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.
Thursday, 29 January 2015
Sunday, 18 January 2015
A German Perspective On The Battle For Noyers - General de Nachrichtentruppe Praun Commander of the 277 Infanteriedivision
In the immediate aftermath of the war senior German officers and officials who were in the custody of the Americans were interrogated in detail. Their accounts of the battles that they had fought in were slavishly recorded and translated in a vast number of manuscripts.
One such manuscript prepared on 5th June 1946 documented the testimony of General de Nachrichtentruppe Praun who commanded 277 Infantry Division who opposed 176 and 177 Brigade of 59 (Staffordshire) Division during the Operation Pomegranate offensive.
The following extract describes the role of the 277 Infantry Division in the defence of Noyers in what was to be its first major engagement with the enemy,
'After the Division's brief closing of its ranks in the area of Conde-Thury Harcourt, the relief of the 2 Panzer-division by the XLVII Panzerkorps South of Caumont was ordered and prepared at the end of June. However, before this was accomplished the Division was brought to the II S.S. Panzerkorps (Obergruppenfuehrer Bittrich) for the relief of the 9 S.S. Panzerdivision, which took place about July 9. The main line of resistance ran between the 10 S.S. Panzerdivision (on the right) and the 276 Infantriedivision (on the left) about 12 KM southwest of Caen in the line (according to the map 1:50 000) "hill 113", north of Evrecy-Bougy Missy-Noyers. Maisoncelles sur Ajon was the division command post. Said line was to be held. The infantry had to be improved and strengthened, as the manner of fighting of the S.S. Panzerdivision had been more mobile and based on strong-point methods. Tanks of the S.S. Corps formed the mobile tank defense behind the right and left wing. The Division itself had one battalion in reserve. Shortly after the relief, the whole front of the Division was attacked again and again, after intense artillery barrages, with numerous tanks, by superior enemy forces, between July 10th and 13th. The new division suffered heavy losses in this, its first major battle; it lost terrain, such as the locality Gavrus), in several place; in other places, for instance - at Noyers, its counterattacks , launched with the armored support of the S.S. were successful. Nowhere did the enemy's exertion of strength lead to a break-through. The enemy, too, suffered heavy losses in tanks, which were demolished in close combat by the S.S. tanks; his infantry suffered through the systematically concentrated fire of the heavy infantry guns and the battering by our own artillery. The line which was held after termination of the battles, was until the end of the month attacked almost daily by the enemy - each time after considerable preparatory fire - with tanks, platoons, companies and battalions, of troops, - and at alternating places, especially at the right wing aroung "Hill 113". All these attacks were either repelled, or crushed even while they were being mounted'.
In an tactical analysis of the fighting in this period Greneral Praun had this to say:
'The enemy artillery bombarded the front line and rear areas with practically incessant harassing fire, mostly with sudden concentration of several hundred shots in quick succession. Due to low range and insufficient ammunition, it could not be troubled by our own artillery. The artillery regiment of the Division - often in conjunction with the corps artillery and the unsubordinated smoke-throwers and antiaircraft weapons - fought enemy movement and pasted assembly positions and enemy attacks with sudden concentration of battalion and regimental artillery. The enemy's attack on the artillery was almost ineffectual in spite of his extensive use of ammunition, because it confined itself to peppering of the positions , without concentrating the guns of individual batteries in single cones of fire. Thus, the artillery of the Division lost a great many advance observers in the foremost line but on the other hand six weeks of heavy fighting in the field emplacement , only 25 canoneers - dead and wounded - and one gun by a direct hit'.
In the final analysis;
'The courageous defense by the 277 infantriedivision in its sector delayed the enemy invasion. Tactically, the following factors were responsible for the decline of the forces and fighting power and finally their premature exhaustion:
- the enemy's air superiority
- the enemy's plentiful use of ammunition
- the enemy tanks, and
finally, the operational envelopment, also the result of this superiority in material strength.'
Another Perspective on the Battle For Noyers - Colonel William Dewhurst Douglas 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers
Such was the scale of the Overlord operation and so numerous were the daily acts of individual heroism in the Normandy campaign that the deeds of some formations are not widely documented. Sadly, this is the case for the 59th (Staffordshire) Division. Aside from the 'It's War Story' and the 'Your Men In Battle' books, both now long out of print, references to the 59th are few and far between in the public domain.
However, the excellent archive held by the Imperial War Museum contains an interview of approximately two hours duration with one Colonel Douglas, an officer who served with the 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers in North West Europe between 1944 and 1945.
A formation within the 49 (West Riding) Division, the 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers fought alongside the 5th Battalion South Staffordshires during Operation Pomegranate. Indeed after the fighting in Normandy concluded the remnants of the 59th Division units were transferred to other Divisions. In this way my Grandfather was incorporated in the 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers for the remainder of the war. Reference is made to this transfer of the Staffords in Colonel Douglas' account below.
In this extract, Colonel Douglas describes his observations as the men of the 59th Division assaulted the station area of Noyers.
'It was around this time that I began patrolling. I think that by the and of the campaign I'd probably done more patrols than any other Lieutenant in the entire British Army. Anyway, I did my first recce patrol down a slope towards Noyers station where the enemy was supposed to be preparing a new position down at the far end of the slope to hold up our next advance and we had to find out what they were doing'.
'Noyer, N-O-Y-E-R station, it may have an 'S' on it on some maps. Well we went down this slope, a very long one, about a mile, a mile and a half long this slope. Not a blade of grass on it, not a bush, nothing. It was a wide open, ex-cultivated field actually. We saw the enemy, they were wiring and they were digging trenches and you could hear them muttering and you could see the odd flash of a cigarette behind someones hand so we crawled back before daylight and reported all this and a great, tremendous bombardment was put on them that morning which apparently did them no good at all.
About this time, 'cos not a great deal was happening where we were, all we had to do was hold this ridge in readiness for the 59th Staffordshire Division, who were to come up through us with armour support and go down and capture the Noyers position. And we had time to wander about on top of this position and what impressed me at the time was how marvellous the German dug-outs were, I mean some of them were twenty or thirty feet into the ground. They were lined with sheets, they had tables, chairs, lamps, mind you they'd had four years to get them ready I suppose. It was just a great shame that they were all facing the wrong way because otherwise it would have been marvellous for us to go into.
Eventually, the poor old 59th Division set off in a daylight attack down the slope. And I wasn't a regular soldier at the time and as a mere platoon commander I had no great military knowledge I suppose, but even to me it seemed madness to send an entire Division down a slope that was a mile and a half long in broad daylight, in spite of all the shells and mortars and things going down hill. And it was hardly surprising the next day when we discovered that it had had so many casualties that the 59th Division was disbanded, they just couldn't replace all their losses.
We got one or two of their chaps, they were either North Staffs or South Staffs, they had quite incomprehensible accents but they were the most marvellous diggers that I'd ever come across. They were coal miners of course and they were brilliant at digging slit trenches. They could dig three trenches when you were half way down into your own, so in that respect they were a very great asset.'
Saturday, 17 January 2015
A mere 48 hours after going into reserve, the South Staffords received orders that they were to participate in an action intended to secure the fortified village of Noyers located in the centre of the Pomegranate front line. Across this front, 59th Division occupied the centre with the 49 (West Riding) Division and 53 (Welsh) Division on their right and left flanks respectively.
The intention of Operation Pomegranate was to enlarge the Normandy bridgehead and if things went well to break out of it.
The village of Noyers was heavily defended and was itself approximately three miles inside the German lines. With limited objectives the plan of attack for the men of South Staffordshire was as follows:
• 1/6 Battalion were to attack on the right or north side of the Caen to Noyers railway.
• 5 Battalion were to attack on the left or south of the railway line
• 2/6 Battalion were held back along with tank support to exploit any successes on either side with the objective of getting into Noyers if at all possible.
Each battalion was to have the usual support from artillery and mortar formations.
