Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Walker-Brown. RIP.

Discussion in 'Memorials & Cemeteries' started by CXX, Sep 17, 2009.

  1. CXX

    CXX New Member

    Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Walker-Brown - Telegraph

    Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Walker-Brown, who has died aged 90, was awarded the DSO in 1945 for leading a highly successful guerrilla raid by the SAS in Italy.

    On December 27 1944 Walker-Brown, then a captain in the 2nd Special Air Service Regiment (2 SAS), and 32 all ranks were dropped by parachute behind the enemy lines in the Apennines, north of La Spezia.

    SAS operations were carried out in the knowledge that Hitler had issued an order that all enemy commandos, parachutists and other special units captured away from the immediate battle zone were to be shot at once. Any German officer who failed to comply was himself to be shot.

    The operation was code-named "Galia". Flying conditions were dreadful, and the leading aircraft, in heavy cloud, flew straight into a mountainside. During his own descent, Walker-Brown's leg bag broke free at 400ft, smashing his carbine.

    Although handicapped by deep snow, rugged terrain and primitive radio communications, he led his men over the mountains, fording hazardous, fast-flowing rivers, attacking transport columns, mortaring enemy-held villages, mining roads and ambushing infantry. The Germans were forced to deploy 6,000 troops in a drive to eliminate him.

    Some partisans were reliable, despite savage reprisals by the Germans. Others could not be trusted and were not above sending false ground signals in order to steal supplies dropped by air. One guide was summarily shot after he led an SAS patrol into a trap.

    The nights were bitterly cold, and goat tracks were covered in ice and impossible to use. On one occasion, Walker-Brown and his men struggled up a mountain 7,000ft high after a forced march of 57 hours.

    A German captain, found dallying with an Italian girl, was captured. With Walker-Brown's pistol at his back, he was forced to lead the way across the Gothic Line at night using old shepherds' paths. Two enemy patrols were encountered but their forced "escort" got them through undiscovered.

    Walker-Brown dodged the dragnet and personally accounted for many of the substantial casualties inflicted on the Germans. The citation for his DSO paid tribute to his "unparalleled guerrilla skill and personal courage" in keeping his force intact in a two-month mountain campaign in the depths of winter. His fellow troop commander in Italy was captured with his signaller. Both were shot.

    Robert Walker-Brown, the son of a Scottish surgeon, was born at Sutton Coldfield on April 9 1919 and educated privately.

    At the outbreak of war he was mobilised with the Royal Engineer TA Reserve before transferring to the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) and joining the 2nd Battalion in Egypt in 1941. He was wounded during the Battle of the Cauldron in the Western Desert in June 1942 and was captured by the Germans. After three months in a PoW hospital at Lucca he was transferred to Campo Prigioneri di Guerra 21 at Chieti in the foothills of the Apennines, north-east of Rome.

    The Italian guards were alert; there were microphones in the cells, and three attempts to build escape tunnels were discovered early in 1943. An Italian officer confided that a successful attempt would result in the camp commandant's departure to the Russian front and that the guards would not hesitate to lob grenades down any hole they discovered.

    The blocks were surrounded by flagstone and cement paving leading to an 18ft perimeter wall with sentries, searchlights and trip wires. Cautious investigation by Walker-Brown and his comrades revealed a lifting ring giving access to a storm drain sump which led to a brick chamber about 4ft deep and 15 inches square. It was close to the perimeter track that was patrolled by armed carabinieri.

    A very small officer was equipped with a poker and inserted, despite his protestations, into the sump with instructions to remove enough of the bricks to open up a larger chamber. Contact was maintained by a code of taps on the sump lid and a rota of PoW sentries was organised to give warning of the approach of a patrol.

    Shift work was established and two, and later three, tunnellers went down after the morning muster parade. Spoil was rolled into balls and packed into the walls of the ablutions hut. A prismatic compass that had escaped several searches was used to keep the direction of the tunnel on the correct bearing.

