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.

adrianandrews1@sky.com

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Extracts From The Orders for 'Operation Astonia'


The following 'Operation Instruction' was issued to the participating Divisions and supporting units on 6th September 1944. In the event bad weather resulted in a postponement of D day from 9th to 10th September.

OPERATION ASTONIA

1 CORPS OPERATION INSTRUCTION No 14.


INTENTION
1.      1 Corps will capture LE HARVE.

METHOD
2.      Allotment of troops

(a)    49 Inf Div

With under comd         34 Tk Bde
                                    22 Dgns

            In sp                42 Assault Regt ARE less two sqns
                                    ‘A’ Sqn 141 RAC
                                                                        44 Kangaroos
                               51 (H) Div

With under comd         33 Armd Bde
                                    1 LOTHIANS less one sqn
                                    two sqns 42 Assault Regt ARE
                                    ‘C’ Sqn 141 RAC
                       
(b)   Of 44 Kangaroos allotted 49 Inf Div for Phase I, 24 will be moved to an RV to be decided mutually by 49 and 51(H) Divs on completion of Phase I and will then be available to 51 (H) Div.

3.      General.
The assault will be carried out with two divs up, 51 (H) Div RIGHT and 49 Inf Div LEFT, and the operation will be divided into four Phases.

4.      Tasks.
Phase I

49 Inf Div will capture the area 530320 – 540320 – 544302 – 522308 and secure a brhead on the feature to the SOUTH of this area with a view to passing further tps through during Phase II to capture this feature.

Phase II

(a)    51 (H) Div will secure a base in the area 510325 – 510310 – 520310 with a view to developing further offensive action during Phase III.
(b)   49 Inf Div will capture the feature 525297 – 544295 – 545280 – 532280.

Phase III

                        51 (H) Div will develop its operation to secure
(i)                 The bty area centred around 500315
(ii)               The high ground about 4730 and 4829
(iii)             The enemy defences about OCTEVILLE 500340 from the SOUTH      and EAST.

Phase IV - EXPLOITATION

Both divs will exploit relentlessly into the town and crush any resistance within div bdys. It is most important that the plan of each div shall provide for immediate, deep and ruthless exploitation directly the opportunity arises. The sooner we can penetrate deeply and break up enemy cohesion and control, the more easily and cheaply will our task be accomplished.

Therefore plans must be flexible enough to take advantage of any enemy weakness.

5.      TIMINGS

(a)    D day

9 Sep

(b)   Phase I

H hr     1815 hrs

(c)    Phase II

Times to be fixed by Comd 51 (H) and 49 Inf Divs for their respective parts of this phase. In this connection 49 Inf Div will make the rd in para 7(b) available to 51 (H) Div by H + 5 hrs or earlier if possible.

(d)   Phase III


0800 hrs D + 1

Extracts From The Orders For The Liberation of Le Havre



Extract of the orders issued detailing the manner in which First British Corps were to coordinate with the supporting Royal Navy ships anchored of the French coast during 'Operation Astonia', the action to capture the fortress town of Le Harve.

From FOBAA (Flag Officer British Assault Area)
To ANCXF (Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force)

August 1944

HAVRE

12.     Army intention is to attack from the North East by land not less than two days after the attack on Dieppe.

13.     The object of the bombarding forces will be to engage strong points and batteries holding up the advance of the Army as far as 10,000 yards inland (This is the line of static defences).

14.     ROBERTS would be anchored in a position already swept to the NE of Ouistreham.

15.     WARSPITE and MALAYA would be anchored in a position to the South of the Seine bank.

16.     The general plan is being made out by the First Canadian Army.

17.     Detailed plan of attack on Dieppe will be made by Second Canadian Corps.

18.     Detailed plan of attack on Havre will be made by First British Corps.

19.     It is proposed that the general planning should be carried out with the First Canadian Army by FOBAA and detailed Fire Plans by FOBAA with the appropriate Corps.

20.     It is presumed that operational orders for the force would be issued by ANCXF based on information as to Army plan to be supplied by FOBAA. An officer could be sent to the briefing as required.

21.     Control arrangements to be exercised by my staff through the Mobile Bombardment Control Unit, which will operate close to and in conjunction with the appropriate Corps HQ.

22.     Presumably I will be responsible for this force when off the French Coast. I would prefer to conduct the operation from one of the bombarding ships.

23.     The Havre operation would be conducted from my HQ ashore.


Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Setting The Scene For The Liberation of Le Havre

Progress of the First Canadian Army to clear  coastal belt and retake the Channel ports

The Allied advance during the second half of August stretched the supply lines enormously. All of the requirements of the now highly mobile army were being brought in by way of the Mulberry harbour many miles away from the front lines. This rapidly changing military situation, as the Allies pursued the Germans back towards Germany, demanded that the Channel ports of the Pas-de-Calais be delivered into the hands of the Allies at the earliest opportunity in order to shorten and strengthen the crucial supply lines.

On 6th September General Montgomery signalled to General Crerar, Commander of the First Canadian Army, the following request:

‘Would be very grateful for your opinion on the likelihood of early capture of Boulogne. It looks as if port of Antwerp may be unusable for some time as the Germans are holding islands at the mouth of the Scheldt. Immediate opening of some port north of Dieppe essential for rapid development of my plan and I want Boulogne badly. What are the chances of getting it soon?’

Plans for the deployment of the First Canadian Army were discussed and agreed on 9th September at a conference with Montgomery, attended by Generals Crerar, Dempsey and Hodges. General Crerar noted later in his diary ‘Decisions affecting the First Cdn Army were reached i.e. speedy capture of Channel ports within First Cdn Army boundary’.

In order to support the favourable military situation that existed in early September, Crerar issued a directive to his Corps commanders that stated:

‘It follows that a speedy and victorious conclusion to the war now depends, fundamentally, upon the capture by First Cdn Army of the Channel ports which have now become so essential, if the administrative problem is to be solved, i.e. Le Havre, Boulogne, Dunkirk, Calais and generally in that order of importance

  •       1 Brit Corps will attack and capture Le Havre on 10/11 Sep – unless unfavourable weather conditions entail a further delay. On completion of this important operation, 1 Brit Corps will re-organise and re-equip in the vicinity of Le Harve , pending an improvement in the administrative situation which will permit the movement of this formation to the Eastern sector of First Cdn Army area.

