Captain Stuart Hills, who has died aged 80, landed on the Normandy beaches in a dinghy after his tank was sunk by shellfire; he was subsequently awarded the MC for an action at the River Noireau crossing.
On August 15 1944, the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, part of 8th Armoured Brigade, came up to the Noireau in Normandy. The river was about 20 yards wide and beyond it, above steep wooded hills, were three fortified villages. At least two enemy battalions were known to be holding the ridge, including young, tough troops from the German 3rd Parachute Division.
That night, the crossing was forced by 1 Worcesters and 5 Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, who dug in and called urgently for armoured and artillery support to beat off the inevitable counter-attack. The next morning, C Squadron led the Rangers' advance across the river.
The enemy artillery observers called down accurate shell and mortar fire and, within a short space of time, the squadron lost six experienced tank commanders; Hills's troop was, effectively, the only one still intact, and he was the only one able to continue the advance.
Two of his tanks were badly damaged when the enemy allowed his troop to pass through them in the thick woods and then attacked him in the rear with Panzerfausts. On the crest of the hill, he came under Spandau and mortar fire, but he could now see the Germans dug in under the hedgerows, and he opened up. A trickle of prisoners started to come in, and on August 17 the infantry, supported by the other Rangers squadrons, completed the capture of the Berjou Ridge above the Noireau.
Hills was awarded an immediate MC. The brigade commander wrote to his CO, "Your chaps really did a superhuman job up that ruddy mountain and the decorations were well deserved."
Stuart Faber Hills was born on April 5 1924 in Hong Kong. He returned to England for his schooling, but his parents remained in the colony, and holidays were spent near Broadstairs with two headmistresses as guardians. Their regime included a daily walk to the lighthouse with a bad tempered dog, which he found irksome. Young Stuart was sent to Tonbridge, where he played cricket and rugby for the school and was unbeaten in the boxing ring.
Hills enlisted at Bovington Camp, Dorset, in 1942 before going to Sandhurst. He was commissioned into the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry in January 1944. Two years earlier, the Rangers had been transformed from horsed cavalry into an armoured regiment in time for the battle of Alam Halfa in North Africa.
On June 5 1944, conditions in the Channel were unpleasant; a stormy night had turned into a cold, blustery day. Hills and about 30 men were packed into a landing craft, with six tanks adapted for buoyancy, which was anchored outside Southampton Water. As the LCT pitched and rolled in the heaving sea, a tarpaulin stretched between the tanks provided poor shelter from the rain and salt spray; clothing and blankets were sodden and the decks were awash with vomit.
Sealed orders were opened and a briefing took place in the cabin of the ship's captain. The Rangers were to be in the van of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division's assault on Gold Beach at the western end of the British sector. With the beachhead secured, the division was expected to push on and capture Bayeux by the end of D-Day.
As darkness fell and the huge convoy moved southwards, Hill's commanding officer wondered aloud whether other invaders of bygone times had had the same "rats-in-the-stomach feeling" that he had then, and that he always experienced before going in to bat or riding in a steeplechase.
The plan was to launch the tanks four miles from the beach; but the rough sea made this impracticable, and the Rangers' LCTs were within a few hundred yards of the beach when they lowered their ramps. Hills, in the leading tank, was silhouetted at the top of the ramp, making a perfect target for the German gunners.
A shell slammed into the water in front of him, damaging the plates at the base of his tank and, after 50 yards, it was shipping water and sinking fast. Hills and his crew piled into a small rubber dinghy and paddled frantically with their hands as the strong current swept them eastwards. Bracketed by an enemy shore battery, and expecting at any moment to be blown out of the water, they were spotted by an armed landing craft and rescued.
For the rest of the day they remained at sea. On the morning of D+1, the Navy fished an abandoned dinghy out of the water, helped them to clamber into it and wished them luck. Half an hour of paddling brought them to the beach. All they had between them was one tin hat, one revolver and the clothes they stood up in. The Beachmaster watched their arrival and commented, "This is sure to swing the balance in Monty's favour. There will be consternation in Berlin."
Hills and his troop rejoined their regiment and took part in the break-out from Normandy and the pursuit to the Somme. Beyond Brussels, stiffer resistance was encountered and, in September, Hills's men were in the main square in Gheel when it was surrounded. His Sherman took a direct hit from a Panzerfaust and he was lucky to escape with just a grazed forehead.
In January 1945, Hills took command of Recce Troop. He fought with his regiment across Holland and Germany and held the rank of captain at the end of the war. He was demobilised in 1946, and joined the Malayan Civil Service four years later.
He served during the turbulent years of the Emergency and returned to England in 1958 to join Associated Octel, a subsidiary of Shell. Responsibility for the company's business in the Far East involved many months of travel each year; he made 92 trips to Japan.
Hills retired in 1986 and lived at Tonbridge, where he enjoyed golf and watching his old school play cricket and rugby. In 2002, he published By Tank into Normandy (Cassell & Co).
Stuart Hills died on May 29. He married, in 1953, Dorothy Knight, who survives him together with their three daughters.
This obituary was reproduced by kind permission from The Telegraph Media Group
Citation for the Military Cross
304722 W/Lieut HILLS Stuart Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry
Lt Hills was comndg a Tp of C Sqn in sp of a coy of D.C.L.I. which had been ordered to capture LE HAMEL over the Burjue Ridge in order that the bridgehead on the Burjue ridge could be firmly established. In order to reach the village of LE HAMEL it was necessary to pass through extremely thickly wooded country from which the enemy had not been cleared. Owing to this difficult country, his tp became separated from the Coy of Inf. However, he pushed forward to the outskirts of the village, during which time his whole tp were continually engaged by enemy Bazookas which he was unable to locate owing to the thick country and the fact that the enemy allowed his tp to pass and attacked him from the rear. In spite of having two of his tanks badly damaged by enemy Bazookas, Lt Hills continued to lead his tp forward until he reached the outskirts of the village. He continued to engage enemy positions in the village until he had used up all his ammunition. In spite of the failing light and continued attacks from enemy snipers and shortage of ammunition, Lt. Hills remained in position with his troop, until after darkness had fallen, and the Infantry arrived to clear the village.
Lt. Hills displayed the highest courage throughout the whole of the action and carried on quite regardless of his own personal danger, especially when he guided his troop on foot in order to find a way through this difficult and wooded country which was infested with enemy snipers and Bazookas.