Man the Nazis could not kill: A giant with a volcanic temper, he shot 100 enemy soldiers and won a VC… but hated being a heroStanley Hollis braved a wall of heavy machine gun fire – twice – during the landings that led to the end of the Second World WarWar hero previously fought at El Alamein, Dunkirk and the Sicily landingsHe was wounded so many times he was branded 'The Man They Couldn't Kill'Yet he was haunted by his memories, often crying for days at a time with guilt over German teenager he gunned down
02:59 GMT, 27 December 2012
Sergeant-Major Stan Hollis, of Middlesbrough was the only soldier awarded a VC at D-Day and is believed to have gunned down 100 German soldiers
During the early hours of June 6, 1944 – D-Day – lines of scared young soldiers waited in the dark for the order to board the landing craft that would take them into battle on the beaches of northern France.
At the last minute they were issued with an unexpected piece of equipment — a condom each!
‘What are these for’ boomed out the voice of Sergeant-Major Stan Hollis, a hulking power-house of a man from the back streets of northern England.
‘Are we going to fight the Germans, or f*** them’
The cheeky question was typical of the forthright Hollis, a tough, uncompromising veteran with an uncanny knack of making light of the most perilous of situations.
The youngsters around him broke into laughter, the anxiety in their guts and minds eased for a precious few moments.
They were about to land on the beaches of France. Many would die or be badly wounded in the moments ahead.
But if the Sergeant-Major could make a joke of it, then they might be all right after all.
Hollis, at 31 was one of the most battle-hardened soldiers in the British Army, having fought at Dunkirk, El Alamein and in the Sicily landings, and knew that the condoms were to cover rifle muzzles and keep them dry as the men waded ashore.
But as a leader, he had an example to set. Show no fear.
Within minutes of the landing craft grounding to a halt, he showed himself not just fearless but the bravest of the brave and an example to all.
As he and his men of the Green Howard regiment stormed up Gold Beach at the very heart of the Normandy invasion force, his deeds earned him the Victoria Cross, the supreme award for gallantry.
His was – surprisingly, given the scale of the operation and the opposition the invaders had to overcome – the only one awarded on D-Day.
Victory: His martial actions at D-Day were so significant he is credited with having gotten the advance moving after it was stalled by fierce German resistance
One hundred and fifty thousand Allied troops took the beaches against devastating fire from well dug-in enemy positions; 12,000 died.
Amid unimaginable valour and carnage, Hollis stood out.
Now, seven decades on, there are plans afoot to put up a monument to him in his home town of Middlesbrough to mark for ever his unique achievement.
His is the remarkable story of a man matched with a moment in history, who came from nowhere to make his mark, and then disappeared from view.
Though dead for 40 years, he deserves to be remembered, his epic tale told again for a new generation.
Hollis, a Yorkshire-born-and-bred steelworker and a lorry driver, was a maverick character. Always his own man, he’d lost his stripes more than once in his Army career for stepping out of line, but his obvious leadership qualities always won them back.
Sentinel: As his company advanced on a German gun position on D-Day, they were faced with a German machine gun position. Mr Hollis charged it, spraying it with bullets from his sten gun, and killed or injured everyone inside
He was a big man in every sense, with a volcanic temper and huge fists, which he wasn’t slow to use if provoked.
With his red hair, 6ft 2in frame and rugged looks, he was not someone to mess with — as the German troops defending the beach on which he landed were about to find out.
After wading ashore in waist-deep water through a hail of mortar fire, he and his men negotiated a minefield and crawled uphill towards their objective, a battery of German big guns which were busy laying down a barrage of shells on the Allied invasion fleet out in the Channel.
As they approached, they suddenly came under fierce machine-gun fire from a pill box on their flank.
‘It was very well camouflaged but I could see guns moving around the slits,’ Hollis recalled. His company was in danger of being wiped out.
Like some Hollywood hero, he leapt to his feet and, with his sten gun spitting from his waist — ‘spraying it hosepipe fashion,’ as he remembered — he charged across the dunes, dodging the hail of bullets trying to cut him down.
Reaching the pill box, he shoved the barrel through a slit and let fly. Then he climbed on the roof and, leaning over, popped a grenade inside for good measure.
The explosion was his signal to jump down and throw his considerable weight against the door and burst inside. Two German soldiers lay dead, the rest too wounded or dazed to react.
Hollis then turned his attention to a neighbouring pill box, down a 100-yard communications trench.
As he strode towards it, changing the magazine of his sten gun as he went, Germans poured out of it with their hands in the air. He had single-handedly captured 20 of the enemy.
More importantly, by putting the pill boxes out of action, he had saved the lives of his own men as they now pressed on towards the German gun battery and silenced it.
He had turned the course of the battle. Without his intervention, writes his biographer, Mike Morgan, ‘the first wave of attackers would have been stopped and the crucial initial thrust of the invasion threatened’.
Heroes: Stanley Hollis (centre), William Sidney (left) and Lorne Campbell (right) at Buckingham Palace. All three won VCs
This action alone merited a VC. But three hours later, his face running with blood after a graze from a German sniper’s bullet, Hollis followed up with another act of selfless bravery.
The company’s advance into the Normandy countryside was impeded by another German position, this time in an orchard.
Eight British men lay dead and two others were pinned down. Hollis charged the enemy once again, firing from the hip as he went, and held his ground, despite hostile bullets whipping around him, until the two were able to escape.
His actions were witnessed by senior officers, who cited him for his valour. ‘Wherever the fighting was heaviest, Sergeant Major Hollis appeared,’ said the official report of his VC, ‘and in the course of a magnificent day’s work he displayed the utmost gallantry.