  •          2nd Cdn Corps has already been directed to proceed, without delay, to Capture Boulogne, Dunkirk and Calais, preferably in that order, but without prejudice to the earlier and easier capture of any one of them. If no weakness in the defences of these ports is discovered, and decisively exploited, in the course of operational reconnaissance - then a deliberate attack, with full fire support will require to be staged, in each case.

  •          In view of the necessity to give first priority to the capture of the Channel ports, mentioned above, the capture or destruction of the enemy remaining North and East of the Ghent-Bruges Canal becomes secondary in importance. While constant pressure and close contact with the enemy, now withdrawing North of R. Scheldt, will be maintained, important forces will not be committed to offensive action.



The task of capturing Le Havre was allotted to two infantry divisions of the 1 British Corps, namely the 49th (West Riding) Division and the 51st (Highland) Division with the support of 34 Tank Brigade and 33 Armoured Brigade respectively.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Do you have a photo of D Company 11th R.S.F. .

I was very pleased to see that my efforts to establish my Grandfather's wartime story along with details of this site have appeared within the pages of the December edition of The Polar Bear News. As mentioned in the article, I believe that my Grandfather served within D Company of 11th R.S.F. I would like to take this opportunity to ask whether any PBN members are in possession of photographs of the men of D Company. I have one somewhere, but frustratingly, it has become separated from my collection of original documents and photographs that I have. Sadly, this is the only group photograph that I have of him with the 11th R.S.F. Having recently seen a similar photograph taken that included Ken West, I believe the missing photograph was taken at the same time (the photo was taken in a clearing with woodland in the background) in Germany in July 1945.

Please email me if you believe you have a similar photograph.

Many thanks for your help.

Adrian.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Meeting with Fusilier West - October 2015

Taken from a post on another site:

I have now spent a couple of years researching the military history of Jim Heath, my late maternal Grandfather with special emphasis on his time spent in North West Europe in 1944 to 1945.

The evolving history is documented here:

http://jameskitchenerheath5051929.blogspot.co.uk/

However, in brief, he landed with the 59th (Staffordshire) Division (5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment) as a follow-up Division after D-Day on 25th June. Fierce fighting for the pivotal city of Caen and engagements in the area to the south east of Caen decimated the 59th to such an extent that the Division was disbanded and he was transferred to the 49th (West Riding) Division with whom he became a Royal Scots Fusilier of the 11th Battalion. With the 11th R.S.F. he fought across France, Belgium and Holland where wounds received in a notorious place known as The Island (a flooded landscape situated between the Upper and Lower Rhine that separates Nijmegen and Arnhem) ended his active service. Nevertheless, his medical reclassification from A1 to B6 meant that he was still fit for a non-front line posting overseas and he rejoined the RSF in Germany as part of the British Army of Liberation. As part of 12 D.P.A.C.S. (Displaced Persons Assembly Centre) he ended his Army service as an administrator at Bergen-Belsen camp.

My research through the Polar Bear Association  (49th (West Riding) Division) lead me to one Ken West, a hale and hearty 93 year old veteran from Leicester. Last weekend, I had the honour of spending a few hours in conversation with this gentleman to discuss various Polar Bear related topics.

Fusilier West served in D Company but returned to A Company after recovering from wounds received in Normandy. Not fancying the lot of a Rifleman again he pushed his specialism and rejoined the Battalion as a signaller. So it was that their time in the same D Company did not overlap. Nevertheless, another coincidence came to light in the course of the conversation. My Grandfather enlisted with the North Staffordshire Regiment as did Ken’s brother Ernest. For the visit I happened to have with me his order to proceed to Litchfield Infantry Training Centre. He was required to be there on 15th January 1940, the very same day that Ernest was to report too. So, it just may have been the case that Jim and Ernest were acquainted, albeit briefly.

This meeting with Ken West was highly significant for me, as some twenty years after my Grandfather’s death I had the opportunity to talk with a man who shared the same day to day experiences, the terrifying as well as the mundane, in exactly the same places at the same time. I can honestly say that when I started out on this project I never had this in my mind as a possibility.

This was certainly a photo opportunity and Ken was happy to oblige. For the occasion, his blazer and Polar Bear Association tie were retrieved from the wardrobe so that he was with 'his bling'.

Me and Fusilier Ken West 14638023
(note the red 'bling', none other than the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur!)

We shook hands as we parted company and Ken gave Gunta a kiss with the words 'Now you can say you've not only kissed an old soldier, but a French Knight!'

I would like to thank Ken for his time (as well as his son Steve) and also to Gunta who ferried me to Leicester and back.

A Veteran Responds - August 2015

Upon returning from a family holiday in August, I was thrilled to find a hand addressed letter bearing a Midland postmark.

Ken had replied with a very informative and encouraging letter:

24 Aug 2015

Dear Adrian,

Thank you for your most welcome letter regarding your Grandfather Jim Heath. Unfortunately I didn’t know him but I can answer a lot of your queries. 

Interesting that he joined the N. Staffs, my brother Ernest was a “Belisha Boy” of the January 1940 intake and was posted to Litchfield with the N. Staffs, after a spell in hospital he transferred to the Royal Sigs (DR).

Jim, with the “Pit Head Div” (59 Div) certainly took a battering around Caen, we had two lads come to the Signals Ptn and men from the rifle Coys were absorbed. Joining us on Aug 26 he would have been in the area of Ponte de la Rogue on the Seine, before the detour south of Rouen at Elbouf, before taking position at Montevilliers for the attack on Le Harve (12 Sept). After 5 days rest at Luneray nr Dieppe, they went, unopposed to Turnhout-Antwerp Canal (Sept 25).

If he was with Sgt Little, he would have been in 16 Ptn”D” Coy. Little, along with Sgt Louis Hill 17 Ptn were awarded the MM in Normandy. Therefore he would have been on the “Commando Raid” in March (11th) which took place to our front at Haalderen. The raid started at 6 am and the order to withdraw at 8 am. In that 2 hours they secured prisoners & killed quite a number. Derek Potter (to whom my book was dedicated) as bren gunner and his 2 I/C & Sgt Little were the 3 killed. 7 wounded. The information gathered from this exercise was of great importance for the action of clearing the Island, so Jim would have been wounded during this operation . There was an article in PBN about 12-18 months ago by Maj Leslie Rowell I/C “D” Coy. Leslie was from Bristol – his daughter lives just outside Leicester & I met him a couple of times although he didn’t take over “D” Coy until Turnhout. We had 2 great afternoons talking of old friends. I asked him what his instructions were for the raid and he said Col Eyrkyn had told him to land, create mayhem & bring back prisoners! It must have been the most decorated action of the European Campaign, 1 DSO, 1 DSM, 2 MC, 3 MM (one of the MCs was Lt Douglas, the Colonel you referred to).

