The intentions to document this information are long standing in that they go back some two decades to the early/mid 1990’s, just a few years before the subject of this site, James Kitchener Heath passed away.

As is the case in so many families in which a generation experienced war and all its traumas, certain aspects of service are known, but all too often the details are sketchy and disjointed. Add into this mix the passage of time and the result is invariably a collection of stories and fragments of memories accompanied by a handful of fragile and faded documents (if you are lucky) that represent the sum of information relating to the most extraordinary period in a soldier’s life. This was certainly the case in our family..... and it’s not much to go on.

In February 1995, my Father and I struggled to put together a potted service history to be read by the cleric presiding over my Grandfather’s funeral. At this point I decided to take steps to fill in some of the gaps as best I could.... sadly now without the benefit of first hand testimony.

A well known turn of phrase, ‘written on the back of a fag packet’ is defined by the Collins on-Line dictionary as something ‘composed or formed quickly and without detailed analysis or research’. As far as first hand source material for this history is concerned, no better a description could be made. The details gleaned from my Grandfather in brief (and often emotional) discussions in the 1990’s are summarised as a list of place names written in an old man’s shaky handwriting on the back of a standard envelope! (this will feature later). On the upside, a standard envelope is approximately twice the size of a cigarette packet, which immediately doubles the amount of information to work with!

By my own admission, this site is a little self-indulgent, being of primary interest to myself, my mother, my children and a handful of relatives still living in Staffordshire. In addition, it may be that the information presented here will be read by others outside of the family who have a passing interest in military or family history.

I would welcome any comments/suggestions or dare I say it relevant information to contact me.

Monday, 8 May 2017

'A Pithead Polar Bear' to be Published in May

The waiting is nearly over. I have taken the plunge and sent ‘A Pithead Polar Bear’ off to the publishers so I can say with certainty that it will be available this month.

Details of how and where to get the book will follow in the next few days.

Many thanks,


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A Pithead Polar Bear - Coming Soon!

The culmination of three years research (not full time I may add) will be the publication of a physical book to be entitled 'A Pithead Polar Bear From Brighton to Belsen 1940 - 1946'.

I have set up a separate website in order to provide further information on the book, where and how to get it and any feedback I get on it as and when I get it out there (weeks rather than months now for certain).

However, that is not the end of the road, this site will continue to be an means of passing on new information and discoveries as I intend to keep digging into this history (and the story on here is not yet complete anyway!).

Please feel free to share....

Best wishes,


53rd (Welsh) Division - Contact From A Military Historian

I recently received an email from someone with more than a passing interest in the 53rd (Welsh) Division. He was looking for some assistance regarding some Normandy photographs. Unfortunately in this I was unable to help him, but I did promise to give him a plug on this humble site.

Since the 53rd fought side by side with the 49th and 59th Divisions in the Battle of Caen, there is a good chance that some of the visitors to this site will also have an interest in what he is up to with respect to the 53rd (Welsh) Division.

Jonathan is currently working on a book, 'Jocks, Dragons and Sospans', a history of the Division.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Arnhem 16th May 2015

For those people partial to a bit of military history, no visit to this part of the Netherlands would be complete without a trip to Arnhem. Last here at the age of four, there was so much for me to see on this occasion.

There is so much written about the struggle of the men of the 1st Airborne Division in Arnhem that it is simply beyond the scope of this book to cover it here, so I will limit this chapter to a few impressions and photographs. An good starting point for a visit to the town is the museum that is dedicated to the battle. Housed in the Hotel Hartenstein, the building that served as the Divisional HQ in September 1944 it offers a real sense of the bitter fighting that took place in its immediate environs.

There is so much to see within the museum that described the battle so very well. However, one artefact caught my eye. If listening to punk rock for 35 years has instilled anything in me it is the almost childlike appreciation of a rude word. On the wall is mounted a piece of wallpaper that was preserved after the battle. On this aged piece of wallpaper beneath the proclamation of ‘Never Surrender, Fuck The Gerry’s, 1st Airborne Division’ is a tally of Germans killed or wounded by the writer. With all joking about expletives aside, this foot square piece of graffiti speaks volumes to me about the desperate struggle in which this young soldier was engaged in as he fought for his life and the lives of his comrades.

Now I am not often in the habit of quoting journalists from the ‘Daily Express’ but again these words caught my eye:

“If in the years to come any man says to you ‘I fought at Arnhem’ take off your hat and buy him a drink, for this is the stuff of which England’s greatness is made”

War correspondent Alan Wood in the Daily Express
24th September 1944.

Not far up the road from Hotel Hartenstein is the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery where many of the men who lost their lives in the September fighting lie.

