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.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

A Countdown To War - 1939

15th March 1939

Czechoslovakia surrenders after Adolf Hitler annexes the country into the Third Reich. Although the Czechs had warmly welcomed the Germans when they entered the Sudetenland months earlier, they stood silently in despair when the Nazis entered Prague.

Many historians are in agreement that if Britain and the other European powers ceased to appease Hilter and instead had taken military action against Nazi Germany during the Sudeten Crisis, the outbreak of world war could have been prevented. The military power of Germany at this point would have been overwhelmed by the standing armies of Britain and France. However, with German rearmament in full flow this imbalance was overturned by the outbreak of war some six months later.

31st August 1939

Germany's Adolf Hitler signs the order for an assault on Poland. After the Germans stage a phony raid on a Gleiwitz radio station, they blame the Polish for the "unprovoked attack."

1st September 1939

Without declaring war, Germany invades Poland. The coordinated air-and-land attack is conducted with such brutal efficiency that "blitzkrieg" becomes a feared offensive tactic.

Contemporary US Newsreel On The Outbreak of War

3rd September 1939

Honouring their treaty with Poland, France and Great Britain enter the war against Germany.

History has taken quite a dim view of Neville Chamberlain's leadership in the immediate pre-war years.With hindsight it is difficult to fault Churchill's warnings about the implications of Nazi foreign policy since the mid '30's. But, listen to the declaration of war as broadcast by Prime Minister Chamberlain on the 3rd September 1939 and it is impossible not to empathise with the man and understand, as best we can, the impact that these solemn words had on a nation that was just about getting back on its feet after the the horrors of The Great War, then less than a generation distant. It is easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight and with the visions of the camps in our minds, to look upon the efforts of appeasement in order to avoid another European War at any cost as a sign of weakness in the face of an aggressor. Looked at in the context of a country yet to be 'between the wars' the thinking has to change somewhat.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Jim Heath's Campaign Medals

By virtue of the role he played in both the UK and Europe whilst in uniform he was awarded four medals.

The Defence Medal

Awarded both to members of the auxiliary services (fire service, air raid precautions, police and ambulance services) as well as military personnel. The eligibility period ran from 3rd September 1939 to the 2nd September 1945 during which 3 years UK service or six months overseas in an area susceptible to air attack were necessary to quality (he satisfied both of these requirements). The head of George VI appears on one side, whilst the design of the reverse warrants some explanation. In the centre is an oak tree with two rampant lions on either side facing each other. The lions are depicted roaring upwards their right paws are protecting the tree whilst their left paws are raised protecting the tree and the Crown against attack from the air.

The ribbon consists of bars in three colours representing:

The green grass of England (green)
The flames from bombing (orange) and
The imposed nightly blackout (black)

The War Medal

Awarded to military personnel who served in the Second World War. It had the same qualifying period as The Defence Medal, but to receive the award a service period of only 28 days was required. Again, one side depicts George VI. The other side shows a two headed, beaked dragon upon which stands  a triumphant lion.

The ribbon has bars of red, white and blue.

The 1939-1945 Star

To be awarded this medal it was necessary to serve in an operational area for 6 months in the 3rd September 1939 to the 2nd September 1945 period.

The ribbon has three equal bars of dark blue, red and light blue representing the Navy, Army and Air Force.

The France and Germany Star

Awarded to those who served in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany between D-Day and VE Day (i.e. 6th June 1944 to 8th May 1945).

The ribbon has five equal stripes of blue, white, red, white and blue which represent the national colours Britain, France and Holland. Belgium it seems lost out in this design!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Notes On Sources

I have added a page to the site (see the right side bar) on which I have detailed the sources that I have consulted in preparing this site. This list will be added to as and when I can confirm new information in this history.

At this point I would like to extent special thanks to Robert Morss of Sanford, Maine for his encouraging words after I contacted him in connection with his excellent site dedicated to the history of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division in Normandy, the Division in which Jim spent the majority of the war.

