Pictures

Colonel John Tillett during the 1960's, in the uniform of the 1st Uganda Rifles

Colonel John Tillett

Captain John M. A. Tillett

 

Unit : Battalion Headquarters, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

Awards : Mentioned in Despatches.

 

The following is John Tillett's obituary, as it appeared in The Telegraph on the 27th January 2015.

 

Colonel John Tillett, who has died aged 95, was closely involved with the glider-borne operation to capture Pegasus Bridge on D-Day.

 

Late on the night of June 5 1944 Tillett, adjutant of 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, together with his CO, saw off the first wave of glider-borne troops from Tarrant Rushton, Dorset. Led by Major John Howard, the six platoons of "D" Company, known as the coup de main force, were ordered to seize the first objectives of the invasion, the vital bridge over the Caen Canal as well as that over the Orne River at Bénouville, later renamed Pegasus and Horsa bridges.

 

Tillett flew to France with the remainder of the Battalion later on D-Day and they crash-landed their gliders in the fields of Normandy at about nine o'clock that evening. Some 400 gliders carrying the 6th Airlanding Brigade were all making for small designated areas near the town of Ranville. When asked how he decided where to land his contingent of some 70 gliders, Tillett replied "We came down anywhere there was room!"

 

In the few months of fierce fighting that followed, the Battalion had several hard engagements with the enemy and suffered many casualties, before reaching the River Seine and being pulled back to England at the end of September 1944.

 

John Tillett was born on November 4 1919 at Ipswich and educated at its Grammar School. During a hockey tour of Germany in 1936, he saw at first hand something of the Hitler Youth organisation and was made an "honorary member" of it. Convinced that war was coming, he joined the AT. He was commissioned and posted to the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, known as the "52nd".

 

In early 1944, he was appointed adjutant and played a key role in the preparation for the battalion's landings on D-Day. On one occasion, having taken off from Harwell, the tug pulling the Horsa glider with Tillett aboard was heading out over the sea when the tow rope parted. The glider pilot turned back for the coast but it proved impossible to make landfall and the glider crashed into the sea near Poole Harbour.

 

Tillett found himself squashed against the bulkhead by a jeep and trailer loaded with live ammunition. Eventually getting free and floating among the wreckage in the sea, he grabbed a motor cycle tyre to use as a lifebelt and awaited rescue. One soldier died in the crash. Tillett broke a bone in his neck.

 

During their refitting in the autumn of that year, Major Howard was seriously injured in a traffic accident. Tillett, promoted to major, took over Howard's company and led it for the rest of the war. The 52nd was among the reinforcements rushed to the Ardennes during the harsh winter of 1944-1945 to hold the line as the Germans launched their desperate counter offensive. Its next operation, codenamed "Operation Varsity", took them over the Rhine and into Germany. They landed near the town of Hamminkeln, well behind the German front line but among the rear gun positions, and got a hot reception. Many gliders were hit as they came in to land; others landed right among German positions and were badly shot up as a result.

 

For the rest of the war they fought on foot. One day, Tillett recalled, they came to a strangely eerie camp in the woods near Lüneburg. This was the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp which the German guards had abandoned to its fate. They found the gates open and no sentries anywhere although the starved and disease ridden inmates were too weak to escape. He was relieved that his duty was to push on in pursuit of the retreating enemy rather than to get involved in dealing with the horrors of the place.

 

As the war ended, and the British and Russian Armies met near Lübeck on the Baltic coast, Tillett was present when Field Marshal Montgomery met the Russian commander, Marshal Rokossovsky. For his service in the North West Europe Campaign, Tillett received a Mention in Despatches.

 

After the war, he accompanied the 52nd and the rest of the 6th Airborne Division to Palestine where they had the task of dealing with the growing threat of Jewish terrorists. He later had a desk job at the War Office where he liaised with MI5 and MI6 on military intelligence matters.

 

In 1955, Tillett became an Instructor in the Nuclear Weapons Tactical Wing of the School of Infantry, Warminster, and was a witness at the British atomic weapons tests held at Maralinga in South Australia. Four years after these tests, he developed asthma and suffered from emphysema for the rest of his life. He received a 75 per cent disability pension.

 

In 1959, he was appointed second in command of his regiment, then styled 1st Battalion Green Jackets - and soon to be retitled 1st Battalion Royal Green Jackets. The hard work that he put into training his shooting team was rewarded by their success in becoming runners-up at Bisley and he won the Army Individual Non Central Championship.

 

This was followed by a move to Uganda as the CO of 1st Ugandan Rifles. One member of this battalion was a certain Idi Amin, who served as an officer under Tillett having been promoted to officer rank from RSM of the battalion a few years earlier. Amin went on to succeed Tillett in command of the battalion before going on to his notorious political career.

 

Tillett, in the rank of brigadier, eventually commanded the whole of the Ugandan Army but he faced intractable political difficulties and, having decided that it was time to leave, was back in England after a few months. He was then posted to Ottawa, Canada, where he worked as Assistant Military Attaché in charge of the British Defence Liaison Staff.

 

His final appointment was at HQ Shape, where he ran the Establishments Inspection Team. He retired from active service in 1969 and, for the next 11 years, as a "Retired Officer", he set up and then managed what came to be widely recognised throughout the Army as the most efficient and successful system for the selection and recruitment of high quality potential officers for his Regiment.

 

Another of his consuming interests lay in the regimental museum which was housed for many years in two small rooms in the TA Centre at Slade Park Barracks, Oxford. He played a key part in the planning and setting up of the new museum in Winchester.

 

For many years Tillett was a member of the Army Sports Control Board, during which time he wrote the official Army rule books for the then "new" Army sports of canoeing and free-fall parachuting. He became the administrator of the Darell-Brown Memorial Trust, a fund set up to assist members of his old regiment who had fallen on hard times.

 

He was a regular visitor to Bénouville, Normandy, and Hamminkeln in Germany.

 

John Tillett married, in 1943, Joan Lawson, who survives him along with two sons and a daughter.

 

Colonel John Tillett, born November 4 1919, died December 14 2014.

 

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