On 4 June 1915, a deadly storm of Turkish shells, bombs, and bullets destroyed the Collingwood Battalion of The Royal Naval Division. Amongst those who fell that day at Krithia on the Gallipoli peninsula was the battalion's Adjutant, Lieutenant Commander Wallace Moir Annand of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was only twenty-seven years old and he left behind a young widow, Dora Elizabeth, and a son, Richard, who had been born only six months before on 5 November 1914. On that same day Britain had declared war on Turkey. It was also the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Inkerman and the Regiment's first Victoria Cross. In 1940, Richard Annand became the first soldier of the Second World War to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
"During the evening another attack was launched and again Second Lieutenant Annand went forward"
Richard Wallace Annand was born at South Shields and went to Pocklington School in East Yorkshire. In 1933, he returned home and began work with the National Provincial Bank. In October 1933, he joined the Tyne Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and, in 1937, after the excitement of training at sea in battleships, plus navigation and gunnery courses, he decided to apply for a commission in the Royal Navy but was told that he was too old. After a visit to the War Office he found that he was still young enough to apply for a Regular commission in the Army and so in January 1938, as the first step, he was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant with the Supplementary Reserve of The Durham Light Infantry. After a month's initial training at Fenham Barracks in Newcastle upon Tyne, he was attached to the 2nd Battalion DLI, then stationed at Woking, for his first experience of Regular Army life. On 3rd September, Britain declared war on Germany. Three weeks later, 2 DLI, including Second Lieutenant Annand, sailed from Southampton to join the British Expeditionary Force in France, landing at Cherbourg on 26 September.
In October, the battalion moved to Bercu near Lille, on the Belgian frontier. There the battalion dug trenches, fixed barbed wire, built concrete pillboxes and tried to keep warm. The main enemy during these long months of "Phoney War" was inactivity and boredom. However, before dawn on 10th May 1940, the German blitzkrieg hit Belgium. As planned, the British Expeditionary Force crossed the border into Belgium, and, within two days, 2 DLI, as part of the 6th Brigade of the 2nd Division, was in a new defensive position on the River Dyle, east of Brussels.
Battalion headquarters was established in the village of La Tombe, whilst three of the companies moved down into the valley with "A" on the right, "B" in the centre and "D", defending the vital road bridge across the river, on the left. "C" Company, meanwhile, was sent across the river to watch for any movement. Behind the river, the land rose steeply to La Tombe. This was not an ideal defensive position, particularly as the trees and thick undergrowth made observation difficult. The Durhams, however, knew that the River Dyle had to be held at all costs and, though they had been told that it would be at least ten days before any German soldiers reached the river, they immediately began work to improve the defences.
On 13th May, the first civilian refugees and defeated Belgian and French soldiers began to cross "D" Company's bridge. These refugees reported that German armoured vehicles were only hours from the river. Work on the defences intensified, as rumours spread that enemy paratroops had been seen in the woods. About 11 o'clock that night, "C" Company was ordered to withdraw to the river and the bridge was blown.
About 4 o'clock the next afternoon, 14 May, German armoured cars and motorcycles were briefly halted at a roadblock of carts held by "C" Company. After a short fight, the Durhams withdrew without loss across the river. The Germans then advanced to the river's edge to plan the next day's attack.
Shortly after dawn on 15th May, the assault began when mortar fire hit "D" Company's position near the ruined bridge, badly wounding the Company Commander, Captain Bill Hutton. The main German attack across the river then fell on 16 Platoon and Second Lieutenant Richard Annand.