I notice on the photo Jim is wearing the insignia of 30 Corps. General Brian Horrocks (A Bridge Too Far) and TV documentaries, was the G.O.C. in which we’d all served in Normandy (pleased to see that Jim got a “back room” job after hospital!!)

I’m sorry that you didn’t include your phone number in the letter, it was so full of interesting queries and I would be pleased to help you in your research.

I was talking to Dennis about Stan Davies life story and he said that it was a great pity that so few veterans recorded their stories. Which set me thinking. After our visit to Holland in May, my son Steve, told friends, every time I go with my Dad with the Polar Bears I find out more about him. I know I wrote “Tam-O-Shanter” but I’m now writing my memoirs from Sept 1939 to my demob in June 1947. 1939-call-up- 1 yr training for D Day, RSF, Army of Occupation 2 yrs Germany, Italy and Austria.

Must stop now to catch the post – could write all night! Please ring!

Yours sincerely

14638023 West K.J. Fus (R’td)

In the wake of this letter were a series of phone calls in which we agreed to meet after Ken's next trip to Holland in September. A date was agreed for 18th October.

Making Contact With A Veteran - July 2015

Having established that Ken West was still very much with us and still very engaged with the activities of the Polar Bear Association I asked for contact details and the Association Secretary passed Mr West's address on to me.

I wrote to him on the off-chance that he and my Grandfather were acquainted when serving with 'D' Company of the Regiment.

Concerning L/Cpl James (Jim) Kitchener Heath 11th R.S.F. No. 5051929

Dear Mr. West,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Adrian Andrews and I am writing to you in connection with some family research that I have been conducting over the past two years into the wartime experiences of my late Grandfather. 

My Grandfather’s name was James Kitchener Heath, better known to his friends and colleagues as Jim and to close family simply as Kitch. My interest  in piecing together his war story stems from the time of his funeral sadly when, whilst trying to pen some words about this defining period of his life for the presiding cleric to read out, it became clear that the understanding within the family of what he did back then was at best confused and at worst wholly inaccurate! After the funeral I obtained his MOD records but other family issues meant that further exploration was shelved for a number of years.

In short, his military history ran parallel to that of the R.S.F. Enlisting in Brighton in January 1940, he joined the North Staffordshire Regiment as a territorial before embodiment into the regular Army. Born in Stoke-On-Trent, a Staffordshire regiment was his natural choice.

Shortly thereafter he was transferred to the South Staffordshire Regiment with which he completed his training before being posted overseas. On 25th June he landed with the Battalion in Normandy as part of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division as a follow up formation.

After the brutal engagements in the areas of Caen, Fontenay-le-Pesnil and Noyers Bocage
The 59th were disbanded in order to reinforce other hard pressed established regiments. Thus it was that my Grandfather was transferred across to the 11th R.S.F. on 26th August 1944. In his IWM audio archive interview Colonel William Douglas describes the transfer in terms of receiving many men from the Staffords having incomprehensible accents but extraordinary digging skills on account of their long mining heritage.

I have a great account of his time in Normandy from contemporary sources detailing the actions of the 59th and specifically the 5th South Staffords. Likewise, I have the accounts included in the 11th R.S.F. Summary of Operations from June 1944 to May 1945, the aforementioned audio interview with Colonel Douglas as well as a rather good book by one Fusilier K.J. West!

Two years ago I spent some days touring Normandy when I took in Galamanche/St. Contest and the cemeteries of Cambes-en-Plaine and Fontenay-le-Pesnil  (of course, taking in at the same time the Polar Bear memorial on the main road).

Following on from my trail across Normandy, I was in Belgium (Turnhout) and Holland in May (a mere two weeks after your visit) to visit Wuustwezel, Roosendaal and Haalderen.

It is worth noting here that first hand accounts of his active service were limited. I was fascinated with the war at the age of 7 or 8 at which time he related sanitised accounts of his experiences (dead cows and mosquitoes in Normandy, standing sentry, waste deep in water with a yardstick measuring rising floodwater (Roosendaal or Haalderen?)).

As I became more seriously interested in my early twenties about the details of those events of ‘44/’45 he was very much more emotional and less able to articulate details. He died in February 1995 at the age of 80.

Another location that I visited earlier in the year when in Holland was the military cemetery in Jonkerbos, Nijmegen and it is in this regard that I have a number of questions that you may or may not be in a position to shed some light upon.

The information that I have is rather circumstantial at present, but I hope that it may ultimately lead me to a better understanding of with which unit he served whilst with the 11th R.S.F.

In 1973 my family travelled to Holland in the company of my Grandfather. During this family holiday we took a detour to Nijmegen and specifically to Jonkerbos cemetery. The reason for this visit, as later recounted by my parents (as whilst present I was only four at the time) was so that he could locate the last resting place of the man he described as ‘my sergeant’ whose death he had witnessed. My research has shown that the only Fusilier of the 11th R.S.F. holding the rank of sergeant was William Little MM. 

The only other circumstantial evidence that I have that it was indeed Sgt. Little’s headstone that he was seeking is a photograph taken at the time by my Grandmother that shows my Grandfather in discussion with my Father close to the plot of Sgt. Little.


My Grandfather and Father in conversation close to the plot of Sergeant Willian Little MM
Jonkerbos Cemetery, Nijmegen 1973

Whilst I know my Grandfather’s Company in the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment, I cannot as yet confirm the Company in which he served when with the 11th R.S.F. With something of a leap of faith, based on the ‘evidence’ explained above, I would suggest that he was in 16 Platoon of ‘D’ Company with Sgt. Little.

Having spent time in ‘D’ Company 17 Platoon are you able to confirm this (or suggest a possible means of establishing this fact)?

The death of William Little is well recorded since he was recipient of the Military Medal. I understand that he was killed in a very notable and daring waterbourne raid over the Rhine that was widely reported in ‘Current Reports From Overseas’ as an exemplary assault. I would love to be able to place him at the Company level and even better at Platoon level if possible.

