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.
Sunday, 29 June 2014
Key to locations
1. Alton Towers (Staffordshire)
2. Liverpool (Merseyside)
3. Bromborough (Merseyside)
4. Cannock Chase (Staffordshire)
5. Various Locations (North Yorkshire And County Durham)
6. West Hartlepool & Seaton Carew (County Durham)
7. Whitby (North Yorkshire)
8. Alnwick (Northumberland)
9. Killyleagh (County Down)
10. Portadown (County Armagh)
11. Dungannon (County Tyrone)
12. Tenterden (Kent)
13. Northiam (East Sussex)
14. Margate (Kent)
15. Stammer Park, Brighton (East Sussex)
16. Seaford (East Sussex)
17. Newhaven (East Sussex)
18. Tilbury (Essex)
19. Juno & Gold Landing Beaches, Normandy
Billeting in the region ran as follows:
197 Bridage: Shorncliffe and Folkestone
176 Brigade: Hawkhurst and Tenterden
177 Brigade: Hythe and New Romney
Still in a defencive role in the event of invasion or smaller raids, a heavy concentration of V.P.s required great vigilance. Not least among these was the Appledore wireless station which transmitted and received messages from Churchill himself.
At this point in the war, air raids occurred with great frequency over the coastal towns of Folkestone and Ashford. A raid on 24th March 1943 claimed the lives of 51 civilians, whilst all military personnel were spared.
With May 1943 emphasis shifted back to training exercises as the Division was relieved of its anti-raid duties by 38 Division. Exercises again concentrated on critical areas like effective infantry and artillery cooperation.
A major exercise, named Fortescue, took the whole Division across southern England to Salisbury Plain to prepare the troops for the rigours of static warfare. Having dug into slit trenches under the cover of darkness (use of air reconnaissance prevented movement during daylight hours), the infantry were removed to a safe distance, whilst with the benefit of the collected aerial photographs, the artillery peppered the area with all that their toy box contained. The purpose of the exercise was clearly two-fold 1) to validate the effectiveness of the of the infantry's digging in skills and 2) to give the opportunity for the artillery to further practice with the full range of its armour. With the smoke cleared, re-inspection showed the damage to the trench works to be modest proving a job well done.
On 27th June 1943 the 59 (Staffordshire) Division received the order to mobilise within one month. Seemingly it had made the grade.
With mobilisation complete, subsequent exercises addressed activities that were very specific to mass troop movements. Exercise Harlequin saw the Division get to grips with the process of moving through the embarkation areas and down to the front where the landing craft would be. At this point all communication with the civilian population ceased as the soldiers moved through the many-tented staging camps. Loading tables were prepared, revised and re-revised as the troop and transport logistics required. At the conclusion of the exercise, the Division reached the beach and promptly about turned.
It is interesting to note that this embarkation drill occurred across a considerable stretch of the south east coast from Whitstable (5th South Staffords) to Netheravon (7th Royal Norfolks). Such troop movements would not have passed unnoticed by the Germans, themselves concentrated only a few miles across the English Channel in the Pas de Calais. Hilter believed that when the landings occurred they would be in this area rather than further along the coast in Normandy. And so it was, at this point in time, that the ordinaty soldier of both of the opposing forces knew for sure whether these movements formed part of a bluff, or indeed a double bluff.
Further exercises focused on unit cooperation with all armour involved in three exercises that went under the name of Oaks, exercises having the objective of understanding how to locate enemy guns. Oaks I, II and III were enlivened by the use of live ammunition.
As the preparations for invasion intensified, so the divisional strength increased accordingly, being counted in late October 1943 as:
- 1,147 officers
- 21, 575 other ranks
On 31st October the Division moved to winter quarters with 177 Brigade moving to Dover where it experienced the sporadic shelling of the town from the 16 inch guns of Battery Linderman in Sangatte in the Pas de Calais.
As was the usual with the meticulous ways of the German Army, each and every shell fired on Dover was recorded. After the war, this shell tally was recovered and presented to the townsfolk of Dover as a permanent record of what they endured over the 1940 to 1944 period.
The training instruction issued by the Divisional Commander on 28th November 1943 gave a clear indication that before too long the 59th would be expected to face the enemy over in France.
This he termed the ‘utility suit’ a fabric of command without which any of the embellishments of further training would amount to nothing in terms of carrying the men of the Division through the ordeals that were to come in a few short months.
