Major Robert Henry Cain was a Victoria Cross recipient, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the British Empire. That wasn’t the only thing remarkable about him. He also took a moment to shave his beard in the middle of the war. As he said, “I was well brought up, sir.”

A guy from the Isle of Man

Robert Henry Cain was born in Shanghai, China, on January 2, 1909, to Irish parents. When he was young, they returned to the Isle of Man, and he got his education at King William’s College. He joined the Honourable Artillery Company in 1928 under the Territorial Army. When World War II broke, Cain was commissioned into the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers in 1940. Two years later, he was posted to the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment as part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade that landed in Sicily in July 1943. He was temporarily granted the rank of major until it was officially granted to him in 1945 and commanded Company B.

Operation Market Garden in Arnhem

Cain led his men in the German-occupied territory near Arnhem City in the Netherlands, along with Polish forces as part of Allied military operation. They were specifically tasked to secure bridges across the Lower Rhine. And so the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were dropped outside the city, and that’s when things started to get ugly.

Operation MARKET I: the airborne operation to seize bridges between Arnhem and Eindhoven.

Little did they know that the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer armored divisions were also in the same area. A battle ensued between elements of two SS Panzer Divisions with, tanks,  half-tracks, self-propelled guns, and other heavy weapons versus the Allied light infantry carrying small anti-tank weapons and mortars. As you might expect the British Paras suffered horrendous losses but gave up ground only after desperate fighting, often without ammunition in hand-to-hand combat. Encircled and pressed on all sides, all but out of ammunition, the British paratroopers were compelled to surrender.

Brave Heart With a Class

Parachutes open paratroopers during the operations of the 1st Allied Airborne Army in Holland.

Cain and the remnants of the battalions gathered in Oosterbeek under the lead of Lieutenant Colonel Sheriff Thompson. The latter ordered Cain to command the forward units when they built a perimeter around their 75-mm Howitzers. Most of the men fell under the German assault as the battle progressed. Later on, two tanks approached Cain’s position. With the help of his colleague who was in a building above him, he hid in a trench until one of the tanks was close enough to engage. The tank fired at the building and killed his colleague. Cain kept his position, grabbed his Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank (PIAT) Mk 1, and fired at the tank. The round exploded prematurely blinding him temporarily and blackening his face. Cain was dragged away by his men as he demanded someone take up the PIAT and destroy that tank.  Thirty minutes later, and against the doctor’s advice, he went bank to search for enemy tanks with his (still) trusty PIAT.

In the following days, Cain and his men would expend all their ammunition trying to hold their position. When they ran out of PIATs, Cain resorted to using a two-inch mortar as a makeshift bazooka. By the end of the battle, he was credited for destroying or damaging six tanks all but single-handedly. On the night that they orderly retreated across the river, Cain, in a filthy and bloody uniform was found to be carefully shaving a week’s growth of beard off his face, prompting his commanding officer to say, “Well, there’s one officer, at least, who’s shaved,” to which Cain replied, “I was well brought up, sir.”

When they returned, fifty-nine decorations were given to their group, with Cain being the only survivor of the battle to receive the Victoria Cross.

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