Capt Dickie Annand VC

Winner of the first army VC of the Second World War
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The Independent Online

Richard Wallace Annand, soldier: born South Shields, Co Durham 5 November 1914; VC 1940; married 1940 Shirley Osborne; died Durham 24 December 2004.

Second Lieutenant Dickie Annand, serving with the Durham Light Infantry, was the first soldier of the Second World War to win the Victoria Cross. In one of the bravest actions of the war, he held back a particularly determined German offensive.

On 14 May 1940 the German forces advancing on the north side of the River Dyle to the east of Brussels were confronted with a blown bridge. They launched a fierce attack, but were forced back by the accuracy of the mortar and machine-gun fire of the 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. During the attack Annand realised he had not received word from a pillbox 250 yards to his right. He went to investigate, and was gone for two hours. Sgt T. O'Neil was to recall:

We had come to the conclusion that they had got him when something that I found hard to recognise came crawling in. He looked as though he had been having an argument with a wild cat. His clothes were torn to shreds and he was cut and bruised all over. How he got there and back only he knows, because he had the fire of our own troops as well as Jerry's. I don't suppose he knows the meaning of fear. He never asked a man to do anything he couldn't do himself. He wouldn't talk much about it. He wasn't that kind.

A determined and more violent attack was launched at dawn the next day to support a riverbed attack alongside the bridge. Annand and his platoon counterattacked with rifle fire but, when those around him ran out of ammunition, he went forward himself over exposed ground with total disregard of the enemy's mortar and machine-gun fire. On reaching the bridge, he drove out the well-armed party with accurate throwing and, as they emerged from under the bridge, dropped more grenades upon them, inflicting over 20 casualties. This extraordinary action was witnessed by one of his men, Corporal Martin McLean:

I saw Lt Annand go forward with his hand-grenades. How that man never got hit with all

that shooting going on I'll never know: it was a miracle really. He ran across dodging here and there, ducking and skipping and caused devastation at the edge of the bridge. You could hear the Germans yelling and screaming.

Later Annand had his wounds dressed and returned to command his platoon.

That evening, under an intense barrage of mortar and machine-gun fire, the Germans attempted to repair the bridge. Annand asked for a box of grenades. With these, he again attacked the bridging party. O'Neil recalled:

Off he went and he sure must have given them a lovely time because it wasn't a great while before he was back for more. Just like giving an elephant strawberries.

Annand had again inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

Successful as the counter-attack had been the DLIs were ordered to withdraw. There was no transport and anything that could not be carried had to be abandoned. Some hours into the march Annand learned that his batman, Private Joseph Hunter, had been wounded and left behind. The ever-resourceful Annand found a wheelbarrow, returned to find Hunter, and, although wounded himself, wheeled him along until confronted by a fallen tree. There he left Hunter in a trench and set off to find help. Overcome by his own loss of blood and exhaustion he collapsed.

For two days he was carried on a hospital train to Calais. It was here that the gods smiled on this quietest of men. He was taken aboard the first of two awaiting ships - the other was later bombed and sank. Annand recovered from his wounds and was invested with the VC by King George VI at Buckingham Palace during the height of the Battle of Britain, with air-raid warning sirens blaring.

Richard Annand's father, Lt-Cdr W.H. Annand, was killed at Gallipoli a year after his son's birth. "Dickie" was educated at Pocklington School in East Yorkshire before joining the National Provincial Bank. Following in his father's footsteps, in 1933 he became a midshipman in the Tyne Division of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. In 1937, and now a sub-lieutenant, he was bitterly disappointed not to receive a regular navy commission. Aware of the imminence of war, in 1938 he was commissioned into the supplementary reserve of the Durham Light Infantry and landed in France with them shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939.

Having recovered from his wounds, he rejoined his reformed 2nd Battalion in June 1940 but his hearing had been badly affected by the two grenade attacks and in 1941, as a result of rifle practice on the ranges, Annand lost almost all his hearing. However, in September that year he was appointed as an instructor at the Commando Training Centre in Scotland and for the rest of the war he held various training posts as well as an appointment at the War Office.

In 1948 he was invalided out of the Army with the rank of captain and threw his enthusiasm into his new life, working with the disabled. His first post was as a personnel officer at Finchale Abbey Training Centre for the Disabled near Durham. He later became one of the founders for the British Association of the Hard of Hearing, now called Hearing Concern. Always recognising how isolating any form of disability can be, he was acutely aware that just training people was of little use if they had no job to go to. A typical gesture of this severely deaf man was to take four disabled tailors to London and not return until he had found each one of them work.

His courage again was called upon on a particularly cold evening in February 1979. After being dined out by the officers of HMS Bacchante on the River Tyne, his wife stumbled and plunged 15ft into the freezing river, clad in a mink coat and heels. Annand dived in and supported her until they were hauled to safety by the crew.

Ingenious and resourceful as ever, when anyone spoke to him, he held up a microphone so that he could catch some of what you were saying. Nearly always alongside him at occasions of the gathering of VC and GC Association members was his much-loved wife, to whom he was married for 64 years. His modesty prevented him from talking of his award, which he always felt belonged to his men.

The death of this gentle and courageous man leaves only 13 surviving holders of the Victoria Cross.

Max Arthur