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, 29 June 2014

An English Idyll To A French Hell (February 1943 to June 1944)

In swapping rural Northern Ireland for semi-rural Kent, the 59 (Staffordshire) Division was required to take over responsibilities in the area from 3 Division, which in turn went north to complete assault division training.

Billeting in the region ran as follows:

197 Bridage: Shorncliffe and Folkestone
176 Brigade: Hawkhurst and Tenterden
177 Brigade: Hythe and New Romney

Still in a defencive role in the event of invasion or smaller raids, a heavy concentration of V.P.s required great vigilance. Not least among these was the Appledore wireless station which transmitted and received messages from Churchill himself.

At this point in the war, air raids occurred with great frequency over the coastal towns of Folkestone and Ashford. A raid on 24th March 1943 claimed the lives of 51 civilians, whilst all military personnel were spared.

With May 1943 emphasis shifted back to training exercises as the Division was relieved of its anti-raid duties by 38 Division. Exercises again concentrated on critical areas like effective infantry and artillery cooperation.

A major exercise, named Fortescue, took the whole Division across southern England to Salisbury Plain to prepare the troops for the rigours of static warfare. Having dug into slit trenches under the cover of darkness (use of air reconnaissance prevented movement during daylight hours), the infantry were removed to a safe distance, whilst with the benefit of the collected aerial photographs, the artillery peppered the area with all that their toy box contained. The purpose of the exercise was clearly two-fold 1) to validate the effectiveness of the of the infantry's digging in skills and 2) to give the opportunity for the artillery to further practice with the full range of its armour. With the smoke cleared, re-inspection showed the damage to the trench works to be modest proving a job well done.

On 27th June 1943 the 59 (Staffordshire) Division received the order to mobilise within one month. Seemingly it had made the grade.

With mobilisation complete, subsequent exercises addressed activities that were very specific to mass troop movements. Exercise Harlequin saw the Division get to grips with the process of moving through the embarkation areas and down to the front where the landing craft would be. At this point all communication with the civilian population ceased as the soldiers moved through the many-tented staging camps. Loading tables were prepared, revised and re-revised as the troop and transport logistics required. At the conclusion of the exercise, the Division reached the beach and promptly about turned.

It is interesting to note that this embarkation drill occurred across a considerable stretch of the south east coast from Whitstable (5th South Staffords) to Netheravon (7th Royal Norfolks). Such troop movements would not have passed unnoticed by the Germans, themselves concentrated only a few miles across the English Channel in the Pas de Calais. Hilter believed that when the landings occurred they would be in this area rather than further along the coast in Normandy. And so it was, at this point in time, that the ordinaty soldier of both of the opposing forces knew for sure whether these movements formed part of a bluff, or indeed a double bluff.

Further exercises focused on unit cooperation with all armour involved in three exercises that went under the name of Oaks, exercises having the objective of understanding how to locate enemy guns. Oaks I, II and III were enlivened by the use of live ammunition.

As the preparations for invasion intensified, so the divisional strength increased accordingly, being counted in late October 1943 as:

  • 1,147 officers
  • 21, 575 other ranks

On 31st October the Division moved to winter quarters with 177 Brigade moving to Dover where it experienced the sporadic shelling of the town from the 16 inch guns of Battery Linderman in Sangatte in the Pas de Calais.

One of the three 16-inch guns of Battery Lindermann, Sangatte.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-364-2314-16A / Kuhn / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

As was the usual with the meticulous ways of the German Army, each and every shell fired on Dover was recorded. After the war, this shell tally was recovered and presented to the townsfolk of Dover as a permanent record of what they endured over the 1940 to 1944 period.

The training instruction issued by the Divisional Commander on 28th November 1943 gave a clear indication that before too long the 59th would be expected to face the enemy over in France.

This he termed the ‘utility suit’ a fabric of command without which any of the embellishments of further training would amount to nothing in terms of carrying the men of the Division through the ordeals that were to come in a few short months.

In order to realise the requirements laid down in Major General Bradshaw’s instruction, the opening months of 1944 witnessed training effected at the personal and platoon level with much emphasis placed upon the fitness of the individual.

All units of the Division were at this time transferred over to the overseas pay systems.

The Division also had a second visit paid to them by King George VI.

The spring brought about another command change at the top, with Major General Bradshaw moving over on 17th March, after a two year tenure, to 48 Division. At the end of March, Major General L.O. Lyne took over the command, having been transferred from the Anzio beachhead following the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland.

Major General L.O.Lyne

The 59th Division were the last formation to be incorporated into 21st Army Group and within this Group they were the only division to be included that had not been a pre-war regular or territorial formation.

Major General Lynne’s early evaluation of his new division was that whilst clearly proud of the fact of inclusion in 21st Army Group, comprehension of the inevitability of active service in the near future was slower in coming. This presented a significant risk which was addressed by the transfer of officers with recent experience of combat conditions during the Italian campaign into the Divisional command structure. It fell to them to inject a degree of ‘war realism’ into the as yet untested soldiers.

Thus the experienced lectured the inexperienced in all aspects of what to expect in battle. More so than previously, exercises now concentrated on creating accurate simulations of the conditions in which the men could be expected to fight (manoeuvres in ‘moonlight’ created by diffused searchlight illumination, confused scenarios to test the improvisational skills of the officers etc etc).

A Divisional School was established which was to provide additional training in specialist areas. One particular function of the School was to address the preparation of reinforcements into new units. Experience gained in Italy showed that at certain periods in the fighting the incidence of desertion was unacceptably high. It was believed that the root cause of this was as a result of poor preparation of the reinforcements who were typically drafted into units of which they had no prior knowledge and in which they knew no one. This was to be rectified within the Divisional School with the introduction of a 48 hour spell of acclimatisation in which a replacement was familiarised with his new unit. Moreover, a rule was established whereby no soldier was to be committed into action  without the chance to get to know the man that he was expected to fight shoulder to shoulder with.

These measures, along with the creation of a Concert Party, served the Division well throughout their months in North West Europe and did much to maintain the morale of the men of the 59th.

With the start of April 1944 came a great tightening of security. Civilian movement in the coastal areas was curtailed, mail censorship was strictly enforced and restrictions were placed upon military radio traffic. At the same time vigilance against the threat of seaborne or parachute enemy raids was heightened.

On an administrative front, the Quartermaster worked incessantly to meet the age old logistical challenges presented when sending an army overseas to fight.

On 30th April, the code-word ‘Overlord’ was received by units along with the other coded terminology now forever associated with ‘D’ day.

In May, the 59th Division undertook what was to be its last exercise, Spes, in which it went through what would be its anticipated operational role the following month. This consisted of an advance against light opposition, an attack by an advance brigade supported by full artillery, with the follow up brigades then passing through to continue the forward movement.

By 5th June, the south east ports were a mass of ships, the decks of which were jam packed with troops and transport, all bound for the beaches of Normandy.

On ‘D-Day’, 6th June 1944, British, Canadian and American forces took the fight to the Germans.

The 59th (Staffordshire) Division had to wait a little longer for their opportunity to tackle Hitler. On the evening of 6th, representatives of all units were to be found in Canterbury Cathedral where the Bishop of Dover presided over a Service of Dedication. There then followed a march past, witnessed by the commander of XII Corps, Lieutenant General Neil Richie.

All thoughts were now with the progress of their fellow soldiers over the English Channel.

In little over a week, the 59th would fulfil their role as a follow-up formation and join up with the forces now fighting their way inland towards the city of Caen.

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