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.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Operation Pomegranate 16th – 17th July 1944

Map indicating the operational area of 'Pomegranate' 16th-17th July 1944
(with thanks to

The second engagement in Normandy in which soldiers of the 59th Division were to play a role was known as ‘Operation Pomegranate’. Coupled with ‘Operation Greenline’ of the 15th to the 17th July, ‘Pomegranate’ was part of an action that history recalls as ‘The Second Battle Of The Odon’.

As the D-Day objective of Caen eluded the British and Canadian forces on 6th June, Allied efforts shifted to the south west of the city, commencing on 7th June with ‘Operation Perch’ a combined pincer action of encirclement of the Norman capital from east to west by I Corps and XXX Corps respectively. The attack by I Corps was halted by the 21st Panzer Division, whilst the XXX Corps assault faltered at Tilly-sur-Seulles in the face of the Panzer-Lehr Division.

In the week of the 7th to 14th June XXX Corps attempted to manoeuvre around the defences of the Panzer-Lehr Division and in doing so captured Villers-Bocage to the west of Caen. Later in the action, on 17th June, Tilly-sur-Seulles was taken as the Panzer-Lehr Division was again pushed back.

Further offensive action was delayed by poor weather, when a severe storm blew up on 19th June and hampered any further operations for several days.

On 25th June ‘Operation Martlet’ opened up which intended to secure the left flank of VIII Corps who had received orders to advance southwards on the left flank of XXX Corps on 26th June. The action of the 26th to the 29th June was later designated as ‘The First Battle Of The Odon’, but is perhaps better known to historians as ‘Operation Epsom’ which had the intended outcome of a breakout of the Orne bridgehead to the west of Caen by crossing the Odon and Orne rivers and securing the objective of the high ground around Bretteville-sur-Laize.

The planned breakout failed as a result of determined German resistance and the offensive operation was halted around the high ground of Hill 112. However, ‘Epsom’ was a partial success in that the German Army was forced to commit reserve forces, newly arrived in Normandy, to the fighting. These reserve units were intended to engage Allied positions away from Caen in the vicinity of Bayeux.  Whilst held up to the west of Caen, well away from the advancing US forces, much damage was inflicted upon German heavy armour by intensive RAF sorties over the battlefield.

Footage of 'Operation Pomegranate' 17th July 1944

The Second Battle Of The Odon commenced at 9.30 on the evening of 15th July when, under the illumination of the so-called ‘Monty’s Moonlight’ (searchlight beams reflected from the underside of low lying cloud cover in order to light up the battlefield), Operation Greenline was launched.

In this action, a reinforced 15th (Scottish) Division, the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division and two brigades of the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division were to secure the high ground of Hill 112 and to force the advance on Auray-sur-Odon to the south of Villers-Bocage or better still, Thury Harcourt to the south east, should the action result in a German withdrawal.

Starting on 16th July Operation Pomegranate to the west of the Greenline plan, XXX Corps shaped up with an attack of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division on the right flank, the 59th Division again in the centre with the 53rd (Welsh) Division on the left.

In the ensuing battle, the plan was for the 49th to take Vendes and its surrounding area, the 59th to capture Noyers-Bocage , Haut des Forges and Landelle. The role for the 53rd (Welsh) was to exploit any opportunities to move on Villers-Bocage to the south.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

With The North Staffordshire Regiment Early 1940

Here is what I believe to be the first photograph of my Grandfather in uniform (other than perhaps that which appeared in his army paybook) . He is the first seated soldier on the right in the second row.

A bit of digging and thanks to the thoughts shared by members of the British & Commonwealth Military Badge Forum, it would appear that this photograph was indeed taken early in the war, indicators of which include the absence of webbing and the nature of the service uniform worn by the corporal in the centre of the shot. The cap badge is rather obscure, but from its outline, it can be determined that these men are of the North Staffordshire Regiment, as I would expect.

It could be that this photograph was taken at the Lichfield Infantry Training Centre (I.T.C.) in early 1940. He was transferred to the South Staffordshire Regiment in June of 1940.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

A Small Act Of Remembrance - Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery 10th May 2014

Having just seen the now much transformed location of the 5th Battalion's first action, it was absolutely fitting that our next port of call would be the Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery, a few kilometers from St. Contest and seven kilometers north west of Caen.

Entrance to the Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery

It is in this cemetery that many of the men of both the South and North Staffordshire Regiments who fell during the Charnwood fighting of the 8th and 9th July are buried. Impeccably tended (as indeed are all accessible Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries), I found this again to be very moving as this place brought home the human cost of an action such as Charnwood, the impact of which in 2014 is more or less invisible in the villages in which so much blood was shed. Accounts of the battle in print are all well and good, but facts and figures cannot convey the horrors of war in the way that a cemetery can!

In Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery row upon row of the familiar portland headstones bear the knot of Staffordshire. In fact more than half of the 224 burials in this small plot of land are of Staffords of the 59th Division.

Staffords lined up in Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery

On an trip earlier in the week to the Wellington Quarry (La Carriére Wellington) in Arras I picked up a British Legion cross with the express intention of laying it, as a representative of my Grandfather. in one of the cemeteries most closely associated with the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.

Initially, I planned to lay the tribute in the Divisional cemetery further to the south in the Fontenay-le-Pesnel, but after our recent encounter in St. Contest a grave in the Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery seemed to be the right place.

I originally had the idea to locate the grave of an unknown soldier of the South Staffordshire Regiment upon which to place the poppy. However, in contrast to the cemeteries of The Great War with which I am much more familiar, the war cemeteries in Normandy do not contain the graves of many unknown soldiers. This reflects the differences in the campaigns that were fought. In World War I many of the battlefields on the Western front formed the front line on more than one occasion with the result that established cemeteries from earlier engagements were disrupted as the war once again pased through. The remains of soldiers were disinterred to the extent that at the point of battlefield clearance many remains were unidentifiable. In contrast, the fighting in Normandy was nowhere near as static which meant that those who were killed in action had a far better chance of being positively identified and so named with regiment, rank and number on the headstone.

As the weather started to turn for the worse...... always the most appropriate weather for a garveyard I think, I perused row upon row of headstones in my search for the elusive unknown Staffordshire warrior. In the end I admitted defeat and adopted a different tack. My plan was now to locate a soldier of the South Staffordshire Regiment of the same rank and age as my Grandfather in July 1944 (I go for a bit of symbolism me!). A further fifteen minutes of searching and I had found my man.

The engraving on the headstone reads as follows:

'4919758 L. CPL
8TH JULY 1944 AGE 29


The additional request would have been at the request of a sweetheart or wife of the dead soldier. These words brought to mind the torment of those at home, such as my Grandmother June Heath, who with no news from the front could only get by on hope that a loved one would remain unharmed to return at a later date.

Headstone of L/Cpl T. Lee (centre) Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery, Normandy

A cross check with the Commonwealth War Graves Commision records reveals that T. Lee (or Thomas as he was known to his friends and family) was a Lancashire man of the 7th Battalion South Staffordshre Regiment. He was the son of Thomas and Margaret Lee and husband of Elizabeth Ellen Lee of Kirkham, Lancashire.

As part of the 176 Infantry Brigade it is likely that Thomas Lee fell in the fighting on the left flank of the 59th Division's line in the area of La Bijude and Epron.

St. Contest and Galamanche - 11th May 2014

Arial view of St. Contest showing the location of the Church and Chateau

Having spent a full Saturday driving along three quarters of the Overlord front (Utah on the Contetin Penninsula being a little too far when we were hungry and I, as non-driver, had my sights set on assaulting a beer in the nearby town of Bayeaux!) we headed back to our hotel to consider which sites relevant to the 59th we were going to head for in the morning.

As our hotel was located in the north of Caen it was logical that we should initially head into the area where Operation Charnwood played out.

A few days before leaving for Normandy, as a result of contacting the Staffordshire Regimental Museum, I had been sent a chapter of ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’ that documented the actions of the Regiment throughout the Normandy campaign. Armed with this detailed account we aimed to locate the chateaux of St. Contest which had been the scene of such fierce fighting on the night of the 8th July.

Even equipped as we were with a detailed road map of the area, the unique nature of French road signs and their tendency to present the information that they are intended to convey against the direction of travel meant that we took considerably longer than anticipated to locate St. Contest and its church spire.

St. Contest Church

Parking up in front of the church, we left the vehicle to cross the road to the location of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.

Memorial to the 59th (Staffordshire) Division
St. Contest, Normandy

The simple plaque commemorates the role played by the men of the 59th Division in the St. Contest area on 8th and 9th July that was ultimately to lead to the liberation of Caen.

The fighting in St. Contest and neighbouring Galamanche centred on the 'chateau', then occupied by the SS.

Of this chateau I recall an often repeated anecdote of my Grandfather's that involved a house (as he described it) the ground floor of which was occupied by two British soldiers whilst, unbeknownst to them, the upper floor was the chosen residence of many German soldiers. In my childish mind's eye, I equated this house to something like the council house that my Grandparents lived in (my points of reference were somewhat limited at that age!). The story continued that the two British soldiers emerged from the property unscathed and still unaware of their overnight co-habitees! Such was the unusual nature of this unintentional close encounter with the enemy that the story was relayed back to the UK where it appeared in the national press in the days that followed.