In this third week of July, the British and Canadian forces were holding a line that ran from the bridgehead across the River Orne to the north of Caen, through Caen and onto Tilly in the west. To the south of Caen, the village of Noyers formed the approximate location of Montgomery’s hinge within which it was crucial to hold up the German forces (their heavy armour in particular) for as long as humanly possible in order to facilitate a rapid breakout of the US 1st Army, then fighting down through the Contentin Penninsula to the north west.
Two problems immediately presented themselves to the attacking forces, the first was the bocage, the network of high, dense, mature hedgerows that were a defending army’s ideal terrain, and the second was the thorough defensive measures that the German’s had employed. Six weeks into the Normandy campaign brought the German Army to the realisation that the original intention to drive the Allies back into the sea had dispersed like so much smoke on the battlefield. Emphasis shifted to a plan of determined defence with every yard of ground to be fought over. Villages in the area, as well as the approaches to Noyers itself, were laid thickly with mines.
Five minutes in advance of ‘H’ hour at 0530 hours, the artillery opened up with the established tactic of pinning the defenders down whilst alerting the enemy of the immanency of an attack. Under the barrage of guns in their hundreds, the supporting tanks rolled over the start line.
1/6th South Staffords, under the overall command of Lieutenant-Colonel D.G.B. Ridout was formed up as follows:
- ‘A’ Company (under Major T.J. Rutherford) with the objective of the woods and outbuildings of the village of Brettevillette.
- ‘B’ Company (under Major Brian Barber) who were to attack a known enemy position located in a group of buildings halfway along the road between Brettevillette and Quediville.
- ‘C’ Company (under Captain Mervyn Seldon) on the left , with Quediville as its objective.
- ‘D’ Company (under Major Jerry Roy) was held in reserve in order to pass through ‘A’ Company and capture the remainder of Brettevillette and to take the forward positions of Bordel if the opportunity presented itself.
1/6th ‘A’ Company progress into the orchards of Brettevillette was seriously hampered by the now to be expected heavy and accurate mortar fire, but eventually the orchard objective was reached, albeit at a high cost in terms of casualties.
A notable deed within the Company is worthy of mention here.
‘The platoon assaulted according to plan, but the opposition was fierce. Lieutenant J. Lunn, commanding No. 7 platoon, did some fine work, but immediately afterwards was seriously wounded and died some time later. All three platoons by now had entered the first orchard, but were pinned down to the ground by withering fire.
Company H.Q., following closely, also got into the orchard. Casualties were now mounting, among them being Lance-Corporal Preston who was carrying the wireless set. He was killed in a minefield and, as communication to bring down supporting fire was essential, Private C.H.S. Drain, without hesitation, crawled over the minefield to where Lance-Corporal Preston lay, removed the set and brought it back to safety. When he got back he found that the aerial rods had been left behind, so he made the perilous journey again to get them. He was able to get the set working and bring down gunfire to stop the fire from the left flank. For this action Private Drain was awarded the M.M. (Military Medal)’. ‘His steadiness and coolness’, the citation concluded, ‘were an example to his comrades, who were all having their first experience of battle’.
‘B’ Company were pulled up short at the point of capturing their objective. Determined resistance from the defenders well dug in in a sunken track halted the advance. The commanding officer, Major Barber, in a stunning display of courage, commanded a number of tanks, each of which, bar the last, was knocked out or ‘brewed up’. Eventually, a combination of tank and infantry was able to overrun the German positions and secure the buildings between Brettevillette and Quediville, their assigned objectives.
‘C’ Company faired badly, having no radio communication at all. Their supporting tanks ran into a minefield. Nevertheless, ‘C’ Company’s objective, Quediville, was eventually taken thanks to the inspired leadership of Major Seldon who received the Military Cross for this action.
As for their alphabetical neighbours, ‘D’ Company also had a hard time of it in the face of the usual heavy mortar fire laid down by the enemy. Another personal account that appears in the ‘Your Men In Battle’ history at once provides a blackly humorous, yet accurate incident that occurred in this action. One Private Riley launched himself into a slit trench in order to gain some cover, but in doing so quickly realised that the trench was not vacant. Exiting almost as quickly as he entered, he explained that he trench had ‘live Jerries in it’. A Sergeant Bills was on hand to ensure that a few moments later the same slit trench retained its German occupants but they were no longer alive.
