The Unspoken Soldier

The story of Robert Donald Brown has been lost to the ages, so let us tell it again.

MAY 8th, 2020

The teenage Robert Donald Brown ages 17 - © The Brown Family


pon a mound of earth – sited White Cross Hill – he stood alone, pistol aimed, chest heaving, adrenaline coursing through his bloodied and bruised body, holding back the enclosing German military. Captain Robert Donald Brown had stormed forward from his infantry, and as machine-gun fire rained down from the war-torn heavens above, he had broken through the enemy lines unsupported and unafraid of the fate which would befall him.

Captain Brown had never planned on being a Captain. The military was never his preferred career. Having studied as a Veterinarian and similarly passed his First Year examination, Brown had set his sights on the preservation and care of the animal world. For many young men, their aspirations and hard-earned accolades ended abruptly with the announcement that Britain was at War with Nazi Germany. Yet for Brown, his famed foresight had led him to leave his career as a Vet behind, willingly volunteering for military service by enrolling at the 165 Officer Cadet Training Unit at Dunbar on July 1939. Passing with distinction, the former trainee Vet was commissioned into The King’s Own Scottish Borders (KOSB) the following March.

Captain Robert Donald Brown - © The Brown Family

Posted to the 9th Battalion, Brown became synonymous for his determined valour, expertise and loyalty to his platoon. Late night stories, warm words of encouragement and his vow to protect those he deemed ‘brothers’ became the foundation of his life as a soldier. Most noted was his close friendship with Captain William Thompson, who at the age of eighteen, was the youngest member of the platoon. Brown, being ten years older, took the youngster under his care, gently nicknaming him ‘Scally’, for his mischievous and playful nature.

Both Brown and Thompson would months later receive news of their rollout to the 2/5th Battalion, The Leicestershire Regiment in Tunisia, nicknamed The Tigers. With nervous excitement both men, alongside the regiment, set sail for the outskirts of the coastal town of Salerno, Italy. Their task was to assist in the invasion of the country by Allied Forces – codenamed Operation Avalanche. With favour for the war diminishing, Winston Churchill believed that by removing Italy it would tie down German forces, keeping them away from the planned invasion of Normandy.

Upon arrival, with casualties already sustained by the Allied Forces, Brown was promptly promoted to Temporary Major. With a sense of pride and renewed responsibility, the mantra which had dominated his military career became more important than ever.

On the 15th September 1943, Brown was given instructions to lead the C Company 2/5th Leicester’s in an attack on the German-held White Cross Hill. The Infantry would be outnumbered – grossly so – and Brown was warned that the loss of life would be an insurmountable burden on the shoulders of an interim Major. Informing his men of the impending battle next day, they sat in silence watching the ocean from the awaiting ships.

Major Brown barely slept, with nerves pulsating through his body, a deeper worry was distracting him – ‘Scally’ William Thompson. The eighteen-year-old had been quieter than usual, choosing to sit alone instead of with the other men. Robert was aware that this would be his first bout with conflict, and if predictions were correct, death. With numerous tries of encouragement, Brown decided to get some sleep, but the sanctity of slumber evaded him. Instead, scouting out a piece of tatty paper and a broken pencil, he decided to write; a pastime he found therapeutic. In the days of his veterinary training, before an exam, he would write for hours – letters, poetry, short stories, anything which could take his mind away from the anxiety. And here he was, late into the evening scribing whatever thoughts entered his mind.

The next morning Brown woke his men as the Sun glistened off the calm waters. The military had hoped for a tactical surprise, though this was unachievable. As the first wave of men stormed the shore, a loudspeaker sounded in English: “Come on in and give up. We have you covered.” The Allied troops attacked, nonetheless. The second wave hit next, followed by the third, and then came Brown and his boys.

Waiting in the landing craft, silence fell. The excitement felt on the ship decks turned to dread. Major Brown surveyed his Battalion, recording each strained face. Some were shaking, staring at the ground, taking deep breaths to subdue the fear. To the far side of the craft, Brown spotted Thompson leaning against his rifle. Shuffling across the two soldiers between, Brown placed his hand firmly on the slight shoulders of the youngest member of the platoon. As ‘Scally’ looked up, his eyes stained with tears, Brown smiled faintly. “You’ve got this Scally. Chin up now,” he whispered. The eighteen-year-old nodded in response, wiping the tears away.

Allied Forces prepare to storm Salerno, Italy - © Pathé

The minutes continued, dragging like hours, until the faded sound of sand scraping against metal emitted from beneath Brown’s feet. They’d landed. The Major gripped his rifle, as did Thompson. With a slam, the front panel fell, and the Company stormed onto the shore.

