8th Rifle Brigade - Normandy to the Baltic - June 1944 - May 1945
MEMBERS OF THE BATTALION
Some biographical information, photos (other than portraits and group photos to be found elsewhere on this site) and other documents on members of the 8th Rifle Brigade.
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Lance Corporal Arthur William (‘Bob’) Austin (69697942) – G Company
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.
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.’
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).
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.
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.
Rifleman Harald Thomas 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.
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 (CO)
1912 – 1994
H Company’s Commanding Officer (CO) 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’.
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 Commanding Officer of 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 were 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. 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.
Just before VE-Day Brian Neill visited Bergen Belsen concentration camp, some 2 weeks after its liberation. A few days later 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 which Don Gillate, one of his platoon members, recorded in the early 1990s. 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, next to Rfn. Eric Patience, holding Bren gun) presumably with his section of 9 Platoon in Germany, spring 1945.
Sergeant George James 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. – 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 he and Padre Jeffries Taylor received the Military Cross.
Rifleman Alan Walter Wood – F Company
Rifleman Alan Wood of F Company apparently made it right through the war, to Germany and VE-Day, unhurt. Not long after he returned home however he was diagnosed with TB. The doctors believed he may 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).