Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Barclay


Mi Sergeant Major
MI.Net Member
Apr 12, 2005
Another unsung British Airborne Hero.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Barclay, who has died aged 87, was awarded a Military Medal at the Battle of Arnhem in 1944; his experiences, recorded in detail in a memoir, provide a gripping soldier's-eye account of front line action during what proved one of the greatest Allied reverses of the war.

Published: 6:52PM GMT 02 Feb 2010

Operation Market Garden in September 1944 aimed to outflank the German defensive line known as the "West Wall" by establishing a bridgehead over the lower Rhine at the Dutch town of Arnhem.

Barclay, then a private serving with 21 Independent Parachute Company (21 IPC), took off from Fairford airfield in a Stirling bomber on September 17. (The Pathfinder force 21 IPC, spearhead of an enormous airborne invasion force, flew in bombers in order to keep the element of surprise for as long as possible.) After he jumped, Barclay checked his pistol and knife and landed on the drop zone near a farmhouse known as Reijers Camp. Others were not so lucky: two landed in tall poplar trees, from which there came, he said later, "weird and wonderful cursing".

Barclay was carrying 30lb of detonators and plastic high explosive on his back and tried not to think of what might happen if he took a bullet there. His section collected two prisoners and sent them to HQ. As the first aircraft towing gliders appeared, his platoon ignited smoke indicators and fired Verey pistols to point out the direction of run-in to the pilots.

German resistance was stiff and grew stronger. Day after day casualties mounted, while supplies failed to arrive – a consequence of the murderous flak put up against Stirlings and Dakotas operating at low level. On the evening of September 18 Barclay's platoon commandeered a horse and cart to replace the Jeep they had been promised, and moved towards Arnhem.

As they did so, Barclay counted seven aircraft that passed over his head, all of them on fire. Not one deviated from its course until it had dropped its load or crashed. Containers that landed in "no-man's-land" were used by both sides as bait. Attempts to recover them were met with a hail of bullets.

On September 21 Barclay's platoon moved into a strong defensive position in woodland, where it beat off nine attacks, some of which were supported by 88mm self-propelled guns.

The platoon withdrew to a house inside the Oosterbeek perimeter, three miles west of Arnhem. On one of Barclay's trips to bring in ammunition, he saw a young German soldier trying to surrender. The man had lost part of a hand and was panic-stricken as bullets from both sides whistled past him. Barclay managed to stop the Allied firing and the young man came in. Barclay was ordered to take the prisoner to company HQ for interrogation. But, as he recorded in his unpublished account: "When we left the house, a sudden burst of [enemy] fire killed the poor kid. I was lucky. Rather callously I shrugged it off, thankful it had not been me."

As the pressure mounted on the British trapped inside what the enemy called the "the witches' cauldron", the Germans made repeated attempts to get them to surrender. Recording equipment broadcast a speech beginning: "Gentlemen of the First Airborne Division, remember your wives and sweethearts at home." One of the Piat gunners fired a rocket at it and the speech came to an abrupt end.

Barclay spent September 22 in a house on the eastern sector under constant sniper fire. That evening, his platoon was ordered to relieve another unit holding houses in an isolated salient. They crept through gardens and allotments under cover of darkness, but tangles of telephone wires, broken glass and fallen masonry made it impossible to move silently.

The next day, just before first light, he was roused by shells passing through the walls of the house. Outside there was a Mark IV tank and 88mm guns firing at them. Some 100 Panzergrenadiers were coming up in support.

Barclay dived into a slit trench dug in the floor. A comrade was blown down the stairs and into the cellar. Others, badly shaken, rushed down the stairs, leaving the only Bren gun on the first floor.

"Would you like to get it and win a VC?" Barclay was asked. "That's not likely!" he replied as he ran upstairs. He manned a Vickers machine gun mounted on a tripod in a window, fired a full belt at the approaching troops, and grabbed the Bren.

As he dived for the door and somersaulted down the stairs, two shells came through the wall, one of which demolished the gun he had just left. It was for this action that he was awarded a Military Medal.

On the night of September 24 Barclay stopped on a landing to look through a window. The pane shattered in front of his eyes and bullets streamed past him. His guardian angel, he said afterwards, must have been working overtime.

