It says a lot about a Britisher to even be considered for the title of “classiest,” but Maj. Robert Cain should definitely be in the running. He took on six Nazi tanks by himself while holding off the rest of the coming German onslaught. In the end, he was forced to retreat, but only because he ran out of ammunition. Before he did, however, he stopped killing Nazis long enough to take a shave. Only after he was properly clean-shaven did he make his retreat.
Classier than most of you are, anyway.
Cain was an officer of the British 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, the World War II Allied invasion of the Netherlands. British and Polish forces were to be dropped near Arnhem to advance on the city over three days. Cain was to lead his men in the first lift over Nazi-occupied territory, but the disastrous operation was flawed from the start, especially for Cain. Because of a technical snafu, he had to wait until the second day. It would prove fortuitous for everyone in his periphery.
When Cain landed, he and his men were sent forward into the city, where they unexpectedly encountered heavy enemy armor. The only thing they had to fight back against these defenses were small anti-tank weapons and mortars. The anti-tanks were not enough to penetrate the armor, and they were soon forced to fall back.
The small PIAT anti-tank weapon used by the British at Arnhem.
Many British troops were forced to surrender. Others who managed to fall back did so in complete disarray, low on ammunition and unable to take out the approaching armor. Cain and the rest of the British were eventually forced to retreat to nearby Oosterbeek, where they formed a perimeter and tried to protect the howitzers that would be catastrophically destroyed if they fell back further. Cain was in command of forward units, who were digging in a populated area, trying to hold the armor back.
After one of his men was killed by a tracked, armored vehicle with a mounted heavy gun, Cain picked up the anti-tank weapon and poured round after to round into the tank until it was disabled. His PIAT anti-tank weapon eventually exploded from overuse, incapacitating Cain for a half hour. When his vision returned, he went back to work with whatever he could use. When he ran out of anti-tank weapons, he used a two-inch mortar.
Major Robert Cain was fighting these. By himself.
Cain fought off Tiger tanks, flamethrower tanks, self-propelled guns, and even Nazi infantry in an effort to maintain his position in the village of Oosterbeek. He personally was responsible for destroying six armored vehicles, four of which were Tiger tanks. The Germans were forced to fall back this time, but the British were in no condition to pursue them. They made an orderly retreat across the river but, before they did, Maj. Cain took a moment to shave his face (he had been fighting for a full week by then) for a proper appearance. When he returned to the British Army that day, his commanding general commented on it.
“There’s one officer, at least, who’s shaved,” said Gen. Philip Hicks. To which Cain replied, “I was well brought up, sir.”
The respect of his fellow officers wasn’t the only thing he won that day. Cain was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry.