ex coelis Proud to be Canadian

March 27, 2006

Brigadier James Hill

Brigadier James Hill passed away peacefully Thursday 16 Mar 06.

Brigadier "Speedy" Hill, who died on Thursday aged 95, won an MC and three DSOs as a commander of airborne forces during the Second World War.

In 1942 Hill took command of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, which was dropped at Souk El Arba, deep behind enemy lines in Tunisia. His orders were to secure the plain so that it could be used as a landing strip and then to take Beja, the road and rail centre 40 miles to the north east, in order to persuade the French garrison to fight on the Allied side. To impress the French commander with the size of his unit, Hill marched the battalion through the town twice, first wearing helmets and then changing to berets.

The Germans, hearing reports that a considerable British force had occupied Beja, responded by bombing the town. On learning that a mixed force of Germans and Italians, equipped with a few tanks, was located at a feature called Gue, Hill put in a night attack. But a grenade in a sapper's sandbag exploded, setting off others, and there were heavy casualties when the element of surprise was lost. Two companies carried out an immediate assault while Hill, with a small group, approached three light tanks. He put the barrel of his revolver through the observation port of the first tank and fired a single round. The Italian crew surrendered at once. He banged his thumbstick on the turret of the second tank, with the same result. But when he used the method on the third tank, the German crew emerged, firing their weapons and throwing grenades. They were dealt with in short order, though Hill took three bullets in the chest. He was rushed to Beja, where Captain Robb of the 16th Parachute Field Ambulance operated on him and saved his life. The citation for Hill's first DSO paid tribute to the brilliant handling of his force and his complete disregard of personal danger. The French recognised his gallantry with the award of the Légion d'Honneur.

Stanley James Ledger Hill, the son of Major-General Walter Hill, was born at Bath on March 14 1911. Young James went to Marlborough, where he was head of the OTC, and then won the Sword of Honour and became captain of athletics at Sandhurst. Nicknamed "Speedy" because of the long strides he took as a tall man, he was commissioned into the Royal Fusiliers, with whom he served with the 2nd Battalion, and ran the regimental athletic and boxing teams. In 1936 he left the Army to get married, and for the next three years worked in the family ferry company.

On the outbreak of war Hill rejoined his regiment, and left for France in command of 2RF's advance party. He led a platoon on the Maginot Line for two months before being posted to AHQ as a staff captain. In May 1940, Hill was a member of Field Marshal Viscount Gort's command post, playing a leading part in the civilian evacuation of Brussels and La Panne beach during the final phase of the withdrawal. He returned to Dover in the last destroyer to leave Dunkirk, and was awarded an MC. Following promotion to major and a posting to Northern Ireland as DAAG, Hill was dispatched to Dublin to plan the evacuation of British nationals in the event of enemy landings. He booked into the Gresham Hotel, where several Germans were staying at the time.

Hill was one of the first to join the Parachute Regiment and after being wounded in Tunisia in 1942, he was evacuated to England. Although forbidden to take exercise in hospital, he used to climb out of his window at night to stroll around the gardens. Seven weeks later, he declared himself fit and, in December, he converted the 10th Battalion, Essex Regiment, to the 9th Parachute Battalion. In April the following year, Hill took command of 3rd Parachute Brigade, consisting of the 8th and 9th Parachute Battalions and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which he commanded on D-Day as part of the 6th Airborne Division.

Given the task of destroying the battery at Merville and blowing bridges over the River Dives to prevent the enemy bringing in reinforcements from the east, he completed the briefing of his officers with the warning: "Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and orders, do not be daunted if chaos reigns. It undoubtedly will." Things began to go wrong straight away. Many of the beacons for marking the dropping zones were lost, and several of the aircraft were hit or experienced technical problems. Hill landed in the River Dives near Cabourg, some three miles from the dropping zone, and it took him several hours to reach dry land. The terrain was criss-crossed with deep irrigation ditches in which some of his men, weighed down by equipment, drowned. Since he did not trust radio, he kept in touch by driving around on a motorcycle, periodically being found directing traffic at crossroads by his advancing men.

Near Sallenelles, Hill and a group of men of the 9th Parachute Battalion were accidentally bombed by Allied aircraft; 17 men were killed. Hill was injured but, after giving morphia to the wounded, he reported to his divisional commander, who confirmed that the battery at Merville had been captured after a ferocious fight, and that Hill's brigade had achieved all its objectives. Hill underwent surgery that afternoon, but refused to be evacuated and set up his headquarters at La Mesnil.

Under his leadership, three weak parachute battalions held the key strategic ridge from Chateau St Côme to the outskirts of Troarn against repeated attacks from the German 346th Division. On June 10 the 5th Battalion, Black Watch, was put under Hill's command. Two days later, when the 9th Parachute Battalion called for urgent reinforcements, Hill led a company of Canadian parachutists in a daring counter-attack. The 12th Parachute Battalion, took Bréville, the pivotal position from which 346th Division launched their attacks on the ridge, albeit at great cost. Hill said afterwards that the enemy had sustained considerable losses of men and equipment and a great defensive victory had been won. He was awarded a Bar to his DSO.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade returned to England in September but three months later it was back on the front line, covering the crossings of the River Meuse. In the difficult conditions of the Ardennes and in organising offensive patrolling across the River Maas, Hill's enthusiasm was a constant inspiration to his men. In March 1945 Hill commanded the brigade in Operation Varsity, the battle of the Rhine Crossing, before pushing on to Wismar on the Baltic, arriving on May 2, hours before the Russians.

He was wounded in action three times. He was awarded a second Bar to his DSO, and the American Silver Star. Hill was appointed military governor of Copenhagen in May and was awarded the King Haakon VII Liberty Cross for his services. He commanded and demobilised the 1st Parachute Brigade before retiring from the Army in July in the rank of brigadier.

He was closely involved in the formation of the Parachute Regiment Association and, in 1947, he raised and commanded the 4th Parachute Brigade (TA). The next year, Hill joined the board of Associated Coal & Wharf Companies and was president of the Powell Duffryn Group of companies in Canada from 1952 to 1958. He was managing director and chairman of Cory Brothers from 1958 to 1970. In 1961, Hill became a director of Powell Duffryn and was vice-chairman of the company from 1970 to 1976. Among a number of other directorships, he was a director of Lloyds Bank from 1972 to 1979. He was for many years a trustee of the Airborne Forces Security Fund and a member of the regimental council of the Parachute Regiment.

In June 2004, he attended the 60th Anniversary of the Normandy landings. A life-size bronze statue of him with his thumbstick, sited at Le Mesnil crossroads, the central point of the 3rd Parachute Brigade's defensive position on D-Day, was unveiled by the Prince of Wales, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment.

James Hill married first, in 1937, Denys Gunter-Jones, with whom he had a daughter and, in 1986, Joan Haywood. At Chichester in his final years he enjoyed pursuing his lifelong hobby of birdwatching."

Posted by Rob at March 27, 2006 01:26 PM