The following evening, as the chaos of Market Garden became clear, 21 IPC was ordered to act as the rearguard in a general withdrawal over the Rhine. At 9pm the guns of XXX Corps opened up with a barrage on the woods below the company's position, which were held by the enemy but would have to be passed through.

An hour later Barclay and his comrades slipped away in heavy rain, their route marked out by tapes. Those who were too badly wounded to move manned machine guns to give the impression that the defences were still in place.

Canadian sappers ferried boats back and forth across the river under constant gunfire. Streams of red tracer were fired from the opposite bank to show the direction to make for.

Boat after boat was hit and, at daybreak, it became too risky to continue the operation. Several hundred men had to be abandoned on the enemy-held bank. Many of these subsequently escaped back to the Allied lines with the unstinting help of the Dutch people.

William John Joseph Barclay was born in London on March 9 1922 and educated at Xavier College, Bruges. As a young man he was a talented amateur boxer; in his later years he was a keen golfer with a low single-figure handicap.

In 1939 Barclay enlisted in the RAF, but after injuring his eyes he was medically downgraded and went into the Buffs, his father's old regiment. While training in Canterbury he found himself in the midst of a German air raid. Together with a corporal, he formed a Bren team which succeeded in shooting down a low-flying Dornier bomber.

He was posted to the 8th Battalion on beach-defence duties in Kent, but after his unit was selected for conversion to the Royal Artillery he asked for a transfer and, after rigorous training, joined 21 IPC at Newark.

On his return to England after Operation Market Garden, Barclay was recommended for a commission and posted to India. He completed his officer training at the OCS Bangalore and was commissioned into the 1st Battalion the South Staffordshire Regiment (1 SSR), joining it near Dehra Dun in October 1945.

After Partition British officers took command of Gurkha troops from the depots in Dehra Dun and provided escorts for Muslims leaving India and Hindus leaving Pakistan. Barclay was sickened by the sight of the atrocities committed during this mass migration.

In 1947 he rejoined 1 SSR as a company commander at a camp outside Deolali, but he left India in January 1948 on the day after Gandhi's assassination. After a spell on the Reserve of Officers, in 1950 he was seconded to the Federation of Malay Military Force and joined the 3rd Battalion the Malay Regiment and subsequently the 5th Battalion. He took part in intensive operations against the communist terrorists on the rubber estates and in the deep jungle of the rainforests.

In one operation they hunted a gang of insurgents, some 25-strong, for three weeks. He kept close behind them and, having several contacts, killed one or two each time. The bodies were sent out to the road to be picked up and identified by the police.

Eventually they came upon the 15 remaining members of the gang standing on the road with their hands up, weapons laid down, totally exhausted and only too happy to surrender. Barclay was mentioned in despatches.

In 1963, after a secondment in which he helped to raise the new Brunei Malay Regiment for the Sultan of Brunei, Barclay returned to England. He was posted to 1st Battalion the Zambian Regiment as a company commander in 1965.

After a move to the school of military training as chief instructor and a subsequent promotion to lieutenant-colonel, he commanded 3rd Battalion the Zambian Regiment. He retired in 1971.

Barclay settled in Johannesburg and became a manager with an international business equipment company until 1982, when he moved to a photographic firm as factory manager. He returned to England in 2004.

Bill Barclay died on December 11. He married first, in 1951, Iris Patricia Blanchard. After their divorce, he married, in 1971, Winifred Anne Durrheim. She predeceased him, and he is survived by a son of his first marriage.
A fantastic life of service and a truly typical British Hero.

Thanks for posting this mate (Y)
There is no doubt that Operation Market Garden was a tactical fiasco for all the allied troops involved. Many a hero was born of that operation, though many of them were never decorated or even accounted for.

I salute all those soldiers who gave everything they had to give, to insure the survival of their brothers in arms, in a situation that they never asked to be put in. I think it's ironic that Barclay was asked if he would retrieve the Bren gun for a Victoria Cross, said no, but retrieved it anyways. I would be curious to know which military medal he was awarded for his actions during Operation Market Garden. salute;
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