Who was Stanley Hollis? A war veteran, a pub landlord, a much-loved dad and granddad, who died in 1972 at the relatively young age of 59. He was modest, irreverent and not one for bragging. Most military history buffs have probably never heard of him. Certainly, the strangers who crossed paths with Stanley in life would have been shocked if they’d known his incredible backstory, just as many of us today might be surprised by what we discover if we delve into the hidden stories of our relatives on Ancestry.
Stanley Hollis, a seemingly ordinary family man who settled into a quiet life after the war, was actually one of the greatest British heroes of the conflict, single-handedly saving numerous British servicemen’s lives on D-Day, and awarded the Victoria Cross for his almost unbelievable display of bravery. In fact, Stanley was the only D-Day soldier to receive the VC. Seeing as there was certainly no shortage of courage shown on the beaches, this only underscores how immense Stanley’s exploits were on 6 June 1944.
Given for acts of valour in the presence of the enemy, and introduced in 1856 in the wake of the Crimean War, the Victoria Cross is more than a medal. It’s awarded so infrequently, and its prestige is so great, that it carries with it a kind of mythic aura, and all those who receive the VC become part of an exclusive pantheon of heroes. Stanley Hollis had had a remarkable war even before the events that would lead to the awarding of the Victoria Cross. A Middlesbrough lad who’d worked as a lorry driver and merchant navy seaman before the war, he saw action in the epic evacuation of Dunkirk, fought at El Alamein and was injured during the invasion of Sicily.
Then came D-Day, when he became one of the many British soldiers to enter the hellish maelstrom of Gold Beach. The troops arrived on board a ship, the Empire Lance, where the nervous men were all handed condoms. Stanley took the opportunity to break the tension with an off-colour remark about the unexpected provisions.
Stanley knew full well the condoms were to be placed over the men’s gun muzzles to keep them dry as they waded into the treacherous waters during the invasion. It would take him around an hour to get from the drop point to the shore, where surviving the onslaught of German bullets was largely a matter of luck. Somehow, Stanley made it off the beach. While working his way inland, he noticed what looked like a shack next to a house. A fellow soldier shrugged it off as ‘only a bloody bus shelter’, but Stanley was suspicious and moved closer. Spotting a machine gun protruding from a slit, he realised it was a German pillbox.
As the firefight commenced, Stanley didn’t take cover. Instead, he ran at the structure, his own gun blazing, slapping in a new magazine as he reached the enemy. As he later described the moment, ‘I rushed at it, spraying it hosepipe fashion. They fired back at me and they missed. I don’t know whether they were more panic-stricken than me – but they must have been.’
He threw a grenade into the building, waited for the explosion, then kicked the door down to take the surviving Germans prisoner. By doing this, Stanley had almost certainly saved his men from being shot down as they’d obliviously walked past the pillbox. Moments later, Stanley discovered a second group of German soldiers lurking in another pillbox, and took them prisoner as well. By now, he’d single-handedly taken dozens of POWs, but there was still more to come as the troops entered a small village.
Here, having become acting commander of the platoon after the previous officer was killed, Stanley saw a German gun nestled in a hedge. He took two machine-gunners with him to crawl closer and take out its operators, but the German spotted them and opened fire. Stanley was able to run for cover behind a wall, but his two fellow soldiers were pinned down in the line of fire, too terrified to move.
Stanley’s solution? To step right out into the open, gun in hand, to attract the Germans’ attention and give his men time to run to safety. Incredibly, despite drawing the fire of the enemy, Stanley wasn’t hit and was able to flee when his men were clear.
As the Victoria Cross citation would later put it, ‘Wherever the fighting was heaviest, CSM Hollis appeared and, in the course of a magnificent day's work, he displayed the utmost gallantry and on two separate occasions his courage and initiative prevented the enemy from holding up the advance at critical stages.’
His son later gave an indication of the hero’s inherent modesty over his deeds that day, saying: ‘If you asked him why he did it he’d just say it needed doing. He often said he felt lucky, amazed, to have survived as long as he did in the war. He’d already escaped Dunkirk, and had his cheekbones shattered and skull cracked as a prisoner of war. Perhaps that made him go for it.’
Stanley Hollis’ children were lucky – they were well aware of what a difference their father made. But, if you’ve ever wondered about your own family’s involvement in the war, and what stories your relatives would have told you if they’d had the chance, sign up to Ancestry to begin researching your family history. There’s even a military records search feature so you can find out if any of your ancestors were decorated for acts of bravery just like Stanley Hollis.
Just a few clicks really can bring your backstory to life, and reveal your personal connection to the most pivotal events of the past.