My Grandfather did not make it into Germany as a combatant with the Regiment. He was evacuated with wounds on the 7th April 1944 (in the final clearance of the Island or after). He returned to the Battalion as part of D.P.A.C.S. of the British Army of Liberation and worked in  administrative role role at Bergen-Belsen camp until he was demobbed in March 1946.

Ken, I have no idea of how much you can remember of people with which you served after the passage of 71 years but I have enclosed a scanned photograph of my Grandfather. I understand that it was taken in an office within Belsen camp in July 1945. 

I appreciate that my positioning of my Grandfather within the R.S.F. is based upon circumstantial information and you may not have known him from Adam. Nevertheless, even if you have no recollection of him, I have to say that your book brought me far closer to him that any of the official records. It was, as you described in your preface, an account of an ordinary soldier of the European campaign, the human story of a civilian army.

I look forward to hearing from you.

With kind regards,

Adrian (Andrews)
Grandson of Fusilier Jim Heath 11th R.S.F.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Extraordinary Colour Footage of Operation Charnwood


Some fantastic footage of 'Operation Charnwood' and the struggle to take control of Caen has been brought to my attention. The footage depicts both the Allies and the German formations fighting bitterly around the city. Having visited the area to the north of Caen where my Grandfather first saw action in the area of St. Contest-Galamanche, this footage features a very similar landscape to that which I walked across, the difference being I wasn't being shelled!


.... At which point I go on.... and on....



Dear Dennis,

Many thanks for your very prompt response to my email and I hope that you enjoyed the remainder of the afternoon in the Essex sunshine.

By all means, I would be honoured if you would feature my correspondence in the newsletter. My historical endeavours involving many hours deep in books, diaries and internet accounts, as well as being a labour of love, have been thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable. When I started, I had no idea that I would progress this far and with luck the journey may not yet be over. In addition, this search has taken me across Normandy, Belgium and much of Holland. As such I would urge anyone with half a mind to explore the history of a veteran in the family to do so and if publication in the newsletter achieves that then great.

My Grandfather died when I was 26, but at that time his wartime history was not at the forefront of my mind and he rarely spoke of his wartime experiences in his later years, to do so would reduce him to tears, so more often than not the subject was no longer raised. Therefore, the only brief personal anecdotes that I have were passed onto me when I was very young and then they were described in a way that would not traumatise an 8 year old. He spoke of the smell of the dead cattle (Normandy), of standing in freezing water at chest height keeping a watch with a yardstick in hand to determine whether levels were rising (Roosendaal?) and describing how to advance down an occupied street (Haalderen?). This absence of personal testimony is such a pity and this is why descriptions of the experiences of individual soldiers (such as those described in Ken West’s book for example) are so important as they flesh out the broader accounts typical of the war diaries.

My original website title of ‘A Fragmented Military History’ is happily becoming something of a misnomer as many of the original gaps have been successfully filled in and with the assistance of members of the PBA I may learn yet more.

In fewer than 18 months in North West Europe he travelled from Arromanches to Bergen-Belsen. In this time he was never decorated (over and above his campaign medals) or singled out for special mention, he was an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events and this I think makes his story representative of many thousands just like him that made up the British Army at that time.

I very much look forward to further interaction with the Association.

Kind Regards,

Adrian.

Reply From Dennis Dimond, Secretary of The Polar Bears Association

I was thrilled to receive a very prompt reply from Mr. Dimond:

Hallo Adrian,

Thank you for your mail.

At this moment, I am enjoying the sunshine whilst consuming ice cold lemonade but when I go up to the office , I will mail you contact details for our RSF members. The events are so long ago now but some veterans have good memories and maybe able to help you in your search.

I also intend to publish your mail in the next newsletter  with your approval.  It may inspire someone to carry out similar searches for a long lost relative and thus "keep the old Bear alive".

Did you contact Guido van Wassenhove in Wuustwezel? Sadly, he is no longer with the Belgian Branch of the PBA but he is the fountain of all knowledge about the area and I will happily put you in touch.

Please contact,e if you feel I may have a source of useful info!

Kind regards,


Dennis

The Polar Bear Association


The internet has been an invaluable resource in this historical jig-saw puzzle that I embarked on sone 18 months ago. One site that has been of great relevance is that of The Polar Bear Association (a.k.a. PBA).


I was pleased to discover that as a grandson of a deceased soldier who served with the 49th (West Riding) Division I was myself eligible for full membership of the Assosiation. And so it was that I posted off the princely sum of £5 in order to receive the Association newsletter, 'The Polar Bear News'.

Reading through the pages of memories of time served as well as touching tributes to veterans who had passed away in recent months as well as those currently encountering health issues not uncommon in those over 90 I felt it important to give a little more background as to why I was interested in the activities of the PBA.

Here's the correspondence with Association Secretary Dennis Dimond:



Dear Dennis,

It was with great pleasure that I received my first issue of ‘The Polar Bear News’ and I look forward to a weekend’s read of the content of the June issue of the newsletter. Even so, a cursory flick through the first pages amply demonstrates the Association’s unerring commitment to gain the promised recognition of the 49th Division’s veteran’s crucial role in the liberation of France and beyond and indeed to ‘Keep the Old Bear alive!’

When I completed the PBA application form last month the administrative information provided was the bare minimum required to establish my connection with a veteran of the 49th. Now I would like the opportunity to elaborate somewhat upon my interest in the Association.

My late Grandfather was L/Cpl James Kitchener Heath No. 5051929 (known to his friends as Jim and to his close family as Kitch). He died in February 1995 at the age of 80 and this marked the start line of a rather protracted journey that has only recently resulted in my contact with the PBA.

At the time of his death I did my best to put some words together on paper that described what we knew of his military service (on the day of his funeral, the Royal British Legion flag bearers were in attendance, the coffin was draped in the Union Flag and a bugler played the ‘Last Post’ ) as whilst he spoke very rarely of his time in Europe in his last years it was a defining period of his life. Sadly the history that I prepared for the presiding cleric to recite on such a poignant occasion was grossly inaccurate and a clear indication in how little his immediate family knew of his wartime experiences.

With this understanding, I resolved to establish an accurate account of his period of service between January 1940 and March 1946. I started well in 1995 with the acquisition of his military records held by the MOD, but then other family issues resulted in the project being shelved for a good number of years.

In the months leading up to the 70th Anniversary D-Day commemorations I was spurred into action to start the search once again. The information I gathered I documented on-line in a blog (address below).

