Lieutenant-Colonel Denis O’Leary, OBE, MC and Bar
1924 - 2014
Troston is a very quiet village - a peaceful place to live. In some ways a legacy of the people who fought to keep us safe. A plaque inside our Church commemorates villagers who died in the wars of the last century. The names are listed at the end of this piece.
A survivor of those times, a modest and most likeable man, was Lieutenant-Colonel Denis O’Leary, who lived in Paddock Way. In the course of an adventurous military career, which reads like the bravery of a John Buchan boy’s magazine hero, he was decorated four times. Denis joined the Royal Scots (the Royal Regiment) and, after six months training at Bangalore, in 1943 he was commissioned into 3/6 Rajputana Rifles. In October 1944 the battalion was sent to Burma. On January 26 1945 it was moved to Pear Hill, in the Irrawaddy bridgehead. For eight consecutive days O’Leary kept his mortars in action despite intense shell and mortar fire and fanatical attacks by the Japanese. Eventually he was hit in the head by shrapnel during heavy fighting in which the battalion lost a quarter of its strength. He was awarded his first MC. After a number of operations — including a bone graft — he was for a time medically downgraded, but in 1946 he returned to the battalion as a company commander.
In March 1947 O’Leary was back in Burma. He was given the task of breaking up a large gang of dacoits which was operating east of the Sittang river. Approximately 200-strong, the gang was armed with heavy machine guns, Stens and rifles. On the evening of March 14 he received a report that the gang was camped at the village of Kya-Ingon, about three miles away. Leaving one platoon on guard, he set off during the night accompanied by a force of about 50 men, with the aim of surrounding the village under cover of darkness. When they reached the Sittang, they found it swollen by recent rains and discovered that the ferry boats were at the far bank. O’Leary and two of his men swam across and brought the boats back.
By first light, O’Leary had deployed his platoons. Having covered the routes that he believed the gang would use to withdraw, he ordered a short burst of machine-gun fire. The dacoits swarmed out of the village and battle was joined. O’Leary’s company was heavily outnumbered, but the gang took considerable losses. Reports reached him afterwards that they had suffered casualties of about 70 killed or wounded. At one point, he led a section forward to prevent the dacoits making use of thick cover. Although pinned down by heavy fire, O’Leary used his mortar to force the enemy out of the undergrowth, where they were dealt with by the rest of the platoon. This action proved to be the turning point in the breaking of dacoit rule and the restoration of government authority in the area. O’Leary was appointed MBE (Military). In 1948 O’Leary was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. After 18 months on operations in Malaya followed by service in Syria, Libya and at Suez, in 1952 he was posted to 1/7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles (1/7 GR) as adjutant.
In January 1964, during Indonesia’s confrontation with the new Federation of Malaysia, he was commanding a company of 1/7 GR in Sarawak. When a raiding party of about 30 armed Indonesians and Chinese soldiers was reported to have landed on the coast, two companies set off down the Rajang river in launches and longboats to find them. O’Leary learned that about eight of them were lying up on Lobe Island and embarked two assault platoons in longboats to attack. The island was about 600 yards long and 250 yards wide and the terrain consisted of thick mangrove trees and palms growing out of slimy mudbanks and swamp. The only approach was by a tributary of the Rajang, and the last 1,000 yards was in full view of where the enemy was likely to be. O’Leary, in his launch, Jolly Bachelor, made a perilous dash to the northern end of the island where he opened fire on the enemy’s supposed position from a machine gun mounted on ration boxes in the bows.
As the assault went in, he ceased fire, sped off in a boat and led one of the platoons in an attack. In a fierce action that lasted four hours, the enemy fought with tenacity. When a Gurkha section commander was wounded, three attempts, one by O’Leary himself, were made to reach him in the face of incoming fire from three positions. A difficult outflanking movement enabled the Gurkhas to lob grenades into the enemy position. The citation for the award to O’Leary of a Bar to his MC stated: “Cries and groans of wounded and dying men were heard. Major O’Leary moved forward and called on the enemy to stand or surrender. Major O’Leary then personally led a final rush on the enemy position and secured it.” He commanded the battalion in Hong Kong from 1966 to 1969, and was advanced to OBE in 1968. He took over STANTA in Norfolk as a serving Lt Colonel in 1974, with the instructions by Eastern Command to turn it into a military training area instead of the fishing, shooting estate it had become under previous commandants! Military service coming to an end at the age of 55 years , he remained as a retired officer with identical responsibilities for the next ten years as a retired officer.
Before moving to Troston, the family had lived in Hill House opposite the village hall in Sapiston. In retirement he enjoyed watching rugby and cricket, walking and bird watching. Denis O’Leary married, in 1960, Jan Tedstill, a former officer with Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, whom he met in Hong Kong. She survives him with their son and four daughters. STANTA: The area was originally established in 1942 when a battle training area was required and a 'Nazi village' established. Military exercises were already known in the area - tanks had deployed to Thetford in the First World War. The complete takeover involved the evacuation of the villages of Buckenham Tofts, Langford, Stanford, Sturston, Tottington and West Tofts.
The area was used during the run-up to the D-Day invasion and since then has hosted many exercises. A regular visitor is 16 Air Assault Brigade who hold their annual exercises there. It is also used by cadets to complete Fieldcraft exercises. In 2009 a 12.5-acre village designed to replicate its Afghan equivalent, was added to the Battle Area for the training of troops deployed in support of the War in Afghanistan. The site, built at a cost of £14 million, is state of the art and manned by Afghan nationals, ex-Gurkha soldiers and amputee actors, who simulate the Afghan National Army, locals and wounded soldiers.The village includes houses, a market and a mosque. It also features a system that pumps out smells like rotten meat and sewage!
In grateful memory of the young men in their early 20’s, of the Parish, who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars:
It would be interesting to learn more about these men to add a section to the Troston History Book - and make Remembrance Sunday more meaningful to future generations. If you have information, please contact the Parish Clerk.