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'Maverick' hero

Daily Mail
Friday, December 28, 2012

DURING the early hours of June 6, 1944 — D-Day — lines of scared young soldiers waited in the dark for the order to board the landing craft that would take them into battle on the beaches of northern France.

At the last minute they were issued with an unexpected piece of equipment — a condom each!

"What are these for?" boomed out the voice of Sergeant-Major Stan Hollis, a hulking power-house of a man from the back streets of northern England.

"Are we going to fight the Germans, or f them?"

The cheeky question was typical of the forthright Hollis, a tough, uncompromising veteran with an uncanny knack of making light of the most perilous of situations.

The youngsters around him broke into laughter, the anxiety in their guts and minds eased for a precious few moments.

They were about to land on the beaches of France. Many would die or be badly wounded in the moments ahead.

But if the Sergeant-Major could make a joke of it, then they might be all right after all.

Hollis, at 31 was one of the most battle-hardened soldiers in the British Army, having fought at Dunkirk, El Alamein and in the Sicily landings, and knew that the condoms were to cover rifle muzzles and keep them dry as the men waded ashore.

But as a leader, he had an example to set. Show no fear.

Within minutes of the landing craft grounding to a halt, he showed himself not just fearless but the bravest of the brave and an example to all. As he and his men of the Green Howard regiment stormed up Gold Beach at the very heart of the Normandy invasion force, his deeds earned him the Victoria Cross, the supreme award for gallantry.

His was, surprisingly, given the scale of the operation and the opposition the invaders had to overcome, the only one awarded on D-Day.

Now, seven decades on, there are plans afoot to put up a monument to him in his home town of Middlesbrough to mark for ever his unique achievement.

His is the remarkable story of a man matched with a moment in history, who came from nowhere to make his mark, and then disappeared from view.

Though dead for 40 years, he deserves to be remembered, his epic tale told again for a new generation.

Hollis, a Yorkshire-born-and-bred steelworker and a lorry driver, was a maverick character. Always his own man, he'd lost his stripes more than once in his Army career for stepping out of line, but his obvious leadership qualities always won them back.

He was a big man in every sense, with a volcanic temper and huge fists, which he wasn't slow to use if provoked. With his red hair, 6ft 2in frame and rugged looks, he was not someone to mess with, as the German troops defending the beach on which he landed were about to find out.

After wading ashore in waist-deep water through a hail of mortar fire, he and his men negotiated a minefield and crawled uphill towards their objective, a battery of German big guns which were busy laying down a barrage of shells on the Allied invasion fleet out in the Channel.

As they approached, they suddenly came under fierce machine-gun fire from a pill box on their flank.

"It was very well camouflaged but I could see guns moving around the slits," Hollis recalled. His company was in danger of being wiped out.

Like some Hollywood hero, he leapt to his feet and, with his sten gun spitting from his waist, "spraying it hosepipe fashion", as he remembered, he charged across the dunes, dodging the hail of bullets trying to cut him down.

Reaching the pill box, he shoved the barrel through a slit and let fly. Then he climbed on the roof and, leaning over, popped a grenade inside for good measure. The explosion was his signal to jump down and throw his considerable weight against the door and burst inside. Two German soldiers lay dead, the rest too wounded or dazed to react.

Hollis then turned his attention to a neighbouring pill box, down a 100-yard communications trench. As he strode towards it, changing the magazine of his sten gun as he went, Germans poured out of it with their hands in the air. He had single-handedly captured 20 of the enemy.

More importantly, by putting the pill boxes out of action, he had saved the lives of his own men as they now pressed on towards the German gun battery and silenced it.

He had turned the course of the battle. Without his intervention, writes his biographer, Mike Morgan, "the first wave of attackers would have been stopped and the crucial initial thrust of the invasion threatened".

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