In short, a Staffordshire man, located in Brighton at the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the North Staffordshire Regiment but was rapidly transferred to the 5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment who landed in Normandy as a follow-up regiment on 25th June as a fighting unit of the 59 (Staffordshire) Infantry Division.

In July his Company fought cheek by jowl with the 11th RSF at Fontenay Le Pesnil and Noyers Bocage to the south west of Caen. As you will be aware, as a younger Division, the 59th were disbanded in order to enable reinforcement of hard pressed older formations that had been mauled in the early weeks of the Normandy campaign. Thus it was that my Grandfather was transferred on 26th August to the 11th RSF as part of the 49 (West Riding) Division.

I have, courtesy of the Regimental Museum in Glasgow the ‘Summary of Operations from June 1944 to May 1945’ of the 11th RSF. This invaluable document was used by myself and a friend last month as our guide in our efforts to retrace the progress of my Grandfather from Turnhout in Belgium into Holland. Once over the border, Polar Bear memorial sites at Wuustwezel and Roosendaal were sought out. Key for me was to locate the village of Haalderen were I understand my Grandfather saw the worst fighting of his war.

An open question that I have in my full understanding of Jim Heath’s time in the 11th RSF relates to the Company in which he served. This level of detail is not included in his MOD records and by the same token, historians at the museum were unable to establish this information.

I do have however some circumstantial evidence that suggests that he was part of D Company of the 11th RSF. In 1973, my family travelled to Holland in the company of my Grandfather. The family holiday took a detour to Nijmegen and specifically the Jonkerbos War Cemetery within the city. The reason for this visit, as recalled by my parents (I was four years old at the time), was so that he could locate the headstone of ‘my sergeant’ whose death he had witnessed. The headstone was located on that occasion. My research has shown that the only Fusilier of the 11th RSF holding the rank of sergeant buried in Jonkerbos is one William Little. Incidentally, a photograph from the 1973 visit shows my Grandfather in discussion with my father in a position very close to the location of Willam Little’s plot.

Of William Little more is recorded since he was a recipient of the Military Medal. I do know that he was Platoon Sergeant of 16 Platoon of D Company of the 11th RSF. It is therefore, admittedly with a substantial leap of faith I can possibly place my Grandfather within Sgt Little’s 16 Platoon of D Company.

Is there any means of establishing battalion association at a company and even platoon level? Unfortunately information received from the Regimental museum has only been able to show him as a soldier of the 11th RSF with no further detail.

Were it possible to establish Company and possibly platoon it would confirm (I think) his participation in the notable waterborne raid over the Rhine as documented in the 11th Btn Summary of Operations and described by Colonel Douglas of the 11th in the IWM audio interview.

As part of my research, I was happy to obtain a copy of Fusilier Ken West’s wartime memoir which goes a long way to describe the day to day experience that my Grandfather as an infantryman of the 11th RSF would have known. Imagine my surprise then to read in the June newsletter that not only is Mr West still with us but as of May he was still active in the Association and that he was in Holland just two weeks prior to my visit.

I understand that Mr West was in 17 Platoon of D Company and as such would have known soldiers of 16 Platoon who also saw action Wuustwezel and then in the streets of Haalderen in December 1944. It is a long shot after the passage of so many years but I am left wondering whether Ken would have known my Grandfather, Jim Heath, if indeed I am correct in placing him with 16 Platoon of D Company.

Is it possible that this information could be passed on to Mr West, with a message of thanks for documenting his time in France in his book that has added the human element to the drier war diaries and helped my research greatly.

With kind regards,

Adrian Andrews

(Grandson of L/Cpl Jim Heath No. 5051929 11th Btn RSF)

P.S. My work in progress is documented via the following website which is currently up to the point of his transfer from the 5th South Staffs to the 11th RSF. It is my intention to complete the story from his wounding at Nijmegen on 7th April 1945, to his administrative role within D.P.A.C.S. at Bergen-Belsen and finally through to his 35th year battle back home to receive a war pension commensurate with the wounds that he received in Holland.

http://jameskitchenerheath5051929.blogspot.co.uk/






147 Brigade of the 49th (West Riding) Division

Within the 49th (West Riding) Division, my Grandfather's new home from August 1944, the 11th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers were a fighting unit within 147 Brigade of the division along with the 6th and 7th Battalions of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment (the 6th Battalion were later to be replaced in July 1944 by the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment).

The 147 Brigade first saw action in the Second World War when it participated in the ill-fated landings in Norway of 15th to 17th April 1940. The intention of the landings was to regain control from the Germans of the key ports of Narvik and Trondheim. However, with the invasion left in disarray, the Brigade and the rest of the 49th were withdrawn in May 1940 and posted to Iceland.*

Despite its reputation as a barren and often inhospitable island, its location was of critical strategic importance to the Germans and British alike. Control of Iceland meant control of both sea and air traffic over the North Atlantic region. From May 1940 to April 1942 the men of 147 Brigade safeguarded British interests in Icelandic region.

This near two tenure in Iceland provides the explanation as to why the men of the 147 Brigade, including 11th Battalion after September 1942, were identified as soldiers of the 49th (West Riding) Division by the insignia depicting a lone polar bear standing on an ice floe.


1940's Insignia of 49th (West Riding) Division
'The Polar Bear Division'

Yorkshire is certainly remote in parts and often cold, but even so, it is many thousands of years since polar bears roamed over the Ridings!

Thenceforth the Division were more often than not referred to as 'The Polar Bear Division'. This association was further enhanced after the 49th were engaged in fierce fighting around the village of Rauray. In one of his propaganda broadcasts, William Joyce better known in notoriety as 'Lord Haw Haw' described the soldiers of the Division as the 'Polar Bear Butchers', an epithet that was to be carried by the men as a badge of honour as opposed to the insult that Joyce intended.

Cartoon postcard depicting the 'Polar Bear Butchers' in Rauray, Normandy
December 1944

* The 11th Battalion R.S.F. was not at this time a part of 147 Brigade.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

11th Royal Scots Fusiliers 1940 to 1944 (The Seine)

It is not my intention to give within these pages to give a detailed history of the 11th R.S.F. prior to the date of Jim Heath's transfer in August 1944. But, some words are required in order to understand how it came to be that men of the 59th were transferred to the 49th (West Riding) Division and the 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.

11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers was formed on 5th June 1940. Once the unit had reached field strength it took up the responsibility of coastal defence activities in the Norfolk area. At this time it formed a part of the 76th Infantry Division. Life for a soldier in the nascent 11th pretty much mirrored that of a soldier of the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment of the 59th Division. Time not spent in defence work was occupied by intensive training through endless exercises that were intended to physically transform civilians into soldiers. Classes and practicals in combat techniques and weaponry were also the order of the day.

On 7th September 1942 the 11th R.S.F. joined the 49th (West Riding) Division, with whom they were to remain for the duration of the war. Training stepped up a gear at the end of the year with sections of the Battalion selected for specialised mountain combat training. When in May 1943 the 49th (West Riding) Division was identified as a beach assault division, the remainder of the 11th moved up to Scotland to continue training. Notably from this time, the exercises took on a far more realistic nature. At Rothesay on the Isle of Bute the Battalion practised and mastered beach landings from LCA (Landing Craft Assault) boats, the very same ones that would be used in Normandy the following year. In Perthshire, Engineers constructed full scale German fortifications with all of the barbed wire, trenchworks and gun positions that were known to be defending the Normandy beaches. Lieutenant William Douglas (later Colonel Douglas), described this part of the training and the readiness of his men thus 'We practised with Bangalore torpedoes, you know the thing like a drain pipe full of explosives which you push through the barbed wire, bang and up it goes, storming in, flame throwers, grenades, through the slit trenches and so on and we got to the stage where we could do it in the daylight, we could do it in the dark. You didn’t really have to give any orders to your men, you just sort of said ‘There it is, usual plan, off we go!’'

Then however the 11th Battalion suffered a bitter blow to their morale. Field Marshall Montgomery expressed the opinion that as a formation thus far untested in the field, the 49th Division should be replaced as a beach assault division by one that had recent battle experience. One such division was 3rd Division, also known as the Iron Sides, a division that had previously been under the command of Montgomery himself. The 3rd Division took the place of the 49th Division, who in turn were to become a 'follow up' division to the main invasion force.

In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, the 11th R.S.F. concentrated in Great Yarmouth on the 6th June prior to embarking the 'Cheshire' in Southampton. An uneventful crossing saw them landed on the Normandy shore at the small port of Le Hamel, located on the 'Gold Beach' area some way east of Arramanches. The landing took place on 11th June (D+5).

Once ashore the Battalion concentrated in the area of Fresnay le Crotteur prior to relieving the 1/4th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) in the area of Bronay on 15th June.The Battalion first engaged with the enemy on 16th June with a diversionary attack on the village of Christot which resulted in the first Battalion casualties. The liberation of Bronay was achieved later that same day.

Later in the month the 11th Battalion were engaged as part of 'Operation Martlet'. 'Martlet, represented the first occasion in which all formations of the 49th operated at a Divisional level. The 49th along with the 50th (Northumbrian) Division were given the task of capturing Juvigny-sur-Seulles, Vendres and Rauray, in doing so thus protecting the right flank of the VIII Corps who were to commence 'Operation Epsom' which had the objective of breaking out of the bridgehead to the west of Caen, to cross the River Orne in order to take the high ground to the south of the city.

A three -phase attack was planned for 147 Brigade of the 49th, with 11th Battalion having the first phase objective of Fontenay le Pesnel, in the second phase another Battalion were to take St Nicholas Fe, with the 11th engaged once more in the 3rd phase with the objective of Rauray. The attack commenced at 4.15 a.m. on 25th June. The preparatory artillery bombardment was intense, but a combination of the dust and debris thrown up by the shelling, concealing smoke laid down at the time of the advance and the early morning mist reduced visibility to about two yards. Into this curtain 'B' and 'C' Companies of the Battalion moved forward. This poor visibility coupled with with the devastating defencive fire of the 12th Panzer Division resulted in chaos as men became lost as they moved forward. To make matters worse, all their radios were knocked out. In this confusion opposing forces engaged in vicious hand to hand fighting and casualties were high. Several hours into the attack, the reserve companies of 'A' and 'D' moved forward, gathering up the remnants of their sister companies as they did so. Enemy fire remained heavy and accurate such that by late morning only about 70 men remained. However, despite the odds, by noon, 'A' and 'D' Companies had gained a foothold on the western end of Fontenay le Pesnel and by 3pm had consolidated their position, being too low in numbers to advance further. The other Battalion successfully attacked the rest of Fontenay on passing through to the second phase objective of St Nicholas Fe. With the Fusiliers dug in, stock was taken of the casualties of the day which amounted to 7 officers and 194 other ranks.

Detail of the Polar Bear memorial located at Fontenay le Pesnel

It was after the fighting at Fontenay le Pesnel that the the 11th had to take on drafts of reinforcements from English regiments, a process that raised concerns about the character of the Battalion and its 'Scottishness'. However, as Colonel Douglas (11th Battalion) later stated 'A couple of days later we got a lot of reinforcements from English regiments because on the whole they were running out of Scotsmen and there was a certain amount of gloom at getting all these Englishmen. Oh dear, you know, how are we going to get on with them. Of course, like converts to a new religion, they became more Scottish than the Scots, they were terribly proud to wear their Scottish bonnets, learn the history. They guarded our traditions better than our own chaps in the end!'.

On 28th June the 11th R.S.F.moved west, taking up a position to the north of Juvigny and forming the right flank of 49th Division. For the next nine days the Fusiliers were engaged in aggressive patrolling and efforts to strengthen their defensive positions. Between 7th July and 25th July the 11th Battalion spent time in the line several positions, including Rauray and in rest areas Ducy St. Marguerite and Chouain. Nevertheless, harrying, offencive patrolling was also maintained in this period. The end of the month saw the Battalion in defensive positions at Frenouville to the south east of Caen where they remained until 9th August.

By this time in August the writing was on the wall for the forces of the Reich west of the Seine. 'Operation Totalise' aimed to punch through the German defences south of Caen in the direction of Falaise, the area of which formed the pivotal point or hinge of the German front.


As part of 'Totalise' the 11th Battalion of the 49th Division (currently transferred out of XXX Corps and under the command of I Corps) were to progress parallel, but to the east, of the main advance along the axis of the Caen to Falaise road. The objective was to take positions in the village of Vimont, approximately due north of Falaise itself. The attack opened on 10th August in a two phase plan. The first phase commenced at first light and the Battalion lost six tanks to anti-tank mines laid alongside the main railway line to Caen. Phase two started at 0640 hours when 'B' and 'C' Companies advanced on the objective. However, the advance was held up by heavy shell fire and machine gun fire, and under such fire, it was impossible to commit the reserve Companies of 'A' and 'D'. The leading companies could not consolidate their gains, neither could tanks dislodge the machine gun positions without risking heavy losses. As a result, the Fusiliers were ordered to withdraw to a line that could be held. This was to be at Bellengraville. The action was not without human cost with casualties suffered of 6 officers and 44 other ranks.

