Major Robert Cain was awarded the Victoria Cross in the Battle of Arnhem. Of the five Victoria Crosses awarded during that battle, he was the sole recipient who survived.
Major Cain was the commander of B-Company 2nd South Staffordshire regiment, a glider-borne unit in the 1st Airborne Division. On September 17, 1944, he took off from Manston Airfield, England – 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. While the soldiers unloaded the plane, one of the pilots ran to a telephone and made a call to Manston.
The pilot who examined the tow rope said it was ‘diabolical’ as the same thing had happened to him on D-Day. They returned to the airfield and boarded a new glider on September 18 in a second attempt. They were successful in reaching the landing zone without further incident. Major Cain finally joined his company early on the morning of September 19 at the Utrechtseweg in Arnhem.
At that time, 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.
His B-Company, together with D and A-Company of the 2nd South Staffordshire regiment were in the middle of an attack which had run into heavy opposition just beyond the Municipal Museum. The Germans were supported by (Stug III) self-propelled guns and had stalled the assault, inflicting terrible casualties on the lightly armed glider troopers.
Major Cain was 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 weapons. Lieutenant Dupenois, also in the hollow, fired the PIAT while Major Cain tried to draw fire and get ammunition. That way they were able to hold off the Germans for two to three hours until their PIAT ammunition ran out.
The PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti- Tank) was a British portable anti-tank weapon developed during WWII.
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, that was countered by a difficulty in cocking the weapon, bruising received by the user when firing it, and problems with its penetrative power.
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-Companies and the 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 them, he got on the high ground near Den Brink (location 2 on the map), but they were spotted by the Germans who began to shell them with mortars. The area was too thick with roots to dig in, and they suffered heavy casualties. When tanks then attacked them, Cain decided to pull back to Oosterbeek. He felt very dejected as they could not break through to the bridge and had had to retreat from Arnhem.
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. It became his area during the defense of the Oosterbeek perimeter.
By nightfall on September 19, he commanded the remaining 100 men of the 2nd South Staffords.
On September 21 the German infantry launched a major assault down the Ploegseweg supported by self-propelled guns. They were trying to cut the British off from the river, sealing the fate of the 1st Airborne Division. During the attack, Major Cain grabbed a PIAT and started to engage the enemy 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 while he was in a slit trench. Suddenly, 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 its 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, Cain fired his second PIAT bomb, and the tank also 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 then killed by Bren guns.
Major Cain tried to engage another tank, but his PIAT bomb exploded in front of his face. It blew him backward, and he was temporarily blinded. 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 then, the Germans had had enough and retreated the way they had come.
Major Cain was dragged to an aid post but quickly recovered, and within 30 minutes he returned to the front line. For this actions, 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, September 25, Major Cain was still on the perimeter in his slit trench engaging with the enemy. By then the PIAT munitions had run out, and he had equipped himself with a 2-inch mortar.
That night the division escaped across the Rhine River. Major Cain ensured all his men were safely across before he himself crossed too.
Joris Nieuwint is a battlefield tour guide for Operation Market Garden. As “The Battlefield Explorer” he creates videos which cover battlefields, museums, and commemorations. For more information, videos and how to hire him as a guide, visit his website: https://thebattlefieldexplorer.com.