Harry Rawlins, infantryman who survived close calls with reinforcements after D-Day – obituary

As a lance-corporal, Rawlins was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm
As a lance-corporal, Rawlins was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm

Harry Rawlins, who has died aged 98, survived many close brushes with death while serving with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps from Normandy to Bremen and was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

Henry Frederick Rawlins was born in Islington, north London, on September 9 1925. He was educated at Camrose Senior School, Edgware, but left aged 14. In March 1943, he enlisted in the Army. Always known as Harry, he was only 17 but he told the recruiting sergeant that he was older.

After six weeks basic training in York, he was drafted into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) and posted to the 12th Battalion at Retford, Nottinghamshire. Almost a month after D-Day, on June 30th 1944, he landed at the Mulberry Harbour, Normandy, as a reinforcement.

He and a comrade volunteered for all his platoon’s night patrols. On the first night, he threw himself on the ground when a machine gun, firing on fixed lines, opened up and the bullets swept over his head. “It’s one of ours,” his companion reassured him. “You’ll soon learn the difference between the Vickers and the German Spandau.”

12 KRRC was the Motor Battalion and his platoon was transported by halftracks laden with ammunition, rations and, sometimes, casualties. The driver was in charge of the rations and when these ran short, Rawlins suspected that the man was trading them with the local ladies in exchange for their favours. “Clearly, man does not live by bread alone,” was his wry comment.

During Operation Market Garden in September, the battalion was at Elst on the outskirts of Arnhem, when they were strafed by German fighters. The bullets thudded into the side of the ditch where Rawlins had taken cover.

That night, he was manning an observation post 30 feet up at the top of a windmill. Perched just below him, an enemy sniper was firing tracer along the main road but Rawlins was not allowed to give his position away and could not engage him.

On another night, he was part of a Bren gun team standing in a doorway, when a German patrol fired a long burst of tracer at them. The bullets struck the brickwork around them but he escaped with a cut cheek.

At Brunssum, he was billeted on a Dutch family. He gave them his rations and ate with them. After crossing the frontier into Germany, there was an increasing risk of raids by German patrols trying to grab prisoners for interrogation and Rawlins’s section stood-to for 14 hours during the long hours of darkness.

Rawlins as a young soldier: he later confessed to being a bit of a drifter and could never settle down to family life
Rawlins as a young soldier: he later confessed to being a bit of a drifter and could never settle down to family life

On one occasion, his platoon was ordered to defend an important tactical position on top of a hill. The farmhouse there had been razed to the ground by relentless shelling. The small force that was being relieved did not wait for the platoon to arrive but came streaming down the hill to meet them. They were in very poor shape, Rawlins wrote later, “Wild-eyed and slack mouthed”.

Very soon, he came under attack from four six-barrelled rocket-firing Nebelwerfers: “If you heard the whoosh, one after the other, you knew that there were 24 mortar bombs on the way.”

In February and March 1945, 12 KRRC, part of 8 th Armoured Brigade, 43rd Division, saw heavy fighting around Cleves and Goch in the Battle of the Reichswald Forest. Rawlins’s platoon came under mortar fire from an unexpected quarter and started taking casualties.

He had just managed to drag a wounded comrade 50 yards into cover, when his platoon commander came up to him to with a few words of encouragement. “Are you alright,” he began. They were his last words. A bullet went straight through his head. The young officer, Rawlins said, was an inspiration to all of them and he was never able to forget that he was the unwitting cause of the man’s death.

Shortly after he crossed the Rhine, he was in a trench when a shell plunged into the ground within a foot of him. “I thought it was the end,” he said. “It fizzed away like an upturned rocket, I put my fingers in my ears, waiting for a big explosion but it just fizzled out.”

At this stage of the war, Rawlins was the only one in his section to have fought all the way from Normandy to the Rhine. He had to look after the reinforcements, many of whom had come straight from the depot.