At the tail end of the 1/6th Battalion's assault, 7th Battalion were ordered in to attack and occupy the area between Noyers railway station and Brettevillette on the basis of intellegence reports of a German retreat from this land. The attack with heavy artillery and machine gun support resulted in the objective being secured by 5pm in the evening with very few casualties sustained.
On the lest of the 177 Brigade front, 5th Battalion led by Lieutenant-Colonel M.B. Jenkins attempted to take the first allocated positions with two companies passing through to take Battalion objectives.
The deployment of the 5th Battalion was as follows:
Initial assault companies,
- 'B' Company on the right (under Major Smallwood)
- 'C' Company on the left (under Major Pearson)
had the combined objective of the orchards to the west of Granville-sur-Odon.
With the orchards successfully delivered into the hands of the 5th Battalion, it then fell to the follow-up companies of
- 'A' Company (under Major Grey) and
- 'D' Company (under Major McKintyre)
to push the advance further in a south westerly direction to take the objective of the area around Bas des Forges.
The enemy were situated a mere five hundred yards from the 5th Battalion forces at the time of this planned action.
Of the attack, Major Pearson of 'C' Company reported that each of the assaulting companies ('B' and 'C') advanced, each with a squadron of tanks in support, of which several were disabled when they ventured off paths that had been cleared of mines.
At a distance of two hundred to three hundred yards the defenders opened up with that accurate and heavy mortar fire which, coupled with well laid mines created a disorientating smoke screen. Nevertheless, 'B' Company eventually emerged through this confusion to enter their objective of the orchard which lay to the north of Noyers railway station. On the left, the 'C' Company advance stalled temporarily at a point one hundred yards in front of the enemy and were forced to reorganise before renewing the assault on the right of their flank with support from one functioning tank that had successfully negotiated the German laid minefield. Ultimately, 'C' Company achieved their objective with an impressive haul of;
- 87 prisoners
- 17 machine guns
- 2 half track armoured vehicles
for a relatively light casualty tally.
The actions of 'C' Company on the 16th July added another two Military Medals to the honours received by the 5th Battalion.
'C' Company's Sergeant Hill (a resident of Stoke) was awarded the distinction by virtue of the fact that despite his own wounds and the near annihilation of his own platoon he insisted upon fighting on. He was ordered to retire to a casualty clearing station on three separate occasions by Major Pearson and finally moved back unaided, by his own insistence, despite a major loss of blood.
A Private Pickstone received the Military Medal when, as a stretcher bearer, he recovered a wounded colleague, Lieutenant Howard, under heavy enemy fire, dragging his 17-stone dead weight across four hundred and fifty yards of terrain to reach medical assistance thereby saving the soldier's life.
At the conclusion of this action, 'D' Company and my Grandfather's 'A' Company passed through their sister companies and secured Bas Des Forges. This concluded the initial phase of the Battle for Noyers.
Any account of the Battle of Normandy that you care to read will for certain make reference to the ‘bocage’ and the influence that this ancient feature of the Normandy landscape had on the nature of the fighting in the engagements that took place to the south of Caen.
The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘bocage’ as follows:
‘n. 1. the wooded countryside characteristic of Northern France, with small, irregular-shaped fields and many hedges and copses. 2. woodland scenery represented in ceramics [c 17: from French, from Old French bose]'.
In their first engagements with the enemy, to the north of Caen, the ground was fairly open and, of course, as the fighting proceeded through the outskirts of the city and thence slowly into the centre, the soldiers struggled through a ruined cityscape subduing German resistance block by block, house by house.
It was in the terrain to the south of Caen that the troops first encountered the challenges presented by the Norman bocage. Typically, as described in the above definition, in bocage country small agricultural plots between which ran sunken lanes that were edged on either side with mature hedges, several feet in height and cultivated out of earth mounds.
This terrain was first encountered by the 59th during operation Pomegranate in the countryside to the south west of Caen.
Bocage provided coverage to the enemy that was second to none and a great asset to a defending army. To an attacking force such effective cover at close quarters presented a great danger of ambush.
