b. 02/01/1909 Shanghai, China. d. 02/05/1974 Crowthorne, Sussex.
Robert Henry Cain (1909-1974) was born on 2nd January 1909 in Shanghai, China, the son of Robert James Cain and his wife, Emily Elizabeth (nee Lewin), who came originally came from the Isle of Man. His parents returned the family back to the Isle of Man when Robert was young, and he was educated at King William’s College. Following his schooling, Robert began working for the Shell Oil Company, and worked in Siam (now Thailand) and Malaya. In 1928, he joined the Honorable Artillery Company, a unit of the Territorial Army (TA), which allowed him to continue working for Shell. He was placed on the supplementary reserve list on 12th February 1931.
In April 1940, shortly after the start of the Second World War, Cain was given an emergency commission into the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant. In 1942, he was seconded to 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment before being temporarily promoted to the rank of Major in April 1943—a position he would keep until being honourably granted the rank in 1945. The 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment was part of 1st Airlanding Brigade which landed in Sicily in July 1943 as part of Operation Ladbroke. In the same month, Cain took command of the battalion’s B Company.
On 18th September 1944, commanding B Company, the 35 year old Major flew to Arnhem with the First Lift, travelling in a Horsa from Manston. However, they had only been airborne for five minutes when the tow rope became disconnected from the Albermarle tug, causing the glider to stagger while the tow rope coiled up and lashed back at them. The glider made a safe landing in a field, bumping over the rough ground and ripping through a fence before coming to a standstill. Cain described it as a terrible anti-climax, and said how the glider pilot couldn’t believe his luck as exactly the same thing had happened to him on D-Day.
Cain and his men flew out to Arnhem as part of the Second Lift on the following day. Upon landing he immediately set out to find B Company, who were presently moving forward to help the 1st Para Brigade, but he wasn’t able to resume command until late on the following morning, when they were involved in vicious fighting in a dell around the area of the St. Elizabeth Hospital. The South Staffords were being heavily attacked by tank and self-propelled guns, but they weren’t able to bring up any anti-tank guns to repel them. Mortars were effectively being fired at point blank range upon German infantry, but the Staffords had to rely on PIAT’s to deal with the armour. Lieutenant Georges Dupenois kept several tanks at bay with his PIAT, while Major Jock Buchanan and Cain drew a lot of enemy fire by running around searching for ammunition for him. Cain did not believe that any tanks were actually disabled during the action, but the hits did encourage them to withdraw; even firing at the turrets with Bren guns forced them to move. The PIAT ammunition ran dry at 11:30, and from then on the tanks had free reign over the area and proceeded to blow the defenceless troopers out of the buildings they occupied. Lt-Colonel McCardie came to see Major Cain and he ordered him to withdraw from the dell. As they were talking, Cain recalled seeing an entire bush being blown clean out of the ground. Putting down a rear guard of about a dozen men and a Bren gun, the Company withdrew from what Cain later described as the South Staffords Waterloo. However only himself and a handful of other men succeeded in escaping.
Falling back through the 11th Battalion, Major Cain informed them that the tanks were on their way and requested they give him a PIAT, though sadly they had none to spare. He withdrew his men beyond the Battalion and gathered all the remaining South Staffords under his command. Though C Company was largely intact, at this stage he only managed to form two platoons from the entire Battalion. As the 11th Battalion were preparing to capture some high ground to pave the way for an attack by the rest of the Division, Lt-Colonel George Lea decided to utilised Major Cain and his men by ordering them to capture the nearby high ground, known as Den Brink, to lend support to their own attack. This they did, but were soon spotted and came under very heavy mortar fire. The ground was too hard for the men to dig in and so they took many casualties. After he saw the destruction of the 11th Battalion, Cain took the decision to withdraw his men, numbering only 100, towards Oosterbeek.
