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‘Anyone would have done what I did’: Stan Hollis VC and Middlesbrough’s heroes of D-Day

Heritage and history

Wednesday, 05 June 2024
Stan Hollis

On June 6, 1944, 156,000 young men embarked on a monumental journey which shaped the world in ways those involved could probably never imagine.

The D-Day landings at Normandy led to the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis, and ultimately victory for the Allied Forces in World War Two.

Heroic and unimaginable bravery was displayed by those men who picked their way through the flying bullets and intense fighting on the beaches of Northern France, and the thousands who gave up their lives in the pursuit of freedom.

80 years on, we commemorate their courageous spirit and in Middlesbrough, we reflect on all of those from our town who served in the largest land, air and naval invasion ever seen.

And we proudly remember Stan Hollis, the Middlesbrough man who was the only soldier to be decorated with the Victoria Cross on D-Day.

The VC is the highest and most prestigious decoration of the British honours system.

A Company Sergeant Major in The Green Howards, Hollis was recommended to receive the honour for two separate incidents of heroism on D-Day.

His extraordinary courage defined the incredible mark made on that day by the regiment, which recruited from Middlesbrough and surrounding areas in the North Riding.

CSM Hollis’ 6th Battalion, as well as the 7th, battled their way seven miles inland during the first day of combat, further than any other British or US unit, while soldiers from the 12th (Yorkshire) Parachute Battalion Green Howards, which were attached to the 5th Parachute Brigade and part of the 6th Airborne Division, had earlier parachuted onto French soil to help secure two key bridges and help clear the way for tens of thousands of others to follow.

CSM Hollis, 31-years-old on D-Day, was admired and held in high esteem by members of his D Company, which came under fire from a machine gun hidden in a pillbox as they passed a house overlooking the beach.

In a display of selfless gallantry, he charged, fired and dropped a grenade inside, taking the surviving occupants prisoner. Spotting a second pillbox nearby, he advanced alone and took the fortification.

In total, he single-handedly captured 30 Germans - but that wasn't the end of his remarkable story.

Hours later, Hollis attempted to take out a hidden German field gun with a PIAT anti-tank weapon.

Missing his shot, he sought cover but upon realising two colleagues had been left stranded under fire, he took a machine gun and advanced in plain sight to provide a distraction, allowing them to get away to safety.

The Green Howards Regiment was amalgamated into the Yorkshire Regiment in 2006, which today still takes great pride in CSM Hollis’ service.

It has supplied the original extract from its regimental handbook:

“On D-Day during an assault on the Mont Fleury battery, CSM Hollis’s Company Commander noticed that two of the pill boxes had been by-passed and tasked his CSM to ensure they were cleared.

“At short range the pillbox machine gun opened fire. CSM Hollis instantly rushed the box, firing his Sten gun. He jumped on top of the pill box, recharged the magazine, threw a grenade in through the door, fired his Sten gun into the box – killing two German soldiers and making the remainder prisoners. He then cleared several German soldiers from a neighbouring trench.

“By this action he undoubtedly saved his Company from being fired on heavily from the rear and enabled them to open the main beach exit.

“Later, in Crepon, the Company encountered a field gun and machine gun. CSM Hollis was put in command of a party to cover an attack on the gun. Hollis pushed forward to engage with a PIAT.

“He was observed by a sniper who fired and grazed his right cheek and at the same moment the gun swung round and fired at point blank range at the assault party. CSM Hollis moved his party to an alternative position, by which two of the enemy gun crew had been killed and the gun destroyed.

“He later found that two of his men had stayed behind and immediately volunteered to get them out. In full view of the enemy, who were continually firing at him, he went forward alone using a Bren gun to distract their attention from the stranded men. Under cover of his diversion, the two men were able to get back.

“Wherever the fighting was heaviest, CSM Hollis appeared, and in the course of a magnificent day’s work he displayed the utmost gallantry and on two separate occasions his courage and initiative prevented the enemy from holding up the advance at critical stages.”

After the war, Hollis worked a number of jobs before becoming a publican, running the Albion pub - later renamed The Green Howard - in Market Square, North Ormesby and later the Holywell View at Liverton Mines.

It’s said he was modest about his accolades, telling people he did what anyone else would have done in the circumstances.

He died on February 8, 1972, aged 59.

A statue commemorating Middlesbrough’s famous war hero was unveiled in 2015, close to the town’s Cenotaph.

In 2016, the Prince Bishop School in Saltersgill was renamed the Hollis Academy in his honour.

Lucy Winter, vice principal at Hollis Academy, said: “Stanley Hollis was an extremely brave Middlesbrough-born soldier who showed enormous courage and resilience.

“We learn from him that anyone can make choices which make them exceptional. 

“Children at Hollis Academy special school all face social, emotional and mental health challenges; we support them in being resilient like Stan Hollis and in making choices that make a positive difference to the world.”

Mark Green runs the Victoria Cross online website and has penned a book about Stan Hollis and his life, 'The Man They Couldn't Kill'.

Mr Green said: "Well known for being the only recipient of the Victoria Cross for his actions on D-Day, Company Sergeant Major Stan Hollis was a true leader of men and a superb soldier.

"However, that only just scratches the surface of a man who was recommended for not just the Victoria Cross twice, but also the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

"He fought in many of the key conflicts of WW2 with distinction, being wounded five times, only to shun publicity and state 'anyone would have done what I did'.

"He truly was the man they couldn't kill."

To mark D-Day in Middlesbrough, a proclamation will be made at 8am on Thursday from the steps of Middlesbrough Town Hall.

Later, a civic service will take place from 9pm at the Cenotaph. The service will include the International Beacon Lighting Ceremony at 9.15pm.

A poignant display of 80 silhouette ‘Tommy’ soldiers, installed by Marton West Councillor Ian Morrish and Nunthorpe Parish Councillor Jon Rathmell, is also in place outside the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Stewart Park.

The Stan Hollis statue in Middlesbrough