Bullets fired, grenades exploded and the bodies of those fallen were strewn across the shallow waters. Brown ran fast and hard, concentrating on the objective – finding White Cross Hill. The landmark was a mound of earth, from where the German army had created a network of trenches. ‘Take the trenches, take the hill’, ran through Brown’s mind over and over. With Thompson and the Battalion behind him they pushed forward.

Fighting their way from the shore, White Cross Hill came into view. The large grassy embankment provided opportune cover for the enemy and suddenly the scale of the task laid stark before Brown and his men. The German’s opened fire once again, and facing unfathomable odds, C Company 2/5th Leicester advanced. Machine gun fire continued, and men began to fall to the ground, laying limp on the sun scorched dirt. The battle grew too intense and the Company halted.

Brown examined his men once again, lastly falling on the bloodied face of William Thompson. A bullet had skimmed his cheek, and his chest was heaving from exhaustion. The Major smiled once more, knowing his encouragement was wearing thin. “We go again, sir?” asked one of the men. Brown nodded: “We go again.”

British Soldiers storm the beaches - © AP

As the Battalion launched forward a second time, in the scramble, Brown leapt at Thompson forcing him to the ground. “Stay down,” he bellowed.

With that the second attack fell away again beneath the hail of machine gun fire, and whilst the other men were forced back, Brown wasn’t. He didn’t stop. His legs fired up with determined spirit, reaching the top of White Cross Hill. There he stood alone, pistol aimed, chest heaving, adrenaline coursing through his bloodied and bruised body, holding back the enclosing German military.

Captain William ‘Scally’ Thompson stared on as his Major stormed forward and took the German trench. He watched as Brown’s lonesome figure, firing his pistol towards the enemy, vanished behind the hill and out of view, and Temporary Major Robert Donald Brown would never be seen again.

In the aftermath of the battle, William Thompson was treated for his facial wound, and after enduring more fighting, he, like so many, celebrated the liberation of Europe as Churchill declared the War was over. Jubilant, he joined the many celebrating on the streets of London on the evening of victory, proudly dressed in his battle-scarred uniform. Catching his breath from the celebrations, he sat on a quiet bench, breathing in the warm summer air. He placed his hands into his pocket and his fingers fell upon something.

Taking out his hand, a piece of paper was held between his fingertips. It was weathered and ripped. Delicately unfolding, he saw small yet neat handwriting. Moving into the light he read:

Dear Mrs Thompson,

My name is Robert Donald Brown, Temporary Major of your son, William’s, Battalion. I am writing to you at what is early morning here in Salerno. Tomorrow we advance to the frontline and I know that you, as will many mothers, will be worried endlessly. Having known your son for many months now, you need not be. He is a formidable soldier, one that shows remarkable courage. Throughout our deployment he has kept us entertained with many stories of home, and I can tell it has meant much to the men.

I must admit, through his demeanour, it is hard to remember his tender age as he carries himself with such resolve. I’m sure that at home, you perhaps see more of the boy in him than we do, but I assure you, when he returns home, the man I have come to admire will be standing at your doorstep.

I wish you the very best and reiterate my appreciation for William’s continuing and unspoken loyalty to his country’s military effort.

Yours kindly,

Robert Donald Brown

The name tag of Robert Donald Brown discovered close to where he was last seen alive - © Getty Images

The letter had stopped William in his tracks. He was taken back to Salerno, at the base of White Cross Hill as Major Brown pinned him to the ground. In that moment, his focus had been on the effort to get back to his feet, not on the slight piece of paper Brown was placing into his pocket. Folding away the letter, William Thompson looked to the sky, vowing that the story of Robert Donald Brown would be told for generations to come.

The story of Major Brown’s actions on that fateful day is assigned to the history books. His bravery would result in the posthumous awarding of the Distinguished Service Order. And after numerous decades, in 2017 a silver bracelet was unearthed near the point he was last seen alive inscribed with the name: ‘R. Donald Brown’. Later DNA testing would sadly prove that the two skeletal remains discovered beside the bracelet did not belong to the Scottish Major.

Although his body has never been found, Captain Brown’s sacrifice and valour has endured, but his story has faded. On the day where we remember those who fell as the Allied Nations triumphed, think of Captain Robert Donald Brown – a man who in the face of unimaginable odds, continued onwards, determined, selfless and resolute. A Captain who provided comfort to a soldier’s mother he never met. A determined fighter – an unspoken soldier.

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