In order to realise the requirements laid down in Major General Bradshaw’s instruction, the opening months of 1944 witnessed training effected at the personal and platoon level with much emphasis placed upon the fitness of the individual.
All units of the Division were at this time transferred over to the overseas pay systems.
The Division also had a second visit paid to them by King George VI.
The spring brought about another command change at the top, with Major General Bradshaw moving over on 17th March, after a two year tenure, to 48 Division. At the end of March, Major General L.O. Lyne took over the command, having been transferred from the Anzio beachhead following the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland.
The 59th Division were the last formation to be incorporated into 21st Army Group and within this Group they were the only division to be included that had not been a pre-war regular or territorial formation.
Major General Lynne’s early evaluation of his new division was that whilst clearly proud of the fact of inclusion in 21st Army Group, comprehension of the inevitability of active service in the near future was slower in coming. This presented a significant risk which was addressed by the transfer of officers with recent experience of combat conditions during the Italian campaign into the Divisional command structure. It fell to them to inject a degree of ‘war realism’ into the as yet untested soldiers.
Thus the experienced lectured the inexperienced in all aspects of what to expect in battle. More so than previously, exercises now concentrated on creating accurate simulations of the conditions in which the men could be expected to fight (manoeuvres in ‘moonlight’ created by diffused searchlight illumination, confused scenarios to test the improvisational skills of the officers etc etc).
A Divisional School was established which was to provide additional training in specialist areas. One particular function of the School was to address the preparation of reinforcements into new units. Experience gained in Italy showed that at certain periods in the fighting the incidence of desertion was unacceptably high. It was believed that the root cause of this was as a result of poor preparation of the reinforcements who were typically drafted into units of which they had no prior knowledge and in which they knew no one. This was to be rectified within the Divisional School with the introduction of a 48 hour spell of acclimatisation in which a replacement was familiarised with his new unit. Moreover, a rule was established whereby no soldier was to be committed into action without the chance to get to know the man that he was expected to fight shoulder to shoulder with.
These measures, along with the creation of a Concert Party, served the Division well throughout their months in North West Europe and did much to maintain the morale of the men of the 59th.
With the start of April 1944 came a great tightening of security. Civilian movement in the coastal areas was curtailed, mail censorship was strictly enforced and restrictions were placed upon military radio traffic. At the same time vigilance against the threat of seaborne or parachute enemy raids was heightened.
On an administrative front, the Quartermaster worked incessantly to meet the age old logistical challenges presented when sending an army overseas to fight.
On 30th April, the code-word ‘Overlord’ was received by units along with the other coded terminology now forever associated with ‘D’ day.
In May, the 59th Division undertook what was to be its last exercise, Spes, in which it went through what would be its anticipated operational role the following month. This consisted of an advance against light opposition, an attack by an advance brigade supported by full artillery, with the follow up brigades then passing through to continue the forward movement.
By 5th June, the south east ports were a mass of ships, the decks of which were jam packed with troops and transport, all bound for the beaches of Normandy.
On ‘D-Day’, 6th June 1944, British, Canadian and American forces took the fight to the Germans.
The 59th (Staffordshire) Division had to wait a little longer for their opportunity to tackle Hitler. On the evening of 6th, representatives of all units were to be found in Canterbury Cathedral where the Bishop of Dover presided over a Service of Dedication. There then followed a march past, witnessed by the commander of XII Corps, Lieutenant General Neil Richie.
All thoughts were now with the progress of their fellow soldiers over the English Channel.
In little over a week, the 59th would fulfil their role as a follow-up formation and join up with the forces now fighting their way inland towards the city of Caen.
Saturday, 28 June 2014
In crossing the Irish Sea, from Stranraer to Larne, the duty of the 59th was to take over from the 53 (Welsh) Division. This arrangement was very much to the benefit of the Welsh who took command of all of the equipment that the 59th had accumulated over the past months. Whilst the vehicles and weapons of the 53 (Welsh) were serviceable, they were a poor replacement for what had been left behind on the North East.
The troop exchange with the 53rd took two weeks towards the end of 1941. The three infantry brigades were billeted in the southern towns of Ulster close to the border with the then Irish Free State. 197 Brigade were in Newry and Keady, whilst the 177 Brigade found themselves in the coastal towns of Newcastle and Rostrevor and 176 Brigade were in the Killyleagh/Downpatrick area.
