8th Rifle Brigade - Normandy to the Baltic - June 1944 - May 1945
Some biographical information, photos and documents on members of the 8th Rifle Brigade.
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Lance Corporal Arthur William (‘Bob’) Austin (6969792) – G Company, 9 Platoon
5 December 1919 – 1997
Bob Austin joined the Territorial Army and the 2nd London Rifle Brigade (later to become the 8th Rifle Brigade) shortly before the war, on 11 April 1939. He was released to Royal Army Reserve in April 1946 but remained in the Territorial Army until 5 April 1951. Next to the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal, he also was awarded the Efficiency Medal.
Lance Corporal Austin embarked for Normandy on 9 June 1944 and landed there four days later, on the 13th. From then on little is known about his service in Normandy. Like the rest of G Company, and indeed the Batallion, he must have seen serious action in operations Epsom, Goodwood and Bluecoat. After having survived these major operations, he sadly got badly wounded on 14 August 1944, in the area of Vassy. As related by his son: ‘He was crawling when hit in the stomach by a sniper’s bullet. The wound was nearly fatal and he had to undergo major surgery in UK, spending the rest of the war in hospital and convalescing. However, he fully recovered and after the war resumed his previous job at Pearl Assurance company where he also played in the first XI football team. It is when working there that he met my mother whom he later married and with whom he had 4 children. He worked at the Pearl until his retirement and died in 1997, age 77.’
Top: photo believed to have been made in 1939 or 1940, while in 2nd Battalion The London Rifle Brigade.
Bottom: Bob Austin photographed in May 1944, with G Company.
Rifleman Stanley (or ‘Stan’) Ayres – E Company, 21 Platoon
2 December 1921 – April 2010
Stanley Ayres was born on 2 December 1921 in Hackney, London. On leaving school at the age of 14 he started a career in engineering, culminating after the war in him becoming a highly skilled toolmaker, until his retirement in 1988. As tensions in Europe were rising, in 1939, aged 16, he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in Hackney as a volunteer engaged in duties at evenings and weekends. On the outbreak of war he was called up to serve full time as a fireman and during the Blitz was fighting fires as the raids went on.
In late 1940 ‘Stan’ was called up to join the army and then posted to the 8th The Rifle Brigade. There followed 3 years of training and moving around the U.K. until 1944 when the battalion moved to Aldershot. On 23 April 1944 Stanley married Margaret Stagg, who he had met whilst being a fireman.
When the battalion sailed for France from Tillbury Rifleman Ayres, who then was a dispatch rider for 21 platoon, was not with them. For reasons unclear he and some other dispatch riders were sent to Gosport, where they crossed to Normandy on an American Landing Ship Tank, with pancakes and maple syrup to eat. He was later seasick! This LST delivered them to the beach at Courseulles sur Mer, in the evening in the middle of an air raid. There they joined the rest of the battalion. His role as a dispatch rider ended when his motorbike was destroyed by German shelling as they climbed ‘Hill 112’, with him and his comrades luckily sheltering in a ditch by a hedge. After this he was on a carrier armed with a Vickers machine gun, still in 21 platoon.
Stanley Ayres served until the end of the war in this role. He then remained with the battalion at Schleswig-Holstein until it was disbanded and he was moved to another battalion of the Rifle Brigade. He was finally demobbed in early 1947, when was able to return to his wife and to his career in engineering. In 1956 they moved from Hackney to Billericay, Essex, with their two young sons, later to be joined by a third. There he lived until he passed away aged 88 in April 2010.
Stanley was always proud to have served with the 8th Rifle Brigade. He was a member of the Rifle Brigade Association from the outset and enjoyed attending the reunions and meeting old comrades. Sometime during the campaign, when entering a field his carrier took a slightly different turn than that of his Platoon commander. The Platoon commander – Lt. Fyffe – ran over an anti-tank mine and got killed. Rifleman Ayres remained unharmed and survived the war. As he told his sons: “Whether one lived or died was a matter of random chance.”
Rifleman Thomas Joseph Barnes (6921749) & Corporal William Birleson (6898762) – H Company, 13 Platoon
Rfn. T.J. Barnes – KIA 23 September 1944 (age 23)
Cpl. W. Birleson – KIA 23 September 1944 (age 26)
In the late afternoon of 23 September 1944, Rifleman Tom Barnes (also known as ‘Binnie’ Barnes, after an actress at the time) and Corporal Bill Birleson, were part of a patrol consisting of two carriers, sent down to try the defenses of the Dutch village of Vlierden. Approaching the village from the south, they went over a slight crest, when their carrier was fired on by a German 75 mm anti-tank gun. The first shot missed but the second one caught them. Bill Birleson and Tom Barnes were killed and their driver – Rifleman Dearing – was badly wounded. Both were initially buried near the spot where they were killed, indicated by the circle on the map to the right. Today they lie buried side by side in the cemetery of Nederweert, together with Corporal Clarke and Sergeant Hone of 15 Platoon, who were killed during H Company’s attack on Vlierden the following day.
Sergeant John Richard Carr, Croix de Guerre (6970340) – G Company, 10 Platoon
9 May 1911 – 24 October 1982
Together with most members his platoon – 10 Platoon, G Company – Sergeant John Carr landed in Normandy on 13 June 1944. When on 28 June, during Operation Epsom, his platoon commander Lt. Michael Lane got killed, Sgt. Carr ‘immediately took command of the platoon and commanded it with outstanding skill and courage throughout the operations for the capture of Hill 112. On 5th August Serjeant Carr was commanding his platoon during the enemy counter attack at Le Bas Perrier. Throughout this operation Serjeant Carr showed great courage and initiative and was a splendid example to all ranks.’ All in all Sergeant Carr commanded the platoon untill 31 August 1944. For his actions he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star.
Sergeant John Carr was evacuated and returned to England after being wounded in action in Germany, on 5 April 1945. John Carr died in 1982, at the age of 71. He is remembered by a relative as ‘an articulate, gentle person and a gentleman. Hard to imagine him at war.’
Left: John Carr’s Croix de Guerre, held at Musee la Percee de Bocage (Saint Martin des Besaces).
Major David Foster (Foster) Cunliffe MC TD (137063) – OC F Company
1918 – 1992
Foster Cunliffe was born in Derbyshire in 1918 and educated at Westminster School. In 1938, when the drums of war began beating, he joined the ranks of the 2nd Battalion, The London Rifle Brigade, later re-titled the 8th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade. Early military training in England was followed by the officer battle school in Scotland. After being commissioned in 1940, the next few years were spent in training and in expecting to deploy to North Africa or Sicily. In the event, one week after D-Day, the battalion found itself in Normandy.
Major Cunliffe’s F Company took a peripheral role in Operation Epsom and the attacks on Hill 112 but played a very full part in Operation Goodwood around the city of Caen, particularly in the assaults on the towns of Bras and Hubert-Folie, where many SS soldiers were killed and some 400 prisoners were taken, along with much vital equipment. Foster Cunliffe was awarded an immediate MC following this action, for his ‘determination, coolness and personal leadership… throughout both days fighting’.
Apart from a short period in October 1944, after being wounded by shrapnel, Major Cunliffe remained in command of F company as it advanced through France, the Low Countries, in the Ardennes and eventually through Germany. They were the ones to liberate the town of Flers in France and he returned there many times after the war and maintained close links with the people there. After the German surrender on the 4th of May, the Battalion moved to the Baltic Sea, at Travemunde in Schleswig-Holstein, to deter any further Russian advances.
Foster Cunliffe remained in Schleswig until being demobilized, in 1946. After the war he worked for the Bank of England and joined the Territorial Army, becoming the Commanding Officer of the 16th (Welsh) Battalion, The Parachute Regiment from 1952 to 1953, in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was awarded the Territorial Decoration (TD). He later worked in shipping, in Antwerp and London, for the rest of his career, rising to Managing Director of Houlder Brothers and Co. In 1955, while on business in Uruguay, he met Aileen Rose Cobham. They married and had five sons, one of whom, James, followed him into the Royal Green Jackets as a regular army officer. Until the late 1980s Foster Cunliffe attended the annual reunions of all ranks of F Company, held in different east London pubs. He died in 1992, aged 74.
Sergeant Stanley Sidney (‘Stan’ or ‘Nobby’) Clarke (6921820) – H Company
19 December 1921 – July 2001
Before joining the 8th Rifle Brigade, in 1942, Stanley Sidney Clarke was in the Terrritorial Army. At the beginning of the campaign in Normandy it is believed he was a Corporal. He survived the war intact and, when finally demobbed, in 1946, held the rank of Sergeant. As his son wrote: ‘My father died in July 2001 without ever telling me any of his war memories.’
Rifleman Stanley George (George) Dack (6917012) – E Company
29 April 1916 – 25 May 2002
After being promoted to the rank of Corporal in June 1941 and to Sergeant in 1943, at some point George Dack requested to be reverted back to the rank of Rifleman. He never talked much about his service, and the reasons for his voluntary demotion are unknown. Rifleman Dack went to Normandy as a Driver Mechanic with E Company. He got slightly wounded on 18 July 1944, shortly after crossing the river Orne, at the start of Operation Goodwood. It seems, however, the wound was not too serious, and he remained with his unit.
After the war, George Dack was employed as a lorry driver. He was married to Eileen, and together they had two daughters, Maxine and Tina. George was very devoted to his daughters, and to his garden. To his grandson he only spoke once about his war service, at the end of his life, and without being very specific. He passed away on 25 May 2002, at the age of 86.
Sergeant Robert Ernest (Robert or ‘Bob’) Docker (6847071) – E Company, 18 Platoon
5 June 1918 – 9 May 1992
Robert Docker was a professional composer, arranger and pianist. Already in 1936, at the age of 18, he had his first broadcast. In 1990, the BBC broadcast two one-hour programmes entitled ‘The Musical World of Robert Docker’.
Sometime before 1941, Robert Docker first joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC). He was later transferred to the 8th Rifle Brigade, into 18 Platoon, E Company. 18 Platoon was an anti-tank platoon, equipped with 6-Pounder Anti-Tank guns. In September 1944, during Operation Market Garden, around Eindhoven, Sergeant Docker got wounded, together with eight others of his platoon. The incident is described in the E Company history as follows: ‘In the evening an unfortunate incident befell 18 Platoon. They had moved into position covering our flank and everything was quiet. The vehicles were parked behind a house in which the crews proceeded to make themselves comfortable. As some of them were collecting their blankets there was a blinding flash and two Loyd carriers burst into flames. The fire quickly spread to a third carrier but the Platoon Commander [Lt. Gould] dashed in, drove it to safety and then put out the flames. It was discovered later that the fire had been started by an 88 mm shell, which had hit one of the Loyds’ petrol tanks. Nine men were wounded either by shell splinters or blazing petrol.’
As his daughter says: ‘I am so proud of him and really thankful that he didn’t injure his hands or arms [he was wounded in the leg], which would have put paid to his career as a pianist.’
