Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Brian Coxen


Unit : 4th Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 73534

Awards : Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross


"Vic" Coxen served with the 1st Parachute Battalion in North Africa, and was awarded the Military Cross for his actions there in January and February 1943. His citation reads:


On the night 30/31st January, 1943, Captain Coxen was in command of a strong fighting patrol which attacked enemy positions in area Djebel Mansour (Tunisia: sheet 41. 0.7092). Although met by intense machine gun fire he skilfully overcame enemy positions and captured four prisoners and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, and destroyed two mortars and many machine guns. He then withdrew his men in face of a strong counter-attack with the loss of only one officer. Captain Coxen returned alone to the enemy positions without regard to his own safety to search for this officer.


On the night 2/3rd February, 1943, the Battalion attacked the same feature and in the early stages of the attack Captain Coxen's Company Commander and all other Company officers were either killed or wounded. Captain Coxen by his leadership and personal example rallied the Company, and personally attacked the machine gun positions which were holding up the advance. During the subsequent action on the feature Captain Coxen's coolness and courage was an inspiration to all under his command.


Coxen was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order for actions in North Africa in March 1943:


On the 28th March 1943 in the Djebel Abiod Sector (Tunisia Sheet 10) the Battalion attacked strong enemy positions. Major Coxen was in command of the leading company which had to attack a strongly held enemy position on a hill. Although the attack was met by intense machine gun fire Major Coxen rallied his men and led them into the assault. It was due to the gallantry and leadership of Major Coxen that the feature was taken. Later in the day Major Coxen's company had to attack a superior German force in a wood. Major Coxen personally led a bayonet charge against the enemy which failed to dislodge them from their positions but inflicted heavy casualties on them. He then withdrew his company, reformed them and charged again, this time capturing the enemy positions and some fifty prisoners. Major Coxen's personal leadership so inspired his men that very strong enemy opposition was overcome. The courage and leadership of this officer during all previous actions have been of the very highest order.


Coxen took part in the invasion of Sicily with the 1st Parachute Battalion before being given command of the 4th Battalion. The following is an abridged transcript of an interview with Lieutenant-Colonel Coxen for the Imperial War Museum, copyright: IWM 21039, regarding Operation Dragoon.


I was dropped 25 miles out from where I should have dropped. The Americans [aircrews] are very good jockeys, [but have] very poor experience. They were going in vics of vics (nine aircraft), the lead aircraft [was] the only one who had a qualified steer merchant, and the other navigator was in one of the rear planes. They had a naval vessel [transmitting a signal] out at sea, about seven miles from the coast. This thing was in a fixed place and all they had to do was fly on a bearing. They went over the beacon fine, then the [pilot's equipment malfunctioned] so he couldn't speak to anybody. So he tried to throw himself out of formation, and we had a pleasant little time of doing acrobatics in the air. As I say they were not great navigators but they were very good pilots, so wherever he went everyone else went too... he waved around all over the place. [Eventually] he gave up and made a guess, and the whole nine planes dropped 20 miles from where we should have dropped.


In order that I would be at the rendezvous quickly [after landing], I was in the right hand plane, so all I had to do was whip across... and I was there. I had a look [around], there were mountains on the DZ, [but] no mountains at the front where they ought to be. [I] guessed if I go North-East I should come to a stream and the rendezvous is just beyond the stream. So I went there, I found a stream, I crossed it and found a house. I thought this must be it. A chap came out. He had one of those yokes with a bucket which he dipped into a tank and he picked it up and moved back into the farm. I stepped out behind him and we walked in like Laurel and Hardy, in step, and he opened the door and went in, and I pushed by him then with my pistol in my hand. And there was a French family having breakfast. I felt rather guilty about this, I pushed [my gun back] in my pouch and I said I am English [and] have parachuted from a plane. And they said good. I said is this farm... I thought it was, they said no. So I pointed over in the direction of Le Muy... I took out my map they said no... So I took out a map of the South of France and they said "there", and I was about 18 miles North of where I should be.


So we got the people together and said we will start moving across the massif - we had a bloody great mountain in that range. We were trying to avoid action until we got to where we [were supposed to be]. We went on all day. I had some bloody awful Americans with me as well. They were an Observation Post of some gunner units. They kept coming to me and saying where they [thought we] were, and I had to say "look buster, I don't know where I am but I know where I'm not, and we're not there."


