Captain Bernard Holt Halsall
Unit : No.6 Flight, "C" Squadron, No.1 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Army No. : 134176
Awards : Military Cross
Bernard Halsall was born at Southport on the 18th March 1921 into a moderately well-off Lancastrian family. He and his younger brother Peter were educated at Stonyhurst, where Bernard excelled at medium and long-distance running. In 1939 he enlisted as an infantryman in the 2nd Battalion, Liverpool Scottish, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders.
Recruits were supposed to own property in Scotland, and before being accepted Bernard was dispatched by the colour sergeant major to deposit a pair of trousers with the dry cleaners Pullars of Perth at its establishment in Castle Street, Liverpool.
Bernard Halsall spent the early part of the war in north-east England manning a deception gun which had telegraph poles for gun barrels. But when the Glider Pilot Regiment was forming he volunteered, and during his brief training showed a natural aptitude for flying. His Tiger Moth flying instructor had the disconcerting habit of violently hitting the joystick; if it did not fly out of Halsall's hand, plainly he was holding it too tightly.
Halsall's operational flying career began in June 1943 with an airborne assault on Sicily. The aim was to secure a vital bridge over a river and canal south of the key city of Syracuse. The operation, mounted from bases in Tunisia, involved flying at night below an altitude of 500ft. As a navigation aid, three searchlights were shone vertically upwards from Malta at the appropriate moment.
Lieutenant Halsall piloted Waco Chalk 86 together with Captain T. D. M. McMillan on the night of the 9/10th July 1943. They were carrying members of "D" Company, 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment. Their report reads: "Good tow, intercomn worked well all the way. Strong cross wind. Tug missed release point on first two attempts and glider released on third run in at 2340 hrs at 1300 ft and one mile from coast. Glider landed in orchard 2-300 yds West of LZ. One man received broken leg."
Of the 2,060 men involved in the operation, only a fraction actually reached the landing zone; most were forced to land some distance away, and many drowned in the sea after their gliders were released prematurely. Halsall, who was commanding a platoon, was one of only eight men still capable of resistance on the bridge by 3pm on the second day. They had no choice but to surrender. Within the hour, however, the forward troops of Montgomery's Eighth Army had taken the bridge, overtaken the retreating Italians and liberated Halsall and his comrades. For his exceptional bravery against great odds, Halsall was awarded the Military Cross:
This officer showed great leadership and courage in his first gliderborne operation. He not only landed his glider successfully on the island but he led his platoon to the objective against great odds. He took over the defence of a sector of the Syracuse Bridge and throughout several counter attacks showed coolness and courage and was an inspiration to all. It was due to his leadership that his sector held for 15 hours and credit showed to Lieutenant Halsall that the operation as a whole was a success.
In 1944 Halsall, by now a Captain, took part in the landings at Arnhem. En route to Arnhem, on Monday 18th September 1944, his tug aircraft developed a fault whilst still over England and the glider had to cast-off. He took-off with the Third Lift on the next day, Tuesday 19th September, but the glider came adrift once again, near Ghent in Belgium. Initially hostile to the intruders, the locals soon realised that Halsall and his men were with the Allies, and they offered them shelter and helped them to return to their units. In 2006, Halsall was contacted by the villages, including some who had been present on the day, and invited him to return with his wife, Constance. The couple were overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of their hosts.
On the 24th March 1945, Bernard Halsall took part in Operation Varsity, the Rhine Crossing, flying a Hamilcar glider containing a 17-pounder anti-tank gun, vehicle and crew, which he delivered successfully onto the assigned landing zone near Hamminkeln.
After the War, Halsall worked as an agricultural merchant in Leicestershire and over the next 35 years he became a familiar face at local markets and farms. In the 1960's he led a project which pioneered the delivery of bulk fertiliser direct to the field, where it was spread by his specialised teams. Forced to retire early in 1982 following a heart attack, Halsall underwent a triple bypass operation, but continued to enjoy playing a full part in family life as a grandfather and great-grandfather.
Bernard Halsall died on the 4th March 2011, aged 89. He is survived by his wife, Constance, and by their son, Air Commodore Martin Halsall and a daughter.
My thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.
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