Sergeant James Charles Fruin (6923282) – G Company
March 1922 – 1989
Jim Fruin (‘Tubby’, to his friends) was enlisted at Winchester, on 13 November 1941. He was a mortar sergeant and one of two men in G Company to be awarded the Commander in Chief’s certificate. After being demobbed, in October 1946, Jim Fruin returned to his pre-war job as a family butcher in Alton, Hampshire.
Jim Fruin is mentioned twice in Noel Bell’s ‘From the Beaches to the Baltic’ (partially quoted here):
‘Sergt. Fruin told me as follows: “We remained in the column till about 4 a.m., when without any warning the engine of the carrier spluttered and finally stopped. …we had run out of petrol… the only thing to do was to wait for the Echelon… when Cripps spotted the Echelon… The very misty morning had deceived us… the Echelon was a German one moving along a side road, joining our road about fifty yards behind us. …we opened up with all our available weapons, consisting of one Bren gun and three rifles… The column… consisted of eleven three-ton lorries and a “Volkswagen.”… We simply could not miss the leading vehicle… within the next few seconds we ‘brewed up’ four more… twenty-three prisoners… five dead and nine wounded. Our own casualties consisted of one spoilt brew. One of the prisoners spoke a little English, so we told him to go and get some petrol from his vehicles. …having filled up, we continued our journey to rejoin the rest of the Company.” ‘
‘…the great port of Antwerp had fallen into our hands intact… The following morning… our mortar detachment had undoubtedly their “best ever” shoot. Sergt. Fruin and I had gone down the bank of the Scheldt… a most obliging lift attendant took us up to the sixth floor. Here we got the most wonderful view… one of the first sights that met our eyes was a collection of stationary Geman transport. We wirelessed back to the mortars… within a few seconds down came bomb after bomb…’
Below here, some photos and other documents of Jim Fruin (source: Sgt. Fruin collection). Clockwise: Schleswig printed ‘Hooch list’, prices in ‘Rentenmark’; Groote Markt, Antwerp, during liberation, 4 September 1944; newspaper article on Fruin’s ‘petrol problem’; Jim Fruin, winter 1944-1945; Jim Fruin (middle) near Gunhof, Holland, November 1944; Fruin (standing 4th from left) with his mortar section (location unknown); Jim Fruin behind typewriter, with 3″ mortar and Stengun close at hand.
Lance Corporal Albert Ellis & Rifleman Reg Girling (6920105) – F Company, 29 June 1944
Photo of L/Cpl. Albert Ellis (right) and Rfn. Reg Girling (left) sitting behind their White Half-track vehicle, while opening a crate of ‘Compo Rations’ (containing tinned rations for 14 men for 1 day). Photo taken 29 June 1944, near Baron and Hill 112. Rifleman Girling was to get wounded three weeks later, during Operation Goodwood, on 19 July 1944.
Rifleman Harold Thomas (‘Jack’) Heron (6923311) – E Company
At the time of writing of this text (2019), ‘Jack’ Heron is aged 96. Jack was a dispatch rider with E Company, either with company headquarters or one of the company’s platoons. Although having trained for years, back in England, they were never trained, as Jack said, ‘to see my mates with arms and legs and heads blown off.’ He recalls being fired on by ‘moaning minnies’ on Hill 112. His Company Commander had told them to dig in along a hedge, which helped. But other companies hadn’t and they were blown to bits. As recounted by his daughter, Jack never spoke about his experiences, until he saw a TV programme on the death camps. He then told her about when the battalion entered Belsen. One thing that had stuck with him was the sight of female SS officers sitting on a wall, chatting and smoking, right next to a huge pile of bodies…
At some point apparently, while riding his motorcycle, Jack was overlooked by a tank and partially crushed between the tank and a grass verge. Whenever this was and whatever happened exactly, it did not prevent him to be with the battalion at least from Hill 112 in Normandy to the liberation of Belsen in April 1945. After the war Jack became a carpenter and later had his own building company in Kent.
Rifleman Norman Esmond (Norman or ‘Ginger’) Hunter (6915815) – F Company, HQ
27 September 1917 – 17 February 2014
Norman Hunter was born and brought up in Tottenham, East London, where favourite neighbourhood pastimes were things like brick fights and swimming in the River Lee. Norman had a talent for art and his children still keep some if his pre-war work. Sadly, it seems he gave up on this after the war. Before being enlisted, in early 1940, he worked for a coffee merchant. All in all, he spent some six years in the army. After the war he went to night school, to be trained as a quantity surveyor, a job he did in London until his retirement. In 1947 he got married to Sheila Sellars. They had two daughters and a son.
Even though the years until June 1944 were spent in training, conditions could be harsh. Norman remembered a fellow soldier dying of exposure, during winter training at Catterick, early in the war. Apart from being a thoroughly decent man, with a strong sense of duty, he also was a rugged individualist, with a good sense of humour. When being told to go the stores and get a motorcyclist helmet, he managed to pick some weird great big helmet which looked like it came out of the Napoleonic Wars, and when turning up on parade gets totally ripped by the sergeant. His character may also have been what led him to ask for demotion, from Lance Corporal back Rifleman; he didn’t like having to command others.
On a more serious note, he told his children about the smell of burnt flesh, emanating from burnt out tanks; about being part of a convoy which got bombed or strafed, whereupon an officer of manic courage grabbed a burning jerrycan of petrol, and ran across a field with it to throw it away from the vehicles; about seeing German ex guards in Belsen, foraging for food; and about an incident where Norman himself displayed great courage in rescuing his best friend Doug Kelly. After they took a wrong turn in their Humber scout car, they ran into a detachment of Germans, who fired off a mortar bomb which set the scout car on fire. Norman rescued Kelly from the burning vehicle and got his own arm burned. He was sent back to England for treatment.