A short walk from the cemetery, up a very attractive tree lined road (Van Limburg Stirumweg) will bring you to another memorial dedicated the memory of the Air Despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps who lost their lives in their endeavours to ensure the continuity of supplies to the troops on the ground. This impressive monument is set in front of the fields in which essential supplies were dropped. However, the drop zone lay in German occupied territory, so a high proportion of the supplies never reached the allies.

Air Despatcher’s Memorial

The following inscription appears on the momument:

Dedicated to the memory of the Air Despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps, who together with the aircrew of the Royal Airforce and the Royal Canadian Airforce gave their lives in valiant attempts to resupply the airborne forces during the battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden), 18th - 25th September 1944

Erected by their comrades and air despatchers past and present, with the generous assistance of the burgomaster and aldermen of Renkum, and other kind Dutch friends, 18th September 1994.

Leaving Oosterbeek, we headed back into the centre of Arnhem and the bridge itself. On the north side of the bridge lies the  Jacob Groenewoud Park. Captain Groenewoud was the only Dutch officer to fight in the battle for the bridge. He was killed on 18th September 1944 in an attempt to contact the body of troops in Oosterbeek.

Within the Jacob Groenewoud Park are numerous memorials to the units involved in the battle for the Rhine bridge at Arnhem. At this point in my research I have become rather eagle-eyed when it comes to spotting Polar Bears and indeed I found one set on a twisted propeller, a gift to the Division from the Arnhem Museum.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Haalderen, Holland 16th May 2015

The idea was that we would have an easier day on the Saturday with less driving planned for Owen. In the evening we were due to attend a part of Eurorock Festival near to Eindhoven. The band that we had travelled to see were the headline act and were not due to take the stage until after midnight that evening. The schedule we drew up was to drive up to Nijmegen and onto the Island before heading further north to Arnhem.

Within Nijmegen I had a specific task to fulfil, retracing the family’s 1973 visit to the town with my Grandfather, but more of that in the pages that follow. For now the plan was to stop off in Haalderen as we progressed towards Arnhem. We deliberately took a route to the brigdes similar to that taken by XXX Corps on ‘Hell’s Highway’ as the Allies struggled to reach the British 1st Airborne who were pinned down in Oosterbeek. In the early morning spring sunshine it was difficult to relate to that desperate journey seventy-one years earlier for the roads were clear and the fields on either side of the road were nothing but picturesque. Crossing the Maas at Grave, we passed through Nijmegen and crossed Waal to access ‘The Island’.

Passing through Lent before turning off the N325 in the direction of Bemmel where the men of ‘D’ Company 11th R.S.F. were formed up as the counter-attack company on 4th December 1944. It was only after driving through a near deserted Bemmel that our navigational problems started. Never mind the proverbial ‘All Roads Lead To Rome’, on this Saturday morning it was more a case of ‘All Roads Lead to Bemmel’ as try as we might to reach the neighbouring village of Haalderen, after several circuits of the area it was nowhere to be found, but we found ourselves driving back through Bemmel from each of the four compass points. Were it not for the assistance of a helpful jogger with a better grasp of the local geography, Haalderen may have never have been reached!

Our approach to Haalderen was from the same direction from which the Fusiliers entered the village that December. Turning right onto the N839, Van der Mondeweg, we headed south east down the road toeards the Church (the original of which is shown at the head of this chapter). The Church, now rebuilt, houses a memorial to the fighing in the village that occurred between September and December 1944.

Never Forget
Never Repeat


Our time here was limited and with no disrespect to Haalderen, there was not so much to photograph easily with the exception of a view down the main street. The direction from which the German 16th Parachute Regiment Companies advanced and the direction that the Fusilier’s took to reach the forward positions of the beleaguered Companies of the 7th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.

The reconstructed Church in Haalderen.

The main road through Haalderen (Van der Mondeweg) looking in a south easterly direction (facing the German assault).

Street Fighting Haalderen, Holland 3rd – 4th December 1944

The shattered ruins of Haalderen Church.

In the first week of December the tide of war once again broke over Haalderen (literally given the flooded state of this part of The Island). In an attempt to reach the Great Waal Bridge near Lent, the Germans launched an attack which was intended to push through to the bridge via Haalderen and Bemmel.

Before describing in any detail the first engagement for the Fusiliers on The Island it is necessary to recount the situation faced by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. At the beginning of December The Dukes were positioned on the right flank of the Divisional front in the area of Haalderen. The conditions on the ground were horrendous with heavy flooding throughout the area. To the mud and filth that are a part and parcel of flooding were added the remains of soldiers of both sides killed in the struggles of late September/early October when Allied units tried desperately to the aid of the British 1st Airborne then confined in the Oosterbeek Perimeter on the western outskirts of Arnhem.