Here I recall another anecdote of my Grandfather’s, seemingly one of a number of close escapes during his months in North West Europe. He and possibly the rest of his platoon or section were advancing through typical bocage terrain along the edge of a small holding. The objective was a farmhouse or outbuilding enemy position that had been causing the men a deal of trouble. Upon reaching the building, a lone German machine gunner surrendered. As the soldier was duly taken prisoner, my Grandfather took the opportunity to take up position behind the gun. He discovered that the gun was sighted along exactly the line of approach that he and his fellow South Staffords had taken in order to reach the machine gun position. The fact that the gunner did not open up on the advancing men may have been the action of a spent soldier who wanted out of the cauldron of Normandy. However, a more likely explanation is that the cover afforded by the bocage was so complete that the soldiers were upon the position before he could offer any effective resistance. It may well be that this small action occurred during the Battle of Noyers, however, sadly I have no way of ever knowing for sure.
The battle opened up at 0530 hours on the morning of 16th July, so called 'H’ hour. Passing over the start lines, the 5th East Lancashires of 197 Brigade reached their first objective east of the village of Vendes and by 0800 had captured part of the village despite a determined defence encountered from the outset of the attack. Here the 5th East Lancashires were pinned down and prevented from further advance when by 2.30 in the afternoon an effective infantry counter-attack with tank support overran one company on the right and forced the withdrawal of the remaining forces of the occupying battalion back to their start line.
To the east, the 1/6th and the 5th South Staffords moved on their allotted objectives. The 1/6th captured Brettevillette little over an hour after starting out and by 0845 hours troops of the Battalion had advanced as far as Quediville. In likewise manner, the 5th South Staffords captured the orchards to the west of Granville sur Odon and by noon Les Nouillons was in their hands. Thus it was that by this time, all of the 177 Brigade's objectives had been achieved, but at a high price. Resistance was heavy and effective, the objective village remains were thickly mined with both anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Furthermore, two thirds of the tanks in support of the 1/6th assault ‘brewed up’, to use the parlance of the tank men of at the time, in a British minefield that remained in place, despite assurances that clearance would have been completed in advance of the attack. The confusion of the fighting was compounded when many troops became disorientated and misdirected in the heavy morning mist . By 1330 hours tanks equipped with mine clearing flails began to enter the minefields at Quediville. This marked the close of Phase I of the attack.
Phase II was launched in the early evening with a 2/6th Battalion advance of the village of Noyers Bocage (Hereafter referred to as Noyers) and three quarters of an hour later the 6th North Staffords (under the command of 177 Brigade for this action) assaulted Haul des Forges. The 6th succeeded in taking their objective, but in the face of heavy opposition, after initially penetrating some way into the village, were forced to withdraw to the area around Noyers railway satation. On this day 177 Brigade took a total of 369 German prisoners, all soldiers of the 277 Infanterie Division.
During the remainder of the 16th July, on the hard pressed right, another assault on the Phase I objective was launched, this time by the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, but their efforts were thwarted by the heavy and accurate mortar fire laid down by the defenders and little was achieved.
The following two days were focused on the concerted efforts of the 177 Infantry Brigade to take Noyers. A dawn attack on the village by the 1/6th and the 5th South Staffords fell someway short of reaching the station and the men were pinned down until 13.30 hours when the order came through to withdraw and reorganise. A further attack by the 5th was launched from the north east of the village but was repelled just inside the outskirts. A 1/6th South Staffords advance from Bretteville in the direction of Bordel failed under heavy defensive fire. After dark all troops were withdrawn in order to ‘soften up’ the village defences with shell and mortar fire.
The 17th also saw the 1/7th Royal Warwicks of the 197 Brigade with support from the 1st Norfolk Yeomanry achieve success in assaulting the phase I objectives. To drive home this success and to strengthen the 197 Brigade front, 176 Brigade moved on Bordel , but without great success. At this time H.Q. 1/7th Royal Warwickshire was hit by two large bombs which resulted in high casualty numbers.