During the night of 12th to 13th August, the 11th Battalion were relieved by the 1st Leicesters (who had recently replaced another Battalion in 147 Brigade), the former returning to Frenouville where they remained until 15th August.

On the 15th the 11th Battalion returned to Vimont, passing through the Leicesters to positions in Moult which was found to be clear of the enemy, who were by this time executing a rapid retreat. Here the Battalion rested until 19th August when they moved on transport to positions to the east of Mezidon where they relieved the 11th Durham Light Infantry.


Locations of the 11th R.S.F. in mid August 1944

After this point, the pursuit of the enemy in the direction of the Seine became a much more mobile affair and the men of the Battalion moved mounted on tanks, trucks, abandoned German vehicles and any thing else that was still capable of forward movement. The Battalion progressed rapidly now eastwards in the direction of the Seine, passing through St Plait, Dumont, Baignard, Ouilly-Le-Victome, Lieury, St Martin and Appeville to the banks of the River Touque. Fighting was sporadic as the Germans in retreat put up a periodic stand. One such engagement occurred at  Ouilly-Le-Victome on the evening of 22nd August when the Battalion along with the 1st Leicesters were to attack the village in order to establish a bridgehead across the River Touque. This action resulted in the loss of two Fusiliers killed and three wounded. Thus the Touque was crossed. Further east, the River Risle was crossed in the area of Appeville, after 'C' Company had secured the bridge on 26th August. This was the same day as the transfer of my Grandfather from the 5th South Staffords to the 11th R.S.F.

After a circuitous route of 150 miles in a ramshackle convoy of twenty abandoned German vehicles in order to cover a direct distance of 15 miles, the Battalion reached their crossing point of the great Seine at Elbeuf, some 14 miles to the south of the city of Rouen. The crossing was made on 4th September 1944.


Monday, 29 June 2015

A Scot From Stoke - With The Royal Scots Fusiliers (August 1944 to December 1945)



My Grandfather's military record shows that following the disbandment of 59 (Staffordshire) Division he was formally transferred to the 11th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on 26th August 1944.

As I previously did whilst researching his time in the Staffordshire Regiments, my first point of contact was the Regimental Museum, now The Regimental Museum of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, located on Sauchiehall Street in the centre of Glasgow, The researchers there were extremely helpful and provided some excellent source material to get me started on this the next part of 'the fragmented history'.

Army Book 358, The Register Of Soldiers of the Royal Scots Fusiliers revealed that he was indeed a soldier of the regiment until the date of his release to the Reserve, recorded in the Register Of Soldiers as 5th March 1946 (a date reported elsewhere, his MOD record as 6th March 1946).

Army Book 358
Register of Soldiers of the R.S.F.

My Grandfather's entry in the Register of Soldiers

Monday, 25 May 2015

Battlefield Clearance - Falaise



After 22nd August, as the remnants of the German 7th Army slipped away over the Seine with the Allies in hot pursuit, the newly liberated inhabitants of Normandy started out on the long road to post war recovery. Such was the extent of devastation and destruction in the Falaise area however that 197 Brigade HQ, formerly of the recently disbanded 59 (Staffordshire) Division were reorganised in late August as the 197 Battlefield Clearance Group. With a huge area of responsibility covering all land west of the Seine river, the newly formed group pulled together an extremely diverse collection of units having the skills best to sort out the carnage that Overlord had brought to the Calvados region. Royal Engineers (Bomb Disposal), R.E.M.E., Royal Signals, R.A.S.C., R.A.M.C. were represented along with almost every other acronymed unit that the British Army had to offer! Add to this mix the occasional deployment of German Prisoners of War and the French Forces of the Interior and the make up of the group is near complete.

Given that fact that it was forbidden to use prisoners of war in activities that were of a direct benefit to the enemies war effort, the 197 Group Commander described the task to the 500 strong force of P.O.W.s in the following manner;

'You started this war, you invaded France. We have now driven you out. Together we have done much damage. Together we will do what we can to clear up the mess we have made in this pleasant land'.

The HQ of the Clearance Group was established in four fields outside of the town of Trun, which was also the most congested area of the pocket in terms of abandoned ordinance, vehicles and the dead, both human and animal. Throughout the entire area of the pocket, vehicles were stacked up in an order of superiority (i.e. staff cars at the head of the columns) on the approaches to crossings over the Dives river. Thousands of vehicles had been reduced to grotesque sculptures of twisted metal and charred wood as a result of the devastating work of Allied aircraft over the escape routes. In addition to the machinery there was also the dead to content with. The remains of German soldiers littered the area (an estimated 10,000 to 15,000). Thousands of horses and cattle also lay across the land in an advanced state of decay. The Germans shot hundreds of horses in order to prevent stampedes that would hinder efforts to evacuate the pocket. These horses were gathered in fields, hundreds in each.



Removal of the organic remains became a priority in order to avoid the spread of disease among the local population now returned to their towns and villages. Contamination of the ground water was also a great risk. So bad was the corruption on the ground that the smell of decaying flesh was reported by airmen flying over the area.

By the time that 197 Battlefield Clearance Group was disbanded on 1st December 1944, the following totals of equipment had been collected and salvaged or destroyed.

Ammunition

British

25 pounder high explosive          23,450 rounds
303 small arms ammunition        114,000 rounds
9 mm ammunition                       59,600 rounds
5.5 inch shells                              21,000 rounds
Mortar bombs                              3,500 rounds
Grenades                                      3,540
20 mm high explosive                 7,728 rounds
Mines                                           400

German

7.5 cm various                               4,750 rounds
8.8 cm various                               2,560 rounds
Miscellaneous calibres                  165,000 rounds
Mines various                                3,200
Grenades                                        980
Shells various                                 98,000 rounds

Other equipment

Jerry cans                                        72,000
Diesel cans                                      10,500
Picks and spades                             3,340
Firearms                                          3,200
Tyres                                               1,521
Cycle frames                                   200

Other major items

Tanks                                               219 (including 18 Tigers)
S.P. equipment                                 212
Tracked vehicles                              911
Wheeled vehicles                             3,804
Guns                                                 751
H.T. vehicles                                    2,000 (estimated)
Horses                                              3,000 (estimated)
Men                                                  2,000 (estimated)

Of the major vehicles it is stated that at least the same amount was left derelict or was destroyed in situ.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Falaise Pocket And The Demise of A German Army

A road in the Falaise Pocket choked with bodies and destroyed vehicles

As the South Staffordshire regiments were coming to terms with the news that the 59th Division and their associated regiments were to be disbanded, the encirclement of German Army Group B was nearing completion.

