THE EVER OPEN EYE
by Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson wrote to The Guards Magazine last Autumn to correct the account of the disastrous Sourdeval battle (11th August 1944) in the Ned Petty-Fitzmaurice article (Autumn 2015 Edition): he took part in the attack. In researching the Sourdeval piece for the Winter 2015/16 Edition, I read Wilson’s The Ever Open Eye, in which he describes his service in the Irish Guards (1943-45). The book (revised in 2014) is acutely observed, well written, and reflects both a most accomplished man and a remarkable regiment.
The author describes his training and the D-Day build-up; he was summoned from the Reinforcement Group in Normandy to re-join 3rd Battalion Irish Guards, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J O E Vandeleur, on 3rd August 1944, four days into Op BLUECOAT, and experienced a significant baptism of fire in the confusing battles in close bocage North of Vire.
Almost his first challenge was to lead his men in attacking over the forward slope of the Pavée-Perrier ridge (Sourdeval) with inadequate supporting fire and a predictable plan that gained temporarily only a few hundred metres beyond the Start Line at the cost of 110 Irish Guards casualties. The book contains excellent descriptions of soldiers and their reactions in the situations confronting them, leavened with measured judgements.
General Montgomery’s intention to keep German armour engaged by British forces was changing when the Guards Armoured Division attacked from the Pavée-Perrier ridge: the Allies were starting to encircle German Army Group ‘B’ near Falaise. Eighteen days later, Lieutenant Wilson crossed the Seine and the Guards Armoured Division raced for Brussels, although the infantry’s prosaic role in the armoured dash was to support the tanks, mostly at night. When the armoured battalions reached central Brussels amid extraordinary jubilation, Brian Wilson’s company guarded a key road junction in the Forêt de Soignes, East of the city.
After three days in Brussels, which allowed XXX Corps to move supplies forward, and the Germans to improvise defences to the North and East, the Division moved via Louvain, crossing the Albert Canal, and fought in difficult country with towns, slag heaps and woods. When the Household Cavalry found an intact bridge over the Meuse-Escaut Canal, near Neerpelt, Colonel Vandeleur executed a well-planned operation which captured it (10 September): the bridgehead provided the Start Line for Op MARKET GARDEN’s ground offensive, which started on the 17th.
3rd Irish Guards moved on their 2nd Battalion’s tanks in the advance, where the XXX Corps frontage was sometimes a single road. They dealt with German stragglers and local counter-attacks, as ad hoc Kampfgruppe drove ‘for the sound of the guns’. On 20 September, four days into Op GARDEN, 2nd (Armoured) Grenadiers crossed the great bridge over the River Waal at Nijmegen, eight miles from Arnhem, and infantry moved forward to hold the bridgehead. Brian Wilson’s platoon was dug-in beyond the bridge on 21st September when he was hit, losing his right foot.
The author describes his experiences in the casualty evacuation chain: after a week in Nijmegen, he was flown from Eindhoven to Brussels, and thence by Dakota to Oxford. He soon learned that it was up to him to make his way as best he could to get back on his feet, literally and metaphorically, rather than be limited by disability and self-pity. His determination was such that the officer he saw in Regimental Headquarters initially did not realise that he had lost a foot and could no longer command an infantry platoon.
Finally, Brian Wilson levels criticism at the commanders and planners of MARKET GARDEN. The Operation has generated heated debate ever since, including in this Magazine, but many who took part posed enduring questions: ‘could more have been done to reach the Airborne Division’ and ‘why were there such periods of inactivity during the advance?’
Officers joining the Household Division, who probably studied Sydney Jary’s excellent 18 Platoon at Sandhurst, would benefit from reading The Ever Open Eye early in their careers. Although, 72 years later, the world, the Army’s equipment and its tactics have changed, important basics remain unaltered. Brian Wilson’s descriptions of how he led his men, and others did likewise in an infantry battalion, in battle provoke thought, as do some classic low-level lessons. Moreover, officers should understand not only first aid and casualty evacuation, but also the counselling support they can, and may have to, give those injured under their command, both in the immediate aftermath of wounding, and also in the weeks that follow. I strongly recommend this book.
The Ever Open Eye, by Brian Wilson, 182 pages, 6 illustrations and 3 sketch maps, published privately, is available from Melrose Books, St Thomas Place, Ely, Cambridgeshire CB67 4GG, price £9.99 plus P+P.