Military operations in the Haalderen area were severely hampered as a result of the conditions. The protection offered by slit trenches was limited as the height of the water table restricted the depth to which they could be dug before filling with water. Moreover, the movement of man and armour throughout the sector was limited to the high ground, i.e. across the top of the dykes. Such movement was perilous for a number of reasons, notably due to the fact that the tracks that topped the dykes were constructed with light agricultural traffic in mind and not the heavyweight trucks and tanks of an Army on the move. Furthermore, the presence of men and vehicles on the top of the dykes offered the enemy something akin to a fairground duck shoot as targets were dangerously exposed in silhouette against the sky.

To further set the scene, I refer to the relevant sections of the 7th Dukes War Diaries. From 1st December, the Battalion positions were coming under heavy artillery fire. German forward patrols were observed to be occupying houses on the main road through the village. At the same time, the diary records ‘water rising about 3” to 6” per day. Daylight supply of Btn forbidden’. The diary elaborates some more on the worsening flood conditions stating that at 2150 hours on the 2nd ‘’D’ Coy reported that water was rising rapidly in the coy area’. This situation calls to mind the earlier story, mentioned in an earlier chapter, that my Grandfather related of being perched on a stack of bricks armed with a yardstick monitoring the rate by which the water levels were rising throughout the night. William Douglas corrected my earlier assumption that this incident occurred in the Roosendaal area and stated that it was much more consistent with the situation in Haalderen. As recounted a little later, he arrived in the area with the 11th R.S.F. on the morning of 4th December.

By the morning of 3rd December 03 Brigade advised that ‘Dykes may have been breached by weight of water or military action. HAALDEREN, the highest point of the “Island” may be attacked by the enemy. NIJMEGEN is being heavily shelled at an increasing rate. Be on the alert for counter-attacks’.

At 0710 a trip flare was triggered forward of the ‘D’ Company’s position. The Dukes remained vigilent, observing even in this dreadful place mundane domestic activities as it was reported at 0930 hours that ‘1 Boche seen to run out of house S of rd at 763662, chased chicken. Man shot chicken and went back into house’. More Germans were observed on the main Haalderen road throughout the day. In the early evening, enemy flares were spotted and sporadic Spandau fire was reported at 2235 and 2255. Something was in the offing.

At 0315 on 4th December, Spandau fire coincided with reports coming in from ‘D’ Company of an attack, with 18 Platoon stating that 17 enemy had passed through their positions with more approaching. Some 15 minutes later, more Germans, about a company in strength, also passed through leaving 18 Platoon completely surrounded although holding their position.

The War Diary reported ‘Heavy stonking in the bn area and BEMMEL 7367. It was the 11th R.S.F. who were on the receiving end of the shelling in Bemmel. The ‘Summary of Operations’ takes up the story and decribes how in the early hours of 4th December the Battalion was subjected to one of the German’s most concentrated artillery fire for a period of nearly two hours, being the prelude to an attack on the right sector of the Brigade front [i.e. the 7 DWR in Haalderen]. ‘D’ Company under Major Leslie Rowell were to take the role of counter-attack Company in just such an event. In Major Rowell’s words ‘At Bemmel on the 4th December D Coy were in reserve with the task of counter attacking in support of 7 DWR at Haalderen, at approximately 0300 hours the Coy was ordered to ‘stand to’ and later was ordered to move. The Coy commenced to its task at first light at 0730 hours’.
Meanwhile back in Haalderen, the at 0400 the & DWR War Diary described the situation as ‘very confused’ with fighting taking place in nearly every house in the village. The Germans had reached as far as ‘A’ Company HQ and the school buildings on a road junction approximately 100m along the road from the Church. White flares fired at 0500 hours from the new German positions were thought to be signals that the planned objectives had been successfully taken.

At 0515 hours the Commanding Officer, Major Hamilton, ordered the Duke’s Carrier Platoon to re-occupy the school and for ‘C’ Company to counter-attack ‘D’ Company 18 Platoon’s positions in order to close the gap in the line through which the Germans had passed. It was estimated that the German infiltration of the Battalion area was approximately one company in strength. Major Hamilton requested that the 11th R.S.F. move up, as counter-attack battalion, to the area of Battalion HQ.

In the early hours further German advance along the main road was checked. At 0615, the Carrier Platoon successfully retook the school and ‘B’ Company reoccupied a number of houses. Nevertheless, confused close quarters fighting continued in the area of the ‘A’ Company HQ. At 0620 the 11th R.S.F. assembled in this area (on the right, that is south west side of the main street) and received orders to attack in an easterly direction, thereby pushing the Germans towards the 7 DWR forward positions.

In darkness and in the confused nature of house to house fighting there was a real danger that the 7th DWR Company and ‘D’ Company of the 11th R.S.F. would sustain casualties due to ‘friendly fire’. To avoid such a clash, Major Rowell ordered that ‘D’ Company take responsibility for the clearance of houses on the right hand side of the street as far as the road junction. This was tasked to 17 Platoon under the command of Lieutenant McIntosh. Next 18 Platoon, under Lieutenant Douglas would work their way up the left had side of the street once the situation in the houses opposite ‘A’ Company HQ had been established. At this time my Grandfather with 16 Platoon, under Sergeant Little, took up reserve fire positions protecting ‘A’ Company HQ.

Crossing the start line at 0700 hours 17 Platoon cleared the first house as the 7 DWR arrived in the houses opposite and 18 Platoon set off up the left hand side of the street. In this manner both of the Fusilier platoons advanced up the street offering mutual support as far as the road junction objective. The enemy were being pushed back down the road from where they originally advanced.
At this point, I am reminded of my Grandfather, who would break off from one of our regular Saturday night games of darts in the kitchen to describe, with the aid of an invisible, but poised, Lee Enfield, just how soldiers on opposite sides of the street would cooperate in house clearing actions! I wonder whether at such times he was mentally transported back to Haalderen.

The men of ‘D’ Company received additional information about houses along the street that were German occupied as 18 Platoon of the Fusilers further advanced from the north east towards the crescent of Kolkweg. In this they were assisted by 16 Platoon Bren Corps and 17 Platoon who also provided covering fire. The 18 Platoon assault was successful. The men of ‘D’ Company were still coming under fire from houses on the street when the final phase of the attack commenced which was to clear all houses on the north eastern side of the street. The attack was led by 16 Platoon supported by covering fire from both 17 and 18 Platoon. At the point of reaching the send house off the street, the enemy surrendered. The remaining Dukes laid down smoke to aid the advance of 16 Platoon on the last objective before consolidating the ground taken on either side of the road.

As Prisoners of War were taken back, it was established that the units engaged with the Dukes and Fusiliers were men of the German 16th Parachute Regiment of the 6th Parachute Division (6. Fallschirmjäger-Division).

By 1215 the original 7 DWR Battalion positions had been restored and the Dukes claimed a total of 108 P.O.W.s and many enemy dead. For their part, the 11th R.S.F. accounted for 77 P.O.W.s with one Fusilier killed and two wounded. Those Germans not killed or captured retreated across the fields back towards their frontline. 4th December closed with a heavy artillery bombardment on the battalion area.

On 5th December, ‘D’ Company were located at the south eastern end of the village located in the ruins of some semi-detached houses that overlooked fields that stretched out in the direction of the German frontline positions. Of that time William Douglas, then commanding 18 Platoon recalls a deadly game of ‘cat & mouse’ with a German railway gun. ‘So I ended up at the far end of the village in some ruined semi-detached houses looking out across the open fields, the Germans of course knew exactly where we were because they’d been there and somewhere up in the Arnhem area they had a very big railway gun and you could hear the confounded thing, you knew when it was going to fire, so you were fairly safe, you could hear it going tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk, then the most tremendous bang and you could practically see the thing coming through the air. Of course, when it landed it would destroy several houses, and they started firing at the village with this confounded thing and of course we had positions in all the windows looking out across the fields. But fortunately all these Dutch houses had cellars, so into the cellars we go and as soon as the firing stops we rush back into the positions, you hear him fire again, back down into the cellars, this confounded gun, every time it fired it seemed to come closer and closer to the house that we were in. Roofs were disappearing on the other side of the road, entire houses going down, oh God! It was one of the most frightening times of the whole thing, there was nothing that you could do about it, you just sat there, 10 chaps down in this cellar, you as the officer, trying to appear frightfully brave and not the least bit worried and getting ready to shout ‘Go!’ the moment you thought he’d finished firing and your back up top in case they were coming again. This went on for a couple of hours, it was not amusing. I always remember when they say ‘Were you ever frightened?’ and I say ‘Yeah I was pretty frightened down in that cellar I have to say! The next one’s gonna land on us!’.

