17 December 2005

Wally Parr

Special mention for Mr Parr. I first became away of him two summers ago reading Pegasus Bridge: D-Day - the Daring British Airborne Raid by Stephen E. Ambrose. I'll let the article tell you the rest about this son of Lewisham.

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Wally Parr, who has died aged 83, took part in the glider-borne assault which captured Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal and the Horsa Bridge over the River Orne at Bénouville.

On the night of June 5 1944, D-Day minus one, D Company 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Major John Howard and part of 6th Airborne Division, climbed aboard six Horsa gliders, and were towed across the Channel by Halifax bombers. Parr, then a corporal, was in the leading glider.

The men carried a variety of weapons - a rifle, a Sten gun or a Bren gun, mortars and grenades. Their faces were blackened with burned cork or coke. Parr had chalked Lady Irene (his wife's name) on the side of the glider for good luck.

Parr glanced out of the open door as the Horsa swept alongside the canal. The trees seemed to be going past at 90 miles per hour. "I just closed my eyes," he said afterwards. A parachute reduced the speed, but the glider landed with a huge crash which tore off the wheels.

It came to a halt 50 yards from the canal bridge, its nose buried in barbed wire. The passengers were knocked out, but they regained consciousness within a few seconds, scrambled out and quickly overcame most of the resistance from the machine-gun pits and the slit trenches.

Parr and a comrade led the way into a set of underground bunkers, flung open the doors, threw in grenades and sprayed inside with their Stens. The river bridge was captured shortly afterwards, but enemy tanks were heard moving towards Bénouville; equipped with cannons and machine guns, they posed a considerable threat.

Parr slid down an embankment and returned to the glider to search for the Piat. He found it but, having no flashlight, he tripped over an ammunition box and bent the barrel. He threw it aside.

Reinforcement by the 7th Battalion Parachute Regiment freed the company from patrolling duties. Parr and three comrades moved to a gun pit and busied themselves exploring the mechanics of a German anti-tank gun. Convinced that enemy snipers were shooting at them from a nearby château, Parr started putting shells though the top floor, spacing them along the building. Howard, appalled, dashed over to him and ordered him to cease firing because the château was being used as a maternity hospital.

Both bridges were held until 1.30 pm on D-Day, when the Commandos led by Brigadier Lord Lovat took over. When Georges Gondrée, who managed the café near the canal bridge, came out with a tray and a bottle of Champagne, the sight of Lovat shaking his head was too much for Parr, who ran up to Gondrée with a cry of "Oui, oui, oui", and drained several glasses.

At about 3 pm a gunboat laden with enemy troops came up the canal from the direction of Caen. Parr and his comrades had a heated discussion about the range before firing their gun. The first shell dropped short; the second hit the stern and the boat withdrew, trailing smoke.

Walter (Wally) Robert Parr, the son of a professional footballer, was born at Lewisham, south-east London, on April 5 1922 and was educated at Plassey Road School. On the outbreak of the Second World War he was called up as a reservist for the Gloucestershire Regiment.

In 1942 he transferred to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and took part in two years of rigorous training for D-Day. A highly proficient marksman, he was in charge of the snipers.

One dark night, Parr and two friends decided to raid the Naafi. They carried away soap powder by the sackload and spread it over the walkways. It rained shortly afterwards, and the next morning everybody had to wade through the foam. Howard demoted Parr from corporal to private, and sentenced him to a fortnight in jail, but protected him from more drastic punishment. "Parr is a born leader," he said. "As soon as we get into action, he will be promoted at once."

After the capture of the canal and river bridges on D-Day, "D" Company moved towards Escoville, where they came under heavy fire and took many casualties. When orders were given to withdraw, Parr and a comrade helped to carry the wounded three-quarters of a mile back to the company position.

The company had lost almost half its strength and spent two months in a defensive position. One night Parr and Howard went out on a fighting patrol near Bréville to try to bring back prisoners.

In the moonlight, in an area strewn with the bodies of soldiers who had been killed by an artillery concentration, they saw a group of six men sitting in a trench, playing cards. They had not a mark on them and were still holding their cards in front of them. They had been killed by concussion.

Parr was wounded by shrapnel in Normandy and returned to England; but he rejoined his company in December 1944 in time for the battle of the Ardennes. He was wounded again in Germany, but remained with the company until the end of the campaign.

In 1946, shortly after his battalion went to Palestine, Parr was demobilised. He worked as a window cleaner in Catford until 1991, when he moved to France.

The original 110-ft long Pegasus Bridge was removed in 1993 to make way for the widening of the Caen Canal. In 2000 it was rescued from rusting into oblivion and moved to a canalside position between Bénouville and Ranville, where it forms part of Memorial Pegasus, a new Airborne Museum.

Parr was English President of the Association for the Defence and Safeguard of Pegasus Bridge and its site at Bénouville. He was an excellent communicator, and played a leading role in the vigorous campaign to restore Pegasus Bridge and make it part of a battlefield memorial to the 6th Airborne Division. The Airborne Assault Normandy Trust contributed substantial funds towards the costs involved.

Wally Parr died on December 3 at Lewisham Hospital, where he had been born. He married, in 1940, Irene Spear, who died in 1986; he is survived by their two sons (one son predeceased him) and one daughter. For the last 14 years, his companion had been Louise Claret, a Frenchwoman; she died in October.

1 comment:

obifromsouthlondon said...

befitting epitaph.

"They had not a mark on them and were still holding their cards in front of them. They had been killed by concussion." - freaky stuff. war is a terrible thing.