We marched all that day through and at the end it got really dark. I halted [and] said "stay here, I'm going on". I just went on, by myself - I'm always happier working alone at night. I went straight down the road, if I heard something coming I could always whip in. A couple of columns of trucks went by. I came down near to Le Muy, and I went down into a French farm and I said "do you know the way to where my rendezvous was" and they said yes. I said cheers and everything else. I said to one of them "will you go back to where I'd left the other people and lead them down to this place and tell them I have gone on". And with a boy of about 14, he led me over and I came into my headquarters just outside Le Muy.


We had a few skirmishers, nothing much, got a few prisoners which we handed over to the Americans. I went back to make contact with the Americans who were landing on the coast and moving up towards us, and I got hold of a car and we drove through a German column. We were both in uniform, took our hats off and waved to them, nobody took any notice of us at all, and we went on and out the other side. I told [the Americans that] there was nothing between them and Le Muy so why not move up.



The following obituary appeared in the Telegraph in 2000.


Brigadier Vic Cox, who has died aged 88, was awarded an MC when fighting in Tunisia in January 1943 and a DSO the following March. Coxen had been commissioned into the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI) in 1939 and went with the British Expeditionary Force to France. There the DCLI fought a series of resolute defensive actions, losing more than half their strength in the process. Coxen eventually made his way to Le Havre, from which he was evacuated.


Back in Britain, he volunteered for the newly created Parachute Regiment, and was posted to the 1st Battalion. They landed in Algiers on November 8 1942 with orders to capture Bizerta and Tunis, some 500 miles away. The battalion dropped near the airfield at Souk el Arba and captured a key road junction only 90 miles from Tunis. Coxen was assigned the task of occupying a farmhouse in an important tactical position. He did so with only 10 men, after severe fighting.


He was awarded his MC in January 1943 in the attack on Djebel Mansour, where he commanded a large fighting patrol which reached the summit and captured 14 prisoners and several machine guns. On February 2, Coxen led a small group which laid marking tapes to guide the rest of the battalion in a dawn attack. Opposition to the subsequent attacks was fierce, and 1 Para lost half its strength (35 killed, 132 wounded and 16 missing) and was running short of ammunition before handing over to the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, who also had numerous casualties.


Coxen's battalion was almost continually in action during the rest of the campaign and although the brigade to which he belonged suffered heavy casualties, it captured 3,500 prisoners and inflicted 5,000 casualties on the enemy. The Germans nicknamed them the Rote Teufels (The Red Devils). They were surprised when they passed a camp full of German prisoners who cheered them as they passed. They were pleased to have earned the nickname, for it had been gained from much hard fighting. In July 1943, 1 Para parachuted into Sicily and captured Primosole. For the Italian campaign, Coxen was appointed Commander of the 4th Parachute Battalion, which took a leading part in the fighting around Cassino and the river Sangro.


Coxen was then dispatched with 4 Para to spearhead the invasion of southern France in August 1944. Although the drop was eventually successful, many parachutists were dropped well outside the designated landing area. Coxen landed 10 miles away, but made his way across country and linked up with his command early the next morning.


His next assignment was Greece, where his battalion first helped to drive the Germans out and then had to engage in unpleasant anti-terrorist warfare to prevent the Communists overturning the legal government and seizing power after the Germans had left. Vic Coxen, who was wounded three times and mentioned in despatches, was not merely a first-class leader in battle, but was also a commander who knew how to train and organise his men so that they could face any eventuality with confidence.


Harold Brian Coxen (always known as Vic) was born at Bude, Cornwall, on October 21 1911 and educated locally. When 16 and still at school, he played centre-forward for Plymouth Argyle as an amateur in the season in which they were promoted to the Second Division of the League. Well over 6 ft tall, strong and fast, he also played rugby, soccer and cricket for Cornwall. After leaving school, he joined the National Provincial Bank and the Territorial Regiment of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. At the end of his wartime service, Coxen rejoined the bank, but soon found civilian life too dull, and returned to the Army. He commanded the 4th/6th Parachute Battalion in the post-war turbulence in Palestine, after which, in 1947, he went back to the DCLI as second-in-command in Mogadishu, Somaliland.


In 1949 he was posted back to Greece as chief instructor at the Greek School of Infantry, returning home in 1951 to take command of the School of Land-Air Warfare, in Wiltshire. In 1956 he commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in the Canal Zone, before returning to command the Parachute Regimental Depot. In the same year, he was appointed Regimental Colonel. Coxen's final post before retirement in 1961 was Garrison Commander in south Wales. Thereafter, in an active retirement, he helped to raise funds for Truro Cathedral and was chairman of the English China Clay Association. He was a Deputy Lieutenant for Cornwall; and in 1995 Athens conferred on him the Freedom of the City.


He married, in 1938, Kathleen Vera Davison; they had a son and three daughters.


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