Ellis 'Dixie' Dean's experiences of North West Europe during the Second World War.

Lieutenant, later Major Dean MBE MC TD, became the archivist of the 13th Battalion after the war and wrote an unpublished account of their exploits: "13th Battalion The Parachute Regiment: Luard's Own".

The following are extracts relating to his experiences with the Battalion.

"At the beginning of September 1943 I was serving in "Depot Company", Hardwick, and had been taken off a draft for 1st Division on account of my inexperience as an Officer, when I heard that the C.O. [Commanding Officer] of the 13th Battalion was here, interviewing recruits for his battalion, and I arranged to see him. Again I thought my inexperience had resulted in being turned down, and even stressing that I had served as a Serjeant in the 6th Parachute Battalion for eight months, didn't seem to impress him. The Colonel explained that there would be little enough time to train his battalion, so he was looking for experienced Officers only. Imagine my delight, when three weeks later, I received instructions to join my own county Battalion. I travelled down to Larkhill with Lieutenants Fred Skeate and Stan Jeavons."

Flying to Normandy in a Stirling bomber on the 6th June 1944 - "Pre-warned by the pilot that the lights would be switched off, on leaving the coast, we fitted kit bags and weapon valises while we still had light. We also "hooked up" while we could see what we were doing. Hence, when the wireless operator came from the crew's cabin to act as despatcher and announced "twenty minutes to go", we simply stood up. The actual gun numbers with their heavy kit bags needed some assistance, checked static lines and equipment and Serjeant George Kelly reported to the pilot "Stick ready to jump"."

"My next task as No. 1 was to help open and secure the upper aperture doors, but looking backwards down the darkened fuselage, I could see that the W.Op. [Wireless Operator] was having problems lowering the "strop guard" (a device hinged to the outside of the fuselage which prevented the empty parachute bags being bashed to pieces on the bottom of the plane). Lance Corporal Harold Turner (No.2), unhooked me and I went and lowered and secured the strop guard as the poor unfortunate air crew man was unable to do so. I returned and was hooked up, but again had to unhook, go to the rear and undo the rear bolts of the aperture doors and then for a third time was hooked up."

"As the aircraft neared the coast of France, the German ack ack units were alerted, searchlights started to probe the sky and the flak guns opened fire. Serjeant Bill Webster thought he was going to jump into a rain storm until the despatcher told him "That's flak". After being hooked up for a third time, I looked down through the hole and was surprised to note that we were flying over land. The last warning from the pilot had been "twenty minutes to go" and I knew that the D.Z. [Drop Zone] was only 90 seconds flying time from the coast, so why were we flying over land. In my confused state, I imagined that we had not crossed the English coast yet and I was still puzzling it out, when from my rear came a great bellow "Green on". I looked up. They were right. What happened to the "red" was my reaction. I looked down. The land was still below. A pace forward and I was out. A common feeling during the descent was "where is everybody". This was a Brigade drop zone, but it seemed deserted, but for the moment the first priority was to release and lower kit bags and valises."

"I landed in a tree rising out of a bocage type hedge on the eastern edge of the D.Z. and even after I had climbed down the leg straps I hadn't reached the ground and was completely enclosed in foliage. Gingerly letting go, I dropped all of twelve inches to the bottom of the hedge and I then had to use my torch in order to locate the butt, body and barrel of the Sten which was threaded under the harness and had crashed to the ground when I twisted and banged the quick release box. Pulling the branches to one side to reach the open field, I was surprised to see, only a few yards away, a large white French cow, staring intently in my direction. Just into the corn was the shadowy figure of Lance Corporal Turner with the tripod who greeted me with the immortal words "I've just told that cow, I've come to liberate her." A little further on we caught up with Private Bill Price, who had jumped No.3 and was carrying the Vickers gun. Some one else who encountered the cows he had been warned about was Jack Sharples, who had to dive into a dry ditch to avoid the stampeding herd."