Before being demobbed, like the rest of the 8th Rifle Brigade, Norman spent considerable time in and around the city of Schleswig. As part of their entertainment, they used a commandeered yacht from a German businessman, called Schneider. When asked by his son, if Mr. Schneider had minded, he commented, ‘Tough luck. We won.’ Even so, he told his daughter it was one of the few things in the war he felt guilty about.
Rifleman Roland Walter (‘Roly’) Jefferson (14415909) – E Company, 17 Platoon
1 January 1925 – 16 November 2012
When war was declared, in September 1939, Roland Jefferson was a schoolboy of just 14 years. He got told by his father he was lucky, because he was too young to get involved in the war. In the summer of 1942, however, he got to the recruiting office, told them he was 18 years old, and joined the army. Less than two months later he had to report to his unit, The Rifle Brigade, at York, where he got his six weeks initial training.
In June 1944, Rifleman Jefferson landed in Normandy, as signaller with 17 Anti Tank Platoon, E Company. While carrying his radio and making a dash, during Operation Epsom, he received his first wound, from a German bullet. Luckily no more than a serious graze in the leg, which was quickly bound with a shell dressing. During Operation Goodwood Rifleman Jefferson used his bayonet (or ‘sword’) for the first and only time. He felt relieved that his ‘sword’ didn’t go deep, and the German soldier survived. During Operation Bluecoat, he saved a French woman and her 7 year old son, an action for which he later received the French ‘Croix de Guerre’. Shortly after Bluecoat, ‘Roly’ had a piece of shrapnel from an airburst going through his battle dress sleeve. Again, he escaped with a graze. Some others were not so lucky.
Roland’s luck came to an end in Holland, on 19 October 1944, when he got hit in the head by a fragment of a mortar bomb. His comrade Corporal Norris got killed. Still, Rifleman Jefferson recovered and returned to his unit only five weeks later, to take part in the rest of the campaign, all the way to the Baltic.
Roland Jefferson did survive the war. He was released from the army in June 1946, to join the Grimsby Police. Two months before sailing for Normandy, in April 1944, he had married Peggy Roper. Together they had 4 children. As a police officer he was awarded the British Empire Medal, for an incident in which he saved the lives of several people at great personal risk. From about 1981 to 2003 ‘Roly’ Jefferson was the National Standard Bearer for the Normandy Veteran’s Association. He represented the association during the 50th Anniversary of D-Day at Arromanche, on 6 June 1994.
In 1985 he privately published his memoirs, called ‘Soldiering at the Sharp End.’ Most of this text is based on those memoirs, and on some additional information provided by his son, Chris Jefferson.
Top to bottom: first page of New Testament, signed by CO Lt. Col. Treneer-Michell; Roland Jefferson; form received by parents after Roland had been wounded; Roland’s 17 Platoon, with 6-pounder gun (late November or early December 1944, Roland believed to be 4th from left).
Lance Corporal Albert Edward Lee (6923340) – H Company, 15 Platoon
January 1922 – 31 July 1944
Albert was born in January 1922 in Barkingside Essex to Alfred and Harriet Lee. He was unmarried. In the battalion he was part of 15 Platoon, H company. Albert arrived in France as a Rifleman and was promoted in the field to Lance Corporal in early July 1944. When on 31 July 1944 H Company together with G Company attacked Saint Martin des Besaces – from the north – both companies ran into extremely heavy opposition near the railway line which at the time ran just north of Saint Martin des Besaces. Albert and two more men from H Company got killed.
Photo bottom: Albert’s grave at Banneville-La-Campagne War Cemetery.
Right: notification of death received by Albert’s parents in mid August 1944.
Major K.O. (Kenneth) Mackenzie (90377) – H Company (OC)
1912 – 1994
Officer Commanding (OC) H Company Major Kenneth Mackenzie was one of the Battalion’s many casualties sustained during Operation Epsom. On 29 June 1944, during their second day of battle on ‘Hill 112’, Major Mackenzie was having a meeting with some of his officers and some other ranks, when a mortar bomb fell near to them. Several of them got killed or wounded and Major Mackenzie suffered a terrible head injury. A piece of shrapnel took away part of his skull, leaving a hole the size of a fist.
Miraculously, Major Mackenzie survived, thanks to swift treatment in a field hospital and subsequent state of the art surgery in Oxford by Sir Hugh Cairns of ‘The Combined Services Hospital for Head Injuries’. A metal plate was implanted in his skull and despite a partial paralysis and being told he would never be able to work again, he held his job as an insurance broker in London and raised a family of two children with his wife Penelope.
To at least some of his men he was known as ‘Mad Mack’. One of them said he was ‘a very gallant company commander’, who ’rather enjoyed war’ and on ‘Hill 112’ ‘strode among us, talking to us as if we were at a party’. While in hospital – on 10 July 1944 – he writes a rather confused letter to his second in command, Captain Straker. About his unit he says: ‘There will be some H Coy left will get mended.’ and about being in hospital: ‘It is deadly boring.’
Major Mackenzie died in 1994, aged 81. As described in an article in ‘The Times’, the Coroner concluded that after 50 years he had ‘died from wounds received while on active service’.
Rifleman George Magnus (6969034) – H Company, HQ
May 1920 – early 1990s
Rifleman George Magnus was attached to H Company’s HQ. With the rest of the battalion he landed in Normandy on 13 June 1944. During their second day in action, on 29 June 1944, on top of Hill 112, George was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a mortar bomb, in his shoulder, upper arm and chest. He did not return to the war but eventually recovered and ‘lived a happy and fruitfull life’. The same mortar bomb also killed his sergeant – Sgt. Arthur Taylor – and seriously wounded H Company’s C.O. Major Kenneth Mackenzie and 13 Platoon’s C.O. Lieutenant Brian Neill and two more officers. Arthur Taylor apparently ‘didn’t have a mark on him’ and is believed to have been killed by the blast. Major Mackenzie survived but, according to an eye witness, had ‘half his head blown away’.
