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He attacked a tank single-handed at El Alamein, and engaged in personal duels with the Germans which he had no right to survive.Long afterwards, his commanding officer, Lt-Col Robin Hastings — no relation, alas — said to me: ‘You know, I think Hollis was the only man I met in the whole war who felt that winning it was his personal responsibility.It worked brilliantly: Hitler kept vital forces in the Pas-de-Calais — well to the north of the Normandy beaches — until August, amid his high command’s chronic uncertainty about what the Allies might do next. General Sir Alan Brooke wrote bleakly on June 5 about the invasion: 'At its best, it will fall far short of the expectations of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing about its difficulties.At its worst, it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war' Then there was the Royal Navy, led by the brilliant Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.Clever British geeks devised a compound of grease, lime and asbestos fibres to waterproof vehicles.Others designed what were known as ‘the funnies’ — tanks modified to swim, or carry fascines (rolled-up bundles of wood) to bridge ditches, mortars to destroy pillboxes, flame-throwers and flails to explode mines.
Operation Fortitude required collaboration between the code decrypters of Bletchley Park, the MI5 officers controlling German double-agents in Britain, the RAF’s reconnaissance squadrons and thousands of army signals personnel impersonating dummy units, which were used to deceive the Germans on troop positions.
But if I had to single out one moment of the struggle which represented the zenith of our national achievement, the finest of British endeavours in peace or war, then it must be what was done by millions of our people of all ages and both sexes to make possible the triumph of the landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Despite Winston Churchill’s proud defiance and the RAF’s wonderful achievement in the Battle of Britain, between 19 the British Army suffered repeated defeats and indeed humiliations, often at the hands of smaller numbers of Germans or Japanese.
Likewise, the head of the Army, that fine soldier General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote bleakly on June 5 about the invasion: ‘At its best, it will fall far short of the expectations of the bulk of the people, namely all those who know nothing about its difficulties.
Recall the men who drove amphibious tanks through choppy seas which sometimes swamped and drowned them; those who parachuted into action with 6th Airborne Division; Lord Lovat and his commandos led by his personal piper; the foot-soldiers who stormed the German positions behind the beachhead.
At the top of my personal pantheon is a lanky, gap-toothed 32-year-old Yorkshireman named Stan Hollis.