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

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Walcheren, Bevland Peninsula -15th May 2015

My Grandfather did not drive the German Army out of Holland single handedly, oh no! Others were there too. As part of our field trip to visit Polar Bear positions we took the time to travel onto the Beveland Peninsula and specifically onto Walcheren Island at its western end.

It was here that Owen’s wife’s uncle, a gentleman by the name of Able Seaman George McAuliffe, participated in a commando landing in November 1944.

Whilst the city and port of Antwerp was retaken by the British 2nd Army in early September, Allied utilisation of the port was prevented by the presence of the German 15th Army on Walcheren and South Beveland. Their heavily fortified positions made the approach of shipping along the Scheldt Estuary impossible.

In early October, Montgomery ordered that priority should be given to the clearing of the Scheldt Estuary in order to render the port of Antwerp usable to Allied shipping since the strains of supply were ever mounting as the advance continued towards Germany. A coordinated plan of action, under the name ‘Operation Infatuate’ was drawn up.

The Operation consisted of two assault landings, one at Flushing in the south by No. 4 Commando and 155 Bridage of the 52nd (Lowland) Division (Operation Infatuate I) and the other at Westkapelle to the west by the 4th Special Service Brigade (Operation Infatuate II). At the same time, the Brigades of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were to fight their way across the Walcheren causeway to gain access to the Island.



The dykes of Walcheren were deliberately breached by the RAF, thereby flooding the interior of the Island and forcing the defenders onto the dykes, which were heavily fortified. The units of 4th Special Service Brigade were to take control of the shoulders of the blown dyke at Westkapelle from where they would move to the north east and south east. To the south at Flushing, No.4 Commando and 155 Brigade would fight their way to the south west and north to connect with 4th Special Service Brigade and units of 2nd Canadian Division respectively.

Low-level vertical aerial photograph taken shortly after the daylight attack on the sea-wall of Walcheren Island, Holland, showing a breach in the wall at the most westerly tip of the island, caused by the extremely accurate bombing, being widened by the incoming high tide and inundating the village of Westkapelle (top right) © IWM (C 4668).
http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205023407

George McAuliffe, landed at Westkapelle, with Royal Naval Beach Commando L of the 4th Special Service Brigade on 1st November.


Bitter fighting ensued over the eight days of the operation with heavy casualties recorded among defenders and attackers alike. The toll of casualties was also high among the civilian population of Walcheren. On the morning of 8th November the Allies took the surrender of some 40,000 German troops on the Island after which the Royal Navy cleared the Scheldt Estuary of mines in order to make the port accessible to Allied shipping by the end of November.

Memorial of commemoration of the Commando landings of 1st November 1944

George was indeed a courageous man. Prior to the landing at Westkapelle he had been a beachmaster on Juno. Now in his nineties, he lives in Australia.

Travelling across the peninsula I was struck how remote this area is. Vast expanses of the North Sea provide the dominant view in each direction. On the Island, now given over to holiday parks and outdoor pursuit centres, cars seemed to be greatly outnumbered by bikes ridden by healthy, tanned Amazonian matriarchs leading their healthy, tanned tribes over the polder. A stark contrast to we two travelers in all of the above mentioned attributes!

Another thing notable about Westkapelle in particular was the absence of war graves. The local cemetery near to the lighthouse carried the familiar white bordered, green sign of a Commonwealth Wargrave Commission Military Cemetery, however our search only revealed the headstones of civilian casualties of the fighting. A cross check with the CWGC website shows that the graveyard  in the town has the plot of one unknown soldier. The cemetery at Flushing contains the remains of 200 Commonwealth servicemen, but the vast majority of these are airmen. Where do the fallen of the November ’44 fighting lie?

Detail from the monument commemorating the landing of No. 4 Commando on 1st November 1944

Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rememberance and All That Jazz in The Lowlands Breda, Holland - 15th May 2015

In what was becoming something of an annual excursion Owen and I had planned another weekend on the continent with both military history and music on the itinerary.

Yet another old punk band was due to play at the ‘Eurorock Festival’ in Neerpelt in Belgium. The timing could not have been better since the ‘Fragmented Military History’ website had progressed considerably such that I had left Normandy and the 59th (Staffordshire) Division behind and was now immersed in the actions of the Polar Bears in Belgium and Holland.

The town of Breda was to be our base for the next three days from where we would drive in each and every direction in order to visit Turnhout, Wuustwezel, Roosendaal, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Bemmel, Haalderen and Walcheran. A check on the mileometer upon arriving back in London told us that we had clocked up no less than two thousand miles over the three days, mostly in the Netherlands (no mean feat in a country so small!).


Whilst we were planning to see a punk band (Killing Joke, were anyone to be remotely curious) our chosen base was this weekend hosting the annual Breda Jazz Festival. Now I fully appreciate that when it comes to musical taste it is definitely a case of ‘each to their own’. But without a doubt both Owen and I side with Johnny Rotten over Johnny Dankworth! So when a well-meaning waitress in the breakfast room on day two suggested that we were here for the jazz we were a little put out! Casting an eye over the finger poppin’ jazz aficionados of northern Europe that were at that time sharing the restaurant, it was clear to the two of us at least that a wide gulf existed between us and them. Nevertheless in a middle aged punk rock style we corrected her and complimented the chef on the quality of his scrambled eggs. How times have changed!

Caught unawares in a lift finger clicking and ‘extolling the joy of jazz!’

On our first venture out on our first full day of touring was the town of Turnhout. Strangely enough this was not our first visit to this town in the far north of Belgium. Back in April 2011 the two of us in the company of another couple of fans had stayed in Turnhout in order to see The Stranglers play in the town. The band had arranged a five day acoustic tour of Belgium and Holland of which we planned to witness three, Turnhout, Zaandamn and Lessines.

Now Turnhout is a small place, but locating our apartment took over an hour. I am happy to say that the concert was very enjoyable but after the show we headed out of town in the direction of the band’s hotel with a view to grabbing a late beer with them. Within minutes of us setting off, the band’s mini-bus speed past us and the ever truculent bass player took the time to hurl some choice words of abuse at us as they passed (it’s nothing personal, we were on the guest list after all!).


In 2011 I had no idea that this place had any significance to my own family history. All I felt at the time was a sense of frustration as we repeatedly failed to locate our apartment after several traverses of the town. The realisation that my Grandfather was a liberator of the town was a few years off!


Grote Markt in Turnhout on a damp and dreary May afternoon (top)
Grote Markt as seen on a postcard sent by my Grandfather from Turnhout in September 1944 (bottom)

Next up was Wuustwezel, another difficult place name for linguistically challenged Britons such as ourselves. Having said that in the spirit of our forebears who renamed Ypres as Wipers and Foucquevillers as Funkyvillers, Wuustwezel was rechristened to a very anglicised ‘Worst Weasel’…. no offence intended towards our Belgian neighbours, it just made navigation much easier!

Having reached the town as usual we made for the cemetery and here were located the first 11th R.S.F. graves that I had seen since the Fontenay-le-Pesnel cemetery the previous year.

Nine Polar Bears lie in the churchyard of Wuustwezel

During the fighting to liberate Wuustwezel between 20th and 23rd October 1944, 108 British servicemen were killed in action or died of wounds received. Of these men 98 wore the Polar Bear insignia of the 49th (West Riding) Division.

The fallen are commemorated by a memorial erected to their memory in Liberation Square, Wuustwezel. The monument carries the following inscription that attests to their heroic deeds:

‘In this area, the German counter-attacks of 21st and 22nd October 1944 were halted by the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. The people of Wuustwezel express gratitude to their liberators’.

At the unveiling ceremony on 21st October 1984, the Burgomaster of Wuustwezel, Jos Ansoms said this of the monument and what it represents, ‘It is a sober monument, sober and simple as the lads of whom it reminds us. It is convincing and dignified like the British military that are remembered. Constructed in a “V”, it represents victory but also peace, freedom and friendship’.



The Wuustwezel memorial is now recognised as the principal site of remembrance to the Polar Bears in Belgium. Whilst less imposing than its cousin in Fontenay-le-Pesnel, its understated simplicity makes it every bit as moving. The aforementioned sober simplicity of this construction of brick and stone surmounted with a stylised French limestone sculpture of a Polar Bear contrasts starkly with the Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun that also occupies the site, a contribution of the Polar Bear Association in 2009.



Views of the Wuustwezel memorial to The Polar Bears

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Last Days In Belgium - October 1944

At the beginning of October, the 11th R.S.F. were to be found in the area of Zondereigen, a few hundred meters south of the Dutch border. Here they spent five days in a defensive position that provided protection to the left flank of the Polish Armoured Division as it pushed north into Holland.

The Battalion was very mobile in the first weeks of the month as they criss-crossed the Divisional front. A new defensive position was taken up on 11th October at Maerle for a further week. 

On 19th October the Battalions moved westwards to Oostmalle from where on the following day they crossed the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in their initial advance into Holland. As part of 1st Corps the 49th Division were positioned in the centre of the line of advance with the Polish Armoured Division on their right and the 4th Canadian Division on their left. The Polar Bears were directed towards Roosendaal, whilst the Poles and Canadians aimed for the towns of Breda and Bergen Op Zoom respectively.

49th Division were to advance along a line of axis that ran from Oostmalle and passed through Brecht, Wuustwezel, Nieuwmoer, Essche and Roosendaal, a distance of approximately twenty miles. The advance was to be lead by 56 Brigade and 147 Brigade, with 146 Brigade concentrated in Oostmalle.


The Polar Bears were opposed across their front by 245 Division a fighting unit of 88th Corps of the German 15th Army.

The lines of advance into Holland

On the morning of 20th October ‘Operation Rebound’ was launched which was intended by the combined efforts of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and the 49th Division to secure the Belgian-Dutch border area and in doing so facilitate the liberation of the Scheldt Estuary. With the estuary under Allied control the key port of Antwerp could be utilised.

It was the task of the 49th Division to advance towards Loenhout from the area of Brecht. Having secured Loenhout, the plan was for another composite taskforce named ‘Clarkeforce’ (under the command of Brigadier W.S. Clarke of 34th Tank Brigade) to punch their way through into Holland.

21st October saw the 11th R.S.F. located in and around Wuustwezel which was captured with relative ease. However, on 21st and 22nd 245 and 346 Infantry Divisions launched savage counter attacks with heavy tank and SP supporting fire. These attacks came in from the Wernhout area just over the Dutch border. These counter attacks were halted in a series of fierce engagements in the hamlets of Braken, Kruisweg and in the area of Stone Bridge (the only crossing of the Weerijs that could bear the weight of heavy armour).

In his 1990 Imperial War Museum interview Colonel William Douglas recalled some of the fighting in Kruisweg, not to mention his brush with death.

‘October 23rd, we’d ended up in a place called Kruisweg, Kruisweg Ridge. I’d been out on another night patrol, a recce to find the enemy, we’d found them and reported back and I went back to my platoon headquarters just as first light was coming up. And, the sergeant had been in charge all night obviously, and when I got to the position he had the entire platoon in a beautiful Dutch barn, a big fire going. All the chaps were drying their socks and having breakfast.

 ‘What the Devil do you think you are doing?’
‘Where are the sentries?’
Why haven’t you got anybody out?’

 ‘Oh, it was a dark night Sir and I thought the lads needed a bit of a cheering up.’

‘They’ll need cheering up in a minute, the Germans are only half a mile away!’

So I chased some sentries out, scattered them out and got them all into positions and we set the headquarters in a cellar in the village and I’d just taken my socks off and thought I’ll get some breakfast now when the sentry came running in saying ‘Come quick, come quick! There’s a haystack coming down the village street!’.

‘Now you’ve been drinking the rum laddie!’.

Anyway, he was dead right, there was a haystack coming slowly down the village street, about I suppose three quarters of a mile away. I got my field glasses and had a look. It was a German Panther and he’d put loads of hay on top by the turret, I suppose for camouflage. He wasn’t too sure what we had in the village and he was coming along pretty carefully, you know, having a good look and swinging his turret from side to side. I thought ‘My God, if he gets in here, it’s curtains for us. So I grabbed the PIAT anti-tank projectile and a couple of bombs and headed down to the front garden.... here’s Douglas’s chance for the VC or something!

I got down behind a low wall, I suppose about two feet high. Now the trouble with the PIAT was that it was most effective when it hit its target, but its range was about 100 yards, so you had to wait and wait and wait and this chap came on 400 yards, 300 yards, 200 yards, waiting, waiting, waiting and this great big gun came round and he tried to lower it like that, but of course you can only lower a tank gun so far and then you hit the hull where the driver is and he couldn’t get it any lower. Stupid me, I should have realised that the tank commander is eight feet up and I’m two feet behind a wall and he could see me and he knew what I’d got, so he let fly with his great 88mm round. Well he couldn’t hit me because he couldn’t get the gun barrel down, but it thundered into the wall of the old rickety farmhouse behind me and the whole thing came down on top of me. In fact it saved my life. He then apparently came down the village , put a round into the cellar, killing most of the HQ chaps, caused absolute pandemonium in the platoon, they all got down in their trenches, my sergeant, that I’d just given a rocket to, got a military medal out of it I heard later. He dashed down to the crossroads and got an anti-tank gun, which a detachment of anti-tank gunners had there and he swung this gun round and fired at this thing and knocked it out and the infantry who were coming with the tank got a bit dispirited at this and they put a rather poor attack in on our position and were driven off. I by this time had been dragged from under this farmhouse and carted off on a stretcher and woke up in an ambulance on the way to the Canadian Hospital in Antwerp. I only heard what the sergeant had done weeks later when I got back to the Battalion’.

The Sergeant that Douglas refers to was Sergeant William Little of No 16 Platoon of ‘D’ Company. As such he was my Grandfather’s Platoon Sergeant and he will feature again in this narrative.

As stated Sergeant Little was awarded the Military Medal for his actions in Kruisweg. The citation which recommended the award reads as follows:

On 23rd October 1944, L/Sjt Little was platoon Serjeant of a platoon detached under the command of Carrier platoon to hold a defensive position at KRUISWEG – 1:25,000 Sheet 24 NW 814160.

Following a very heavy and accurate concentration of mortar fire the enemy attacked with infantry, a tank and two SP guns, and L/Sjt Little’s platoon commander [William Douglas] was seen made a casualty leaving him to command the platoon.

The tank and an SP gun penetrated the positions and the infantry gradually approached within short range.

The action lasted about two hours before the arrival of another Coy and a sqn of tanks dispersed the enemy forces.

Throughout this timethe majority of L/Sjt Little’s platoon were on the enemy side of the buildings and they were in the nerve-racking position of being faced by enemy infantry and having an enemy tank and SP gun in their rear.

The citation document bears the signature of one B.L. Montgomery – Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief 21 Army Group.

The 11th R.S.F. Summary of Operations adds a little more detail to the action recording that ‘A force composed of the Carrier Platoon, one platoon from D Coy and two A/tnk guns that RA were holding one sector which was counter attacked by SP guns and infantry. One SP gun actually got behind our lines and Sgt Little, Platoon Sgt, D Coy was magnificent in control of the men. The two A/tnk guns RA had been put out of action, one by a direct hit and the other because it was in a burning house. Showing admirable courage and coolness, Sgt Little got his gun out and with the help of others of his platoon dragged it back to a position from which it could be fired at this troublesome SP gun and knocked it out’.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Recollections of the Liberation of Turnhout June 2016

Following on from my earlier correspondence with Francis, I contacted the local museum in Turnhout to enquire about the availability of an article entitled ‘In het spoor van de IJsberen’ (‘Tracing the Polar Bears’) that was published in the local annual journal Taxandria in 2008. An archivist from the museum duly responded and confirmed my suspicions that the article, whilst available, is in Dutch (a language over which I have no command whatsoever).

However, the helpful archivist also provided me with another contact within the town, a gentleman by the name of Jacques Boone. I subsequently emailed Jacques with my now well-rehearsed potted history of my Grandfather’s service, the website and book plans and within a couple of hours I received the following reply:

Dear Mr Andrews,

Many thanks for your interesting mail.  Every information  about the  11th Btn, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, does interest me very much, indeed. On 24th September 1944,  as a 17 years old boy, I was living in Turnhout and attended the liberation of the town,( I kept it vivid  in my memory, almost as if it happened yesterday) by the 49th Reconnaissance Rgt of the 49th Polar Bear Division,  followed immediately by the 11 Btn, the R.S.F. and the 7th Btn, the Duke of Wellington’s Rgt. 

My text  on the liberation of Turnhout  was published by “Forces War Records”in their Magazine , issue 10, Special Edition , ‘Your Stories’, December 2015. Some photographs of me were  shot on 24th September 1944 by a late cousin of mine, on the Turnhout Market square , while I was fraternizing with  the Recces.

A friend of mine, Ken West, was a  member of the 11th RSF. Hereby some correspondence. I read his book “An’ it’s called a tam- o’- Shanter”, Ken’s war memoires.   I opened my contact to him with  my letter of 1st October 2007, I asked him if he knew the 11th RSF man whose  photograph I had taken in Normandy in 2007.  Ken did not;  he actually  did not “liberate” Turnhout,  on 24th September 1994 he was in an hospital in England, in treatment for severe burn wounds he  had gotten in action on the Normandy front.

I am convinced that my friend John Peters (address provided)  knows  English very well  and I am almost certain  he could give  you some interesting data . Tell him I gave you his address.

With kind regards,

Jacques Boone
Member of the 49th (WR) Infantry Division  Association.



Belgian teenagers and British tank crew on a Sherman (Jacques Boone is standing third on the left, in a long raincoat)
Turnhout 24th September 1944
(photograph taken by François Boone (Jacques's late cousin) and shared courtesy of Jacques Boone)

I replied, thanking Jacques for the link to his article and the additional contact. I explained that Ken West was indeed a mutual acquaintance and sent on a photograph of Ken and I in Leicester in 2015. In addition,

Jacques bounced back with another prompt email:

Dear Adrian,

Thank you for the nice photograph of you with Ken.  The last time of our meeting was in 2014, in Normandy, in front of the Polar Bear monument at Fontenay-le-Pesnel. He was leading an important group of Normandy Veteran Association members. What a pity this association has been dissolved. We met several times in October at a memorial ceremony  at Wuustwezel in Belgium  next the PBA monument  and also one time at Merksplas, at the monument of Cpl John HARPER, VC.

My motto is: Remember ! Often, I attend ceremonies , last week to remember crashes  of 3 RAF bomber command bombers, for a Manchester, a Halifax and a Stirling at the village of Kasterlee.  I had again the pleasure of meeting there British and Canadian acquaintances to members of the crews. I had to make a speech in English at the Manchester monument.

Kind regards,

Jacques

Eykynforce and the Assault on the Depot de Mendicité

The success of the crossings forced by the Polar Bear Regiments in comparison with the failure of the attempts made by the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was, in the opinion of Francis Huijbrechts, Chairman of the Hoogstraten Heritage Association, was due to the more thorough reconnaissance carried out by the Polar Bears across the stretch of the canal from Sint-Lenaarts and the areas north east and east of Turnhout from which the latter and also the area in front of Rijkevorsal were considered to be the most favourable for a successful crossing.

The task of the first crossing of the canal in the area of Turnhout was given to the 7th DWR. They were to attempt the crossing just to the east of Blown Bridge No. 2 to the north west of the town. Planned to take place a 7.30 am on the 25th it was first postponed and then cancelled. The 26th September saw the 7th DWR transferred to the area of the Rijkevorsal bridgehead.

Later in the day on 25th, at 1500 hours, a daylight crossing was achieved by the 11th R.S.F. on the stretch of the canal to the north east of Turnhout in the area of Meirgoorhoeve a short distance from the town.

The line of advance, once over the canal, for the 11th R.S.F. was westward to the road and railway that ran northwards to Baarle- Nassau inside Holland. In the advance towards Baarle-Nassau, it was hoped that the 11th could roll-up the German defences to the north of Turnhout. However, the German opposition was effective and the Battalion was ordered to withdraw on the afternoon of the 26th September. In the advance at least seven Fusiliers were killed in action or subsequently died of their wounds. The men lie in the communal cemetery in Kwakkelstraat.

On the same day as the withdrawal Eykynforce was established. This was a short-lived, composite formation comprising the 11th Battalion R.S.F along with anti-tank units, Royal Engineers, machine gun and heavy mortar sections, as well a Carrier Platoon of the 7th DWR and ad-hoc units of the Belgian White Brigade (elements of the Belgian resistance). Such composite formations were formed out of necessity. Since the breakout from Normandy, the war on the ground had become highly mobile, meaning that units were required to defend and patrol very large areas. In the case of the Polar Bears, by 27th September, eight out of a possible nine Infantry Battalions of the 49th Division were active in the area surrounding the Rijkevorsel bridgehead, an area estimated to be around four to five kilometres in both width and depth. Further to the west, the 11th R.S.F. as part of Eykynforce held the sector on the canal to the north of Beerse all the way across to Arendonk.

In the weeks that followed, other composite formations were brought into existence such as Bobforce and Clarkeforce (which again included my Grandfather) when were allotted specific tasks for the brief period of their existence.

The Summary of Operations of the 11th Battalion describes that function of Eykynforce in terms of holding ‘the thin red line’ of this broad sector, meaning operating as a thinly spread military formation holding the line in the face of a determined opposition (the term ‘thin red line’ has its origins in just such a situation the the British Army found themselves in at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War).

On 2nd October the 11th R.S.F. were to be relieved by 146 Brigade. In the event, two Battalions arrived for the relief. After some degree of confusion, the Hallams completed the relief, the 11th Battalion returned to command under 147 Brigade and Eykynforce was disbanded.

The men of 146 Brigade were engaged elsewhere along the Divisional front. The 1/4th KOYLI attacked the village of Rijkevosel on the 24th September with the aim to widen the bridgehead.`A highly notable Polar Bear action in this period was the capture of the Depot de Mendicité. This was a formidable complex that was located between Rijkevosel and Merxplas. In peacetime, Depot de Mendicité functioned as a prison, workhouse and asylum. For his part in the action, Corporal John Harper was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His remains lie in the Leopoldsburg cemetery and a memorial to his feat can be located in the area of the Depot de Mendicité where he fell.