved forward to take a strongly held feature 760 metres high. The capture of this feature was vital at this stage of the operation as it dominated all the ground on the main axis of advance.

The assaulting troops made good progress to within twenty yards of the crest when they came under withering fire from Spandaus on the crest. The leading platoon was held up and the Platoon Commander was wounded. The Company Commander took another platoon, of which Private Burton was runner, through to assault the crest from which four Spandaus at least were firing.

Private Burton rushed forward and engaging the first Spandau position with his Tommy gun killed the crew of three. When the assault was again held up by murderous fire from two more machine guns Private Burton, again showing complete disregard for his own safety, dashed forward toward the first machine gun using his Tommy gun until his ammunition was exhausted. He then picked up a Bren gun and firing from the hip succeeded in killing or wounding the crews of the two machine guns.

Thanks to his outstanding courage the Company was then able to consolidate on the forward slope of the feature. The enemy immediately counter-attacked fiercely but Private Burton, in spite of most of his comrades being either dead or wounded, once again dashed forward on his own initiative and directed such accurate fire with his Bren gun on the enemy that they retired leaving the feature firmly in our hands.

The enemy later counter-attacked again on the adjoining platoon position and Private Burton, who had placed himself on the flank, brought such accurate fire to bear that this counter-attack also failed to dislodge the Company from its position.

Private Burton’s magnificent gallantry and total disregard of his own safety during many hours of fierce fighting in mud and continuous rain were an inspiration to all his comrades.

After disembarking from landing craft, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment take cover on the beach at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942. Live machine-gun and mortar fire was used during this exercise.
After disembarking from landing craft, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment take cover on the beach at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942. Live machine-gun and mortar fire was used during this exercise.
As a charge explodes nearby, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment scramble up cliffs during a live-firing exercise at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942.
As a charge explodes nearby, troops of 1st Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment scramble up cliffs during a live-firing exercise at Cromer in Norfolk, 21 April 1942.