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

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.