The last action in which the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment engaged the enemy in the Menil Hermai and Rabodanges area took them  some 9 miles south of Falaise in positions approximately equidistant from Falaise and Argentan, towns near to the mouth of the notorious ‘Falaise Pocket’.

Given the involvement of the 59 (Staffordshire) division in the encirclement, it is appropriate to describe some of the drama that played out in the Falaise-Argentan sector. The Battle of Falaise brought the Battle of Normandy to a conclusion and the liberation of Paris on the 25th August closed Operation Overlord.

The town of Faliase was also an entry on the envelope upon which my Grandfather detailed his passage across north west Europe.




Operation Cobra in July had allowed the huge US forces to breakout of the Normandy bridgehead into Brittany enabling rapid progress to the south and south east by General Patton’s 3rd Army, now unhindered by the Normandy bocage. To the north, the 1st Canadian Army were pressing south east from Caen towards Falaise whilst the 2nd British Army maintained pressure further west.

Location of opposing forces in the area of  Falaise between 8th to 17th August 1944
(image: EyeSerene)

Plans were afoot to trap the German forces to the west of the Seine. The original plan was to execute a long encirclement with 21st Army Group (1st Canadian and 2nd British armies) pivoting to the left from Falaise to reach the Seine whilst US 3rd Army would block a breakout to the south, thereby trapping German Army Group B (the 7th German Army and the 5th Panzer Army) between the rivers Seine and Loire.

The German High Command recognised the risk of encirclement and Hitler responded to the threat by ordering Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge to punch a hole in the US 1st Army front in a major offensive action between Mortain and Avranches.

Of this offensive Hitler wrote 

‘The decision in the Battle of France depends on the success of the Avraches attack. The commander in the west has a unique opportunity, which will never return, to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area and thereby to change the situation completely’.

The offensive was launched on 7th August. The Allies, forewarned by Ultra information, neutralised the attack within 24 hours and the action, known as Operation Lüttich, ceased on 10th August. The intended breakout failed and only served to drive the German armour of Army Group B deeper into the pocket.

In the immediate wake of Operation Lüttich, General Bradley recorded 

‘This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy an entire hostile army and go all the way from here to the German border’.

Operation Totalise and then Operation Tractable took the Canadians into the town of Falaise which was secured by the 17th August. On the same day Hitler relieved von Kluge of his command and replaced him with Feldmarschall Walter Model. Von Kluge, blamed for the failure of the German Army in the west and implicated in the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, committed suicide in Metz two days later.

Back in the field, XV US Corps, which formed the lower jaw of the trap reached positions overlooking the town of Argentan. The possibility existed to close the gap with the coming together of the Canadians and Poles from the north and the Americans from the south. However, Patton’s orders to advance beyond Argentan were countermanded by General Bradley. The rationale for this decision has been hotly debated since 1944.

Numerous reasons have been given for the order to stop the XV advance that would close the pocket thereby cutting off the escape route to the east for the remaining forces of the 7th German Army and the 5th Panzer Army.

One explanation proffered by Bradley himself after the war stated that a meeting of the British/Canadian and US units between Falaise and Argentan would have been a ‘dangerous and uncontrollable maneuver’ which in the words of General Eisenhower might have resulted in a ‘calamatous battle between friends’. Alternatively, the delicate politics associated with maintaining the Allied coalition may have lead to a reluctance to order US forces across the international army boundary. A thoroughly feasible reason was a purely military consideration. Four divisions of US XV Corps were extended over a broad front. To further thin the line in order to close the gap posed a considerable risk given that the remnants of no less than nineteen German divisions were poised to ‘stampede’ east to escape the pocket. This could have lead to the annihilation of the Corps. Bradley also said of this decision that he would prefer to have ‘a solid shoulder at Argentan to a broken neck at Falaise’.

Closure of the Pocket 17th to 21st August 1944
(note the position of the 59 (Staffordshire) Division at the base of the Pocket

On 17th August the Allies proceeded to close the gap. On 18th August the 4th Canadian Armoured Division seized the village of Trun whilst formations of the Polish Armoured Division captured Chambois, meeting up with US and French troops coming from the south.

Whilst in a desperate predicament, the German forces continued to show a great tenacity in battle. On 19th August an armoured column of 2nd Panzer Division broke through the line in the Canadian held position at St Lambert. In doing so they facilitated the escape of thousands of troops by keeping the road open for a full six hours until darkness fell. In this time, other units converged in the Dives river which ran across the mouth of the pocket.

On the 19th August, the Poles moved north east from Chambois to take the high ground of Hill 262 from where they could direct accurate artillery fire onto the German armoured columns formed up in the pocket. On the same day, elements of two Panzer divisions launched attacks on the Polish positions from outside of the pocket whilst from the interior further Panzer divisions broke through the Polish lines and opened up a corridor through which an estimated 10,000 further German troops escaped. The linking of Polish and Canadian forces on 21st August finally closed the gap and sealed the pocket.

The encirclement of the remaining forces of German Army Group B was without doubt a decisive and crushing defeat. In the chaos of those August days an accurate determination of the extent of the German losses was not possible and estimates vary widely depending on the source of the information. However, in general terms it is accepted that between 80,000 to 100,000 troops were encircled within the pocket of whom 10,000 to 15,000 were killed, 40,000 to 50,000 were taken prisoner of war and an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 escaped to the east out of the pocket.

On visiting the Falaise area shortly after the conclusion of the action General Eisenhower described the scene thus 

‘The battlefield at Falaise was unquestioningly one of the greatest ‘killing fields’ of any of the war areas. Forty eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh’.

Devastating though the losses to the German army were in terms of men, armour and other essential equipment, the fact that between 20,000 and 50,000 men were able to escape out of the pocket prior to the closure was crucial. Regrouped, these men were to form the basis of the determined and effective resistance that the Allies were to experience as the fighting continued in the direction of Berlin, across Belgium and Holland.