Pictures

Major-General Eric Bols Major-General Eric Bols

Major-General Bols with Field Marshal Montgomery in the Ardennes

Major-General Bols with Field Marshal Montgomery in the Ardennes

Major-General Bols and Brigadier Hill

Divisional Headquarters on the 26th March

Major-General Bols and Brigadier Hill with Field Marshal Montgomery and General Dempsey

Major-General Bols speaking with various officers of the Division

Major-General Bols with Lieutenant-General Ridgway

Field Marshal Montgomery with men of the 6th Airborne Division

Officers of the 6th Airborne Division with Field Marshal Montgomery on the 14th May 1945

Major-General Eric Louis Bols

 

Unit : Headquarters 6th Airborne Division

Army No. : 28047

Awards : Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Silver Star

 

Eric Bols was the son of Louis Jean Bols of Quebec and Augusta Blanche Strickland of Poona, India. As his father had been the Belgian Consul in Quebec and later the same in London, Louis had dual British and Belgian citizenship and could have entered either the Royal Navy or the Belgian Army. In the event he did neither; after attending Lancing College he went to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and was subsequently commissioned into the Devonshire Regiment. Whilst based at Devizes, he met his future wife, Miss Strickland. Louis Bols was a very well-travelled man and had mastered a number of languages, becoming an interpreter in no fewer than seven. His military career was no less distinguished; he served as Chief of Staff to General Allenby for the greater part of the First World War, and was subsequently the first Chief Administrator, Occupied Enemy Territory, Palestine. Lieutenant-General Sir Louis Bols KCB, KCMG, DSO, tragically died in 1933, whilst half-way through his term of office as Governor of Bermuda.

 

Eric Bols was born in Camberley, Surrey, on the 8th June 1904. Having been educated in several institutions, he followed his father into Sandhurst where the Adjutant at the time was no less a personage than "Boy" Browning, the future father of the British Airborne Forces. Bols wrote of him, "I liked him a lot. He was very good with the young chaps and was popular. He would have made a damn good head-master of Eton. He had the ability to get on with people who were a couple of decades younger than himself. He was very proud of the Grenadier Guards and made people look up and not down, but with no personal arrogance. He and I frequently dug out foxes. He was a perfectionist - and what the hell is wrong with that!"

 

Bols also followed his father into the Devonshire Regiment on the 30th January 1924. Regimental sons often find life very difficult until they have settled in, and he always appreciated the unusual manner of his introduction [1]: "Easter came along and everyone shoved off on leave. I was left to take the Battalion church parade on Sunday. The Regiment was stationed at Blackdown. When I made my appearance on the parade ground the R.S.M. did not, as is normal, march across the square and report to me that all were present and correct. He waited, and eventually I had to walk over to him - it seemed a very long way. When I reached the place where he was standing, he greeted me in a very loud voice which could be heard by everyone on parade, "Sir, the last time I saw you on church parade was at Devonport. You were in a pram - aged three!" It was in this way that I was introduced to the Regiment. From then on the R.S.M. took over the parade and I was grateful that he left me just to walk up and down."

 

On the 31st January 1926, Bols was promoted to Lieutenant and left with his Battalion for China during the following year, initially based in Hong Kong before being posted to Shanghai where they helped to keep the peace. His time in China was brief, however, as his early career became one of a series of rapid transfers from region to region. In 1928, he was stationed in Malta and had the honour of playing polo with Lord Louis Mountbatten. From here his career progressed rapidly, becoming an instructor at the Signals School, Catterick, from the 27th June 1928 to the 29th December 1931, later serving as an officer of Cadets at Sandhurst from the 6th May 1934 to the 21st January 1935, before going on to attend Staff College at Camberley. Bols had then been promoted to Captain, but as there were no vacancies within the Devons he had to transfer to the King's (Liverpool) Regiment. With the staff course completed in the last days of 1936, he briefly returned to regimental duties before being seconded to the Ceylon Defence Force on the 30th August 1937, where he held the local rank of Major.

