Private William Henry Cotterill
Unit : HQ Company, 1st Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 5732747
Bill Cotterill was born in Wolverhampton on the 7th April 1920. His early life, as for many at the time, was one of hardship and poverty, and saw him employed in a variety of unskilled occupations. In September 1940, he and a friend joined the British Army and were posted to the Dorsetshire Regiment, serving with the 6th, 9th and 70th Battalions. In late 1943, now a Sergeant but without any battlefield experience, Cotterill applied to join the Parachute Regiment and, surrendering his rank to become a Private again, was transferred to the Airborne Holding Unit. He passed the subsequent training course; his jump record describing him as an excellent parachutist and highly recommended for promotion.
Posted to the 1st Parachute Battalion, based at Grimsthorpe Castle, Cotterill developed some of the dubious entrepreneurial activities that would define him after the war. Amongst other things, it is believed that he poached deer on the Castle estate and sold the carcasses to the local butcher. In due course he was caught in the act and brought before his commanding officer, who, rather than applying strict discipline, instead congratulated his initiative at target practice. Cotterill was only with the Battalion for several weeks when he was transferred to their Reinforcements Company, possibly because of a leg injury that he sustained whilst parachuting during a training exercise. He returned to the 1st Battalion proper several weeks before the Battle of Arnhem, believed to have been posted to Headquarters Company.
The precise course of events at Arnhem for Bill Cotterill are uncertain, but it is believed that he was not with the severely weakened 1st Battalion as they made their final push into Arnhem on Tuesday 19th September, but had instead become separated from their column as it snaked its way to the bridge during the previous days, possibly as a result of being held up in minor skirmishes with German units. In any case he became a part of the Lonsdale Force, assembled from the remnants of the 1st, 3rd, 11th Battalions and the 2nd South Staffordshires. He was soon embroiled in vicious close-quarters street fighting with the enemy in the Oosterbeek area, and distinctly recalled fighting his way from building to building, with rifle and grenades, as a Tiger Tank systematically demolished each house behind him.
He came close to injury on several occasions. During the fighting at Oosterbeek, he and a friend were making their way through a shell hole in the side of a house when a mortar bomb exploded next to them. His friend was killed instantly, but Bill escaped unscathed. Later, when the Lonsdale Force was withdrawn into the vicinity of Oosterbeek Church at the south-eastern corner of the Perimeter, Cotterill entered the Church and was immediately asked by an officer if he had been wounded. He had no knowledge of it, but the pack on his back had been badly shredded by a shrapnel burst, amazingly inflicting no injury at all.
During the ensuing fighting in the Oosterbeek Perimeter, Cotterill shot and killed two German soldiers as they attempted to capture a supply container that had been dropped near to their position.
When the 1st Airborne Division withdrew during the night of the 25th September, the Lonsdale Force were amongst the last troops to vacate their positions and head to the riverbank. By this time very few boats were still in operation and many were forced either to resign themselves to captivity or brave the currents of the Rhine. Cotterill removed his clothes and tried to swim to the other side, but the fast-flowing river only carried him downstream and washed him back up on the northern bank. He was found by German troops and taken prisoner. He still had no clothes and was not offered any by his captors, who marched him naked through the streets; something that he was always very bitter about in the years that followed. Like so many others his first port of call was to Stalag XIIA at Limburg, a transit camp where newly acquired prisoners were processed and held for a few weeks before being sent somewhere more permanent. The postcards he wrote home to his father and sister reveal that he also spent a brief period at Stalag XIIB and IVB before spending the remainder of the war, and the majority of his incarceration, at Stalag IVF, at Hartmannsdorf, near Chemnitz.
When Dresden was first bombed on the 13th February 1945, many Allied Prisoners of War were brought to the town to help clear the debris. It is believed that Cotterill was with one of these work parties, having forced his way onto it by swapping papers with a friend who had been assigned to it, and took the opportunity to escape. As for all Prisoners of War at this time, food was very scarce, indeed Cotterill's last meal in captivity had been a cat's tail. In the suburbs of Dresden on his first night of freedom, Cotterill had broken into a pub cellar and was helping himself to potatoes when the air raid sirens sounded and, to his horror, all the publicans rushed down into the cellar to seek shelter. By lying on top of some of the potato sacks he managed to avoid being discovered, indeed an air vent gave him a grandstand view of the bombing raid which, never a man to have any sympathy whatsoever with the German people, delighted him immensely. Yet such was the feeling in Dresden about these attacks that he knew he might be lynched if caught, so he decided to leave. At some point on his travels, he tackled and killed a German officer, relieving him of his Luger pistol. Cotterill initially decided to remain in the general area of Dresden, moving between three villages and getting to know where the food and shelter was until the war caught up with him and Allied troops arrived in the area. After a time though, he hitched a ride from a German military truck by hiding himself amongst the sacks it was carrying. Two German soldiers were driving the vehicle in the company of two women, who sat on top of the sacks. Eventually the lorry ran into an American patrol and the occupants were duly arrested. Hearing English-speaking voices, Cotterill leapt out of the back, half scaring the ladies to death in the process, and handed himself over to his liberators. It has been written into family folklore, possibly somewhat exaggerated, that Cotterill sold his Luger to an American on the flight home and used the money as the basis for his planned post-war business enterprises.
Still resentful of the treatment he had received in Germany, Cotterill had several heated encounters with German prisoners of war in England. On his way home in a crowded train carriage, he was appalled to see German prisoners sitting down while British women stood up. He pulled the emergency cord and brought the train to a halt, whereupon he saw to it that the situation was reversed. Some time later he was in a pub when he overheard two German soldiers, speaking in their native tongue, laughing and making jokes at the expense of the British. Bill had managed to pick up a little German during his period in captivity and was able to understand the gist of it, and so he bought a pint of beer and emptied it over their heads, adding "And that's what I think of you".
On the 20th September 1945, Bill was transferred to 1 Clerks and Storeman's School of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC). On the 15th December, he was posted to 3 Chilwell Group, and on the 31st March 1946, to 10 Group in Leeds. Upon being demobbed on the 22nd September 1946, "Tony" Cotterill became a highly successful entrepreneur and was involved in far too many wonderful business adventures for any justice to be done to them here. In August 1945, Cotterill married Edna Rodgers, with whom he had three children, Sandra, Chris, and Michael. In the years to come, he found himself having the dubious honour of becoming the uncle of the owner of this website. After setting up home in my village of Codsall, near Wolverhampton, he moved to Cheshire during the 1960's after the tragic death of Sandra, before retiring to Telford, in Shropshire.
Tony had put his military career behind him and had no contact with the Parachute Regiment or its Association branches until the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem in 1994. He immersed himself in the Airborne world once again, joined the pilgrimage to Arnhem and was interviewed on a news programme for Dutch television. Tony died on 18th January 1998, aged 77. The funeral was attended by representatives of the Shropshire Parachute Regimental Association. He was buried with his red beret.
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