Major Dennison in Italy, 1943

Mervyn Dennison, in later life as a High Court judge

Major Mervyn William Dennison


Unit : "A" Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 100018

Awards : Military Cross


Mervyn Dennison was born in County Cork, Northern Ireland, the son of a Methodist minister. He was educated at Methodist College, Belfast, and later at Queens University where he read Modern Languages and Law. His studies were distracted by the declaration of war, and in October 1939 Dennison joined the Royal Ulster Rifles. He served with their 1st Battalion, who were later converted to the Airborne role and, until 1943, formed part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade, thereafter they were assigned to the 6th Airborne Division. Dennison had already parted company with them by this time, however, and in the final days of 1943, having completed his parachute training, he joined the 1st Parachute Brigade in North Africa. At the end of this campaign he was posted to the 3rd Battalion and served with them in Sicily and Italy.


Of the preparations before take-off for Arnhem, Dennison later said, "There had been no time for breakfast before leaving the Battalion quarters at Spalding in Lincolnshire. Despite the fact that strict orders were given that all men were to be given a "fat free" breakfast to lessen the chances of airsickness, nothing deterred the NAAFI ladies from bringing their van on to the airfield. Here they proceeded to distribute a concoction of near cold tea and "sandwiches" consisting of white bread smeared with margarine and containing two slices of cold greasy bacon with the rind still attached. Nevertheless those experienced soldiers in the Company collected all uneaten sandwiches and crammed them into any spare pockets of pouches that were available."


Corporal Wise, Dennison's batman, had also taken the chance to eat as much as he could stomach and took surplus with him for future consumption, explaining to his officer, "We'll get no more food today." A sensible course of action on the ground, maybe, but once in the air, Wise began to feel the worse for his trouble and was violently sick. Dennison pitied his poor batman and fetched a steel bucket "...for the Corporal's greater comfort", from the rear of the Dakota and then donated part of his copy of the Sunday Times to the task of cleaning Wise up. Major Dennison attempted to empty the bucket out of the side-door when the slipstream caught both himself and the bucket and very nearly dragged him out of the aircraft and to his death, "Only the grace of God and the strong arm of the Jumpmaster prevented me from being pulled out."


Major Dennison jumped with the 3rd Battalion at 13:53, he took the trouble of writing this time on his wrist with a copying ink pencil. "The drop had been the best we had ever known - accurate, a speedy rendezvous - and "A" Company 100 per cent in position." Corporal Wise had recovered from his sickness enough to fill his stomach again with another of the bacon sandwiches, one of which he also handed to a grateful Dennison. As the landings were taking place, many Dutch civilians were walking out onto the zones to welcome the British soldiers, and one man, dressed in a Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, shook Dennison by the hand and said, "You are very welcome, Tommy, but why have you waited so long?" The 3rd Battalion had difficulty moving through the swarms of well-wishers, and Dennison, waving his blackthorn walking stick in both a friendly and threatening manner, got his Company through as quickly as possible.


For his conduct during the Battle, Major Dennison was awarded the Military Cross:


Major Dennison commanded a company of the 3rd Parachute Battalion which was dropped West of ARNHEM on 17th September 1944. During the advance on the town on the evening of 17th September the battalion was held up and shortly afterwards, Major Dennison's company in the rear came under small arms and heavy mortar fire from the flank. Major Dennison led two platoons of his company and over-ran three enemy machine gun posts which formed the nucleus of the opposition on the flank. On the following morning Major Dennison's company acted as rearguard to the battalion advancing on ARNHEM, but was cut off from the remainder of the battalion by strong enemy forces. Later the battalion got into serious difficulties and Major Dennison, with reserve ammunition, was ordered to fight his way through at all costs. This he did successfully against very strong opposition. Throughout both these actions Major Dennison showed a high standard of personal courage, leadership and determination. Even when severely wounded in both arms, he continued to encourage and inspire his men.


The wounds to his hands were received whilst fighting with a German infantryman who was attempting to bayonet him, this man was quickly dealt with by a member of "A" Company. Only moments before this incident, Dennison had awakened after a mortar bomb had landed close to him and knocked him unconscious.


