Major Wilson

Major Wilson conferring with Polish officers after the briefing for Market Garden

Major Bernard Alexander Wilson


Unit : Headquarters, 21st Independent Parachute Company

Army No. : 43050

Awards : Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross, Mentioned in Despatches


Major Wilson, "Boy" to fellow officers and "Bob" to his men, had commanded the Independent Company since July 1943, and at the age of 45 was the oldest parachutist in the Division. The 186 men of this unusually large company were pathfinders, and as such were the first troops to be deployed in Arnhem, arriving some 20 minutes before the first gliders began to land. At Eton, Wilson met and befriended Frederick Browning, the later Lt-General and Deputy Commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army, and it was due to this connection, his seniority, and also the independent nature of his unit that he was allowed to adopt a highly individualistic approach to the Company. He had previously served as a reservist in France, where he was wounded, and thereafter had been stationed in Wales as part of the Home Defence force. As a Captain he heard that his friend, the then Major-General Browning, was raising an airborne division, and so he wrote to him and asked if he could be a part of it. Browning agreed on condition that Wilson passed the necessary medical tests. It was later to become common knowledge within the 1st Airborne Division that Wilson was hard of hearing in one ear and had to cheat his way through the medical examination. Once the medical officer had examined his healthy ear, Wilson drew his attention to a trivial incident of a nondescript nature that was occurring outside, and after they had settled down again Wilson presented the unsuspecting man with the same ear he had just tested. When Major-General Urquhart took command of the Division he was advised that Wilson was a provocative individualist who knew as much about parachute soldiering as anyone still alive. Urquhart described him as a "tough, incorrigibly eager little man. Modestly built, he oozed confidence and assertiveness out of proportion to his size". This observation upon their first meeting prompted Urquhart to say "Ah Wilson, I understand you bounce off everybody." to which Boy said without the slightest care for formality, "Sir, I have an independent unit and I'm considered to be rather independent". One of his sergeants, Ron Kent, wrote that he was "a slightly built but incredibly tough and wiry figure. He had been born in 1900, yet when the Company parachuted, he parachuted; when it marched, he marched; when it came to recreation, he could hold his drink better than any and could enjoy a relaxed good time as well as the next man. Yet he carried the burden of command and cared for every one of this men as he would for a son. He was a fine judge of character and would not tolerate any one in his Company who did not measure up to his standards, but he was fair-minded and deeply understanding of human nature. He earned not only the respect but the affection of the men who served under him".


After Operation Comet had been cancelled on Sunday 10th September, Wilson did like so many others in the Division and went on leave to see his family, but having only had time to complete his lunch he was informed of the new Market Garden plan and so sped back to camp in his jeep, where he busied himself studying reconnaissance photographs of the area. Waiting for take off one week later, Urquhart noted that he was "positively boyish" with his enthusiasm. The Independent Company were highly confident that Market Garden would be a resounding success, and many had packed metal and boot polish for the liberation celebrations. Wilson had packed his finest battledress and highly polished brown shoes, which he held in his parachutists leg-bag, weighted at some 75lbs. Also contained within were a bottle of sherry, gin, and whiskey, which he hoped to pass on to Dutch Resistance leaders.


Sitting down in the aperture of his Stirling aircraft before jumping, Wilson could see cows quietly grazing in the warm sunshine below him. As the red light came on the pathfinders jumped, Wilson himself over LZ-S, and though a few shots were fired on them as they descended, no one was wounded, however two men had bullets strike their equipment, and a further two were injured when they landed heavily. As Wilson removed his parachute harness he found himself confronted by a solitary German of Wehrmacht origin who clearly wanted to surrender. The man led him to a foxhole that contained several more who were keen to become prisoners; they had been having lunch only moments before and wished to be out of the war. Wilson told the men to hold on while organised his Company. Having contacted all of his platoons and ensuring that all was well, he ordered that pigeons be released for London to carry the message of their successful and unopposed landing. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the casual and anti-climatic nature of the first few hours of the Operation, the birds settled down on the roof of the Reijers-Camp farm and needed the incentive of pebbles being thrown at them before they would leave. The Independent Company was now firm in its positions, guarding 16 prisoners and quite content with its acquisition of a German staff car, though Wilson admitted that it was a lonely period for them until the drone of the airborne armada could be heard approaching in the distance. Gliders began to come down all over the landing zones, and Wilson saw one such craft undergoing some drastic manoeuvring to avoid overshooting the zone, but one of its wings hit the ground, causing it to swing violently and skid along, tearing up earth as it went until the glider itself broke apart under the strain. Men from the Independent Company rushed to help and found men getting out with a number of bruises and cuts, though not a single serious casualty. By chance Wilson recognised an old friend in the glider pilot, an ex-Guardsman now with a blackened and a grazed face, and he invited him to his Company HQ in the farmhouse for a drink of water. He poured the man a glass of whiskey and upon tasting he remarked "My God, this Dutch water's good!".


With their pathfinding role successfully completed and few casualties sustained, the Independent Company spent the initial days of the battle in the Divisional reserve, setting out to mark the drop zones for subsequent lifts as they came. In the Oosterbeek Perimeter, the Company were placed in two positions at the north-western edge of the pocket, but were withdrawn when the 7th KOSB were forced to abandon their positions on their right flank, which would have left the Company heavily exposed. On the same day, the 10th Battalion had been overrun in their positions in front of the Main Dressing Station on the Utrechtseweg-Stationsweg, and the Independent Company was ordered to fill in the gap that this had created. Their No.3 platoon was told to occupy the hotel along the main road, which was an isolated and vulnerable position. Major Wilson lodged a very strong objection to Brigadier Hackett about this, but was overruled as a force had to be put between the Germans and the Dressing Station. No.3 Platoon took up their positions, but the building was soon destroyed by German tank attacks. Wilson took the opportunity to remove the survivors and bring them back across the road, much to Hackett's annoyance.