Photo: George Magnus in 1943.
Documents: notification of George being wounded, sent to his parents on 11 July 1944 and ‘Hospital Redirection Card’.
CSM D.N. (Derek) Millwood (6916217) – H Company, 13 Platoon
15 March 1919 – 19 July 2007
Before the war, Derek Millwood worked as a cabinet maker in Enfield. On 19 October 1939, just after hostilities had started, he was called up and among the first to join the London Rifle Brigade. Not much later, on Christmas Day 1939, he married his girlfriend Ethel Cutler.
Rifleman Millwood proved himself to be an excellent recruit and was selected for advanced training. By the end of 1943 he had reached the rank of corporal, and by the time of his deployment to France, in June 1944, he had become a sergeant. Sergeant Millwood served in H Company’s 13 ‘scout’ Platoon, which regularly formed the vanguard of the advance, sometimes even leading the way for the whole division. He was in command of one of the platoon’s sections of Brengun carriers. A quote from fellow 13 Platoon member Don Gillate:
’… number two [section] was commanded by Derek Millwood, who even when he had been a corporal had been known as a bit of a tarter, but he was alright underneath.’
Whilst it seems that Derek could act as something of a disciplinarian, he was not above having a bit of fun. For example, his established greeting for German prisoners was ‘hande hoch and give me your wallet!’ Besides this, he was also noted to have stolen an American .50 Calibre machine gun from off of a Sherman tank, and for drawing phalluses on the side of his vehicle, nicknamed ‘Hellzapoppin’. All in all, the morale of the platoon was decent, and the group were described as a ‘very pleasant crowd’ by Don Gillate in his memoirs.
Being based in England until June 1944, the men of 8th Rifle Brigade were able to travel home on leave rather easily. Derek sometimes went and saw his wife at home in Enfield, with whom he fathered two children during the war: Bill, born in August 1941, and Teresa, born in May 1943.
Sergeant Millwood was promoted to Colour Sergeant Major in October 1944. He was Mentioned in Dispatches for his service, on 10 May 1945, in The London Gazette, one of only two men in H Company to receive this honour. Derek Millwood was released from military service on 8 March 1946.
Captain Brian Thomas Neill (277414) – H Company, 13 Platoon
August 1923 – December 2017
In September 1940, in the midst of the Battle of Britain, at the age of 17, Brian Neill became a member of the Local Defence Volunteers in London (later to be known as the Home Guard). Three years later he joined the 8th Rifle Brigade. Again a year later, he landed in Normandy, near Graye sur Mer, on 13 June 1944. He then was a 20 year old Lieutenant and Officer Commanding 13 ‘scout’ Platoon. Two weeks after arriving in Normandy, on 28 June 1944, he commanded his platoon of 42 men on top of Hill 112, during their first day in battle. Five men were killed that day and another two got wounded. The next day, again on top of Hill 112, Brian Neill himself was wounded. A piece of shrapnel had passed his spine and heart before lodging itself into his liver, where it was to remain for the rest of his life. Apart from him, also three others of the platoon were wounded during that second and final day on top of Hill 112.
Brian Neill recovered and rejoined 13 Platoon in early November 1944. He remained their C.O. until the end of the war in Europe, VE-Day.
About one week after its liberation – which took place on 15 April 1945 – Brian Neill returned to visit Bergen Belsen concentration camp. On 6 May 1945, he wrote down what he had seen in a 5 page letter to his sister. Brian Neill was promoted to the rank of Captain in July 1945. After the war he had a remarkable career as a barrister that led to him being appointed a high court judge and later lord justice of appeal. Mr. Brian Neill became Sir Brian Neill in 1978.
A few months before his death in 2017, Sir Brian Neill wrote the foreword to ‘With the 8th Rifle Brigade from Normandy to the Baltic’, the autobiography of Don Gillate, one of his platoon members. The book also contains Brian Neill’s letter on Bergen Belsen and was published in 2019.
Riflemen Reg Oates & James Woodward – F Company, 29 June 1944
Riflemen Bernard William O’Neil, George Wood and Jack Pearson – F Company, 29 June 1944
Riflemen Bernard William O’Neill, George Wood and Jack Pearson of F Company, during operation Epsom, near Baron, Normandy, 29 June 1944. Jack Pearson was wounded later that same day and moved to a Casualty Clearing Post. Rifleman O’Neill would die later on in Germany, on 8 May 1945, VE-Day.
Rilleman John (‘Jock’) Petrie (14217365) – G Company, 9 Platoon
Rfn. John Petrie from Edinburgh was the only Scotsman in 9 Platoon. Consequently he was nicknamed ‘Jock’. Together with a group of some 38 men from 8th K.R.R.C., he joined 8th Rifle Brigade in August 1944, as reinforcement to make up for the losses sustained during Normandy Operations Epsom, Goodwood and Bluecoat. John got through unharmed and was returned to K.R.R.C. after the war and subsequently demobbed.
Photos (top to bottom): men of 8th K.R.R.C. before embarkation, at Pembroke Docks (August 1944); John Petrie in 1942; John (front row far right) with other members of 9 Platoon, on 7 April 1945, after battle at Stolzenau (standing left to right Rfn. Clark, unknown, Sgt. Heart, unkown, seated left to right unknown, Rfn. Mills, Davey, Patience, Petrie).