In addition to engaging in ever more realistic and strenuous exercises, part of the remit of the 59th in Northern Ireland was to prepare the region for a possible German invasion in the Southern counties of the neutral Irish Free State (coded ‘W’ plan which if triggered would have seen a British military occupation of the Free State) and maintain a wary eye on the activities of the I.R.A. with whom some conflict was anticipated in the event that the ‘W’ plan was executed.
Concerning the possibility of German landings in the Free State, the concern was not unfounded. British Intelligence interceptions of German military traffic indicated that from May 1940 plans were afoot to land in Southern Ireland (Operation Green) . If successful, the invasion would have exposed Britain’s western flank as well as providing the Luftwaffe with a base from which to harry the UK mainland and vital Atlantic shipping.
Thankfully, no such invasion took place, but the possibility necessitated careful cooperation of the 59th Divisional Commander and the Chief of Staff of the Free State Army in Dublin.
Whilst in Northern Ireland the esprit de corps was further strengthened by a multitude of inter-unit sporting and recreational competitions.
• Cross-country running
• German speaking
• Verbal message taking (presumably military parlance for what I understand to be ‘Chinese Whispers’)
And still more bizarrely
• A one act play
Wide ranging exercises continued apace, now involving American troops newly arrived in Londonderry and Belfast.
On 5th April 1942, Sir James Steele left the Division to take up command of 2 Corps. No man had done more than he in the life of the revived 59th to shape this body of enthusiastic amateurs into an effective fighting force. He was replaced by General W.R.A. Bradshaw, who continued Steele’s work in a similar vein.
In June of that year, the Division played host, albeit very briefly, to the King and Queen.
As a result of the Division coming under the command of a U.S. Headquarters, V Corps, the 59th participated in the first British and American combined exercise named Atlantic. Another notable exercise at this time was called Penguin, this pitched the 59th (in the capacity of would be invaders) against the Ulster Home Guard.
Changes in the command structure were also a feature of this period in the Division’s history. Brigadier Hawkins of 177 Brigade since 1939 was replaced by Brigadier Ekins.
Some of the training at this stage brought infantry and artillery into close cooperation in order to cement a relationship that is so crucial in the field. In one exercise called Punch, in which the 59th opposed 61 Division and 72 Independent Brigade on an around the Sperrin mountains in awful conditions of cold and rain, men of the Division were lost by drowning in a night time river crossing and in an explosion in one of the unit armouries.
Thursday, 26 June 2014
On this day (26th) of June 1944 my Grandfather, James Heath, realised the culmination of four and a half years intensive training across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom when he and his comrades in the 5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment landed on Gold beach in Normandy.
This was the first day of ten months of active service in which he experienced fierce close quarters combat with the 5th South Staffordshires and thereafter with the 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers. He was involved in the fighting which saw the Allied forces break out of Normandy and subsequently drive the Germans back across France, through Belgium, into Holland and eventually into Germany,
I wanted to mark this landmark anniversary today and I raise a glass of Pinot Grigio to my Grandfather, to each and everyone of his fellow soldiers of the 5th South Staffordshire Battalion and the entire 59 (Staffordshire) Division on this their day of reckoning.
As a follow-up formation, he may have been overlooked in the recent commemorations of the 6th June, but the contribution and the sacrifices that were made by the soldiers of the 59th in the cauldron that was Normandy is recognised and appreciated.
From Baker's Assistant to a battle hardened solider of the British Army, Jim Heath fulfilled that dread task of any generation and took up arms for King and Country. In doing so, he played a small but vital role in the monumental task of ridding Europe of Nazi tyranny. It is thus with great pride that I am recounting this 'fragmented' history in 2014, a very poignant year that sees both the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the start of the liberation of Europe, but also what would have been his 100th year.
More details of the immediate preparation for embarkation and the landing will follow tomorrow.
Wednesday, 25 June 2014
Saturday, 21 June 2014
I’ll be honest and admit that the complexity of the recreation makes my head spin, but I have tried to put together a summary as I understand it from the unofficial history. I apologise in advance for any omissions or inaccuracies and I am happy to be corrected should anyone read this and know better than I.
What this complexity testifies to is the extent to which the General Staff was tripping over itself in its need to bring some structure to the British Army and its reserves in the last weeks of peace in the late summer of 1939.
The driving forces that shaped the 59th (Staffordshire) Division were a heady mix of logistics, shortages, tradition and regional pride.