It was during the early stages of the defence of the Oosterbeek pocket that the Independent Company was bombarded with German propaganda from a loudspeaker. It was broadcast to them that Major-General Urquhart, who at this time was still missing, was a prisoner and that the battered remains of the 1st Airborne were surrounded; "It is better that you should give yourselves up, Tommies". In customary fashion this request was answered with a burst of fire from a Bren gun. After the Company was withdrawn from these positions, Wilson reported to Urquhart and cheerfully informed him of this difference of opinion, and added that the Germans were terrified of the red berets; "They don't like us one bit". Perhaps with good reason too, because in that same position the Germans had once again called upon the Company to surrender, and though the details are by no means clear it appears as if they were unwittingly lured into a ruse de guerre by the Independent Company, who then cut down with rapid fire. The Company had been mortared for some time, and during the lull that followed the Germans shouted over something about "surrender". It was not clear whether they were insisting that the pathfinders submit, or whether it was they who wished to surrender. One of No.1 Platoon's German Jews, Corporal Max Rodley (real name Hans Rosenfeld), was told by Wilson to call upon them to surrender and come out into the open, and it is believed that as many as 50 Germans came forward, all armed and none displaying the slightest sign of submission. When they were within point blank range the glider pilots on the left flank of the Independent Company opened up with Brens, and No.1 Platoon quickly added their weight to the slaughter. Few Germans escaped. It is clear that the Germans were coming across to accept the surrender of the Independent Company, and though a ruse de guerre is totally acceptable, if slightly immoral ploy in war, it would be wrong to assume this was anything other than a highly confused situation.


Moved into their new position on the Utrechtseweg, the Independent Company were making a considerable nuisance of themselves. Not only was their defence as steadfast as any in the Division, but they caused havoc in the German lines by expertly deploying snipers around the area, and also launching the occasional raiding party into German territory. It was on one such raid that they returned with three German prisoners; a rarity given the present mode of warfare. Soon after Wilson received a message on the radio telephone from the Germans, ordering him to let these men go or else they would come and take "your Sunray"; Sunray being the call sign used by Urquhart. Wilson was highly amused by this threat and willed them to come and do so if they really thought they could. Over the coming days Boy Wilson maintained verbal contact with his adversaries, and to "cheer them up at Division", he made a point of calling Urquhart late at night to relate some anecdotes that had resulted from confrontations with the Germans, both physical and verbal. He told him that they were very happy in their new positions, and added "We cooked a goat today and we have enough water for brewing up for some time to come". When the 1st Airborne landed, the owner of one of the houses that the Independent Company now occupied, a doctor, had the good sense of fill his bath with water before the Germans disrupted the supply. Wilson told Urquhart "My God, I only just managed to save it, though. I found two chaps just about to use it for their ablutions".


On Saturday 23rd, the Independent Company were presented with an ultimatum: withdraw from their positions, or a self-propelled gun, which had been moved up to within sight of them, would blast them out. There was little in the way of anti-tank weaponry available and so Wilson decided to bluff his way out of this, telling the man who had contacted him on the wireless, "We have a lot of Piats here, if you don't clear off we'll blast you out". The vehicle withdrew. When a truce was arranged to evacuate the wounded from Oosterbeek on the afternoon of Sunday 24th, this sombre procession passed the positions of the Independent Company on the Utrectseweg. Despite the truce, two German MkIV tanks were reported to be in front of No.3 Platoon and a message was handed to Major Wilson stating that unless he withdrew his men 30 yards then the two tanks would forcibly evict them. Wilson sent a message back saying that he would comply, but only if they withdraw from the vicinity and put their tanks back at least a mile. To ensure that this was treated seriously, Private Dixon, No.3 Platoon's cook, was sent to destroy one of the tanks with his PIAT. The bomb struck the tank in the rear and exploded its ammunition. The remaining tank soon withdrew, followed by the German infantry in the area.


On Monday 25th, as the Independent Company were on their way to the river bank to be ferried across, they were fired upon by German spandau's and their group was consequently split up. Major Wilson was slightly wounded as a result of this clash; a bullet grazed his nose and right eye. However he was able to find his way to the embarkation area and was soon taken across in one of the few craft provided for the task. Unfortunately the boat hit a mud bank on the way over and capsized, throwing its cargo into the river. Faced with little alternative the men swam for the other side, and Wilson successfully reached the southern bank. 


Upon returning home, Boy Wilson was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and awarded a DSO. His citation reads:


At ARNHEM on the 17th September and 18th September the Company commanded by this officer was responsible for marking the Drop Zones and Landing Zones for the landing of the Division. This landing was extremely successful.


On the 20th September, Major Wilson and his company occupied the sector of the divisional perimeter and from that date until the evacuation were subject to intense mortar and shell fire. The defence of their sector was most aggressively carried out by Major Wilson. A very large number of Germans were killed and some self-propelled guns silenced.


During the house to house fighting which followed, the vigorous leadership shown by Major Wilson and the offensiveness of his company were quite outstanding and this particular sector of the perimeter remained firmly held until the end.


Wilson continued to command the Company in Norway and Palestine until October 1945, when he left to take command of the Airborne Holding Battalion. In 1953, he was awarded the Queen's Coronation Medal.


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