Imagine then my surprise when I read the following passage in the account of the St. Contest action as recounted in ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’.

'Two men of D Company of the 5th Battalion [South Staffordshire Regiment], unknown to each other, had spent the night inside the chateau with the Germans without the enemy knowing of their presence, although both knew the Germans were there. As dawn broke one man crawled away, but was quickly followed by a German with a bayonet clenched in his hands. The other man, Private Parker, looking through a slit, saw what was happening and set off in pursuit. Just as the German was about to rush forward to make his kill, Private Parker killed him with his bayonet thus saving his comrade's life. Private Parker, who was killed at a later date, was awarded the Military Medal'.

So here I had, for the first time, courtesy of the above printed passage a concrete correlation between a contemporary written account of the battle* and one of my Grandfather's rare recollections of his part in the fighting. There were some differences in the detail and my Grandfather spared me the gory conclusion, but I am convinced that both book and anecdote describe one and the same event.

The task was now to locate the chateau and to place it within the context of the fighting.

Looking at the pen and ink map of St. Contest and Galamanche as it appears in ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’ a roughly square feature to the right of the church was a logical candidate for the chateau. 

Access to the property (at least from this side) was via a gate which runs onto a courtyard in front of the house.

Having found what we believed to be our chateau, I was ever keen to photograph the property for this site**. As I snapped away through the gate my actions clearly aroused the suspicions of the owner who emerged from the building in order to establish exactly why two black-clad strangers were busy photographing his rather desirable house. In fairness to him, in his shoes I would not have been impressed either! Anticipating another poor reception from an irate Frenchman (two days previously, some words had been exchanged over parking with a rather unpleasant farmer at the gates of Serre Road Cemetery No. 1 in the Somme region), we moved forward to greet the owner.

On this occasion, our expectations were unfounded, as once we explained the reason for our visit in rusty school French aided by English pointing (in the direction of the memorial), and our interest in his house he was very obliging. The owner, whose name I am sorry to say I didn't get, confirmed that our assumptions were correct and that his property had indeed been the focal point of the fighting in the area in July 1944 since it was serving as an SS Panzer Headquarters. As an H.Q. at the time of the fighting, the chateau would have been bristling with machine-gun posts dug into a warren of interlocking trenches and well concealed snipers would have been in position to pick off unfortunate individuals. One such sniper was positioned in the bell tower of the adjacent St. Contest church. Moreover, the owner was happy to snap away. In one photograph the scars of the fighting can still be seen on the building. Were the pump on the front of the building still required to draw up water from a nearby well, more than one bucket would be required for collection as the pump is riddled with bullet holes (supposedly thanks to the efforts of the bell tower sniper).

View of the Chateau through the gate on the corner of the 'square' of St. Contest
(note the owner on his way out).

The front aspect of the Chateau
(Owen engages the owner as best he can!).

The bullet holed water pump.

The Chateau looking in the direction of St. Contest Church.

The grounds of the Chateau, showing outbuildings on the other side of the gate.

The bell tower of St. Contest church from which a German sniper operated.

After taking these photographs and exhausting our very limited French vocabulary, we parted with the owner who returned to his kitchen and lunch preparations whilst we headed off in the direction of the nearby Cambes-en-Plaine cemetery.

I have to say that the time we spent locating St. Contest and the time spent looking over the exterior of the Chateau were quite emotional for me. On the preparation of this blog, I have described to people how it has once again brought me very close to my Grandfather twenty years after his death. In St. Contest, to be standing in exactly the place where he fought as a young soldier of 'A' Company on 8th July 1944 was, for wont of a better word, surreal.

* ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’ is a compilation of official and unofficial reports by the officers of the regiment that was published by the Wolverhampton Express and Star in 1945).

** Not long after this visit the confusion about the Chateau objective of the 59th was resolved. Whilst as already stated the Grand Farmhouse located in St. Contest was indeed fought over, it was the Chateau in Galmanche, a couple of kilometers away that was the focus of the SS defence.

Later I was able to find an old postcard of the building prior to the fighting.

Chateau de Galmanche in more prosperous times.

This RAF aerial reconnaissance photograph clearly shows the importance of this position and the lengths that the German SS units went to defend it on the outer limits of Caen.

In the fighting of the 8th and 9th July and in subsequent bombardments the Chateau de Galmanche was reduced to rubble, the cornerstone of the building becoming the 59th Staffordshire Division memorial on the small square of St. Contest.