    The guards were becoming increasingly suspicious. Snap searches slowed the work but, after three weeks, 20ft of tunnel had been dug. Of a camp complement of some 900 officers, fewer than 40 were engaged in escape attempts; and the sight of naked, clay-covered men jumping through the windows of the ablutions hut caused resentment among those who saw these activities as a threat to a peaceful life.

    After five weeks, the end of the tunnel was close to the wall and a deep level chamber had to be dug to get under the foundations. After further digging, the tunnellers struck a main sewer.

    This had to be opened up to help dispose of the soil, but the air was so foul that there were several cases of fainting, and an improvised oil lamp flickered out after 20 minutes. For some time, all work was carried out in complete darkness until an air pipe had been made from Red Cross food tins, sealed with clay and completed with an air pump fashioned from a tin and an old boot.

    When the guards found escape rations and home-made compasses, more snap searches were introduced. By this time, six men were in the tunnel. Six non-digging officers pretended to be ill in bed and their names were handed to the Italians each day on a nominal roll. Dummies were placed in their beds and then paraded to cover the absentees. After four months' digging, the foundations of the wall had been breached and the tunnel measured some 140ft. A breakout chamber was built but, as final escape preparations were being made Italy surrendered, and the camp was taken over by a company of German parachutists.

    When their commander ordered an assembly for the immediate evacuation of the camp, Walker-Brown and a number of PoWs hid in the tunnel and waited underground for several hours before breaking out at night.

    With two companions, he headed south and walked for 10 days, moving only at night, fording rivers and dodging enemy patrols. They were recaptured briefly by a section of German infantry but got away when they came under fire and reached the lines of a battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment and relative safety on October 5 1943.

    Appointed MBE for his escape, Walker-Brown was posted to an infantry training centre at Aberdeen, but he soon became bored and joined 2 SAS at Prestwick. Sent on a parachute course, he landed on the roof of a double-decker bus full of Wrens on his first jump.

    On September 1 1944 he was dropped as "stick commander" with a troop of armed Jeeps into the Forest of Chatillon, north of Dijon, to reinforce No 1 Squadron, 2nd SAS, commanded by Major Roy Farran.

    Over France, they ran into heavy flak and his aircraft was damaged. Running in over the drop zone, one man was killed when his static line parted and Walker-Brown, who jumped next, was relieved to see his canopy open.

    With their machine guns, Brens and mortars, they were a formidable force and took part in an attack on the German garrison which occupied the chateau at Chaumont.

    Walker-Brown wrote afterwards: "Tracer, ball and armour-piercing shells were flying all over the place. German reinforcements soon appeared, so we pulled out leaving brewed-up vehicles, smouldering fires and, according to the French, 110 casualties. We lost one killed and two wounded." The forest cover, country roads and tracks were used to launch a series of ambushes before the party returned to England later in the month.

    After the war Walker-Brown rejoined the HLI but subsequently served with 21 SAS as training major and 22 SAS as second-in-command before commanding 23 SAS. He then served with the Defence Intelligence Staff before retiring from the Army in 1964.

    His many friends delighted in his political incorrectness, occasional cussedness, intolerance of idleness and mischievous sense of humour. He was grappling with new languages, digital photography and the intricacies of computer science at an age when many would opt for a less exacting life. Settled in Wiltshire, he was a keen angler and fished the Avon and the Wylye.

    Bob Walker-Brown died on August 16. He married first, in 1955, Leonie Hossack. She predeceased him. He married secondly, in 1996, Helen Leeming, who survives him. There were no children.
  2. Adrian Roberts

    Adrian Roberts Active Member

    An exciting war! Any one of these escapades would have been enough for most people. But I expect he took the view that you don't go to all that trouble escaping from POW camp to sit around in an admin job.
  3. Adrian Roberts

    Adrian Roberts Active Member

    The Telegraph has published and addendum to the obituary of Bob Walker-Brown. It sets the record straight about the Italian partisans who guided his SAS column, in particular the heroism of a young man called Chella Leonardo di Chella Narcisso.

    Lt-Col Bob Walker-Brown – an update - Telegraph


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