Lionel 'Len' Bryson was born in the east end of London in February 1912. From an early age, he wanted to join the Army and lied about his age giving it as 1910 when he enlisted into the Irish Guards. After several years service with the Guards, where he eventually rose to become a Corporal, he transferred across to the Royal Army Medical Corps(RAMC) and served with them in India in the early 1930s.
In 1936 he was posted to the RAMC Depot, where he remained until the late summer of 1942, having become a Warrant Officer, and the Chief Drill Instructor. Apparently spotted by Lt Col Graeme Warrack on a visit to the Depot, he was ‘invited’ to become the Regimental Sergeant Major(RSM) of 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance, then a part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade. Regretfully it is not recorded what the other ranks felt about the ‘Chief Drill Pig’ from the Depot arriving as RSM. However, he soon got the men on his side and in the words of many later was the best RSM they ever served under.
He served with 181 in North Africa after their arrival in June 1943, in preparation for the invasion of Sicily. During the glider operation against Sicily in July 1943, Len was onboard one of the hundred or so gliders that crashed in the sea. Thinking quickly, he rounded up the men on his side of the glider as it floated on the sea, moved and then marshalled them onto a wing. Then he stood up as best he could, called to the senior officer present who was clinging to the other wing, saluted and reported his men as 'All present and correct'.
Once they returned to North Africa, Len took part in the seaborne invasion of Italy, bound for Taranto on the East Coast. He then returned with 181 and the majority of 1st Airborne Division to the UK in November 1943, in preparation for the invasion of North West Europe.
After several cancellations, 181 took part in the First Lift to Arnhem during Op Market Garden and helped established the Dressing Station at the Schnoonoord Hotel. He was subsequently mentioned in the 'Arnhem diary' of ADMS Col Warrack, describing Len as a ‘veritable tower of strength.’ It was on Wednesday 20 September that German forces first entered the Schoonoord Hotel. Warrack continued:
‘I had a talk with Arthur Marrable and decided that I should try and escape notice by being an orderly. Removed my tabs and epaulettes and tried to look as much of an “erk” as I could. The Germans took a walk through the house, during which I gave as fair an impersonation as I could of an extremely busy “erk”. Suggested that Mr Bryson chased me up, but this was too much for him and he kept calling me “Sir” whenever he saw me.’
Taken prisoner at Arnhem, Len Bryson was later awarded the Dutch Bronze Lion for services in Holland. After brief service outside the Airborne Forces, he was posted back in 1947 as RSM to 4 Parachute Field Ambulance, a TA airborne unit, and qualified for his wings. Unfortunately on his last qualifying jump, he broke his ankle which put an end to his Airborne service.
Despite this setback, he kept himself busy from his hospital bed by organising a reunion of 181 AFA - over 160 attended this first one, and the 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance Old Comrade's Association was subsequently formed (which continued until the 1990s).
In December 1947 he was posted as Depot RSM which had been his ultimate aim. Towards the end of his service he was awarded the MBE and was later commissioned in the RAMC. It has been said of him that although Len was qualified as a Nursing Orderly Class 1, he was happier on the Drill Square than a Ward.
Upon retirement from the Army he retired to Devon where he ran several antique shops with one of his three sons. Len died on 16th August 1991.
With assistance from Niall CherryRead More