Wednesday 15 May 2024

Richard Annand - twenty years since the death of this war hero

I like to visit the Durham Light Infantry Museum* - and always pause to re-read the display dedicated to Richard W Annand (1914-2004) who in 1939 was awarded the first Victoria Cross of World War Two.

I never fail to be moved, and deeply moved, by the words and pictures which stand in memory of this man.

Annand was something close to the Victorian English ideal of a hero and a gentleman; in that he was valiant, compassionate, and withal utterly modest: my admiration is unbounded.

1. Look at the man's face - a boyish openness of expression, almost innocent, from the earliest pictures and retained into extreme old age.

2. In the citation below, note the extreme ferocity and also the military effectiveness of his fighting. That it was not a single act done in the heat of battle but repeated acts of heroism - in despite of accumulating injuries and exhaustion.

3. Yet also the loyalty, affection and self-sacrifice returning to the battle ground - after all this - to try and save his 'Batman' (military manservant).

4. Finally, the complete absence of boastfulness, reluctance to talk about his heroism, fundamental decency of character. 


Shortly after dawn on 15th May, the assault began when mortar fire hit "D" Company's position near the ruined bridge, badly wounding the Company Commander, Captain Bill Hutton. The main German attack across the river then fell on 16 Platoon and Second Lieutenant Richard Annand.

"About 11 am the enemy launched a violent attack and pushed forward a budging party into the sunken bottom of the river. Second Lieutenant Annand attacked this party but when ammunition ran out he went forward himself over open ground, with total disregard for enemy mortar and machine-gunfire. Reaching the top of the bridge he drove out the party below, inflicting over twenty casualties with hand grenades- Having been wounded he rejoined his platoon, had his wound dressed, and then carried on, in command."  

At the same time, German troops used a weir to cross the river and overran a platoon of "B" Company. After a desperate fight, this attack was halted but the Germans were not pushed back across the Dyle. The fighting continued until noon with neither side being able to overcome the other. During the afternoon, snipers, mortars and shell fire forced the Durhams to stay under cover. They all knew that the Germans would renew their attack that night.

As it grew dark, the Germans, under cover of intense machine gun and mortar fire, again attacked the ruined bridge in front of "D" Company.  

Platoon Sergeant Terry O'Neill, who lost his right arm in the battle, later explained -"Our position on the south side of the River Dyle was at the bottom of a long forward slope with a large wood [o our rear. The road leading to the bridge which had been destroyed was alongside our left hand section and the ground between the bridge and our own position was perfectly open. On the night of 15th May, Mr. Annand came to me at Platoon Headquarters and asked/or a box of grenades as they could hear Jerry trying to repair the bridge. Off he went and he sure must have given them a lovely time because it wasn't a great while before he was back for more. Just like giving an elephant strawberries." 

And Company Sergeant Major Norman Metcalfe, also of "D" Company, later wrote to Captain Button about the night attack -"In they came with a vengeance and weren't' they socked with a vengeance..... They seemed determined to get that bridge and therefore reinforcements were simply piled up with casualties..... Jerry couldn't move old 'D'! We had casualties, especially 16 Platoon, but they were wonderful. Mr. Annand, Batty, Wood, Surtees -they just went mad. Jerry got up to the other side of the bridge to their sorrow; they must have thought they had demons in front of them..... For two hours it was hell let loose, and then Jerry gave it up and withdrew." 

The Durhams continued to hold their positions, but elsewhere the Germans had broken through. Finally, at 11pm, Lieutenant Colonel Simpson gave his hungry and exhausted Companies the order to withdraw from the River Dyle. There was to be no transport. Anything that could not be carried would have to be left behind.

As Richard Annand led the few survivors of his Platoon away from their position in the early hours of 16th May, he learnt that his batman, Private Joseph Hunter of Sunderland, wounded in both his head and legs and unable to walk, had been left behind. Second Lieutenant Annand, despite his own severe wounds, immediately returned alone to the deserted trenches and found the missing soldier. Helping his wounded batman into an abandoned wheelbarrow, he set off up a forest path after the rest of his battalion.

All went well until they came to a fallen tree that completely blocked their way. Weak with exhaustion and unable to lift the wounded soldier over the obstruction, Richard Annand was forced to leave Joseph Hunter in the shelter of an empty trench by the side of the track and go on for help. When he finally reached his old Company Headquarters, it was deserted. Using his last reserves of energy, he set off again to look for help and was eventually found by one of 2 DLI's surviving Carriers commanded by Second Lieutenant Hugh Lyster-Todd.

Only then did Richard Annand collapse unconscious through loss of blood and exhaustion.

..."I don't suppose he knows the meaning of the word fear'. He never asked a man to do anything he could do himself...... He wouldn't talk much about it. He isn't that kind. It was just another job of work to him." [Platoon Sergeant Terry O'Neill]

*Reposted from 13/2/14. The DLI museum closed some eight years ago; but (apparently) there are "plans" to re-open it... 


NLR said...

I had not heard of Annand before. Certainly an admirable man.

Hagel said...

Sounds like a man who inspires poetry, about said man

Bruce Charlton said...

Epimetheus has left a comment:

Fascinating story. I wish I was made of the same stuff.

william arthurs said...

He was an old boy of my school, Pocklington, where the Cadet barracks are now named after him.