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.
Monday, 25 May 2015
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.
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
20 mm high explosive 7,728 rounds
7.5 cm various 4,750 rounds
8.8 cm various 2,560 rounds
Miscellaneous calibres 165,000 rounds
Mines various 3,200
Shells various 98,000 rounds
Jerry cans 72,000
Diesel cans 10,500
Picks and spades 3,340
Cycle frames 200
Other major items
Tanks 219 (including 18 Tigers)
S.P. equipment 212
Tracked vehicles 911
Wheeled vehicles 3,804
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.