Cain appeared to have developed an intense loathing of tanks after the bitter experiences of his Battalion on Tuesday 19th, and he personally saw to it that as many were destroyed as possible. If ever armour approached, then he would grab the nearest PIAT and set out to deal with it himself. On one occasion, two Tiger tanks approached the South Staffords position, and Cain lay in wait in a slit trench while Lieutenant Ian Meikle of the Light Regiment gave him bearings from a house above him. The first tank fired at the house and killed Meikle, while the chimney collapsed and almost fell on top of Major Cain. He still held his position until it was 100 yards away, whereupon he fired at it. The tank immediately returned fire with its machinegun and wounded Cain, who took refuge in a nearby shed from where he fired another round, which exploded beneath the tank and disabled it. The crew abandoned the vehicle, but all were gunned down as they bailed out. Cain fired at the second tank, but the bomb was faulty and exploded directly in front of him. It blew him off his feet and left him blind with metal fragments in his blackened face. As his men dragged him off, Cain recalls yelling like a hooligan and calling for somebody to get hold of the PIAT and deal with the tank. One of the Light Regiment’s 75mm guns was brought forward and it blew the tank apart.
Half an hour later though, Cain’s sight returned, and against doctor’s advice he refused to stay with the wounded and declared himself fit for duty. He also refused morphia (which was in very short supply) to ease the pain he had. Instead he armed himself with another PIAT and went in search of tanks, frequently alone. Tigers continued to harass the Lonsdale Force, and upon hearing that one was in the area, Major Cain raced out to an anti-tank gun and began to drag it into position. A gunner saw him and ran over to assist, and the two men succeeded in disabling it. Cain wanted to fire another shot to make sure that it was finished off, but the gunner informed him that the blast had destroyed the gun’s recoil mechanism and it could no longer fire.
On Friday 22nd, his eardrums burst from his constant firing, but he continued to take on any tanks he encountered, contenting himself with merely stuffing pieces of field dressing into his ears. Nevertheless he never ceased to urge his men on, and was seen by his driver, Private Grainger, giving a man his last cigarette. Monday 25th saw very heavy fighting in the area occupied by the Lonsdale Force. Self-propelled guns, flame thrower tanks, and infantry took great interest in Cain’s position. By this time there were no more PIAT’s available to the Major. Undeterred, he armed himself with a two inch mortar and added further trophies to his collection, while his brilliant leadership ensured that the South Staffords gave no ground and drove the enemy off in complete disorder. By the end of the Battle, Cain had been responsible for the destruction or disabling of six tanks, four of which were Tigers, as well as a number of self-propelled guns.
As the Division was about to withdraw, some men were encouraged to shave before crossing the river, determined to leave looking like British soldiers. Robert found a razor and some water and proceeded to remove a week’s growth of beard from his face, drying himself on his filthy, blood-stained Denison smock. His effort was noticed by Brigadier Hicks who remarked “Well, there’s one officer, at least, who’s shaved”. Cain happily replied that he had been well brought up. When the actual evacuation was taking place, Major Cain remained on the north bank until his men had departed for the other side. However when it came to his turn there didn’t seem to be any boats left in operation. He and some fellow men caught sight of a damaged assault craft in the river, and they swam out to collect it. Using their rifle butts as paddles while other troopers baled out the water that was threatening to sink it, they made it across.
Major Cain’s conduct throughout was of the highest order, both in terms of personal actions and leadership ability, and for this he was awarded the Victoria Cross; the only man to receive this medal at Arnhem and live to tell the tale. His citation said of him “His coolness and courage under incessant fire could not be surpassed”. He was gazetted on 2nd November 1944, After the war he journeyed to Norway with the 1st Airlanding Brigade and Divisional HQ to oversee the German surrender. He returned to his pre-war occupation with Shell, living in the Far East and later West Africa, before retiring to the Isle of Man with his family.
Major Cain passed away from cancer on 2nd May 1974 in Crowthorne, East Sussex, and his ashes following cremation were returned to the Isle of Man where they were interred in the family grave in Braddan Cemetery. His medals including the VC, and several other items belonging to him, are held by the Staffordshire Regimental Museum, Whittington Barracks, Lichfield. His daughter, Frances Catherine Cain unveiled a set of commemorative coins honouring her father on the Isle of Man in 2006. She was also married to British television and motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson (divorced 2014), who presented a BBC documentary, “The Victoria Cross: For Valour” on Cain and other VC recipients in 2003. Frances Cain was unaware of her father’s VC until after he died because, according to Clarkson, “he’d never thought to mention it”.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: STAFFORDSHIRE REGIMENT MUSEUM, LICHFIELD.
BURIAL PLACE: BRADDAN CEMETERY, DOUGLAS, ISLE OF MAN. ASHES INTERRED
Paul Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Images of Cain VC’s grave and Cain Close, Lichfield.