 

Still based in Ceylon when the Second World War began, Bols became a full Major on the 25th February 1940, although he did not immediately receive the pay and allowances for the rank. He returned to Camberley as an instructor before becoming a General Staff Officer with the 51st (Highland) Division, and later commanded the 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment. Promoted to Colonel, he was subsequently responsible for the training of the personnel of 21st Army Group and also had a hand in the planning of the Normandy landings. He did not participate in the invasion directly as he was retained by the War Office as a staff officer, but once the Allied armies began their advance from Paris to the Rhine, he was given command of the 185th Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. For his handling of the Brigade during the Battle of Overloon, its subsequent liberation and that of Venray in the Netherlands during October 1944, Brigadier Bols was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The citation makes particular mention of the Brigade's achievement in crossing the River Breek despite heavy resistance, poor weather and a lack of assault equipment.

 

In December 1944, Bols was promoted to Major-General and given command of the 6th Airborne Division. "I was commanding 185 Infantry Brigade, and found myself formed up in front of Monty to receive my first DSO. While he was doing his best not to stick the pin of the medal into my bosom - and nearly succeeded - he told me that he wanted me to take command of the 6th Airborne Division. I nearly fell backwards. Seeing my dismay he quickly added that I had no need to worry since I would have six months before the Division would be committed to battle. Monty then intimated that a future task would be an airborne operation across the Rhine and that I would have plenty of time in which to get to know the form. So I returned to London in order to pay a visit to the War Office. I wanted to learn what an airborne division was and the location of the division which I was to command. The next day I went down to Tidworth full of enthusiasm and believing that I had plenty of time to get to know this division which had gained for itself such a high reputation. I arrived at tea-time. Between tea and dinner I received a signal: 'Officer Commanding 6th Airborne Division. Be prepared to move to Belgium immediately'. The fierce counter-attack by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt in the Ardennes had started. I knew no one at Divisional Headquarters, and no one knew me. I was wearing my badges of rank, but had no maroon beret. I am not sure who was the more surprised by my sudden appearance, my Staff or me. I spent the night working hard. On the following morning I called an 'O' Group. On no previous occasion had I met any of the Senior Officers in attendance. The situation was not quite what I had envisaged after Monty's brief talk to me. The Division was in great heart. I was a very young general succeeding a general who was thoroughly loved, trusted and proved. It is always difficult to succeed a successful commander. I was fortunate, such a good Division with an efficient Staff would have made it difficult to go badly wrong."

 

Of all those who had commanded a British Airborne division, Eric Bols was described as perhaps the most debonair, a young Lochinvar, full of fun, bold, but 'no bloody nonsense'. He was tall, laughed very easily and exuded confidence and friendliness with an aristocratic air - but in no way was he pompous or aloof. [2]

 

In the last days of December 1944, Bols led the 6th Airborne Division to the Ardennes where they took up defensive positions between Dinant and Namur, covering the crossings of the River Meuse. On the 3rd January 1945, they advanced against fierce German resistance and eventually linked up with elements of the 3rd US Army. Subsequently posted to Holland, the Division returned home in February 1945 to prepare for the Rhine Crossing. Although the Division's brief return to the continent had been as unexpected as it was inconvenient, it had given Bols an excellent opportunity to become familiar with his command without being exposed to the hazards of a typical airborne operation.

 

On the 24th March 1945, the 6th Airborne Division dropped beyond the eastern bank of the Rhine to secure crossings over the River Issel and the terrain immediately in front of the 2nd British Army's advance. The landings were highly contested and casualties, especially amongst the glider contingent, were particularly heavy, yet the Division quickly secured all of its objectives and remained in command of them until the relieving ground forces arrived. Despite the chaos which reigned across the drop zones during these first hours, matters were not so dramatic for Divisional Headquarters. The glider in which Bols travelled made a safe landing on LZ-P, no more than a hundred yards from the Kopenhof farm where he had decided to establish himself. Within ten minutes of landing, he was in touch with the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades, contact with the 6th Airlanding Brigade followed before the half hour, and a link was soon open to the 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment, the supporting artillery of the 2nd Army, and the air support circling overhead.

