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.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

59 (Staffordshire) Division in Ulster (1941 - 1943)

In crossing the Irish Sea, from Stranraer to Larne, the duty of the 59th was to take over from the 53 (Welsh) Division. This arrangement was very much to the benefit of the Welsh who took command of all of the equipment that the 59th had accumulated over the past months. Whilst the vehicles and weapons of the 53 (Welsh) were serviceable, they were a poor replacement for what had been left behind on the North East.

The troop exchange with the 53rd took two weeks towards the end of 1941. The three infantry brigades were billeted in the southern towns of Ulster close to the border with the then Irish Free State.  197 Brigade were in Newry and Keady, whilst the 177 Brigade found themselves in the coastal towns of Newcastle and Rostrevor and 176 Brigade were in the Killyleagh/Downpatrick area.

In addition to engaging in ever more realistic and strenuous exercises, part of the remit of the 59th in Northern Ireland was to prepare the region for a possible German invasion in the Southern counties of the neutral Irish Free State (coded ‘W’ plan which if triggered would have seen a British military occupation of the Free State) and maintain a wary eye on the activities of the I.R.A. with whom some conflict was anticipated in the event that the ‘W’ plan was executed.

Men of the South Staffordshire Regiment armed with 'Tommy guns' climb up onto a harbour wall during an amphibious exercise in Northern Ireland , 24 April 1942 (© IWM).

Concerning the possibility of German landings in the Free State, the concern was not unfounded. British Intelligence interceptions of German military traffic indicated that from May 1940 plans were afoot to land in Southern Ireland (Operation Green) . If successful, the invasion would have exposed Britain’s western flank as well as providing the Luftwaffe with a base from which to harry the UK mainland and vital Atlantic shipping.

Thankfully, no such invasion took place, but the possibility necessitated careful cooperation of the 59th Divisional Commander and the Chief of Staff of the Free State Army in Dublin.

Whilst in Northern Ireland the esprit de corps was further strengthened by a multitude of inter-unit sporting and recreational competitions.

These included:

Cross-country running

And even
German speaking
Verbal message taking (presumably military parlance for what I understand to be ‘Chinese Whispers’)

And still more bizarrely
A one act play

Wide ranging exercises continued apace, now involving American troops newly arrived in Londonderry and Belfast.

On 5th April 1942, Sir James Steele left the Division to take up command of 2 Corps. No man had done more than he in the life of the revived 59th to shape this body of enthusiastic amateurs into an effective fighting force. He was replaced by General W.R.A. Bradshaw, who continued Steele’s work in a similar vein.

Major General W.R.A. Bradshaw

In June of that year, the Division played host, albeit very briefly, to the King and Queen.

As a result of the Division coming under the command of a U.S. Headquarters, V Corps, the 59th participated in the first British and American combined exercise named Atlantic. Another notable exercise at this time was called Penguin, this pitched the 59th (in the capacity of would be invaders) against the Ulster Home Guard.

Changes in the command structure were also a feature of this period in the Division’s history. Brigadier Hawkins of 177 Brigade since 1939 was replaced by Brigadier Ekins.

Some of the training at this stage brought infantry and artillery into close cooperation in order to cement a relationship that is so crucial in the field. In one exercise called Punch, in which the 59th opposed 61 Division and 72 Independent Brigade on an around the Sperrin mountains in awful conditions of cold and rain, men of the Division were lost by drowning in a night time river crossing and in an explosion in one of the unit armouries.

The opening months of 1943 saw the last exercises in Northern Ireland which were carried out amidst rumors of a move back to England for the Division. Once confirmed at the start of February, the transfer itself took the form of another exercise (Exercise Boonton) which involved rail transportation of the entire Division from the six counties to Kent.

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