"Not only were we without ammunition but the location I had been briefed to occupy (and told I was not to move from without Brigade authority) was useless. The corn only yards in front of the single gun was three feet high and that was the limit of our field of observation and fire. There was also the matter of an unknown number of Germans, only 100 yards to our rear, and there was the problem of shortage of ammunition. Captain Bowler (the Officer at Brigade, responsible for coordinating the arcs of fire for all the three Machine Gun Platoons) had not visited us as arranged back in England to sort out any problems on the ground. Try as he did Andy Fairhurst could not contact Brigade, nor could he raise any of the other M.M.G. [Medium Machine Gun] Platoons. In the end I went to Brigade and got permission to take all the members of the Platoon, not actually manning the guns, to go back to the D.Z. and search for ammunition, but I must be back at the guns no later than 1000 hours. Others were making desperate efforts just to join up with the main force."

While Lieutenant Dean was away, a Section from his Machine Gun Platoon was ordered to occupy the "ring contour", in the 12th Battalion sector near Le Bas de Ranville. "The 12th Battalion Platoon Commander told me the Brigadier had moved the Section up to the crest and we were about to cross the road when we first heard the approaching heavy armour. I sent Serjeant Kelly's ammunition carriers at the double to join him and then scrambled up the bank in order to observe. Before I got to the top a gun away to my left opened up, followed immediately by the regular rat-a-ta-tat of a single Vickers. More shots were fired and when I was in a position to see what was happening, three tanks no more than 100 yards away were already stopped, one already blazing and the two others quickly followed suit. Up the slope and further away, a fourth tank was also on fire. (I later learnt that what I had regarded as tanks were in fact S.P.'s. [Self-Propelled Guns])"

"Before we set off to look for ammunition, I had found a position from where the other section would be able to carry out its task and led the carriers there. On the way we passed close to one of the 6 pounders responsible for knocking out the armour and I paused to congratulate them. Not surprisingly they were as pleased as Punch with themselves. I left the carriers at the new position and went, accompanied by Private Alf Williams, to collect the gun team who had remained behind. Moving up the final stretch of hedge, inexplainably, I took a 36 grenade from my pouch, carried it in the right hand and my left fore finger through the pull ring. I was looking to my left where the German armour had flattened the hedge. Alf was alongside, hissing in my ear, "Jerry's" up there". I looked ahead. A party of Germans had come along the track from the farm and were gazing intently at the burning vehicles. Out came the pin and away went the grenade. I grasped my Sten, released the safety catch and in true Boys Own Paper style, charged. Surprise was complete, the Germans took to their heels back towards "Lieu Harras". For once the Sten didn't let me down, a full magazine without a stoppage. The Vickers had been stuffed under the hedge, I called to Alf to collect it, while I reloaded and got off another full magazine at the fleeing enemy, although they were well out of range by now, but I hit one of them, as he stopped clutching the back of his thigh and two of his companions came back and supported him as they staggered away. Alf hoisted the tripod across his shoulders and picked up the condenser can which left me with only the gun itself to carry. We then legged it as fast as we could back to safety."

"On reaching the track leading to where I had left the ammunition carriers, we slowed to a walk and noticing a rabbit sitting up in the hedge to my left, I halted, lowered the gun to the ground and drawing my .45 pistol took a shot at the animal. Where upon much to my surprise, not twenty yards away in the corn, a German soldier rose up. We looked at each other in silence and then he took to his heels and ran off. Dropping the pistol dangling at the end of the lanyard, I got another full magazine load of Sten fire at the fleeing "Jerry"."

Commenting on the situation that unfolded during the following weeks: "The supply of weapons etc. lost on the drop was unbelievable, a 24 hour service and the two new guns replacing those lost (plus the spare carried in the Q.M.'s [Quartermaster] glider), all came complete with dial sights, which we had not been issued with back home. Serjeant George Kelly pointed out, that if I reported a sight destroyed by enemy action, a replacement would be forthcoming, hence when the Battalion returned to England, he would be able to train the Platoon to use them. I informed the R.Q.M.S. [Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant] of our plans and within days, all four guns were fitted with sights. During this period in reserve, we spent several hours each day mastering these new devices. They were not much different from the mortar sights with which we were already accustomed to using and before we moved back into the front line, Serjeant Kelly informed me that the Platoon, in the words of the training manual, were capable of engaging the enemy, even when the target was obscured by fog, smoke or darkness, at ranges greater than other weapons were capable of."

"We returned to the brickworks for one day and then returned to the riverside, a mile upstream from the bridges. The reason, the Battalion were to rehearse a night attack against a known German Headquarters. That evening prior to the first practice raid, the Battalion was treated to another awe inspiring demonstration of Allied air supremacy. This time it was Bomber Command of the R.A.F. who provided the players and the occasion, yet another attempt by 2nd Army to capture the town of Caen, which was only four miles inland from us. No warning of the attack had been given to us and in the evening sunlight we watched as a single Lancaster flew across our front and then released a shimmering cascade of silver lights, marking the target. Not far behind came a steady stream of other four engine air craft and we could clearly see the bombs leave the bomb bays and start their fall. More coloured markers, red and green added colour to the spectacle and the ack-ack guns roared into action, with the shells bursting among the Halifaxes and Lancasters. But they flew on regardless of the danger. As the bombs exploded a great cloud of smoke started to rise, getting progressively higher as time went on. We stopped counting the number of planes involved and the later arrivals had the easier run in, as the flak guns either ran out of ammunition or were destroyed by the bombing."

"All together we carried out three rehearsals for the attack and then it was cancelled. The C.O. had queried the tactical value of the plan, which would result in the Battalion being marooned several hundred yards away, in German held territory and his view prevailed. So it was back to Le Mesnil. Instead of the Battalion attack a Company of the 7th, repeating a previous exploit of theirs, were to carry out a day time raid on the same objective. This would be launched from "B" Company's area and the Machine Gunners (some one had informed the C.O. of the Platoons recently acquired ability to provide indirect fire) were to isolate the right flank of the enemy in the farm."

As the Battalion approached Pont L'Eveque on the 22nd August 1944, Lieutenant Dean was asked by Lieutenant-Colonel Luard to go forward to conduct a reconnaissance of the German defences. "I realised immediately, that the C.O. did not mean me to organise and lead a fully briefed Recce Patrol, so accompanied solely by Andy Fairhurst, I made my way back to the main road and moved down into the town. Unless the enemy opened fire on us I had no idea as to how I was to fulfill my task. I moved down the right hand side of the road, while Andy Fairhurst followed thirty or forty yards behind, on the opposite side. To begin with, we were out of the built up part of the town advancing between high banks on either side of the road and when we reached the houses on the outskirts, I was dismayed to notice that they rose directly from the edge of the pavement and realised there was no cover at all, should we come under fire. My problem was solved for me, when a hundred yards ahead a group of excited Frenchmen emerged from a side street, shouting and waving their arms about. They noticed our approach, spread across the road, looking our way. By now I could see they all wore tricolour armbands, denoting them as members of the Resistance and were all armed with Stens. Doubtless they had listened on their secret radios to the B.B.C. accounts of the advance of the Allies and of their impressive and overwhelming force of tanks and armour, but they were clearly not impressed with the British Army, or at least with its representatives, two scruffy, dusty foot sloggers, one armed with a Sten (as they all were) and the other with a rifle and made no attempt to greet us."

"At least my school boy French was understood, since on asking if they knew where the Germans were, the two of us were surrounded by jabbering, gesticulating resistants. It was completely incomprehensible to me, so I selected the least excitable of them and asked him to show me the enemy positions. He took me first along the side road and there lying on our bellies and peering round the sides of a bridge, he pointed out M.M.G.'s on the railway embankment, covering the valley. Then we returned to the main road and now moved into the shopping area, but all the windows were shattered. The reason for this soon became apparent, when we reached the site of the first of the two bridges over the river. This had been blown up, but stepping from stone to stone we continued further. Ahead my guide informed me, the other bridge was also destroyed and on the far side was a "cannon". To emphasise the point, the German manning the weapon fired a burst across our front. The heavy "thump, thump thump" echoed from the high walls and the tracer raced between the buildings. I thought I was in possession of the relevant information regarding the enemy, so I thanked my guide and set off back to the Battalion, meeting them on the outskirts of the town."