One man, a corporal, who had been was transferred to his section, Rawlins distrusted from the moment that he had to help him to his feet after finding him grovelling on the ground when a shell landed all of 40 yards away.

Rawlins told his sergeant that the man was a coward. He asked for a transfer to another section but the sergeant said that he could not spare him. A few days later, Rawlins’s section was advancing across farmland. There were three large sugar beet clamps about 50 yards apart and they were using these as cover.

On a trip with the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans
On a trip with the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans

The platoon sergeant, the corporal, and Rawlins, carrying the Bren gun, went forward to the furthest clamp. The sergeant put his head around the corner of the clamp and a Spandau machine gun opened up, just missing him. He withdrew and went back to call up some tanks.

Rawlins said the corporal looked uneasy. The Germans knew exactly where they were. The man ordered Rawlins to stay there and said he had to get back to the rest of the section, who were at the middle clamp.

He had no sooner left than Rawlins heard four reports from a mortar. Then another four. Four mortar bombs landed on his right and four more on his left. “This is it, Harry Boy!” Rawlins said to himself. The next four tore great holes out of the clamp and damaged the Bren.

When he rejoined the rest of his section, the men were very shamefaced. They said that they could see what was happening, but the corporal had refused to let them go to help. Rawlins said afterwards that he never forgot the look on the corporal’s face when he found that he was still alive.

12 KRRC finished the war in north-west Europe at Bremervörde, north of Bremen. Rawlins, then a lance-corporal, was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm for his outstanding leadership and courage while leading patrols in France and Belgium. In November 1947 he was demobilised in the rank of sergeant.

His adventures did not end with the war. He found it difficult to settle and had a number of jobs. He tried to rejoin his regiment but he had injured his leg in a motorcycle accident and, much to his dismay, he was not accepted.

In December 1950 he went to Australia, and for the next six years he worked on cattle and sheep stations and in a copper mine at Mount Isa, Queensland. He worked as a docker in New Zealand for a few months before returning to England in summer 1956.

He had many girlfriends but he confessed to being a bit of a drifter and could never settle down to family life. Over the years he got into a few scraps but he was very strong and he never got knocked down. He lived at his family home in Edgware for 10 years.

He worked for an industrial photographic company, studied at Harrow Technical College, and qualified as a professional photographer. In 1966 he decided to return to the Antipodes, but rather than the direct route, he wanted to see something of the Middle East.

Chelsea Pensioner Harry Rawlins: his main hobby was breeding and owning Norwegian elkhounds, for which he won many trophies
Chelsea Pensioner Harry Rawlins: his main hobby was breeding and owning Norwegian elkhounds, for which he won many trophies

He took a train to Istanbul, stopping off at Munich to visit the Oktoberfest. Sleeping in youth hostels, he travelled through Persia (now Iran) to Kuwait, from where he travelled by boat to Bombay (now Mumbai) as a deck passenger.

He had joined the TA after the war and this enabled him to join the Royal Green Jackets on a train journey across India and then to Borneo where they were on operations during the Confrontation with Indonesia. He lived in the sergeants’ mess and became the regimental photographer.

After a spell in New Zealand, working for the New Zealand Film Unit, in 1967 he returned to Australia and Mount Isa and worked as the mining company’s industrial photographer. When his father died in 1971, he returned to England to look after his mother and worked for Harrow Borough Council as their parks inspector until he retired in 1990.

His main hobby was owning, showing and breeding Norwegian elkhounds for which he won many trophies. He was also a prolific reader and collector of books, especially military history. He maintained his own photographic darkroom, and belonged to the local camera club.

In 2015 he was appointed to the Légion d’honneur in recognition of his contribution to the liberation of France and, in 2022, he received the “Thank you liberators” medal from the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the Dutch Embassy.

He moved to the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 2021 as an In Pensioner and much enjoyed meeting fellow veterans there and also through the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans.

Harry Rawlins never married.

Harry Rawlins, born September 9 1925, died June 10 2024