The story begins with the creation of new battalions specifically equipped to defend the nation against invasion and aerial bombardment. After the World War I, which saw Zeppelin raids over many British towns, including London, advances in aviation came along on an exponential scale, to a large extent driven by recognition of the potential of aircraft in warfare. So it was that the nature of any future conflict was fairly well understood and air power was to be the key.
In recognition of the rapidly changing face of warfare in this modern age, in the inter-war years, existing Territorial Army (T.A.) artillery regiments were converted to Anti-Tank, Anti-Aircraft and Searchlight Battalions.
Those T.A. infantry divisions depleted by this reorganisation were disbanded and the remaining units were reallocated to other formations. As a consequence of this early redeployment, the 46th (North Midland) Division T.A. and the 139th (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigade T.A. ceased to exist. Remaining units were transferred to the 55th (West Lancashire) Division. Of the disbanded 139th, the 5th and 6th South Staffordshire Battalions and the 6th North Staffordshire Battalion were incorporated into the 166 (South Lancashire and Cheshire) Infantry Brigade, a part of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division. The shortage of reserve soldiers to fill the ranks of the reordered divisional units necessitated a deviation from the traditional structure of a Division. Thus it was that 55th (West Lancashire) Division (along with two other T.A. divisions) were designated as ‘Motor Divisions’, the difference from a standard division being that such mobile divisions had two of everything (infantry brigades, field artillery regiments and so forth) instead of the usual three.
In April 1939 with knowledge that conflict was unavoidable, the Territorial Army received an order to duplicate itself and so ‘duplicate’ divisions were created and manned. Clearly, with only the structure of divisions duplicated, great gulf existed in terms of staffing, training and experience, between ‘original’ and ‘duplicate’ divisions. In August 1939, the 55th (West Lancashire) Divisional Commander insisted that the make up of the Division actually reflected its geographical designation (i.e. the Division would include only West Lancastrian units) and as such the 55th would be made up of units drawn from both the ‘original’ and ‘duplicate’ divisions. In likewise fashion, the Staffordshire units would form the duplicate 59th Division with the geographical ‘Staffordshire’ designation. This proposal was to have far-reaching consequences for the future 59th and other T.A. divisions.
Opinion of this demand was very much divided as one drawback of the proposal was obvious. In the event that the outbreak of war came quickly, rather than having one trained and one untrained division, the proposal if carried through would result in two divisions that due to the influx of ‘duplicate’ units would necessarily be considered to be untrained. Despite the logic of the argument the wishes of the 55th Divisional Commander were accommodated and the split was made along regional lines.
The 59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division came into existence.
At some point prior to August 1939, the 166 (South Lancashire and Cheshire) Infantry Brigade (itself within the 55th (West Lancashire) Division) changed its regional designation and became the 166 (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigade, then on 1st September, whilst on annual camp on the Gower peninsula, the 166th split into two infantry brigades, namely the 176 (Staffordshire) and the 177 (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigades. The infantry battalions that made up these two brigades are shown in the diagram below.
On 4th September, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, the transfer of all Staffordshire units from the 55th (West Lancashire) Division to 59th (Staffordshire) Division was affected.
That is not the end of the story though. On 23rd June, the incorporation of a third infantry brigade with its supporting arms, the 197 Infantry Brigade (transferred from the 66 Division, a duplicate of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division) transformed the 59th from a motor division to a standard infantry division. The addition of 197 Infantry Brigade once again changed the its nature, moving it once again away from the regional division promoted by the 55th Commander the previous year, for the 197th comprised of the 1/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers and the 5th East Lancashire Battalions.
One further geographical anomaly warrants explanation. How was it that a Staffordshire division was home to men of Norfolk in the form of the 7th Royal Norfolk Battalion? A unit of each regiment serving with a second line formation was turned into a draft-finding unit to ensure that a flow of trained reinforcements into the Field Force units. However, as a consequence of the earlier split along regional lines, the 59th was no longer a second line division and the North Staffordshire Regiment had no battalions serving in a second line division. Therefore, in October 1942, 7th Battalion North Staffordshire Regt, the junior battalion, was transferred to a Lower Establishment division and replaced by the 7th Royal Norfolk Battalion. At the same time, the 1/5th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was replaced inn 197 Infantry Brigade by 1/7th Battalion Royal Warwicks.
This then is how, at least to my understanding, the infantry units of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division looked at the point where they crossed the Channel Normandy bound in June 1944.
And there you have it, I told you it was complicated. I am going for a lie down!