However, a small memorial honours the fallen of the 59th close to the site of the former Chateau.

Memorial to the 59th (Staffordshire) Division
(Photograph courtesy of Bert Bamford of the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment)

It is worthwhile to compare the original Chateau with the more modest version that replaced it. Notably the spiraled wrought iron gates of the original have been reproduced.

Galmanche today.

Monday, 15 September 2014

A Visit To Caen - 10th to 11th May 2014

The original Pegasus Bridge 10th May 2014

Ahead of the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings I took the opportunity to travel to Normandy for the first time to see for myself at least some of the places where Jim Heath had fought during the summer of 1944.

The trip was planned to take my fiend Owen and I across to the Normandy beaches via the battlefields of The Somme (this of course also being quite a significant anniversary year in the history of The Great War too). There was no particular significance in the selection of our dates of travel other than to avoid the rush and the exorbitant hotel prices that would surely be a feature of staying in this corner of France in early June!

In the two days that we spent travelling through the key parts of Normandy, we took in as much as possible from Pegasus Bridge, on to Sword Beach at Ouistreham then heading west to take in Juno, Gold and Omaha Beach in turn. Just as an aside, it is only when you take this journey across the length of the landing beaches that the immensity of the front hits you and we didn't even take it as far as Utah!

As the events that took place at locations such as Pegasus Bridge occurred some two weeks before my Grandfather landed himself, I propose to post this information on separate pages so as not to disrupt the current narrative.

Action Across The Rest Of The Charnwood Front

British soldiers clearing rubble inside Caen on 9th July 1944

Previously I have described the progress of the units of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division, focussing in particular on the role and progress of the South Staffordshire battalions, in the centre of the line. To the left and to the right, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were fully engaged and hard pressed against the enemy.

The second phase of Operation Charnwood opened up at 0730 hours with zero hour preceded by a further aerial bombardment, this time from US B-26 Marauders who dropped a combined 133 tons of bombs over the front. Of the participating aircraft somewhat less than 50% of them were able to release their payloads as a result of smoke obscuring the target area.

On the ground, to the east, on the left flank, the 3rd Infantry Division made good progress in the face of the inexperienced 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. The 3rd passed through the village of Lébisey before encountering stiffer resistance at Hérouville. An attempt to reinforce the struggling 16th Luftwaffe Field Division was checked by an accurate naval barrage as the tanks of the 21st Panzer Division tried to cross the Caen Canal and the tanks withdrew.

Further advances towards Caen with the consequent decimation of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division prompted orders for the remaining troops of the 16th and the heavy armour of the 12th SS Panzer Division to withdraw across the Orne river. The remaining units of the 12th SS Panzer Division facilitated the withdrawal by fighting a rearguard action against the 59th and 3rd Infantry Divisions.

In the west, on the right flank of the assault, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were opposed by elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division, who in combat were far more effective than their Luftwaffe comrades to the east. The objective village of Buron was secured by noon on the 8th July by the Division’s 9th Infantry Brigade with support from the 10th Canadian Armoured Division. The ferocity of the defence put up by the 12th SS is evidenced by a 60% casualty statistic (killed, wounded or missing) for the 9th Brigade. It is worthy of note that whilst the 12th SS Panzer Division fought hard and well, the anti-tank actions of the Canadian 245th Battery and the 62nd Anti-tank Regiment were second to none. During a counter attack on Buron by the fearsome Panzer IV and Panther tanks, the Canadian anti-tank armoury accounted for no less than thirteen enemy tanks for the loss of four tank destroyers and four damaged.

A Panzer IV tank of the 12th SS Panzer Division near Caen

A Panther tank carrying troops during the Battle of Caen

The village of Gruchy was taken by the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, followed by Authie to the south, the capture of which was eased by the successful action of the 59th against St. Contest. Cussy was secured as the summer light began to fail. In this way, the front to the west of Caen was opened up for a further advance on 9th July.

By midnight of 8th July, the three attacking divisions were within 1km of Caen.

During the night of the 8th, the withdrawal of the 26th SS Panzergrenadiers delivered the strategically important Carpiquet airport into the hands of the 3rd Canadian Division. Early the next morning, the Allies started a slow penetration into the shattered streets of Caen itself. Progress towards the north banks of the Orne was hampered by rubble, being described as up to 20 to 30 feet high in places, booby traps set up as part of the retreat and well concealed snipers. In addition, the Germans laid down a deadly defensive fire from positions on the remaining bridges over the river. Nevertheless, the Royal Engineers worked hard to clear rubble and disarm the booby traps and cautious progress was made into the city such that the British and Canadian forces rendezvoused in Caen by early afternoon. By early evening of the 9th July, Caen up to the northern bank of the Orne was firmly under Allied control, thirty-four days later than originally envisaged by General Montgomery. The surviving troops of the three infantry divisions were utterly exhausted and the high casualty rates had depleted all units to the extent that any further advance on the reformed German positions south of the river was out of the question. Thus, Operation Charnwood came to a close.