 

"It was a beautiful day on the 24th March, when I landed by glider with my headquarters. I noticed what I first thought was a mist over the landing ground, but it turned out to be smoke from the fires at Wesel which had been thoroughly clobbered on the day and the night before we landed. My glider virtually landed in fog which covered the area. The Canadian battalion attached to the 6th Airborne Division landed a long way from its correct landing ground due to the smoke - this made things a bit difficult. I decided to go in by glider because I wanted to ensure that my wireless set-up was complete and working, not so much from the point of view of communication within my own Division, but to ensure that I could establish contact with our troops on the ground who were attempting to cross the Rhine. I was not worrying about them hitting us, but I wanted to let them know what to aim at. We acted as a very advanced observation post."

 

"After my glider had touched down I ran for the nearest ditch. Things were a bit hot on the landing-zone. I found an American Top Sergeant from a parachute unit of the 17th Division sharing the ditch with me. He had also landed adrift due to the smoke. We both had to keep our heads down. When the firing eased a little we discussed, as soldiers always do, our rates of pay. I discovered that this Top Sergeant in the American Army was getting danger money, parachute pay and heaven knows what allowances which added up to a little more pay than I was getting; so, when the time came to move, I suggested that as he was being paid more than me, he had better put his head up first!"

 

"Small things made a difference to the result of our battle. I never wore badges of rank, but I always wore a khaki hunting stock. All the men in the Division knew and recognized me. Each Brigade had its own signals in the early stages, without using wireless sets. One used a bugle, another a hunting horn and yet another a whistle, each call or blast having a special meaning. I could always tell where people were and who they were, but this early method of signalling completely foxed the Germans. After we had established ourselves, normal wireless communications operated."

 

"At the end of the battle we linked up with the advancing 2nd Army. Any hope of returning to England was quickly dispelled since we were soon ordered to continue with the land advance. Fortunately, we had already arranged for our 'B' Echelon to join us. The vehicles had to get over the Rhine and they were not the only vehicles wanting to cross the river. To get my vehicles across took a bit of sorting out with 'Jorrocks' (General Sir Brian Horrocks, Commander XXX Corps) of whom I was very fond. He was very good with the Americans."

 

"It is important for an airborne commander to be mobile immediately on landing. I had to have a jeep at once and the glider was the only means of achieving this. I would not accept the risk of having the whole of my headquarters with me in one glider. I believed in dispersal, which reduced the possibility of not having a viable headquarters on the ground as a result of glider casualties. I believe these are the reasons why senior commanders of airborne forces elected to travel by glider rather than land by parachute. Our gliders were made of wood whereas the American Wacos were made of metal. We did not have enough metal in the United Kingdom to make gliders. Wooden gliders broke more easily, but they did not present so great a casualty hazard as that of a metal glider following a crash landing."

 

"To be an airborne commander is easier than being a commander of land troops, because the men know that until you have your H.Q. and have assumed command following a drop, you are one of them and amongst them - and you always remain so. The most difficult thing about commanding airborne troops is that the chaps in the land forces don't understand your way of doing things. I have commanded both, so I know this to be true."

 

"One of the reasons why operation 'Varsity' worked so well was because a very close link was established with the Royal Air Force. The R.A.F. 'G' Staff were situated at my headquarters and my 'G' Staff were sitting in their headquarters - so we all knew exactly what was in the mind of the other. We virtually swapped Staffs. The reason why Arnhem went wrong was because it was doomed before the battle started. It was Monty's fault. The operation was postponed, extended and then put on again - all in too much of a hurry for an operation that size. What can be done on the ground cannot necessarily be done from the air. 'Operation varsity' was well planned. The staff work was excellent, as were intelligence and communications. We landed for the first time in daylight right on top of the enemy and with land forces advancing close at hand. We had learnt the lessons of Sicily and Arnhem. Surprise, skilled pilots, co-operation and good weather were all on our side". [3]

 

For his actions on the Rhine Crossing, Major-General Bols was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order and, on the recommendation of Major-General Ridgway, the Commander 18th US Airborne Corps under whom the Division was operating, he was also awarded the US Silver Star. His citation for the former reads:

 

General Bols landed with the 6th Airborne Division on the East side of the Rhine on the 24th March 1945. As a result of the extremely heavy close range artillery and small arms fire met on landing by paratroopers and glider borne troops alike, the handling of the situation required the utmost coolness and powers of leadership. In these hazardous conditions General Bols led his division with great skill and daring. His presence among the troops and his courageous bearing under heavy fire set the highest example to all ranks under his command and his inspiring leadership at this most vital time played a decisive part in securing the Rhine crossing, opening up the way for the advance of Second Army into Central Germany.

 

Thereafter, the 6th Airborne Division took part in the rapid Allied advance across Germany, ending with their arrival at Wismar on the Baltic Coast on the 2nd May 1945, where they were the first British unit to encounter the Red Army. Bols came forward to meet with a senior Russian officer who stated, with no small resolve, that his orders were to pass through Wismar and capture Lubeck. Bols forced him to back down by assuring him that he had an airborne division with five regiments of artillery at his disposal, and he would not hesitate to use them if the Russians compelled him to do so. The unexpected arrival of the 6th Airborne Division beyond the River Elbe was evidently remembered by the Russians. In 1965, it was reported in the Times that the former Russian General of that front, now Soviet Deputy Defence Minister, Konstantin Rokossovsky, had argued in an article that Bols had infiltrated his Division behind the Soviet troops during their advance on Lubeck, and it was only because his men had recognised the British uniforms that they did not open fire. Rokossovsky chose to ignore the fact that the 6th Airborne Division, far from being behind the Russian lines at the time, had reached Wismar several hours before his spearheads arrived.

 

There does not appear to have been any rancour at the time, however, and Bols was present when Field Marshal Montgomery met General Rokossovsky. "I had been over to Rokossovsky's headquarters and had asked him to come to my headquarters on a reciprocal visit. I arranged it so that Monty would be present. Rokossovsky, who spoke beautiful French, arrived and met Monty and was offered a drink. Rokossovsky also smoked and he noticed that Monty was not drinking, so he enquired, 'Are you not having anything to drink?' Monty looked up at this great tall cavalryman and said, 'I neither drink nor smoke!' That seemed as if it would end the matter, but the Russian General continued, 'Well, what do you do about women?' Monty failed to answer this enquiry - he decided to have a drink!" [5]

 

On the 5th July 1945, Bols was made a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, and in the post-war period of organisation where temporary officer ranks were prone to be reduced to their official level, Bols had his increased to Lieutenant-Colonel and he was allowed to retain the temporary rank of Major-General and with it command of the 6th Airborne Division. He and his Headquarters left for Egypt on the 21st September 1945, arriving shortly after at Tel Aviv in Palestine, where the Division was to remain in an uncomfortable policing role until 1948. Bols temporarily left the Division in March 1946 to attend the Imperial Staff College Course, resuming command in December before finally taking his leave in August 1947. 

 

On the 8th January 1948, he retired from the Army with the honorary rank of Major-General, although his actual regimental rank remained Lieutenant-Colonel. Bols could have stayed in the forces, but left for reasons that were typical of his buccaneer spirit: "I did not think very much of the job I was offered after commanding the 6th Airborne Division, and at that time the Army was shrinking in size. I was offered an attractive job in 'civvy street' which seemed to offer a lot of scope, but after a good start it petered out. My decision to leave the Army, in the light of after events, I very much regretted. But at the time it seemed the best thing to do". He retired to a cottage in Sussex, where he constructed and devoted his time to tending a magnificent terraced garden. He thoroughly enjoyed telling visitors that his wife, Barbara, was referred to as General Barbara by the villagers, and he was merely Private Bols. [5]

 

Major-General Eric Bols died at his home at Peppering Eye, near Battle, East Sussex on the 14th June 1985, aged 81.

 

[1], [2], [3], [4] and [5] The Sky Generals. By Major Victor Dover (1981). Published by Cassell. From interviews conducted 21st June 1979.

 

 

My thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.

 

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