Dennison made his way back to the Oosterbeek Perimeter where he spent the remainder of the battle amongst the wounded. On Friday 22nd September, he found himself in the Vreewijk Hotel at the Utrechtseweg-Stationsweg crossroads, after being laid out on a stretcher and, with another man, tied down to a Bren carrier and driven there with both considerable speed and skill. The Hotel was under the supervision of Corporal "Chirpy" Couling of the 16 Parachute Field Ambulance, Dennison said of him, "He was a man without equal when it came to caring for the wounded. Quite a few men survived that battle because of his unstinting care and devotion to his patients. He deserved so much more." Couling was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.


Another man whom Dennison came into contact was an SS Obersturmbahnführer who had been wounded in both legs and feet. He was offered some morphine for his pain, but refused this because he believed that the medical personnel were trying to poison him. Dennison lay next to him, "He turned out to be a very agreeable companion, speaking good English, and as a result received his fair share of what food and cigarettes the Dutch were able to smuggle in to us. When the sad news arrived that the remnants of the Division were to retire across the Rhine, the Germans moved into the hotel. They threatened us with their shouts and curses and told us to get up and get out. We owe something to our friend the SS Colonel who sat up on his blanket, gave them hell and told them to mind their manner to these British, who were both soldiers and gentlemen!"


"Most of the survivors would confirm the chivalry of one brand of good soldiers to another. The Divisional Director of Medical Services {Colonel Graeme Warrack} had spent many hours during the battle driving to and from the German headquarters organising cease-fires to permit the removal of our wounded, or, on several occasions, to permit the exchange of wounded prisoners. And so the wounded began their journey to prison camp. A few evaded their guards and hid up in the homes of those wonderful Dutch families. Most went into Germany in great discomfort in those "40 hommes, 8 cheveaux" {40 men or 8 horses} bare wooden wagons. Stalags for other ranks ranged from bad to tolerable. Officers did much better in Oflags, but wherever it might have been, one has to remember that it was within five or six months of the end of the war and the Germans were as short of food and necessities as the prisoners."


Major Dennison was taken to Oflag IXA/H. Like many prisoners, he used the time of his incarceration to further educate himself and, with the assistance of the Red Cross and their completely valid examinations, he was able to sit his Bar finals during his stay. When he had finished this, the camp was emptied and its occupants marched westwards, away from the advancing Russians. Once outside the Castle, Dennison, with Lieutenant Tony Baxter, the command of "A" Company's No.2 Platoon, slipped away under cover of "smoke"; quite literally, the guard dogs accompanying the party were distracted when the prisoners covered for the escapers by blowing cigarette smoke at them. The pair successfully found their way to the American lines and were subsequently repatriated.


Mervyn Dennison returned to the Parachute Regiment for a time, but in 1945 he was called to the Bar in Northern Ireland, and two years later he joined the colonial legal service and became a Crown Counsel in Northern Rhodesia. In 1960 he became a QC and a year later was a High Court Judge in Zambia. Dennison returned to his homeland in 1967, where he worked as a clerk at Fermanagh County Council until he retired in 1973. He was thereafter a part-time member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve, and was also President of the Northern Ireland Branch of the Parachute Regimental Association.


He married Helen Maud (née Spiller), and had two children, Susan and Michael. How they met was related in the following article: "The army officer who was to become the Honourable Mr. Justice Mervyn William Dennison, MC, QC, acting Chief Justice of Zambia, gained a wife by the simple expedient of elbowing the young lady's (then) current escort into a flower bed and whisked her away in a car. "Naughty of me..." he muses today. "It quite ruined the dahlias. I don't usually act like a caveman, mind you. The fact was, I so liked the look of her at the end of the room that I had to do something drastic. The Royal Air Force officer she was with did not seem to object." It is not surprising, Mervyn Dennison stands six feet four inches in his socks and has a build to match. More, he is a thoroughbred Irishman with a history of regimental rugby and boxing."


Following a brief illness, Mervyn Dennison died on the 12th January 1992, aged 78. His wife passed away on the 18th September 2014, aged 93.


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