Major General Eric Louis Bols CB DSO & Bar (8 June 1904 – 14 June 1985) was a senior British Army officer, who, during World War II, was most notable for serving as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 6th Airborne Division during Operation Varsity in March 1945.
Born in Surrey in 1904, the son of Louis Bols, he was educated at Lancing College and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Bols joined the British Army in 1924 and saw service in a number of areas of the British Empire during the interwar period, including Hong Kong and Shanghai, as well as Malta. He served as a Cadet Instructor at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and attended courses at the Staff College, Camberley on promotion to captain.
When World War II began in September 1939, Bols moved through several staff officer positions, serving in several institutions and Army formations before being promoted to colonel and taking charge of all training for the troops under the command of 21st Army Group and helping to plan Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Bols was then promoted again and commanded the 185th Infantry Brigade during the Allied advance through Western Europe, before taking over command of the 6th Airborne Division from Major General Richard Gale in late 1944. He led the division in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as Operation Varsity, the airborne operation to cross the River Rhine, then led the division into northern Germany until the end of the conflict. After the end of the war Bols remained in command of the division in peace-keeping duties in the Middle East, and then retired in 1948 as a major general.
Bols was born in Camberley in Surrey in June 1904. His father, Louis Jean Bols, was born in Cape Town, South Africa and was the son of the Belgian Consul stationed in Quebec and later London, Louis Michel Guillaume Joseph Bols. Louis Bols, who was a dual British and Belgian national, travelled around the world and mastered some foreign languages, before eventually met his wife and settling down. He served during World War I, acting as the chief of staff for General Sir Edmund Allenby for the majority of the conflict. Eric Bols was born when his father was attending the Staff College, Camberley, and was educated in several institutions, including the Royal Military College, Sandhurst before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Devonshire Regiment on 30 January 1924. He was promoted to lieutenant on 31 January 1926, and in 1927, Bols was sent with the 1st Battalion to China, first being stationed in Hong Kong but later moving to Shanghai, his battalion being tasked with helping to keep the peace in the region. However, he did not stay for very long in China, with his early career being marked by a series of rapid transfers from region to region, and by 1928 he was stationed in Malta, where he found himself playing polo with then-Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was also stationed on the island at the same time. From here his career progressed rapidly, appointed an instructor at the Signals School at Catterick Garrison from 27 June 1928 to 29 December 1931 and then becoming an officer of a Company of Cadets at Sandhurst from 6 May 1934 to 21 January 1935 and then to study at the Staff College, Camberley. He was also promoted captain from that date, transferring to the King's Regiment (Liverpool), there being no vacancies in the Devonshires.
Bols returned to regimental duty for a few months from 22 December 1936, having completed the staff course. On 30 August 1937 he was seconded to the staff of the Ceylon Defence Force with the local rank of major.
When World War II began in September 1939, Bols was still in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). His temporary rank of major was made substantive from 25 February 1940 (although he did not immediately receive the pay and allowances for the rank). He went on to act as an instructor at the Staff College, Camberley, a General Staff Officer (GSO) with the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, then commanded the 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment and acted as the colonel in charge of training for the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group. Bols was also involved in planning for Operation Overlord as well as helping to train the soldiers who would participate in the invasion of Normandy.
When the invasion began on 6 June 1944 Bols did not participate directly, being retained at the War Office as a staff officer, but, in early July, he was given command of the 185th Infantry Brigade, part of the 3rd Infantry Division under Major General Lashmer "Bolo" Whistler. He led the brigade during the final stages of the Battle for Caen, where it saw heavy fighting in Operation Charnwood, Operation Goodwood, and Operation Bluecoat and later in the Allied advance from Paris to the Rhine. He was appointed a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his command of the brigade during the Battle of Overloon and the subsequent liberation of Overloon and Venray in the Netherlands; the recommendation for the award of the DSO makes particular mention of the achievement of the brigade in forcing the River Breek despite heavy resistance, poor weather and shortage of assault equipment. The award was gazetted on 1 March 1945.
When Bols was finally offered the command of the 6th Airborne Division in 1944, he had not previously commanded a military formation as large as a division. Bols took command shortly before Christmas of 1944, superseding the previous General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major General Richard Gale, who had raised the division and commanded it during Operation Tonga, the British airborne landings in Normandy. He was granted the acting rank of major general from 6 December 1944. When he took command the division, comprising the 3rd and 5th Parachute Brigades and the 6th Airlanding Brigades along with supporting units, was back in the United Kingdom, expecting a quiet Christmas training and reorganising after being withdrawn from Normandy in September. However, with the situation in the Ardennes deteriorating it was thrown into the Battle of the Bulge to support American forces in repelling the German counter-offensive between December 1944 and January 1945, one of only a small number of British formations to do so. The 6th Airborne Division conducted a counter-attack beginning 3 January alongside other British units, advancing against fierce German resistance until the division linked up with elements of the U.S. Third Army, under Lieutenant General George S. Patton.
Bols then commanded the division as it participated in Operation Varsity, the airborne assault over the Rhine, serving alongside the U.S. 17th Airborne Division, commanded by Major General William M. Miley, both under command of U.S. XVIII Airborne Corps, in March 1945. He landed with the divisional glider troops in the initial phases of the operation, commanding from the front, and received both a Bar to his DSO and the American Silver Star (on the recommendation of Major General Matthew Ridgway, the corps commander) as a result. After the division had crossed the Rhine, it then advanced through the North German Plain until it linked up with Russian forces at Wismar on 2 May, the first British unit to do so. On 5 July 1945 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).
At the end of the conflict, Bols retained his temporary rank of major general (and his war substantive rank was increased to colonel) and with it command of the 6th Airborne Division. On 21 September 1945 he traveled to Egypt with his HQ staff, arriving shortly after at his final destination, Tel Aviv. The rest of the division followed. He commanded the division whilst it conducted peace-keeping duties in Palestine. After almost three years service in the Middle East, Bols retired from the British Army with the honorary rank of major general (his actual regimental rank was still that of lieutenant colonel) on 8 January 1948.
In 1965, it was reported by The Times that the former Russian General and then Soviet Deputy Defence Minister Konstantin Rokossovsky argued in a journal article that Bols had attempted to use the 6th Airborne Division to 'infiltrate' Russian lines. Rokossovsky claimed that the division had manoeuvered behind Soviet troops advancing towards Lübeck, and Russian troops had only avoided opening fire on the airborne troops when they had recognized the British uniforms they wore.
Bols died at his home at Peppering Eye, near Battle, East Sussex on 14 June 1985, at the age of 81.