Lieutenant Dean continued to command the Machine Gun Platoon during the Ardennes offensive, where the 13th Battalion bore the brunt of the 6th Airborne Division's fighting. "Even after we left the road [on the way to the start line for the Battalion's attack] and moved across the fields, the Machine Gunners with their guns and ammunition on the trolleys could still keep their place in the column, immediately behind "B" Company. The first stretch of woods was no difficulty either, but after crossing a shallow gully, the planting of the trees was much closer and the trolleys would not pass between the trees. So a halt was called, while everything was unloaded and individual loads sorted out for a long carry. The "start line" was reached on time and without enemy interference."

"In mid afternoon [at Bure on the 4th January 1945] I was with a Vicker's team in the back bedroom as we watched a group of Germans crawl along a hedge not 200 yards away. They halted and started to set pair of machine guns. Our gun was laid on the target and quickly opened fire but then a Number 1 Position stoppage caused the gun to stop. This was immediately remedied and we had only just recommenced firing when several ear splitting explosions occurred in the roof above us. The force of the blast threw us all to the floor and reduced the room to a shambles. The ceiling was down, roofing timbers and broken slates everywhere and we were all covered in dust from the plaster, but only one man was wounded. The gun had not been damaged and I instructed the Number 1 to set it up in another room and to carry on firing. I then turned to have a look at Private O'Brien's hand which was bleeding quite badly. One of his fingers was almost severed his hand, with only a thin strip of flesh holding it. I tried several times to get a field dressing over the wound but the finger would not slay in place and kept flopping down. I led him to a chest of drawers, cleared the top with my elbow and told him to look away. I then pulled out my fighting knife, removed the offending digit and was then able to tie the dressing and send him on to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post]"

Whilst in Holland in January and February 1945: "Following the Brigade Inspection of the Battalion, prior to the move to Belgium, I was criticised for training the Platoon in the use of the dial sight, but when the C.O. gave me the task for the Vickers in the defences of Kessel, I felt my foresight fully justified. I was told to occupy a position from which the fire power of the Platoon could be brought to fall in front of the Companies holding Kessel, in the unlikely event of a German assault across the River. From a study of the map and a recce on the ground, I informed the Colonel that the only way in which the Platoon could do this was from an indirect fire position and indicated on the map what I considered a suitable site for the guns. Although this area was part of the 3rd Brigades responsibility, I was given the "go ahead". Once dug in, we fired a demonstration shoot into the middle of the river in front of "C" Company. The river was flat calm and the strike of the bullets clearly visible. As a result of this success, we now established an O.P. [Observation Post] with "A" Company in Kesselijk, connected to the gun lines by telephone, and began engaging targets on the far side of the river. Ammunition was being stockpiled for the main offensive battles to come and we were rationed to two belts (500 rounds) per gun daily. Perhaps the target didn't always warrant the amount of ammunition expended, but it helped to keep us happy and for once we were able to put our training into practice on a regular basis."

On the 24th March 1945, Dean participated in the 6th Airborne Division's drop across the River Rhine as part of Operation Varsity. "It was as if the fitting of chutes started us on a course of action from which there was no drawing back and the inevitable was put off until it could be delayed no longer. There was still no sign of the crew, so Serjeant Frank Kenny our Stick Commander was given a leg up into the fuselage so the steps could be reached and fitted in position. We were all at the door waiting for him to hand out our chutes. Four shapeless bundles on the fuselage floor stirred into life and out of their sleeping bags emerged the crew. They were still half asleep but sprung into life when one of them said "Gee fellahs, what about chow?" At great speed they pulled on trousers and jackets before they disappeared across the airfield in search of their breakfast. We fitted chutes and emplaned. All around us we could hear engines being started and run up, but still no pilot and I knew the time scheduled for take off was fast approaching. A Jeep screeched to a halt, out jumped the crew, they climbed aboard, pulled up the steps and disappeared into the cabin. Within seconds the engines coughed and spluttered into life and hardly were they running, but we moved from dispersal onto the perimeter track and joined the stream rolling towards the runway."