As well as being linked elsewhere from this site, the 59th (Staffordshire) Division in WWII can be accessed from here. Discovery of this site really kick-started this project.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Briefest of Biographies

My Grandfather was born on 14th September 1914 (although throughout his life some confusion existed as to the accuracy of this date, the 19th being another contender). His given name of James Kitchener Heath reflected the patriotic fervour that was prevalent across the country in the early months of what was to become known as The Great War (then entering its sixth week) - see the footnote below.

He was born in the Knutton area of Newcastle-Under Lyme, Staffordshire.

At the time of his own enlistment he was employed as a baker's assistant.

Jim Heath aged approximately 16
(which would date the photograph to around 1930)

In 1936, along with his wife to be, June Griffiths (also of Stoke-on-Trent/Newcastle-Under-Lyme), he effectively eloped to Burgess Hill in West Sussex (then a small town to which his older brother George Heath has moved some time before). Jim Heath was to reside in Burgess Hill for the rest of his life.

June Heath (née Griffiths) in the 1930s

Then came the war......

After the war, he returned home to West Sussex and took up work at a local brick and tile manufacturer (it's difficult to keep a Staffordshire man away from a kiln!) where he remained until poor health, directly attributable to wounds received during his active service, forced him to take early retirement in 1977.

Of his wartime experiences, he spoke relatively little. He would though accommodate my near obsessive childhood thirst for stories related to war and the army generally. It is with great regret that I cannot recall with any clarity the majority of the tales that he retold to me on numerous occasions. It is equally with regret that by the time I truly developed a serious interest in establishing just what it was that he did in the war years, his memory was failing and what he did say was related in a very emotional way, which made broaching the subject rather difficult.

My Grandfather (who will hereafter be referred to as Jim) died in February 1995 in the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, West Sussex. He was cremated at Surrey and Sussex Crematorium with representatives of The Royal British Legion in attendance.

He lies (with his wife June who died three years earlier) in the graveyard of St Andrews Church in Burgess Hill.

* Lord Kitchener (1st Earl Kitchener) was Secretary of State at the oubreak of the hostilities of the First World War. He was responsible for mustering volunteers to join new formations in 1914. His imposing image adorned recruitment posters, exhorting young men to join up with the words 'Your Country Needs You!. Drowning on a voyage to Russia on 5th June 1916, he did not live to see the soldier's in the so called 'Kitchener;s Army' go into action for the first time on 1st July 1916, the first day of The Battle of The Somme.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

What Did You Do In The War Grandad?

How's this for an inauspicious start to understanding and further researching a family member's military career. I mentioned in the introduction to this blog that in terms of first hand source information this is pretty much presented here in its entirety.... written on the reverse of a tea stained envelope.

And here it is......

A check of the addressed side shows that the letter was delivered to my Grandfather's house in Burgess Hill, West Sussex and it is postmarked with the date 27.11.92. This means that my Grandfather was 78 years old when he recalled these locations and committed them to paper.

The list reads as follows (spelling uncorrected):

  • D Day
  • Aromanches
  • Rouen
  • Caen
  • Bolbek (ENSA)
  • Le Harve
  • Falaise Gap
  • Clark's Forces
  • Corridor
  • Ardennes
  • Corridor
  • Nymegan
  • Arnhem
  • Bruxels
  • Belgium Engine
  • Home
  • Schwarine
  • Baltic Coast
  • Belsen
  • Home way of 1st Canadian Hospital
  • 108
  • (obscured) British

Now I know that this was put together in roughly chronological order and looking at it, it follows a logical route from the Normandy beaches, through France, into Belgium and Holland with the Allied Forces throughout 1944. Jim ended his period of service in an administrative role within the infamous Belsen (Bergen-Belsen) concentration camp within Germany itself.

Many of the names on this list speak for themselves, known from a combination my own interest in the history of the Second World War, a reasonable knowledge of the Geography of Europe and too many dreary Sunday afternoons spent watching war films under duress (Dad dominated the TV in the late '70's!). Other names are more challenging, but where possible I want to investigate the significance of each name on this list.