Bill Bellamy: Tank commander who won a Military Cross for his actions after the Normandy Landings
Monday 11 May 2009
Lionel "Bill" Bellamy was a 20-year-old regular officer with the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars when they landed on "Gold" beach on 9 June 1944, three days after D-Day, as part of the Normandy invasion. He was in charge of an echelon squadron, providing back-up, fuel and ammunition for the frontline troops of the Seventh Armoured Division. But within days of landing, after several of his regiment's officers had been killed, he was put in command of a troop of Cromwell tanks. Bellamy pushed them forward, amid regular close combat with German forces, through Belgium, Holland and Germany, and eventually into the heart of Berlin. He was still only 21 when, as part of the initial occupying force, he was one of the first British officers to walk through Hitler's study, littered with the Führer's papers and photographs, some of which the young Bellamy guiltily stuffed into his battledress as souvenirs.
Bellamy led his troop in many major combat actions in the push towards the Rhine, including the battle for Villers-Bocage, near Bayeux, the massive Operation Goodwood near Caen in July 1944, Operation Bluecoat to capture Mont Pinçon, the breakthroughs into Belgium and Holland and the invasion of Germany itself.
On 5 March 1945 he received the Military Cross, presented personally by Field Marshal Montgomery, for his bravery during the battle for the hamlet of Doornhoek, near St. Joost in Holland, in October 1944. Under heavy German machine-gun, mortar and shell fire, and in a minefield, Bellamy got his burning tank and crew to safety before overrunning enemy positions to allow infantrymen to push through.
Only three days after receiving the MC, Bellamy learnt that his mother, who lived in west London but was assisting the war effort by helping to get supplies to the troops from Smithfield meat market on Charterhouse Street, had been among 100 people killed by one of the last Nazi V-2 rockets to land in the capital.
Lionel Gale Bellamy was born on 1 December 1923 in Northampton, and attended Hawthorn Community Primary School in Kettering, then Blackfriars (Dominican) boarding school in nearby Laxton. His father, Ronald, was a salesman who had served in the trenches of France during the First World War and would later become a POW in North Africa in the Second. Lionel's mother, Olive, was a dress designer. Entering Blackfriars at the age of 11, Lionel converted to Catholicism with the reluctant assent of his parents. Until his death, he believed that his faith had given him the fortitude to save not only his life during combat, but, more importantly to him, the lives of those he commanded.
Called up on his 18th birthday, he was forced to forego his desire to go to university and signed up for the army just before Christmas 1941. When the new recruits at a Dorset training camp began exchanging nicknames such as "Lefty" and "Chalky", he couldn't bear to reveal that his name was Lionel, so he spontaneously conjured up the name "Bill" - which is how he became known for the rest of his life. After training as an officer cadet at Sandhurst from 1942-43, he joined the 8th Royal Irish Hussars in the hope of fighting close to his father, who was involved in the North Africa campaign.
He got his wish, sailing from Glasgow to Algiers in June 1943, but spent a relatively uneventful few months in North Africa before being shipped back to England to prepare for D-Day. On his return, he was surprised and delighted to see his father, who had been held in a North African prisoner-of-war camp, but released as part of a swap for a group of Italian prisoners.
Against army rules, Bellamy kept a diary charting his wartime experiences, which eventually led to his colourful memoir Troop Leader: A Tank Commander's Story (Sutton Publishing, 2005), a fascinating insight into life inside a tank in heavy combat situations. In it, he describes his tank trying to shoot down Nazi V-1 "doodlebug" flying bombs, a forerunner of the type of rocket that would kill his mother; he also describes how an officer was beheaded by a German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon, which "decapitated him as if by surgery, and his body seemed to continue on its way for a few paces before falling."
He recalled being among the first British liberators to enter French, Belgian and Dutch villages as church bells rang and locals showered him with sweets or fruit, a euphoria tempered by the sight of the bodies of countless young German soldiers by the roadside. So close were the two sides in battle that, as a devout catholic, he went into a church on Christmas Day 1944 to pray alone. As it turned out, a young German soldier had had the same idea. After the two men stared at each other in shock for several seconds, the German ran from the church and back to his lines.
Once in liberated Berlin, Bellamy wrote of the "chilled" relations with Russian forces, a precursor to the Cold War. He witnessed one Russian soldier shoot an elderly hausfrau for her bicycle and he read an intelligence report that listed 257 complaints of rape by Russian soldiers in the British sector of the city during the first month of the allied occupation alone.
Bellamy married Ann Burbury in 1950. After the war, he was Adjutant of the 8th Hussars, responsible for administering the call-up to the Korean War. Having suffered several bouts of jaundice, he was listed as "Home Service Only" and redeployed as Adjutant of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry regiment, which had fought alongside the 8th Hussars in Normandy. After he was invalided out of the army in 1955, Bellamy became a successful businessman in the Northampton area, a director of the footwear manufacturer Phipps and Son and, after a merger, a board member of Chamberlain Phipps.
In 1983 he retired to Great Brington, close to the Spencer family home at Althorp, dedicating his time and energy to local groups and charities, including the church and parish council. He was for several years chairman of the Rugby-based Mayday Trust, which provides housing and support for vulnerable adults. He was also a hands-on supporter of the Cynthia Spencer Hospice in Northampton, named after the current Earl of Spencer's grandmother, and raised £30,000 for the hospice by trekking across Cuba in 2005, when he was 81 years old.
Lionel "Bill" Bellamy, tank commander and author: born Northampton 1 December 1923; married 1950 Ann Burbary (died 2001; four sons, one daughter), 2007 Felicity Sidders; died Barnstaple, Devon 18 March 2009.
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