by Tony Collins
Details of the Medal Citation for John Collins’ V.C.
The following is extracted from the book Heart of a Dragon – the VCs of Wales and the Welsh Regiments. 1914-82 by W. Alister Williams.
“On 30 October 1917 the operations against Beersheba commenced as soon as darkness fell with the 231 Brigade moving across Wadi Saba, finding their way across the rough, rocky terrain by means of screened lights illuminating their path. When they reached Kent Wadi, they ran into Turkish patrols which were driven back, thereby allowing the assault troops to deploy ready for the attack by 02.00. The 25th Royal Welch Fusiliers(RWF) was positioned on the right of the 74th Division, in the centre of the line where, along with the 24 RWF, they were to be the brigade’s two attacking battalions, with D and A Companies in the front. The infantry were supported by artillery, but not on the scale used on the Western Front. Instead, the crews of the 100 fields guns and twenty heavy guns had to be selective in their targets and endeavour to react as much as possible to the changing fortunes of the battalions in the attacking force. The 60 Division, on the right of the line, who were to commence the attack, were to initially receive the full support of the artillery.
As dawn broke over the eastern horizon, the Turkish artillery opened with very accurate shrapnel fire on the British troops on the hills and at 06.48, D and A Companies moved forward into the heavy shrapnel fire and, as soon as they came within range, into machine-gun fire. Just over half an hour later, a message was received that the British artillery were having to cease firing as they were unable to see their targets because of the dust. Despite this, and ignoring their casualties, the battalion edged forward to the final crest of the hills before charging the enemy positions. Every effort was made to silence the Turkish machine-guns but to no avail, and the battalion paid a very heavy price in men killed or wounded.
The ridge was traversed with a hail of lead and a line of dead, all shot through the head, that marked the limit of the advance testified alike to the determination of the attack and to the accuracy of the Turkish shooting. It became clear that to call on men shooting from behind no sort of cover to use their rifles against machine-guns very strongly entrenched was throwing away lives to no purpose. Automatically everyone drew in under cover of the last ridge and waited for some turn in the battle which would afford the infantry the opportunity to push on and bring matters to a definite conclusion. (Historical Records of the Montgomeryshire Yeomanry).
The sight of so many of his comrades lying exposed in front of the ridge was too much for Collins. With total disregard for his own safety, he rushed forward several times to bring the wounded back behind the ridge from where they could be carried back to receive emergency medical treatment.
Over to their right, the 60 Division had been held up whilst trying to take Hill 1070 and the limited artillery was concentrated on that area of the front. This precarious situation continued for several hours and at about 11.00, Capt Fitzhugh, leading the Lewis Gun section stood up to try and identify the position of a Turkish machine-gun which was causing his men considerable problems. As he panned across the front with his binoculars, he was shot in the head by a sniper and killed. Although only a junior NCO, Collins was now acting a rallying point for the men in his section and others around him. Less than an hour later, the artillery switched its fire to the Turkish positions in front of the 74 Division and obliterated a particularly strong redoubt in front of the 25 RWF. This had an immediate effect and the fire from the Turks in front died down as their trenches disappeared under the barrage of exploding shells. The infantry then fixed bayonets and advanced through the still uncut wire defences, enfiladed by rifle and machine-gun fire as they tried to take what little cover there was. Within a few minutes, they had captured the enemy position, killing large numbers and taking 140 prisoners. Collins was at the forefront of this charge and is reported to have bayonetted fifteen of the Turkish defenders. Having secured the trench, he then led members of the Lewis gun section and set up defences ready to repel any possible counter-attack. The fighting in this sector ended at about 15.00. Miraculously, despite being under fire for over nine hours, Collins escaped unscathed. The attack had cost the battalion 2230 casualties.
The delay in capturing the area south-west of Beersheba prompted the Corps commander to order a classic cavalry charge by the 4th Australian Light Horse which crossed the open ground east of Beersheba and captured the town, thereby forcing the Turks to withdraw and open the route for an assault on Gaza which fell to Allenby’s forces one week later.”
It was for his actions that day that Collins was awarded the Victoria Cross. The Citation reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery, resource and leadership when, after deployment, prior to an attack, his battalion was forced to lie out in the open under heavy shell and machine-gun fire which caused many casualties. This gallant non-commissioned officer repeatedly went out under heavy fire and brought wounded back to cover, thus saving many lives.
In subsequent operations throughout the day, Corporal Collins was conspicuous in rallying and leading his command. He led the final assault with the utmost skill in spite of heavy fire at close range and uncut wire. He bayonetted fifteen of the enemy and, with a Lewis gun section, pressed on beyond the objective and covered the reorganisation and consolidation most effectively although isolated and under fire from snipers and guns.
He showed throughout a magnificent example of initiative and fearlessness.”
He was decorated with the VC by HM King George V at Buckingham Palace on 1 June 1918.
Details of the Medal Citation for the DCM.
“……..(As part of the assault on Jerusalem) on 29 Nov 1917 D and B Company were ordered to take the village of Beit-ur-et-Foqa commencing at 20.00 and arriving at 03.30 the next day. The assault commenced 15 minutes later and, at first, everything went well. D Company and part of B Company, a force of only 80 men, traversed the difficult terrain and reached their objective just as dawn was breaking, catching the Turkish garrison completely by surprise as they were either forming up on parade or preparing a meal. Dividing his small force into two Maj Rees advanced and captured a Turkish officer. When they reached the village, using the prisoner as an interpreter, they called upon the garrison to surrender. The Turks appeared to be complying with the request before opening fire with six machine-guns which fortunately had little effect, as the men were able to take cover behind low garden walls from where they returned fire. Collins, by this time a sergeant, was instrumental in organising part of his line and was able to bring very effective fire onto the Turkish positions. In a very short period of time, the Turks began to put up their hands and the entire garrison quickly surrendered. The Welsh troops found themselves in charge of more than 450 prisoners and a small escort was detailed to take them back to the British lines. Maj Rees attempted to contact the British line for support but was unsuccessful. The main Turkish force then realised that Beit-ur-et-Foqa had been captured by an under-strength British unit and began to close on the village from all directions. By 08.00 they were surrounded and under fire from all sides. Amongst the four officers and thirty men, John Collins played a pivotal role in visiting each group of defenders to ensure that they were being used to the best possible advantage. Rees, realising that his position was untenable, then withdrew his men from the village and succeeded in reaching the British lines at 09.45. The village was recaptured later that day by a stronger force from the 2259 Brigade.”
It was for his actions that day that Collins was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The Citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. As soon as the enemy opened fire at point blank range, he rallied all the men near him, took control of a portion of the line, and brought every available rifle to bear on the enemy.
During the consolidation he did exceptionally good work, and later, when the enemy counter-attacked, went under heavy fire from post to post to see that they were being held to the best advantage.
His ability and devotion to duty were of the highest order”
Collins was decorated with the DCM by the Brigade Commander on 4 January 1918.