A legendary figure within The Parachute Regiment, Alistair Pearson is regarded by many as one of its finest battalion commanders. By the age of 29 he had commanded two battalions and won 5 gallantry awards in less than two years through some astonishing feats of arms. He was fiercely dedicated to his soldiers inspiring loyalty and respect in return.
The full biography of Alistair Pearson is recorded in “A Fierce Quality: The Fighting Life of Alistair Pearson DSO & Three Bars, MC” by Julian James. HRH Prince of Wales commented in the foreword to the book: “I doubt if any soldier has made a greater contribution to The Parachute Regiment than Alistair Pearson.”
After leaving school in 1932 he started as an apprentice at his Uncle’s bakery in Glasgow and joined the Territorial Army (6th Highland Light Infantry) as an officer. His unit was mobilised in 1939 and Pearson served twice in France in 1940; latterly as part of the 2nd British Expeditionary Force when his unit was evacuated from Cherbourg.
He joined 2nd Para Bn at the formation of No 1 Parachute Brigade in 1941. He was only with them for a week before he was ‘requisitioned’ by Lt Col Down commanding officer of 1st Para Bn. His initial tenure as 2 i/c of 1st Para Bn was short lived. Following a wild night out in Salisbury he was demoted and replaced as second in command by Major (later Brigadier) James Hill. With the promotion of Lt Col Down (and Major Hill to CO of 1st Para Bn) Alistair Pearson reassumed the role of battalion 2 i/c.
In October 1942, 1st Para Bn were deployed as part of Operation Torch, an allied offensive to dislodge axis forces in North Africa. Lt Col Hill was wounded in an attack on enemy forces at Gue Hill in Tunisia; as a consequence Pearson found himself in charge of the battalion at the ripe old age of 27! Pearson was awarded a Military Cross for his role in the fighting of November and December. His citation reads: "During the night of 23/24 November 1942 when his Commanding Officer was severely wounded Major Pearson assumed command of his battalion and successfully completed the Operation. He continued to command his unit throughout the subsequent fighting and by his leadership and coolness under fire set an example of the highest degree. On Dec 11th when the enemy attacked his sector he, under heavy machine gun fire, organised and personally led a most successful counter attack destroying the enemy and capturing a number of prisoners. The conspicuous gallantry shown on this and other occasions has been an inspiration to all.”
By January, Hill had discharged himself from hospital (although not fit) with a view to reassuming command of 1st Para Bn. However, he soon realised that Pearson inspired such confidence in his men that they would not accept any other battalion commander. After discussions with Brigade, Pearson remained in post and Hill went back to the UK.
At the end of January 1943 Pearson was ordered to seize and hold German fortifications at Djebel Mansour and a secondary objective at Alliliga. Through some bloody close quarter fighting with bayonet the Paras were able to take their objectives. Although dislodged from their secondary objective by a counterattack, the Paras held onto Mansour. It was in situations like this that Pearson’s leadership was inspirational; rallying his men to an effective defence of their newly won position in spite of fierce aerial bombardment and German counterattacks. It was only after they ran out of ammunition that they were forced to withdraw. The ferocity of this engagement can be measured by the fact that in a space of a few days the battalion suffered around 180 killed, wounded or missing. Pearson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Pearson had an extraordinary instinct for judging the enemy’s intentions in battle. One practical illustration occurred after a hard day’s fighting in the Bou Arada sector, when he forced his men to dig trenches. To their astonishment at nightfall he ordered them to move off and then ordered them to stop a short way off. Within an hour the Germans had attacked their old trench positions and Pearson organised a counter attack completely decimating the German assault.
In March 1943 the battalion were engaged with axis forces at the Battle of Tamera where Pearson won his second DSO:
“For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Tamera (Tunisia) on 8th March 1943. The enemy attacked in considerable force the positions held by this officer’s battalion. Completely disregarding his personal safety, when one of his companies had been forced back, he personally led the counter attack and completely restored the situation. In the course of the day his battalion was attacked on three separate occasions. Without hesitation and under intense fire he organised counter attacks and by his brilliant leadership and bravery on all occasions restored the position, killing large numbers of the enemy and forcing some 150 to give themselves up. Attacked again on 10th March he personally led his Battalion HQ staff of clerks and cooks against the enemy who was attacking from the rear of his Battalion HQ. Inspiring all with his great bravery and leadership he completely defeated all efforts of the enemy to penetrate his positions, personally killing many of the enemy and capturing further prisoners. During the night of the 23/24 March he led his Battalion to the attack on a most important feature in the sector, conducting this most difficult operation with such skill that the whole position was soon in our hands with slight losses to ourselves, but with heavy losses to the enemy.”
For Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, the 1st Parachute Brigade was tasked with securing and holding Primosole Bridge to enable an advance of the 8th Army on Messina. The Paras were taken to their drop zone (DZ) by inexperienced pilots. The poor weather and heavy flak resulted in many of the Paras being dropped off target into the sea, with fatal consequences. Pearson himself only made it the DZ by holding his pilots at gunpoint until they satisfactorily completed their orders. Pearson’s men were able to take the bridge, however their vastly depleted numbers severely hampered their ability to maintain a sustained defence.
A subsequent attack mounted by the Durham Light Infantry failed, at great cost, to retake the bridge. Pearson attended an orders group where the Brigadier proposed to repeat the attack. Famously Pearson said “Well if you want to lose another bloody battalion that’s the right way to do it”. He was then presented with the opportunity to suggest his own plan, which he duly did. He then guided the DLI across the river at a fordable point down stream to enable the attack to take place and the bridge was retaken. Pearson was awarded a 3rd DSO for his bravery in Sicily
By now Pearson was suffering badly from the affects of malaria and after two weeks in hospital was sent to convalesce in Sousse. He was posted to a staff job with 6 Airborne Division after he had recovered. The divisional commander Major General Gale recognised that they could make better use of Pearson’s talents and appointed him as commander of the 8th Battalion, which was in poor shape. The 8th (Midlands) Battalion was formed from the 13th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Morale was low when Pearson took over as a result of two serious training accidents. He immediately set about replacing unsuitable officers and NCOs. Over several months Pearson’s hard work and training got the battalion to combat readiness.
The battalion jumped at D Day (6 June 1944) on to an area of farmland near to Troarn, not far from Caen. Their objective was to destroy two bridges over the River Dives and disrupt enemy movements. While they were landing at the DZ, Pearson was shot in the hand by the accidental discharge of a soldier’s Sten gun. Although in pain, he did not have this wound treated for 24 hours. Despite being widely dispersed, elements from the battalion blew up the two bridges. Most of the battalion managed to regroup in the Bois de Bavent and proceeded to harass the Germans over the next few days.
While camped in the woods Pearson mounted a daring operation to rescue 14 survivors from a Dakota which had crashed on the night of the D Day drop. They crossed the river in a dinghy commandeered from a crashed glider and left some of the patrol at the river. Pearson and the remainder of his party moved on to the farm where the survivors were being looked after. All of the survivors were injured, some critically, and none of them were capable of walking. Pearson and his men returned to the river crossing pulling the casualties along in a huge farm cart singing ‘Roll out the barrel’ in loud voices to avoid being shot by the rest of the patrol!
During this period the Germans regularly shelled the woods and surrounding area in an attempt to dislodge the 8th Battalion and the 3rd Parachute Brigade. When this failed the Germans launched a massive attack on the 12 June. Large numbers of Germans started to infiltrate in between battalion positions and following them were 88mm guns firing directly at the British. The situation was desperate and Pearson personally led a platoon of men to attack one of the 88mm guns. Having killed the crew they then turned the gun on the German infantry and guns. This heroic act was sufficient to turn the tide of the battle and the Germans retreated. The Paras held out for another week from further German attacks until they were finally joined by troops from the Allied beachhead.
For the next few weeks a stalemate developed. In August Pearson and the 8th Battalion led the breakout of the 3rd Parachute Brigade over the Dives. The Brigade continued to press the Germans until they reached the Seine. In early September, after 3 months of solid fighting, he returned with the rest of 6 AB Div to England. He was subsequently awarded a 4th DSO for his part in the Normandy operations.
Pearson got married immediately on his return. However, the recurring malaria aggravated by the dampness in the Normandy marshes had finally taken its toll; he was forced to relinquish his command of the 8th Battalion and took over a reserve battalion in Yorkshire.
He declined the opportunity to stay on in the Army after hostilities were concluded. However, shortly after the war he rejoined the TA and from 1947 to 1953 commanded the 15th (Scottish Volunteer) Battalion of the Parachute Regiment in Glasgow. From there he moved to 44 PARA Brigade Headquarters (TA) as Training Colonel and Deputy Commander remaining there until 1963. He was twice Honorary Colonel of 15 PARA. In 1967 he was promoted to Brigadier and became Commandant of the Army Cadet Force in Scotland. He was awarded the Cadet Forces Medal in 1981.
His activities in civilian life were just as impressive. After a brief return to the bakery business he and his wife established a farm on the banks of Loch Lomond which they ran for many years. From 1951 to 1990 he held a number of civic posts including Deputy Lord Lieutenant, Lord Lieutenant, Keeper of Dunbarton Castle and Aide de Camp to the Queen. He served on the executive committee of the Erskine Hospital for over forty years, latterly as Vice Chairman.
He was awarded an OBE in the early 1950’s and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1958. He was also awarded the Territorial Decoration and 3 bars for his service to the TA and the Cadet Forces Medal in 1981.
Compiled by Harvey GrenvilleRead More