Lieutenant James Edward (James) Ramsden (256071) – G Company, 9 Platoon
1 November 1923 – 29 March 2020
James Ramsden joined the army in April 1942. After commissioning he joined the 60th KRRC in early 1943. He spent the year before D-Day training, as a scout platoon commander in the 9th Armoured Division. In the end, however, the Division was broken up and sent piecemeal to Normandy. Lt. Ramsden’s Company from 8 KRRC went out in early August to reinforce 8 RB, the motor battalion of the 11th Armoured Division. The Division’s sign, a black bull on a yellow ground, had been so ubiquitous that a captured German general had thought it was the symbol of the entire British army.
G Company 8 RB, to which he was sent, had by now lost about a third of their people, including four or five officers. All but one of the platoons were being commanded by sergeants. Sergeant Kisbey, a battle-hardened veteran of the desert, had been in charge of the platoon to which James Ramsden was dispatched: 9 Platoon. The previous platoon commander had been killed a week before. Some fragments from Ramsden’s description of his advance through Europe:
‘The first day was typical. We were in close country, all little fields with high banks and thick hedges. We had to advance up to the road, a section of carriers in front, the tanks close up with them and the rest of the column strung out behind. The pace was suitably cautious and for the first few miles all went well. Then there was a dull clunk and a tearing noise and a tank went up in flames. So the village in front was held and G Company would have to clear it. I went with some carriers to look for a way round the flank. There were some slit trenches and German soldier. Had we got a hand grenade? We had. Rifleman Howard, my wireless operator and Bren gunner, had a look and said it had worked. I got in with Sergeant Kisbey, alongside the foot soldiers. They cleared the village, not without cost to themselves, but most of the enemy had already made off to lay another ambush.
Such was more or less the pattern for the next ten days, during which we advanced about eighty miles and had some encounters. At some point, we were chased back by a Tiger tank. The company history says one round took the skin off my nose. It might have, it was a nice clean nick, but I may have done it getting through the hedge. The tank’s tracer looked just like when a child lights a sparkler firework. Sergeant Kisbey was wounded soon after by a shell, Phil Board my driver was sniped and I had six shots at a running German with a pistol, which all missed.
At L’Aigle we had a few days rest. Amiens apart, the next stop would be Antwerp, only another ten days on but this time over three hundred miles ahead, such was now the pace of the advance. At some point we were mopping up Germans in a built-up suburb just outside Antwerp, when Rifleman Howard took the opportunity to absent himself and disappeared into a house. He came back later looking cleaner and more relaxed, saying he had had a bath, which may have been a euphemism. When we reached the city itself, all crowds and kisses and civilians climbing on to vehicles, quite a bore really after a long drive and with not much sleep.
After a day or two in or near Antwerp waiting for petrol, we had orders to drive straight on up through Holland and across the Rhine to Apeldoorn, but this did not work. The intelligence was faulty and the whole scheme had to be re-cast as the Arnhem operation, which the Guards Armoured did instead of us. We did the boring infantry soldiering between them and the rivers. I got my carrier blown up on a mine which laid me up for a day or two and burst my eardrum.
All in all, after the exhilaration of ‘the Great Swan’, that wonderful dash from Normandy, what had followed was anti-climax, even the progress from the Rhine to the Elbe, which was Normandy all over again, all rearguards and roadblocks. There was an unusual episode when we had to leave our carriers in the car park and go across the Weser in boats to help the rest of the company man a bridgehead, while the sappers built a bridge. This was the only time we ever saw the Luftwaffe. They destroyed the bridge, killed most of the sappers and made things uncomfortable for us. It was the only time G Company experienced an organized German counter-attack while I was with them. I had to say goodbye to Rifleman Howard, who had stayed back in the car park with the wireless and was rather badly wounded by a shell.
By the spring we were quartered in Schleswig and back to peacetime soldiering. A general election was in progress at home. My platoon formed up and asked me how I thought they ought to vote. It was the first political question I had ever been asked to address. I then rejoined the 60th KRRC, expecting to go to the Far East, but the bomb was dropped and I was able to go to Oxford instead.
After the war, James Ramsden was an MP, from 1954 to 1974. He was, among other things, PPS to the Home Secretary, Under Secretary and Financial Secretary at the War Office, Secretary of State for War and Minister of Defence for the Army.
*): This text is an abstract from a chapter on James Ramsden in Henry Buckton’s “Politicians at War” (Pen & Sword, 2003)
Rifleman Soloman (‘Solly’, ‘Russia’) Rodkoff (6917264) – H Company, 13 Platoon
Above: Soloman Rodkoff and his brother Myer Rodkoff. Below: Soloman’s grave at Banneville la Campagne War Cemetery, France.
ca. 1914/1915 – 28 June 1944
At the end of WW2, a man and a woman come before a rabbinic court to perform the ritual of ‘halitzah’. The man testifies that he is not willing to take the childless widow of his deceased brother for his wife. In response, the woman removes the shoe from the man’s left foot and spits into it. The woman – nee Sarah Bloom – is now free to marry whom she chooses. She is the widow of Soloman Rodkoff.
Having a wife couldn’t keep ‘Solly’ at home. Enlisting, as a volunteer, he was assigned to 8th Rifle Brigade. He got killed on Hill 112, only two weeks after landing in Normandy. On 30 August 1944 the Senior Jewish Chaplain of Second Army wrote a letter to his parents:
‘First of all, let me express to you my heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathy in this tragic loss which you have been called upon to bear. I can only pray that the knowledge that he died at the Front, in the cause of the Liberation of Europe and of our people, will help to assuage your keen sorrow.