Later ‘D’ Company of the R.S.F. were relieved by ‘C’ Company who entered the area for this purpose and to reinforce the tired Dukes. Between 1700 and 2130 on 6th December, the rest of the Regiment moved into the village to relieve the 7 DWR who moved back to Bemmel.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Rock ‘n’ Roll, Remembrance and All That Jazz in The Lowlands Breda, Holland 15th May 2015

In what was becoming something of an annual excursion Owen and I had planned another weekend on the continent with both military history and music on the itinerary.

Yet another old punk band was due to play at the ‘Eurorock Festival’ in Neerpelt in Belgium. The timing could not have been better since the ‘Fragmented Military History’ website had progressed considerably such that I had left Normandy and the 59th (Staffordshire) Division behind and was now immersed in the actions of the Polar Bears in Belgium and Holland.

The town of Breda was to be our base for the next three days from where we would drive in each and every direction in order to visit Turnhout, Wuustwezel, Roosendaal, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Bemmel, Haalderen and Walcheran. A check on the mileometer upon arriving back in London told us that we had clocked up no less than two thousand miles over the three days, mostly in the Netherlands (no mean feat in a country so small!).

Whilst we were planning to see a punk band (Killing Joke, were anyone to be remotely curious) our chosen base was this weekend hosting the annual Breda Jazz Festival. Now I fully appreciate that when it comes to musical taste it is definitely a case of ‘each to their own’. But without a doubt both Owen and I side with Johnny Rotten over Johnny Dankworth! So when a well-meaning waitress in the breakfast room on day two suggested that we were here for the jazz we were a little put out! Casting an eye over the finger poppin’ jazz aficionados of northern Europe that were at that time sharing the restaurant, it was clear to the two of us at least that a wide gulf existed between us and them. Nevertheless in a middle aged punk rock style we corrected her and complimented the chef on the quality of his scrambled eggs. How times have changed!

Caught unawares in a lift finger clicking and ‘extolling the joy of jazz!’.

On our first venture out on our first full day of touring was the town of Turnhout. Strangely enough thid was not our first visit to this town in the far north of Belgium. Back in April 2011 the two of us in the company of another couple of fans had stayed in Turnhout. The band had arranged a five day acoustic tour of Belgium and Holland of which we planned to witness three, Turnhout, Zaandamn and Lessines.

Now Turnhout is a small place, but locating our apartment took over an hour. I am happy to say that the concert was very enjoyable but after the show we headed out of toen in the direction of the band’s hotel with a view to grabbing a late beer with them. Within minutes of us setting off, the band’s mini-bus speed past us and the ever truculent bass player took the time to hurl some choice words of abuse at us as they passed (it’s nothing personal, we were on the guest list after all!).

In 2011 I hand no idea that this place had any significance to my own family history. All I felt at the time was a sense of frustration as we repeatedly failed to locate our apartment after several traverses of the town. The realisation that my Grandfather was a liberator of the town was a few years off!

Next up was Wuustwezel, another difficult place name for linguistically challenged Britons such as ourselves. Having said that in the spirit of our forebears who renamed Ypres as Wipers and Foucquevillers as Funkyvillers, Wuustwezel was rechristened to a very anglicised ‘Worst Weasel’…. no offence intended towards our Belgian neighbours, it just made navigation much easier!

Having reached the town as usual we made for the cemetery and here were located the first 11th R.S.F. graves that I had seen since the Fontenay-le-Pesnel cemetery the previous year.

Nine Polar Bears lie in the churchyard of Wuustwezel.

During the fighting to liberate Wuustwezel between 20th and 23rd October 1944, 108 British servicemen were killed in action or died of wounds received. Of these men 98 wore the Polar Bear insignia of the 49th (West Riding) Division.

The fallen are commemorated by a memorial erected to their memory in Liberation Square, Wuustwezel. The monument carries the following inscription that attests to their heroic deeds:

‘In this area, the German counter-attacks of 21st and 22nd October 1944 were halted by the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. The people of Wuustwezel express gratitude to their liberators’.

At the unveiling ceremony on 21st October 1984, the Burgomaster of Wuustwezel, Jos Ansoms said this of the momument and what it represents, ‘It is a sober monument, sober and simple as the lads of whom it reminds us. It is convincing and dignified like the British military that are remembered. Constructed in a “V”, it represents victory but also peace, freedom and friendship’.

The Wuustwezel memorial is now recognised as the principal site of remembrance to the Polar Bears in Belgium. Whilst less imposing than its cousin in Fontenay-le-Pesnel, its understated simplicity makes it every bit as moving. The aforementioned sober simplicity of this construction of brick and stone surmounted with a stylised French limestone sculpture of a Polar Bear contrasts starkly with the Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun that also occupies the site, a contribution of the Polar Bear Association in 2009.

The Polar Bear memorial
Wuustwezel, Belgium.