"About 11am the enemy launched a violent attack and pushed forward a bridging party into the sunken bottom of the river. Second Lieutenant Annand attacked this party but when ammunition ran out he went forward himself over open ground, with total disregard for enemy mortar and machine-gun fire. Reaching the top of the bridge he drove out the party below, inflicting over twenty casualties with hand grenades. Having been wounded he rejoined his platoon, had his wound dressed, and then carried on, in command." [Citation]
At the same time, German troops used a weir to cross the river and overran a platoon of "B" Company. After a desperate fight, this attack was halted but the Germans were not pushed back across the Dyle. The fighting continued until noon with neither side being able to overcome the other. During the afternoon, snipers, mortars and shell fire forced the Durhams to stay under cover. They all knew that the Germans would renew their attack that night.
As it grew dark, the Germans, under cover of intense machine gun and mortar fire, again attacked the ruined bridge in front of "D" Company.
"During the evening another attack was launched and again Second Lieutenant Annand went forward with hand grenades and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy." [Citation]
Platoon Sergeant Terry O'Neill, who lost his right arm in the battle, later explained -
"Our position on the south side of the River Dyle was at the bottom of a long forward slope with a large wood to our rear. The road leading to the bridge which had been destroyed was alongside our left hand section and the ground between the bridge and our own position was perfectly open. On the night of 15th May, Mr Annand came to me at Platoon Headquarters and asked for a box of grenades as they could hear Jerry trying to repair the bridge. Off he went and he sure must have given them a lovely time because it wasn't a great while before he was back for more. Just like giving an elephant strawberries."
And Company Sergeant Major Norman Metcalfe, also of "D" Company, later wrote to Captain Hutton about the night attack -
"In they came with a vengeance and weren't they socked with a vengeance... They seemed determined to get that bridge and therefore reinforcements were simply piled up with casualties... Jerry couldn't move old 'D'! We had casualties, especially 16 Platoon, but they were wonderful. Mr Annand, Batty, Wood, Surtees - they just went mad. Jerry got up to the other side of the bridge to their sorrow; they must have thought they had demons in front of them... For two hours it was hell let loose, then Jerry gave it up and withdrew."
The Durhams continued to hold their positions, but elsewhere the Germans had broken through. Finally, at 11.00pm, Lieutenant Colonel Simpson gave his hungry and exhausted Companies the order to withdraw from the River Dyle.
There was to be no transport. Anything that could not be carried would have to be left behind. As Richard Annand led the few survivors of his Platoon away from their position in the early hours of 16 May, he learnt that his batman, Private Joseph Hunter of Sunderland, wounded in both his head and legs and unable to walk, had been left behind. Second Lieutenant Annand, despite his own severe wounds, immediately returned alone to the deserted trenches and found the missing soldier. Helping his wounded batman into an abandoned wheelbarrow, he set off up a forest path after the rest of his battalion.
All went well until they came to a fallen tree that completely blocked their way. Weak with exhaustion and unable to lift the wounded soldier over the obstruction, Richard Annand was forced to leave Joseph Hunter in the shelter of an empty trench by the side of the track and go on for help. When he finally reached his old Company Headquarters, it was deserted. Using his last reserves of energy, he set off again to look for help and was eventually found by one of 2 DLI's surviving Carriers commanded by Second Lieutenant Hugh Lyster-Todd. Only then did Richard Annand collapse unconscious through loss of blood and exhaustion.
Meanwhile the Germans were pushing on across the River Dyle and Private Hunter was quickly taken prisoner. After the battle, local people buried the bodies of the fallen Durham soldiers and, later, they set up a memorial plaque by the road leading down to the bridge across the River Dyle. Joseph Hunter was sent with other wounded prisoners to a Dutch hospital, where he died of his wounds on 17 June 1940, aged 26 years.
During an air raid on 3 September 1940, in the Grand Hall of Buckingham Place, King George VI presented Second Lieutenant Richard Wallace Annand with the Victoria Cross "for most conspicuous gallantry" [Citation] - the first awarded to the Army during the Second World War.
"I don't suppose he knows the meaning of the word 'fear'. He never asked a man to do anything he could do himself...... He wouldn't talk much about it. He isn't that kind. It was just another job of work to him." [Platoon Sergeant Terry O'Neill].