Attempts to subdue Noyers were renewed at 10 am on the morning of 18th once again with the 1/6th and 5th South Staffords advancing on the fortified village. Despite strong, albeit depleted, armoured support, this action as well as another assault in the afternoon was unsuccessful and the forces of the 59th Division once again withdrew by evening to allow shells and mortar to resume their attempts to subdue the resilient defenders of Noyers.
Once again on the right, by nightfall, the 1/7th Royal Warwicks had occupied Ferme de Guiberon and reports came in from the 49th Infantry Division of German withdrawals across the front. The 7th South Staffords of 176 Brigade attacked, captured and held the area from Bordel up to la Seneviére.
After three days of heavy fighting the process of relieving the exhausted, battle weary troops in the line began. During the night of 18th July, 176 Infantry Brigade relieved 197 Brigade, thus allowing it to move into reserve positions. Elsewhere on the right, the 7th Royal Norfolks relieved the 1/7th Royal Warwicks.
On the 19th, the 49th Division occupied Vendes, after the enemy had withdrawn from the village. Plans for a renewed assault on Noyers, after 177 Brigade dawn patrols confirmed that the village was still held by the Germans, came to nothing.
At 1250 hours on the 19th July, the Corps Commander passed down orders to cease any further attempts to take Noyers and subsequent activities in the following days were restricted to aggressive patrolling across the front.
More detailed information on the fighting in which the soldiers of the South Staffordshire regiments were engaged is given a later post.
Wednesday, 14 January 2015
Sunday, 11 January 2015
During Pomegranate (16th -18th July) the 276 Infantry Division faced units of the 49th (West Riding) Division and 197 Brigade of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.
The formation and original disbandment of the 277 Infantry Division (the 277. Infanterie-Division or 277. ID) mirrored that of its sister battalion the 276.ID. In likewise manner the reformed battalion occurred as part of the 22nd wave of mobilisation on 17th November 1943 in Croatia.
In 1944, 277.ID were to be found in Southern France and by mid-April their role was to defend the 'Mediterranean Coastal Sector' which ran over a distance of 54 kilometers from Leucate to Agde. They were to defend against enemy landings in the sector and to improve the defensive capabilities in the area though reinforcing coastal defensive positions and advancing training in mobile warfare techniques.
The Division was a so-called 'Division type 44' which had the following strength:
- Three infantry regiments (489, 490, 491) of two battalions each and a rifle battalion (277), i.e. a total of seven battalions.
- One artillery regiment with three light (10.5 cm calibre) and one heavy (15 cm calibre) detachments, i.e. a total of twelve artillery detachments across the three infantry regiments.
- One antitank company with 12 heavy, rifled antitank guns.
- One engineer battalion, one signals battalion, rear services and a replacement training battalion.
By the end of May 1944, 277.ID was considered to be fully equipped with personnel and material, although a lack of mobile antitank defences was keenly felt in the months to come. With regards to personnel, the formation was considered to be 'entirely fit for defence' being made up of one third Eastern campaign veterans, one third of 'indespensible' troops (i.e. men yet to be called for active service by virtue of their criticality to the civilian economy) and one third were new recruits. Geographically, one third of the officers and two thirds of other ranks were Austrian.
In anticipation of Allied landings from Africa and Corsica, the Division was put on alert, but orders were subsequently received to transport the Division by rail to Normandy in the middle of June.
Harassing air raids placed strict limitations on the ability to move men by rail and the distance to Normandy was covered by marching formations. 277.ID detrained south of the Loire River and covered the remaining 200 km on foot to Le Mans where the Divisional H.Q. was established.
The Division saw action in Normandy until it too, like 276.ID, was destroyed as a fighting formation in August 1944 in Argentan. Remnants of the Division were formed into the 277th Volksgrenadier Division (277. Volksgrenadier-Division) which was formed on September 4, 1944 in Hungary by redesignation of the newly formed 574th Volksgrenadier Division (574. Volksgrenadier-Division) of the 32nd mobilisation wave (32. Welle).
The Division surrendered to US forces in the Ruhr pocket in April 1945.
During Operation Pomegranate the 277 Infantry Division opposed 176 and 177 Brigade of 59th (Staffordshire) Division.