Last month it was my privilege to participate with members of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division Association in their annual pilgrimage to the town of Thury Harcourt and its environs. The 59th Division landed on Normandy in late June 1944 as a follow up Division. Highly trained in the UK, their time as an active fighting unit in France was short. Such was the intensity of the fighting in which they were engaged in Operation Charnwood (a frontal assault on the Northern perimeter of Caen) and Operation Pomegranate (engagements to the south west of the city intended to force a crossing over the River Orne) that the Division was formally disbanded on towards the end of August 1944 and its soldiers were transferred to other reinforcement hungry English, Scottish and Welsh Regiments.
The relationship between the 59th (Staffordshire) Division and the townsfolk is very strong by virtue of the fact that on 13th August 1944 the actions of the 59th finally resulted in the liberation of Thury Harcourt.
My Grandfather served with ‘A’ Company of the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment, a unit within 177 Brigade of the 59th Division. My Grandfather came home from the war, injured but otherwise intact, the same cannot be said for many of his Divisional comrades. One such fellow soldier of ‘C’ Company of the 5th Staffs was 4923121 Private Percy Clews who was killed in action on 10th August 1944, 75 years ago yesterday. One of our travelling party that visited the grave within the Bayeux Military Cemetery was John Clews, son of Percy, who was just two years of age when his father fell. With John was his wife Jan. The couple reside in Lichfield which then as now is the home of the Staffordshire Regiment.
At the time of his death, the 5th South Staffs were engaged with the enemy on a series of ridges that approached the River Orne and overlooked the town of Thury Harcourt. In that second week of August the 5th from their high ground vantage point were able to direct vital artillery fire into the dense forest of Grimbosq, that faced the fragile bridgehead that had formed across the Orne, in which Panzer Battle Groups were forming up for counter attacks intended to smash the bridgehead.
At his Father’s plot, John delivered a speech about the fate of his Dad that was largely based upon a letter sent to his mother by ‘C’ Company Commander, Major Pearson which is reproduced below.
‘Copy of a letter sent to Mrs Percy Clews from Major B. Pearson, The South Staffordshire Regiment
Major B. Pearson
The South Staffordshire Regt
August 29th. 1944
My Dear Mrs Clews,
You have no doubt been wondering why I have taken so long to write, and offer not only my sympathy, but those of the whole Company at the loss of your Husband, my Batman.
I was hit by the same mine, and I have only just heard officially that Percy was killed, as I had feared.
It isn’t an easy story to tell , Mrs Clews, and I am sure you don’t want to know all the full details.
I found it necessary to lead a patrol with stretcher bearers to recover one of my boys who had been wounded sometime before, and who was in need of treatment. Percy would not think of leaving me behind. We found the man but the Germans had surrounded him with shrapnel mines, I presume they realised that they would try to recover him. A stretcher bearer, after giving aid, trod on a mine which exploded, causing the death of your husband and wounding two of us.
I had the lives of the others to consider so I ordered them back whilst I tried to give Percy some help, but poor lad, he had gone – without pain and without knowing what had happened. He looked very peaceful, his job well done. I had him recovered the same day and he was given a Military funeral, although I regret that I was not present, being on my way to hospital.
Between and Officer and his Batman there develops a spirit of comradeship far above expression by words – we thought such a lot of each other, and I have grieved for him very much indeed. He was killed giving help to his comrades and myself, and all of the Company have missed him so much.
His determination to make sure that I was not left unprotected at any time caused him to be killed.
He volunteered to join me that morning and was somewhat grieved, his words were “You are not going anywhere without me, are you Sir?” He always said, that to remain behind and wonder what was happening to me, was worse than accompanying me on the various excursions.
Above all my personal feelings, he was so very popular with his comrades. I am told that the whole Company were unbelievably depressed after the news had spread around, and each letter that I have had so far mentions how much they all miss Percy. They cannot miss him anymore than I do. His courage, devotion to duty, his cheerfulness, and his great personality endeared him to all our hearts, a sad loss.
Please forgive me for not writing before – I did hope that in the excitement of the battle that my diagnosis of his death might have been false and in fact he might be alive, I hoped so hard but to no avail.
I do hope that your loss has not proved to be unbearable. My wounds are confined to my left leg and I am managing to get around on crutches.
When I come to Lichfield I will endeavour to call and see you, if I may.
With best wishes for the future, and rest assured that your Husband will not be forgotten by
B. Pearson. Major.'
To read these touching words from a man that I had previously written about in a book about my Grandfather’s service was something else and it was an absolute honour to be with John and Jan Clews as he paid tribute to the Father he never had the opportunity to know.
After the speech John laid the Association wreath at the Cross of sacrifice.
Later we paid a visit to the small but highly poignant Museum to the men of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division in Thury. Here there can be found a photograph of Percy Clews.