"The Dakotas approached the runway from both directions and then turned along it, aircraft slightly staggered on either side. Slowly they edged forward until the full Battalion group were formed up. A signal or an order and all engines were being run at maximum revs, for a moment it was if they were dogs straining at the leash. Then brakes were released and the fleet roared down the run way as one. Slowly to begin with, the under carriage wheels left the ground and the planes started to climb as they gathered into formation for the long flight to Germany. "P" Hour was 1000 hours, but now it was only just after 0630 hours. The flight seemed longer than three and a half hours. It was even longer for those who flew in the gliders, for somewhere over Belgium, we flew under the glider train for several minutes, since their flying speed was slower than the parachute aircraft. All together there were over 300 tug and glider combinations in the 6th Airborne armada."

"We were all jumping with kit bags so we fitted these, hooked up and went through the usual procedure of checking and reporting. While we were busy with these actions our Jump Master moved to the rear of the plane and we could hear him fussing around, but ignored him while we got ready to jump. When all was ready I looked to the rear where he had pulled the inflatable rubber dinghies across the door of the "Elsan" closet. He was behind them and you could just see his head over them, "O.K. you guys" he said, "I'll dispatch you from here". In every plane by now, Number Ones were standing in the door way taking in the spectacle, for it was an unforgettable sight to see all 33 Dakotas in close formation. Whatever other criticisms there were of American air crew on Operation "Varsity", the airmanship of the pilots could not be faulted. Nine abreast in three "Vics" of three they flew, with only yards separating individual air craft which constantly rose and fell a few feet as the pilots worked hard to maintain position."

"The river Rhine was passed, with not a sign of battle on either bank but soon burning buildings indicated we were approaching the time for action. Through the starboard windows were seen the homeward bound Dakotas which had dropped 3 Brigade. From the engine of one of them, streamed a long tongue of orange red flame. Suddenly the ground below was littered with discarded parachutes the 8th, 9th and Canadian Battalions were already in their rendezvous. Flying over their deserted drop zone, meant we were on course for D.Z. "Baker", with a little over one minutes flying time to go. Two questions the Number Ones were asking themselves, when are the pilots going to descend to 600 feet and when are they going to reduce speed? Normally the wing flaps were half lowered, as was the under carriage and the pilot flew at just above stalling speed, but this was not happening. The height was nearer 1000 feet and there was no slackening in the pace of the run in. But now we were all at "action stations" and the open farmland of the drop zone clearly visible ahead. Butterflies were fluttering in all tummies as we awaited the green light." Dean landed safely on the heavily disputed drop zone and reached the Rendezvous.

During the following month, the Brigade was leading the Division's advance into Germany. "Before evening "stand to" 6 Platoon pulled two large farm carts across the road, out side grenade throwing range and also making it impossible for any vehicle to be driven straight through. Only a little while after "stand down" the section manning the forward post reported to me that something was approaching Wieren along the road. I put the Platoon on full alert and went forward to see what was happening. Whatever the vehicle was it had stopped at our road block. Leaving one section to give covering fire, I look the other two down a dry ditch and with cries of "Hande Hoch" (and also "Hands Up", because we had heard English being spoken), we quickly surrounded a horse and cart and close on twenty men. Still with their hands up the party were escorted into the yard behind the farmhouse, which was Platoon H.Q."

