Lt. Col. William Douglas, who died aged 101, received an MC for a daring attack in Holland in 1945.
In March 1945, Bill Douglas was serving with the 11th Battalion The Royal Scots Fusiliers (11 RSF) and commanding a platoon of Company D. An enemy force had infiltrated the position of the 7th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (7 DWR ) near Haalderen, south of Arnhem.
Douglas’ company was ordered to mount a raid to establish the strength and identity of the German units on this most important part of the front. Widespread flooding, minefields and extensive barbed wire defenses made the operation very difficult.
In the early morning of 10 March, in the dark, Royal Navy assault craft ferried Company D up the River Waal to attack enemy positions. The surprise was lost when a Belgian unit on the south bank, seeing machines coming up the river, opened fire.
As a result, the landing had to be carried out before that planned and in the skirmish to secure the area, Sergeant de Douglas was killed; one section broke away in the dark and ended up with another platoon.
The other two sections set out to clear the enemy’s shore, but after about 300 yards one of them was held up by enemy fire. Douglas’ exhausted force fought its way from house to house until they too were pinned down by machine gun fire from a farm.
Ordering his men to take cover, Douglas called in mortar fire dangerously close to his own position. This allowed him to move forward. Having accomplished his task, he personally directed the covering fire to enable the rest of the company to withdraw.
All enemy strongpoints had been dealt with. Fifty-one Germans were killed, wounded or captured at the cost of three Allied soldiers killed and eight wounded. Douglas was given an immediate MC, his platoon corporal a DSM, and company commander Major Leslie Rowell an immediate DSO.
William Dewhurst Douglas was born in Bolton, Lancashire on March 15, 1921. Bill, as he has always been known, was educated at Thornleigh Salesian College, Bolton, where he was Head Boy, Games Captain for two years straight and cricket captain. , football, athletics and cross-country running. As a runner he was good enough to make regular appearances in the Northern Counties Amateur Athletics Association junior events.
After leaving school, war and conscription threatened and he volunteered for the RAF. A minor eye defect prevented him from becoming a pilot, so he switched to the Coldstream Guards. He underwent six months of basic training before going to Sandhurst.
In March 1943 Douglas was commissioned into the RSF and assigned to the 11th Battalion. Based in Chepstow, they were engaged in mountain warfare training in the Brecons before moving to Scotland to begin specialist training for a beach landing role. In early 1944 he became second in command of Company B when they moved to Norfolk for further training in preparation for the invasion of France.
On June 11, 1944, the battalion, part of the 147th Brigade, landed on Gold Beach in Le Hamel, Normandy. A fortnight later, they suffered significant losses during the battle of Fontenay-le-Pesnel. Douglas earned a reputation as an enterprising patrol leader. He was often out at night, near enemy lines, listening and noting their dispositions.
In October, at Kruisweg, South Holland, it was reported that an enemy tank was driving down a village road towards Douglas’s company. His men were in a big barn. There was no time to deploy them and they scattered in search of shelter.
Douglas grabbed a PIAT, a portable anti-tank weapon, and attempted to hide behind a low wall in front of a row of houses. He thought he couldn’t be seen, but was spotted by the German tank commander from his turret.
The tank’s gun could not be lowered far enough to fire directly at Douglas, so it blew up the houses behind; he had to be dragged out of the fallen rubble by his men. His sergeant saw the tank as he engaged it with an anti-tank gun he had pulled from a burning building. The sergeant later received a military medal.
Douglas was transported on a stretcher to a regimental aid station and then transferred to the Canadian military hospital in Antwerp. His spinal cord was so badly damaged that it was feared he was paralyzed. The feeling in his legs returned, however, and within a month he was discharged from the hospital, waved to a supply truck, and rejoined his battalion.
In December 1944, the battalion was in a low-lying area between Nijmegen and Arnhem. Known as “The Island” because it lay between the River Waal and the Lower Rhine, in a cold, wet winter, it was one of the most unpleasant sectors of the front.
Douglas’s company became part of the force defending the Nijmegen road bridge. One of their tasks was to drop hand grenades into the river at night to deter sabotage attempts by enemy frogmen.