Your son’s death affected the whole unit deeply. In the morning he had an amazing escape, a shell hitting his vehicle and passing through the engine, without touching him. He was congratulated on all sides at his good fortune, and in the afternoon he was wounded and evacuated. It was not realized how seriously wounded he was by his unit, but he died the same day at the Field Ambulance and was buried by the chaplain to the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry who was present.
I received all these particulars from his unit, when I visited it at Myer’s request, and I can therefore speak directly of the great esteem in which he was held by his unit, as a fearless and gallant soldier, and a good comrade.
May the Almighty send you His Comfort and Consolation…’
Sadly, Soloman’s death was not the only tribulation suffered by his family. In October 1944, his half-sister, Bessie, was killed along with her husband and son in a V2-attack on London. The ‘halitzah’ ceremony, mentioned above, must have weighed heavily on his brother, Myer Rodkoff. He had failed to talk his younger brother out of enlisting in the infantry; cannon fodder in his own words. When in the following year a girl was born, he named his daughter Sonia, a living memorial to her uncle Solly.
This text is largely based on a tribute to ‘Solly’ by Lawrence Cohen, the husband of Sonia Rodkoff.
Captain John Joicy (Johnny) Straker MC (155746) – 2i/c H Company
30 April 1917 – 29 July 1970
Johnny Straker is remembered by his daughters as ‘a very amusing, fun loving and courageous man’, a statement which seems to be confirmed by his exploits both during and after the war, and by other people who knew him. After the war, he pursued his love of steeple chasing and became a very well known amateur rider, riding in the Grand National on several occasions. Sadly, he broke his neck in a race at Perth in 1960 and spent the following 10 years in a wheelchair, still with great courage and continuing sense of humour. He died on 29 July 1970.
During the battalion’s campaign in Europe, Captain Straker served as second in command of H Company. He got wounded three times. First on 31 July 1944, when being shot at by a German soldier, during battle at Saint Martin des Besaces, Normandy, after having told the German to put on his steel helmet. He had mistaken the enemy soldier for being a member of 8th Rifle Brigade! On 10 September 1944, he got wounded again, at Helchteren. For his courage and leadership shown there, he was awarded the Military Cross. The citation for this can be found elsewhere on this website. The third time he got wounded was by a bomb from a ‘Moaning Minnie’, on 17 October 1944. The same bomb killed his driver, Johnny Huckle, and wounded his wireless operator, Rifleman Buttress, both from 13 Platoon.
Captain Straker is regarded to be the author of ‘The War Diary of H Company, 8th Bn. The Rifle Brigade’, published in the autumn of 1945.
Sergeant Alfred (‘Alf’ or ‘Chalky’) White MM (14275878) – G Company, 12 Platoon
1915 – 1983
Alfred White was born in 1915 in quite poor circumstances in London’s East End. He was brought up by his grandmother and step-grandfather, after his father Ebeneezer White headed to Canada in 1916 to avoid conscription during WW1. Ironic, give the way that Alfred would prove to be a very effective soldier. From 1932 to 1937 Alfred served in the Territorials, in the Tower Hamlets Rifles. In 1936 he married Rosa Donato, and after his five years’ engagement with the territorials he worked as a wood sawyer at Rappaport’s furniture manufacturers. Their first son was born in 1937.
The call up for Alf came in 1942, and he was posted to the 8th Rifle Brigade. Being in his late twenties, he was ten years older than many of the other conscripts. He made Corporal in training but after offences of fighting and a drunken episode involving theft of beer, he was back to Rifleman by May 1944. As a fighting soldier, after landing in France Alf was soon a Corporal again, and held that rank at the time that 12 Platoon captured General Badinsky on the edge of the Falaise pocket. At that time, his wife and their two sons had been evacuated to Rushden in the Midlands, and so Alf became a ‘Rushden Man’ for the newspaper reports shown below here. By Autumn, Alf had been made Sergeant. He was proud of this and worked hard thereafter to set an example.
After the excitement of liberating Antwerp, late 1944 largely consisted of watching the Germans across the river Maas in Holland. Once settled into billets, for Christmas, in the area of Ypres, Herr Hitler had other ideas and launched the Battle of the Bulge in mid-December. The 8th Rifle Brigade were rushed to defend the bridges over the river Meuse in Belgium. The redoubtable Major Noel Bell was in command of G Company, which found itself in snowy Dinant. And so on Christmas Day 1944, Alfred found himself leading an attack to clear the village of Boiseilles near Dinant (spelled incorrectly in medal citation), for which action he was awarded the Military Medal, ‘for bravery in the field’. This was the very westward extent of the German advance. British medals in this battle are very rare as it was mostly and American battle. In February 1945 he attended a medal presentation at Ypres Cathedral, by his hero, Monty.
After crossing the Rhine, on 28 March 1945, there was still some hard fighting left before the end of the European campaign. The fighting over, the Battalion found itself quartered at the Schloss Gottorf. Alf even got his own office! Europe was at peace, but the war in the Far East raged on and the Battalion was preparing for a move East. But not Alf. He was brought back to the UK, as Rose was very ill, and he ended the war as the Senior NCO at a POW camp in Beckenham. Alfred White was offered to stay in the regular Army as a RSM but his wife wanted him back full time. He retrained as a bricklayer and lived well through the 40s, 50s and 60s. Regrettably he contracted ‘brickies disease’ (rheumatoid arthritis) and passed away at only 68 in 1983.