‘On two occasions his courage and initiative prevented the enemy from holding up the advance at critical stages. His bravery saved the lives of many of his men.’
But Hollis was self-effacing about what he’d done that morning. He’d just been lucky, he insisted. ‘If I hadn’t done the things I did, then somebody else would have.’
Stanley Hollis, Victoria Cross winner, looking at his own portrait. He was a humble man who hated the fame his bravery gave him
Hollis’s record, however, suggested the opposite. At Dunkirk in 1940, a mortar shell had stripped all the clothes off his back and riddled him with shrapnel, yet, naked and wounded, he managed to swim through the surf to a waiting rescue boat.
He then fought with distinction in the North African desert, where he was captured and escaped.
During the invasion of Sicily, he distinguished himself capturing an enemy machine-gun post. He was wounded so often that his Green Howard comrades dubbed him ‘The Man They Couldn’t Kill’.
What made him stand out from the rest Though he was reputed to have killed 100 Germans, it wasn’t that he was an ace with a gun. Indeed, he said of his ability with a rifle: ‘If I fell down I couldn’t hit the floor’.
Nor was he the most efficient battlefield soldier. On one occasion on D-Day he lobbed a grenade — ‘I threw it like a cricket ball; I could never do it the proper Army way’ — and forgot to take the pin out first.
‘Fortunately, I’d followed it up straight away. Two Germans had seen it coming and kept their heads down. /12/27/article-2253522-019941950000044D-468_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”Hollis fought at El Alamein in North Africa (right) and the Sicily Landings (right)” class=”blkBorder” />
Hollis fought at El Alamein in North Africa (left) and the Sicily Landings (right)
He had a lightning quick brain at assessing situations and deciding how to react. He never panicked. He inspired others, too, as an instinctive leader of men.
Sadly, all this did him little good after the war. For a short while he was a celebrity, called on to open fetes and visit factories — all of which, modest man that he was, he hated.
The fame was soon over. Despite his VC, he found it hard to find work in post-war Britain, a grim place of rationing and austerity.
A soldier’s professional skills, so valued in war, were redundant now. Men of Hollis’s age and experience — the country’s saviours — often found themselves passed over for younger workers.
Here was a man with just the strength of character needed to get the struggling country on its feet again. Yet no one wanted him.
All his imagination and flair went to waste. He was reduced to supporting his wife and two children by pushing trolleys of scrap into a blast furnace.
To his credit, he didn’t whinge. Nor did he rush to leap on the benefits bandwagon of the new welfare state.
Mr Hollis and his family on a beach. He was haunted by some of the things he had seen and done during combat
Hollis refused to go on the dole or take the war pension to which he was entitled. He even refused family allowance payments.
‘I don’t need charity handouts,’ he would maintain, with that same fierce pride and independence that had made him such a force on the battlefield.
He finally got work as the landlord of a pub in Middlesbrough, and that remained his occupation, one he enjoyed immensely, for the rest of his life.
He was a hugely popular landlord, though there were occasions when young toughs with too much beer inside them would want to pick a fight with the man with the VC.
‘No one ever bested him,’ recalled his daughter Pauline. ‘He would make a joke of it but if they wouldn’t take no for an answer, he would take them outside. They always regretted it.’
Mr Hollis never forgave the Germans and once refused an invitation to a film premiere where he would have been expected to shake a former German soldier's hand
But the war years took their toll. Bullets and shrapnel remained lodged in his body for the rest of his life.
His children remember him standing behind the bar of The Green Howard — re-named by him in honour of his regiment — for hours on end with blood seeping from painful old wounds in the bones of his feet.
Those wounds and the long-term suffering they caused may well have contributed to his premature death from a stroke in 1972 at the early age of 59.
Hollis was never a gung-ho old soldier, living on past glories. He didn’t boast about his achievements and took no pride in the Germans he had killed in battle. If he got word that a journalist was on the way to the pub to interview him, he would slip out of the back.
Yet nor was he prepared to forgive and forget. During his escape from Dunkirk, he had seen the bodies of British soldiers massacred by the enemy.
The sight haunted him. When in 1963, the film epic The Longest Day was released to great fanfare, some bright PR spark thought it would be marvellous to get D-Day hero Hollis along to the premiere to shake hands with a former German officer.
Where a new generation was ready to bury the hatchet, an affronted Hollis was not. ‘I find it impossible to treat a man as an enemy one minute and then shake his hand,’ he said.
‘I saw the result of too many of their atrocities ever to trust, or like, the Germans again.’
It was a deeply unfashionable view for the peace-loving Sixties but the old warrior stuck to his guns. And who can blame him
Equally, he had his own demons that never left him. In Normandy he had shot down a teenage member of the Hitler Youth — the same age as his own son — who had gone on the rampage with a gun.
For years after he had terrible nightmares. His children remember him locking himself in his room for days on end, crying to himself that he had blood on his hands.
Hollis the hero was also Hollis the man with a troubled conscience. In this, as in much else, there was something of the Everyman in Stan Hollis.
This, as much as his deeds and his VC, make him worthy of remembrance. As Shakespeare would have it: ‘He was a man, take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.’
A site has been set aside in the centre of Middlesbrough for a memorial to this extraordinary national hero, and designs drawn up. Around 80,000 needs to be raised for the work. To make a donation, visit stanleyehollisvcmemorial.co.uk or via The Stanley E. Hollis VC Memorial Fund, 54A Church Street, Guisborough, Cleveland TS14 6BX.