Bernard Hoo, John MacCouville et J R Kostick of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, 8th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division stand at the western entrance to Caen on the afternoon of the 9th of July. This signpost marked the edge of Caen on the road from Bayeux.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

In Memorium - James Kitchener Heath 14th September 1914 - 7th February 1995

L-R: Margaret Andrews (nee Heath), Jim Heath, June Heath, Adrian Andrews
(Boxing Day 1991)

Today marks what would have been my Grandfather's 100th birthday! Note the 'For Loyal Service' lapel badge for servicemen wounded in action and worn throughout his life.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Battle - Operation Charnwood

Zero hour for the attack was set at 4.20 am of the 8th July. Seconds before the allotted time, a few guns stuttered to herald the start of the attack. Instantly these guns were joined by the the roar of the Division's supporting artillery (the 61, 110 and 116 Field Artillery Regiments) as they opened up on the German fortified positions. Additional supporting fire came in from the sea courtesy of the big guns of the Royal Navy. HMS Belfast, Roberts, Emerald and Rodney, anchored in the beach-head added significant weight to the bombardment, termed the 'Monty barrage'.

'HMS 'Belfast', Normandy, 8 July 1944'
by Francis Russell Flint

As the barrage continued, so the men of the South Straffordshire Regiment formed up at their designated start line in front of Galamanche.

As a result of the haste with which the infantry battalions of the Division were deployed, the opportunity for detailed and accurate reconnaissance was limited, but such was the reality of the mobile and reactive warfare. Nevertheless, unfortunately the expected single opposing company was in fact an extremely well equipped reinforced battalion whose compliment of mortar and machine guns was supplemented with a good supply of anti-tank weaponry. 

It was under these conditions that the 2/6th Battalion (temporarily under the command of 197 Brigade) advanced towards Galamanche. By virtue of the smoke and dust raised by the artillery barrage, visibility from the start line was reduced to 30 yards and as the troops moved forward, they were rapidly swallowed up in the man made fog of war that enveloped the cornfields that separated them from the bristling German positions.

What was ahead of the advancing units of the 176 and 197 Infantry Brigades was an extremely well organised defensive line, consisting of well established trenches connecting the massively fortified village strongholds that they had been ordered to take. Whilst deficient of tank support at the onset of the action, the German positions were strongly defended by light and heavy machine gun posts, well concealed snipers and the fanatical resistance put up by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend  panzergrenadiers who took to the fight with a zeal borne out of indoctrination of the ideals of Nazism.

The demonstrated ability of the defenders to recover from the aerial and artillery bombardment during the six hours prior to the advance testifies to the integrity of the German line in front of Caen.

A Waffen SS soldier pictured in the summer of 1944 in the Caen region carrying an MG-42 of the type that halted the advance of 'A' and 'C' Companies of the 2/6th South Staffordshire Regiment on 8th July 1944
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1983-109-14A / Woscidlo, Wilfried / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Within the 2/6th Battalion 'A' and 'C' Companies had advanced approximately 200 yards at which point concentrated fire from the German MG-42's, commonly known as Spandaus to the British,from both forward and rear positions, pinned the attackers down in the mediocre cover that the cornfields afforded. For a time the only offensive fire was maintained by the barrage. Accurate and effective artillery support was hampered by high casualty rates amongst NCOs and wireless operators who would otherwise direct the fire. Eventually, two troops of Sherman tanks moved up to assist but were obliged to withdraw in the face of heavy mortar fire. The tank withdrawal was aided by a covering smoke screen achieved by the mortars of 'A' Company of the 2/6th.

As the morning wore on, casualties started to return towards the rear passing through the attacking formations. In addition, a trickle of German prisoners started moving backwards towards the British rear. 

On the left flank of the attack, the 6th North Staffords of the 176 Brigade successfully captured the objective of La Bijude by 0730 hours, only to be forced back in a rapid counter attack. The two advance companies of the 6th North Staffords found themselves in an area just north of the cross roads between La Bijude and the infamous Chateau de la Londe, experiencing heavy casualties in the process.