"I thought it might be a ruse to put us off our guard, so the Platoon remained on alert and I arranged to see our prisoners one at a time. We had liberated an oil lamp, so I was able to have a good look at the first of our captives. He was wearing shabby, mud stained battledress and in response to my question, stood smartly to attention and reeled off number, rank and name, followed by the title of a distinguished Scottish Regiment. Further enquiries revealed that he had been captured during the retreat in 1940 and for the past four years had worked as a farm labourer. Their guards had disappeared, so he and his comrades had decided to try and reach the advancing British Army. No German, I thought could have imitated the broad Scotch accent, in which this was divulged, but I had to be sure. The next two I interrogated told exactly the same story the only difference being the Scottish Regiment in which they had served. Satisfied that all was well and as I had not received any instructions from Company H.Q. I had them all brought indoors. I chatted to them informally about their experiences and they of course were eager to learn of the progress of the war. But not one of them would look me in the eye they seemed far more interested in my head. Then, I suddenly realised what interested them so much. They were all members of the original 51st. (Highland) Division, forced into surrender at St. Valery in 1940, possibly never learning of the existence of the Parachute Regiment and very clearly had never seen a British soldier wearing a red beret before."

"Next morning, supported by a troop of armoured cars, Lieutenant "Nobby" Prior and his "B" Company Platoon formed a fighting patrol to Konav, but found the place deserted. For the next week, we continued to edge slowly forward, as 15th (Scottish) reached the Elbe and cleared the enemy from the west bank. On 25th the Battalion Advance Party left for Rheine, which was to be the take off airfield for the operation. The following afternoon came the disappointing news that the drop was cancelled, patrols had crossed the river, only to find the enemy forces were virtually nonexistent."

"A successful assault crossing of the Elbe was made by 15th (Scottish) and by 1st May a floating Bailey bridge was in position near Lauenberg. 6th Airborne were now back under command of XVIII American Corps, with orders to exploit the situation. The final approach to the crossing site took us close to Luneberg airfield and what appeared on the maps as a minor road through the woods, had been converted into an aircraft dispersal area, with sand bagged emplacements along its entire length. In each one stood a Luftwaffe fighter immobilised by the Allied Air forces. A German horse drawn supply convoy had also been caught in the same attack, but all that remained of the animals were bare skeletons. Every scrap of flesh had been cut off by the roving gangs of slave labourers, now a daily sight, as they sought to satisfy their hunger."

"It took a couple of days for the Division to concentrate on the east bank, but early on 3rd May we set off on the last lap of the race to the Baltic. To begin with the roads were empty except for our convoys and good speed was made. Then we began to meet the German forces who had been fighting on the Russian front. Mile after mile we moved through the retreating Wehrmacht. We were on one side of the road, the Germans on the other, over flowing into the fields also. At one stage, four German generals were queuing up at Battalion H.Q. to surrender. In one small town through which we passed the population turned out to watch the show. Children, excited as ever by the military, the old men stood in sullen silence, perhaps remembering an earlier defeat in 1918. But the solid "haus fraus" wept openly at the sight of the once all conquering Wehrmacht, now fleeing in terror from the avenging Russians. Undoubtedly we would have been annihilated had the Germans chosen to fight. Enough armour; tanks, S.P.'s and personnel carriers for more than a Division rolled past in the fields on either side of the road. There was only one thought on all their minds, to save their skins and reach the safety with the British before the Russians caught up with them from behind. It really was the most memorable and satisfying experience to be "in at the kill". I don't suppose a single one of us bad given any thought as to how the war might end, but what we witnessed that day was proof enough, that the Germans had had enough."

"By early afternoon, the leading elements of the Division drove into Wismar and on to the shores of the Baltic, thus preventing any further drive westwards of the Red Army and although it was to be a few more days before the campaign in Western Europe officially came to an end we had no doubt at all that it was over and somehow we had survived it all. The Battalion occupied farms and houses around Moltow, only a few miles from Wismar and then "B" Company were detailed to be the protecting force for the Military Mission which was to receive the surrender of enemy forces in Denmark and were flown by Dakota to Copenhagen and received a rapturous welcome from the Danes."

Courtesy of Mark Hickman

Read More

Related People


Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces