Robert Henry Cain was born in Shanghai on the 2nd January 1909. His parents were Manx and returned to the Isle of Man when he was young, where he was educated at King William’s College. In 1928, Robert Cain joined the Honourable Artillery Company, a unit of the Territorial Army.
In April 1940, Cain was given an emergency commission into the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant. In 1942, the 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment was part of 1st Airlanding Brigade which landed in Sicily in July 1943 as part of Operation Ladbroke. In the same month, Cain took command of the battalion’s B Company.
The Battle of Arnhem was part of Operation Market Garden, an attempt to secure a string of bridges through the Netherlands. At Arnhem the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were tasked with securing bridges across the Lower Rhine, the final objectives of the operation. However, the airborne forces that dropped on 17 September were not aware that the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer divisions were also near Arnhem for rest and refit. Their presence added a substantial number of tanks and self-propelled guns to the German defences and the Allies suffered heavily in the ensuing battle. Only a small force managed to hold one end of the Arnhem road bridge before being overrun on the 21st. In Arnhem the Allied plan quickly unravelled. Only a small group of the 1st Parachute Brigade, mainly elements of Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Battalion, were able to reach the bridge. The 1st and 3rd Battalions were unable to penetrate the outer suburbs of the city and their advance stalled, so in order to support them, the first lift of the South Staffords were sent forward on the morning of the 18th.
When Cain arrived with the second lift they too were sent forward, arriving at the outskirts of Arnhem on the night of the 18th. Lieutenant Colonel David Dobie of the 1st Battalion proposed a concentrated attack on a narrow front between the Lower Rhine and the Arnhem railway line. The South Staffords would advance toward the bridge, with the remnants of the 1st and 3rd Battalions on their right flank. The Staffords moved forward at 4.30am with D Company in the lead, followed by B and A Companies with C Company in reserve. In the area around St Elizabeth Hospital, the lead company met heavy resistance clearing houses and B Company took the lead, getting as far as a dell near the Arnhem City Museum. Here Cain and his men encountered enemy armour for the first time. The company was only armed with PIATs and mortars and although Cain and several of his company opened fire on the tanks and guns, they did not manage to disable any. By 11:30 they had run out of PIAT ammunition and the tanks now dominated the area. Their position was clearly hopeless and so Lieutenant Colonel McCardie, the South Staffordshire Regiment, ordered them to withdraw from the dell. Cain fell back with several of his men but few of them were able to escape, while the men of the other companies were forced to surrender in their droves. Cain was the only senior officer of the battalion to escape in what he later described as the “South Staff’s Waterloo”.
As the surviving men fell back through the 11th Battalion’s positions, Major Gilchrist met Cain, who told him that “The tanks are coming, give me a PIAT”. Gilchrist was unable to oblige and so the Staffords regrouped behind the 11th Battalion’s positions; roughly 100 surviving men forming into five small platoons under Cain’s command. Lieutenant Colonel George Lea, commander of the 11th Battalion, ordered them to capture a piece of wooded high ground known as Den Brink to cover a fresh advance, and a bayonet charge quickly cleared the enemy there. However, the thick tree roots on the hill made it impossible to dig in, and after suffering severe casualties, Cain took the decision to withdraw back to Oosterbeek.
Lonsdale Force’s sector covered the southern end of the eastern perimeter, and Cain was one of three Majors defending this sector of the line. As the battle progressed he became determined to destroy as much enemy armour as possible and sited himself in a laundry’s garden, much to the chagrin of the Dutch owner. Over the coming days Cain was everywhere, dealing with armour and snipers and encouraging his men. On the afternoon of Thursday 21st two tanks approached Cain’s position. Guided by a colleague in a building above him, Cain waited in a trench until the first tank—actually a StuG III self-propelled gun (SPG)—was close enough to engage. The SPG fired at the building, killing Cain’s colleague and showering him with masonry but despite this, Cain kept his position. Staff Sergeant Richard Long of the Glider Pilot Regiment remembered that through the clouds of dust, Cain fired round after round from his PIAT until the SPG was disabled, but whilst engaging the second tank a round exploded in the PIAT with a bright flash and Cain was thrown backwards. Cain recalled thinking he was blind and “shouting like a hooligan. I shouted to somebody to get onto the PIAT because there was another tank behind. I blubbered and yelled and used some very colourful language. They dragged me off to the aid post.” The British brought forward one of the Light Regiment’s 75mm guns which destroyed the tank.Witnesses believed that Cain was incapacitated, but within half an hour his sight returned. He refused morphine and against all advice returned to the front lines, deciding that he “wasn’t wounded enough to stay where he was”. On the following day his eardrums burst from the constant firing and barrage, but he was content to stuff his ears with bandages and continue fighting. On Sunday 24th, shortly after a truce to allow the evacuation of casualties, Cain was alerted to the approach of a Tiger tank. Together with a Royal Artillery gunner he raced for a 6 pounder anti-tank gun, manoeuvred it into position, fired and disabled the tank. He wanted to continue using the gun, but the recoil mechanism was destroyed.
By 25 September, the area occupied by the Lonsdale Force saw heavy fighting against self-propelled guns, flamethrower tanks, and infantry. There were no PIATs available to the force by now; instead Cain armed himself with a two-inch mortar. Mortars are muzzle-loading indirect fire weapons but Cain was forced to fire it on an almost horizontal plane due to the enemy’s proximity. His 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, 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.
That night the Division began to withdraw in Operation Berlin. Many men shaved and blackened their faces and Cain removed a week’s growth of beard from his face, drying himself on his dirty, blood-soaked Denison smock. After successfully crossing the Rhine, this led Brigadier ‘Pip’ Hicks to comment “there’s one officer, at least, who’s shaved”. Cain’s reply was “I was well brought up, sir.” Cain made sure all of his men were over the river by dawn before he himself crossed in an old boat.
Fifty-nine decorations were published for the small group of men who successfully escaped Arnhem and these were awarded in an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 6 December 1944. As well as being the only survivor of the battle to receive the Victoria Cross, Cain was also the first (and currently only) Manxman to be awarded the medal.