Chateau de la Londe, Normandy in 1944. A key objective of the fighting in the area described as 'the bloodiest square mile in Normandy'. East Yorkshire and Suffolk regiments ultimately took this SS stronghold

In parallel with the 6th North Staffords, the 2/6th South Staffords were likewise taking heavy casualties on the right flank. At the same time 1/6th South Staffords were also encountering stiff resistance to the left of both the 2/6th and 5th Battalions. The latter formation looked on with frustration as their brothers-in-arms and in some cases brothers by blood forged ahead into the maelstrom of the battle.

It was not until midday of the 8th that 5th Battalion first received orders to move into an area that would support the efforts of the 2/6th whereby 'C' Company were positioned to oppose any enemy counter-attacks whilst 'D' Company, under the command of Major McIntyre was, alongside the 2/6th, to attack and capture the SS stronghold of St Contest Chateau.

By 1pm signalers were able to get the message back that the remnants of the leading companies of the 2/6th and 5th Battalions had gained the upper hand in St Contest and were fairly well established, except for an area within the orchard to the south of the village in which small numbers of Germans were still offering resistance.

Over to the left, the 1/6th Battalion were being harried by snipers in the environs of Cambes Wood. Within the wood, the resistance was overcome by members of the Battalion's own sniper section that accounted for 6 German snipers for no loss of their own. With this resistance overcome, the rest of the day was spent in consolidating the current positions and digging in.

In the evening, at approximately 8.30pm, in the half light, 'D' Company of 5th Battalion attacked the Chateau, but their attempt to take the building faltered as a result of the fierce resistance put up by the defenders. 'D' company reassembled with the intention of resuming the attack at dawn on the morning of 9th.

In the meantime, at 9pm, 7th Battalion passed through its beleaguered sister battalions to assault the Chateau. Advancing across the railway line to the east of the building 'B' Company and 'D' Company encountered heavy machine gun and mortar fire. In an attempt to outflank the defenders, one platoon of 'B' Company veered round to the right flank but in doing so became caught in an enemy minefield and suffered heavy losses as a consequence. Support of the attack from Sherman tanks across open land was of little use as they encountered accurate fire laid down by German 88 mm anti-tank guns and thus withdrew from the fray.

'B' Company eventually crossed the railway line, but any further advance was halted as the British reached a system of extensive trench works and dug-outs. Vicious hand to hand fighting ensued resulting in the award of the Military Medal to Private Rutter of the 7th Battalion.

As night fell, the two attacking companies were withdrawn with 'C' Company stepping up to defend against a possible counter attack.

Sherman tanks advance towards Epron, north of Caen, during Operation 'Charnwood', 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6749)

By the morning of 9th July, the objective of La Bijude had fallen to the 1/6th Battalion, only the fortified position of Malon held out. The position, directly in front of the 1/6th and about 600 yards from Cambes Wood was stormed at dawn by soldiers of the 6th North Staffs, who after a hard fight gained control of Cambes by noon.

For the 59th, this action marched the end of the Battle of Caen. Elsewhere, the combined efforts of the men of I Corps had secured the the territory of the city up to the north banks of the Orne, but at a heavy cost. The official casualty figures (killed and wounded) for the 2/6th South Staffordshire Regiment up to 0600 hours of 11th July are as follows:

  • 16 Officers
  • 199 Other Ranks

At 4.20am in the predawn of 8th July the men of 59th (Staffordshire) Division stood apprehensively on the start line ahead of their first action, alone with their thoughts and prayers. In the following 36 hours all the toil and training of the previous four years was put to the test in the field. By the close of the 9th July they emerged from 'Operation Charnwood' as battle tested soldiers of the British Army.

Infantry of the 59th Division dug in on the outskirts of Caen, 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6760)

This for many, including my Grandfather, was the start of a long campaign that would take them through France, Belgium, The Netherlands and into the Reich itself before the tyranny of Nazism was overcome ten months later.

Lancashire Fusiliers (59th (Staffordshire) Division) crawl cautiously through a cornfield near St Contest, 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6754)

Carriers and infantry advance across a field of wheat near St Contest, 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6755)

Infantry and carriers of 59th Division advancing during fighting around Caen, 11 July 1944 © IWM (B 6866)

The Plan Of Attack For The 59th (Staffordshire) Division - Operation Charnwood

The positions of Allied and German formations at the outset of Operation Charnwood
(map used with the kind permission of

Across the centre of the Charnwood front the three infantry brigades of the 59th Division were positioned as follows:

  • 197 Brigade opposite Galamanche on the right flank
  • 177 Brigade in reserve in front of Cambes-en-Plaine
  • 176 Brigade opposing the fortified villages of La Bijude and La Londe

The allotted tasks of the 177 Brigade in the centre of the front was to secure the stronghold villages of Galamanche (a 2/6th Battalion - (presently under the command of 197 Brigade) objective) and La Bijude (a 1/6th Battalion objective). It was the role of the 5th Battalion to stand firm in the area between these two villages and to exploit any opportunities that these simultaneous actions on either side of there position presented.