Sergeant George James (‘George’) Whitmarsh (6854660) – H Company, 13 Platoon
November 1921 – December 2013
After enlistment in 1941, George Whitmarsh joined the 7th King’s Royal Rifle Corps – part of the 9th Armoured Division – as a Driver/Mechanic. The 9th Armoured Division was to remain in England as a training formation and later it was broken up to provide reinforcements for other units. In July 1944 George was transferred to France to see active service as a reinforcement to 13 Platoon of the 8th Rifle Brigade. He stayed with the platoon only until 24 September 1944, when he got seriously wounded by shrapnel in Deurne, Holland. He saw no further active service and ended the war as a sergeant on administrative duties in England. He was finally released from the army in 1946. George Whitmarsh was in and out of hospital until 1950 for removal of shrapnel.
Photo top left: George while still with K.R.R.C, spring 1944.
Photo right: George together with “Taffy” and “Vic” (Norman Vicary), somewhere near Arras in Northern France, 1 September 1944.
Captain Michael Willcox MC (171200) – R.A.M.C. – M.O. attached to 8th Rifle Brigade
During the whole campaign Medical Officer Michael ‘Butch’ Willcox was attached to the 8th Rifle Brigade. For their actions at Presles, both he and Padre Jeffries Taylor received the Military Cross.
Rifleman Maurice Williams (6923637) – H Company, 13 Platoon
11 May 1921 – 22 January 1995
After being enlisted at Winchester, in December 1941, bricklayer Maurice Williams was first posted to the 2nd Motor Training Battalion in Tidworth. After a brief spell with the 2nd Rifle Brigade – in a part of the unit then attached to the 12th KRRC – Rfn. Williams finally joined the 8th Rifle Brigade in November 1942, where he became a member of H Company, 13 Platoon.
On 9 June 1944 Maurice Williams embarked for Normandy, where on the 13th he landed near Graye-sur-Mer. 16 Days later, on 29 June 1944, he got wounded, during Operation Epsom, on top of Hill 112, just south of Baron. It was the battalion’s second day in battle. Later that day, the battalion, and indeed the whole of the 11th Armoured Division, was pulled back across the river Odon. In two days fighting, H Company had lost 30 men, some 20% of its total strength.
Rfn. Williams got wounded by shrapnel, to his head and right arm. It seems he was saved by his steel helmet, as, apart from ‘Shrapnel graze right arm.’, the Medical Officer (Capt. Willcox) noted ‘Steel helmet cut scalp above right ear. Bone intact.’ Apparently his helmet got hit first. The following day, he was flown back to England and admitted to Whitchurch Emergency Hospital in Cardiff. Maurice Williams kept a small collection of mementos* of this period, including a letter from his comrades to wish him well. It was written by his friend ‘Chrunchy’ Crisp, who sadly got killed later on in Germany, in April 1945.
It took some months for Rfn. Williams to recover from his wounds. He did not return to his old unit but remained in England for the rest of the war. In early 1946 he became an instructor and temporarily held the rank of sergeant. He was finally released from the army in May 1946. Maurice Williams got married in October 1943 and had three children, David, Carol and Julie.
*): these can be seen on the ‘Other documents’ page of this website.
Rifleman Kenneth Ernest William (‘Ken’) Wolton – G Company, 12 Platoon
1 November 1925 – 10 April 1945
In his last letter, to his sister Daisy, on 21 March 1945, Ken Wolton wrote: ‘I have not seen any action yet… but I suppose I will befor this war is over.’ Rifleman Wolton must have joined 12 Platoon sometime after mid-January, when the 8th Rifle Brigade had left the Ardennes as its role in ‘the Battle of the Bulge’ had come to an end. One week later, on 28 March 1945, they crossed the Rhine, at Wesel, to begin the final push through Germany, towards the Baltic.
From 28 March onwards, G Company was meeting slight to very serious opposition, at places like Holtwick, Tecklenburg and Stolzenau. On 9 April 1945, after having advanced some 200 miles, they arrived at the village of Steimbke.
There, as described by Noel Bell, in ‘From the Beaches to the Baltic’, ‘stiff resistance was encountered…, in the form of a Company of the 12th SS, armed with bazookas and small arms. 12 Platoon and Sergt. Baldwin’s section of carriers, with a troop of tanks went in to clear it. Soon, however, it was evident that resistance was much too stiff for them…’ In the end a two-company attack was put in, which was successful but not without cost. The SS, fought fanatically and even stretcher bearers were fired on. According to Noel Bell, ‘no quarter was given or asked and very few SS prisoners lived to tell the tale…’
Rifleman Wolton got mortally wounded and died the following day, 19 years old, after two weeks in action. According to the story in his family, he had been shot by a German sniper. Only three weeks earlier, he had written: ‘I had a day in Brussels the other day and it was very nice there. I wouldn’t mind stopping there for another month or two…’
Text from letter to Daisy, photo and documents, courtesy of ipswichwarmemorial.co.uk
Rifleman Alan Walter Wood – F Company
Rifleman Alan Wood of F Company apparently made it unhurt, right through the war, to Germany and VE-Day. Not long after he returned home however he was diagnosed with TB. The doctors believed he might have contracted this during the war from the trenches and it could have laid dormant. He spent considerable time in hospital and sanatoriums and ended up losing a lung. Alan was unable to do physical work thereafter but was able to work full time as a book keeper with the Post Office until his death from cancer at the age of 58 years.
Alan’s daughter remembers being told that her dad was made up to a corporal for a short period of time but was then returned to being a rifleman as he was unable to reprimand the men. Alan was a kind and generous gentle man and a true gentleman with a wonderful sense of humor. She is sure that after all he would still believe he was a lucky man, to have made it through the war when so many others didn’t.
Photo left: Alan Wood before leaving for Normandy.
Photo top right: with fiancee, on leave in London just after the war.
Bottom: Alan (sitting at table) in Luxembrug (shortly after the war).