Major Cain, The One Man Tank Destroyer Who Received a VC At Arnhem

Major Robert Cain was awarded the Victoria Cross in the battle for Arnhem. He was the sole recipient, out of the five Victoria Crosses awarded during that battle, who survived.

Major Cain was the commander of B-Company 2nd South Staffordshire regiment, a glider-borne unit in the 1st Airborne Division. He left England on September 17th England from Manston Airfield, destination Landing zone Z near Wolfheze. His flight was a short one because after 5 minutes his tow rope snapped. The glider made a perfect landing in some fields, tearing through a hedge. Whilst the soldiers began unloading the glider one of the Gilder Pilots found a telephone made a call to Manston.

The Gilder Pilot who examined the tow rope said it was ‘diabolical’ as the same thing happened to him on D-Day. They all got back to the airfield and got into a new glider on September 18th in the Second lift. This time they landed on the landing zone without further incident.

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Robert Henry Cain VC taken at Buckingham Palace after his investiture.

Arnhem

Meanwhile, his company was heavily engaged in the attempt to reach the Bridge at Arnhem. They were to break through to the 2nd Battalion that was holding on to the north end. Major Cain finally joined his company on early in the morning on September 19th at the Utrechtseweg in Arnhem.

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Map of Major Cains actions at Arnhem. 1: The hollow near the Municipal Museum. 2: The High ground near Den Brink. The green line is the line of advance into Arnhem.

His B-Company, together with A-Company was in the middle of its attack that ran into heavy opposition just beyond the Municipal Museum. The Germans were supported by (Stug III) self-propelled guns and had blunted the assault, inflicting terrible casualties on the lightly armed glider troopers.

Major Cain found himself in a hollow in the slope outside the museum (position 1 on the map). They were under constant tank fire and only had PIATs as anti-tank weapon.  Lieutenant Dupenois was with him in the hollow and he fired the PIAT whilst Major Cain tried to draw fire and get ammunition. This way they were able to hold off the Germans for 2 to 3 hours until their PIAT ammunition ran out.

PIAT

The PIAT, Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank was a British man-portable anti-tank weapon developed during the Second World War. 

The PIAT launched a 2.5 pound (1.1 kg) bomb using a powerful spring and a cartridge in the tail of the projectile. It possessed an effective range of approximately 115 yards (110 m) in a direct fire anti-tank role. The PIAT had several advantages over other infantry anti-tank weapons of the period, which included a lack of muzzle smoke to reveal the position of the user. However, this was countered by a difficulty in cocking the weapon, the bruising the user received when firing it, and problems with its penetrative power.

Being under fire from the roads below and above them their position became untenable and they had to withdraw. Only Major Cain and a few men managed to get away from what they called “a death trap”. A- and B-Company, 2nd South Staffords ceased to exist with most of their men killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Major Cain then took over C-Company and the remaining men of the 2nd South Staffords. With this force, he got on the high ground near Den Brink (location 2 on the map above) but they were soon spotted by the Germans who started to shell the area with mortars. The ground was too thick with roots to dig in and they suffered heavy casualties. When they were then attacked by tanks Cain decided to pull back to Oosterbeek. He felt very dejected as they could not break through to the bridge and were thrown out of the town.

Oosterbeek

Together with the remains of the Parachute Brigade, they marched out of Arnhem and towards Oosterbeek. There Major Cain was ordered to take command of the mixed parties that were now assembling around the Church on the lower road near the river. This became his area during the defense of the Oosterbeek Perimeter. By nightfall of the 19th of September, he commanded the remaining 100 men of the 2nd South Staffords.

OosterbeekPerimeter
Simplified map of the lower part of the Oosterbeek Perimeter. It shows the positions held by the 2nd South Staffords during the German tank attack and the location (star) where the VC action took place.

On September 21st the Germans launched a major assault down the Ploegseweg of infantry supported by self-propelled guns. Their aim was to try and cut the British off from the river, sealing the fate of the 1st Airborne Division. During this attack, Major Cain grabbed a PIAT and started to engage the attacking tanks. He lobbed around 50 PIAT Bombs over a house on the advancing tanks. He was getting directions from an artillery officer in a house whilst he was in a slit trench. Tank fire hit the house, killing the officer and dropping the chimney almost on top of Major Cain.

Another Stug came down the road and Cain crawled to the corner of his trench to engage it. He fired his PIAT from 30 yards away and probably hit the tank on the tracks. The tank fired back immediately but missed throwing up a huge cloud of smoke and dust. As soon as he could see the tank again he fired his second PIAT bomb after which the tank fired a second time.

A 75mm Howitzer was quickly manhandled forward to an exposed position where it could finish off the tank with an armor piercing round. It took a while for the smoke and dust to clear. When it did Major Cain saw the crew bailing out, they were engaged by Bren guns and killed.

A German Self Propelled gun, Stug III in Oosterbeek close to the positions of the 2nd South Staffords. Note the supply Parachute.
A German Self Propelled gun, Stug III in Oosterbeek close to the positions of the 2nd South Staffords. Note the supply Parachute.

He then engaged another tank but his PIAT bombs exploded in front of his face. It blew him over backward and with bits of stuff in his face and temporarily blind. He was, as he said himself, “shouting like a hooligan. I shouted for somebody to get onto the PIAT because there was another tank behind”.

By now the Germans had enough and retreated back the way they came.

Major Cain was dragged to an Aid post but quickly recovered and within 30 minutes he returned to the front line. For this action, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

His Victoria Cross citation states that his leadership ensured that the South Staffordshire gave no ground and drove the enemy off in complete disorder. By the end of the Battle, Major Cain had been reportedly responsible for the destruction or disabling of six tanks, four of which were Tigers, as well as a number of self-propelled guns.

On the last day in the perimeter, September 25th, Major Cain was still in his slit trench engaging the enemy. By now the PIAT munition had run out and he equipped himself with a 2inch mortar with which he engaged the enemy.

That night the division escaped across the Rhine River, Major Cain ensured his men were all across before he himself crossed the Rhine river.