Map of the Galamanche-La Bijude area showing the position on start position of my Grandfather's 'A' Company of the 5th South Staffordshire Battalion on the morning of 8th July 1944

The battle orders stipulated that the attack would start at 5.30 on the morning of 8th July with full tank and artillery support.

On the basis of acquired military intelligence, it was the expectation of the I Corps commanders that all of the objectives would be delivered into Allied hands within one hour of the start of the assault.

The Bombing Of Caen - 7th July 1944

The ruins of Caen after the Allied aerial bombardment of 7th July 1944

The opening of 'Operation Charnwood' was preceded on the night of 7th July by the first involvement of Bomber Command in the Normandy campaign. In a tragic, and still much debated, episode in the Overlord story much of the ancient city of Caen was obliterated from the air.

The carpet bombing of the medieval city is to this day a highly controversial action on the part of the Allies. The strategic advantage gained by the bombing of the northern districts of Caen is questionable, given the resulting level of destruction and the high numbers of civilian casualties.

Between 21.50 and 22.30 hours on the evening of the 7th, a force of four-engined, heavy bombers totaling 467 Halifax's and Lancaster's flew over the north of the city. A combined payload of 2,560 tons of high explosive, incendiary and delayed-action bombs were dropped on the northern limits.

Flying at 2,500 metres, the intention was to complete bomb runs within a rectangular area measuring 4,000 yards by 1,500 yards. The target area was largely dictated by the insistence of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris (perhaps now better known to history as 'Bomber Harris') that a 6,000 yard safety margin be in place from the position of the forward British and Canadian troops and the northern extremity of the target area. This was to be achieved through use of a system that had been successful in the raids over Berlin, whereby a Master Bomber marked the target area and then observed the progress and positioning of the subsequent attack from a higher altitude. From such a vantage point the Master Bomber could revisions and adjustments could be communicated to the Deputy Master Bomber below as the situation demanded to ensure the accuracy of bombing throughout the raid.
A Handley Page Halifax of No. 4 Group flies over the suburbs of Caen, France, during a major daylight raid to assist the Normandy land battle during Operation CHARNWOOD. 467 aircraft took part in the attack, which was originally intended to have bombed German strongpoints north of Caen, but the bombing area was eventually shifted nearer the city because of the proximity of Allied troops to the original targets. The resulting bombing devastated the northern suburbs © IWM (CL 347)

The need for such a system was to control a phenomenon in which over time bomb loads tended to to be dropped earlier with the result that the inflicted damage would creep backwards from the intended target area. This was caused both by the fact that target markers became obscured in the inevitable flame and smoke of the raid and as a result of the urge for aircrews, in the face of heavy flack put up by a city's defences, to minimise the time spent over the target before turning for the home run.

In the Caen raid of 7th July, the consequences would have been catastrophic had such a 'creep back' occurred and brought payloads down on the Allied formations massed to the north of the city. Thus it was that the bombing had a very limited impact on the enemy troop and armour concentrations facing the 59th Division as the target area was well to the rear of the Germans in an area in which few military installations were located.

Map showing the target area for the 7th July bombing raid. It is evident that the bombing was concentrated well to the rear of the German defending formations
(map by EyeSerene)

In the event the raid had some impact upon the men of a detachment of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. Additionally, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend lost a mortar section and two tanks to the action.

Not easily measurable in terms of military advantage gained, but to the men of the 59th, who in a few short hours were to experience combat for the first time, the psychological and morale boosting effect of watching the RAF giving the 'hun' a pasting would have been immense.

On the other hand the casualties inflicted on the French civilian population was high. The Centre de Recherche d'Histoire Quantitative within the University of Caen estimated that 350 civilians lost their lives in the raid of the night of the 7th and in the fighting that ensued in the city on the following day. This figure is high when one considers that three quarters of Caen's peacetime population had been evacuated from the city at this point in time.

A less emotive consequence of the raid was the fact that by reducing the northern fringes of the city to rubble, the Allies created a cityscape that was easy to defend effectively by the German units that emerged from the deep defences within the city. Moreover, the level of destruction impeded movement into the city, slowing progress and reducing the penetration of the Allied forces into Caen on the tail of the German withdrawal across the River Orne.

It comes as no surprise that my Grandfather talked of this night as he would not as yet experienced anything in war even remotely as powerful and dramatic as the destruction of Caen from the air. During the raid, he would have been approximately 6 miles north of the city

A British soldier carries a little girl through the devastation of Caen, 10 July 1944 © IWM (B 6781)

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Operation Charnwood - The Germans

At the beginning of July, the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW) had made it clear that the defence of Caen remained a priority. Thus at the commencement of Operation Charnwood, the German forces opposing the British and Canadian formations were formidable.

12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend

Positioned on the left flank and centre.

The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was a unique formation composed of soldiers drawn from the Hitler Youth movement commanded by officers of the 1st SS Panzer Division Lebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler with combat experience gained on the Eastern Front. The command structure was supplemented with other officers transferred from army divisions.

Created in early February 1943, the Division was only declared as ready for combat operations in the first week of June 1944 on the eve of the Allied landings.

As members of the Hitler Youth, it was said that some of the Panzergrenadiers (essentially motorised infantry soldiers) were so young that the usual rations of tobacco and alcohol were replaced with sweets. And yet, as members of the Hitler Youth movement, these young men were steeped in Nazi ideology and fought their battles with a ferocity borne out of the indoctrination that they had received.

In action for the first time on 7th June 1944 (D-Day + 1) the Division suffered badly during the Battle of Normandy that saw their strength reduced from 20,000 soldiers at the beginning of June to the 12,000 that emerged out of the inferno that was the 'Falaise Pocket' in the last two weeks of August.

After Normandy, the Division saw further action fighting the Americans in the Ardennes and the Russians in Budapest. The end of their war came on 8th May 1945 when the remaining 10,000 soldiers of the 12th SS Panzer surrendered to US forces in Austria.

The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was most notably commanded by Kurt 'Panzer' Meyer.

The extreme youth of the soldiers of the The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend is evident from this photograph of a captured, wounded Panzergrenadier.

16th Luftwaffe Field Division

This was a formation born out of of political considerations. The brainchild of the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, the principle behind the Luftwaffe formations was to create additional units from the ground and support personnel of the Luftwaffe.

The rationale for the recruitment of Luftwaffe soldiers into new army formations was purely political in that Göring considered that elements of the Luftwaffe were formed of 'political soldiers', men who were completely aligned with the aims and ambitions of the Nazi state. To his view, this contrasted favourably with the conservative, traditionalist military outlook of the Wehrmacht.

From the point of the formation of such divisions in 1942, the intention was that they would be commanded by Luftwaffe officers. However, by 1943, military necessity meant that the Luftwaffe divisions became standard infantry divisions under army officer command. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe designation was retained.

As airmen, the Luftwaffe divisions were tasked to undertake duties that would release other infantry troops for front line combat. However, in the face of the Allied landings on 6th June 1944 such a role was no longer an option and the 16th Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen, to give it its German name, found itself opposing the experienced 3rd Infantry Division north-east of Caen.

In battle, the inexperience of the 16th in combat was a contributing factor in the progress of the 3rd Infantry Division on the left flank of the Charnwood fighting.

16th Luftwaffe Field Division near Colombelles to the east of Caen in July 1944
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-721-0353-27A / Vennemann, Wolfgang / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Operation Charnwood - The Allies

3rd Canadian Division

Positioned on the right flank of the assault.

A formation that landed on Juno beach on 6th June, by the close of D-Day, the 3rd Canadian Division had made the furthest advances into occupied France of any of the landing formations and it's D-Day objectives were secured on 7th June.

In the first week of Overlord the 3rd Canadian faced the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend in the environs of Carpiquet and inflicted considerable damage to their armour. On 4th July, the Division participated in Operation Windsor prior to the commencement of Operation Charnwood.

59 (Staffordshire) Division

Positioned in the centre of the line in front of the northern suburbs of Caen.

A follow-up formation described at length on this site.

3rd Infantry Division

Positioned on the left flank of the assault.

Also informally known as the 'Iron Division', like the 2/6th South Staffordshire Battalion, the 3rd Infantry Division had been part of the British Expeditionary Force that was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May/early June 1940.

The 3rd Infantry Division returned to France, landing on Sword Beach on 6th June and despite advancing 5 miles inland by the end of D-Day, German resistance halted the attack some three miles from the day's objectives of Caen and Carpiquet.

Memorial in Caen commemorating the D-Day landing of the 3rd Infantry Division and the role it played in the liberation of Caen on 9th July 1944 in Operation Charnwood
(Photograph: Nick-D)