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.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

‘Halt Or I’ll Fire!’ – The 59th Protects*

With the Divisional structure stabilising, it was the role of such Territorial formations to take on the responsibility of ensuring the security of so called ‘V.P.s’, a military acronym for ‘Vulnerable Points’. These included locations such as ports, power stations, railway hubs and other sites deemed to be essential to maintaining the country’s ability to fight a war.

In the first months of the war, the 176 Brigade found themselves in the Liverpool-Birkenhead area guarding the vitally important dockyards. The 177 Brigade remained in Staffordshire undertaking specialised training when not safeguarding V.P.s in the counties of Staffordshire and Cheshire.

At the end of April 1940 the entire 177 Brigade transferred to the east coast of England to defend the port towns of Hull (2/6th South Staffords) and Grimsby (5th South Staffords). Only the 1/6th South Staffords were in absence since they had progressed to France to join with the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force). Their fighting (up until the Allied Invasion) concluded with the evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk, a bitter memory that they took back to the continent when they returned to Normandy in June 1944.

Whilst in the environs of Grimsby, training continued, including instruction on the use and maintenance of weapons which the Brigade had yet to see. The kitting out of the Brigade was slow from the outset, a situation that was hugely compounded by the aforementioned evacuation of the B.E.F. from Dunkirk, as a result of which, huge quantities of amour were left behind.

After Dunkirk, the situation looked extremely bleak for Britain, with British forces depleted of weapons and armour and back in England. The Battle of France concluded with the signing of an armistice on 22nd June 1940, which consequently saw Britain standing alone in Europe against the so far triumphant armies of the Third Reich. 

With the regular army in a state of disarray in the southern counties, the 59th (Staffordshire) Division faced up to a possible, if improbable, invasion across the North Sea from occupied Norway. The Staffordshire men rose to the task of defending the eastern shorelines against such a seabourne threat. Miles of trenchworks were dug and concrete roadblocks and pill boxes were constructed and positioned at strategic locations under the watchful supervision of the Royal Engineers (R.E.). At the same time, night time ‘war games’ exercises were taking place to improve the readiness of the Division in the event of a north east coast invasion.

With the reincorporation of the 1/6th South Staffords, bloodied but unbowed after the ordeal of Dunkirk, the summer witnessed numerous visits to Divisional units in the north east by the great and the good of the Establishment, including then Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, the Duke of Gloucester and none other than old Winnie himself.

On 23rd June 1940, the Division was brought back up to the full complement of infantry brigades with the addition of the 197 Infantry Brigade, comprising the 1/5th and 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers and the 5th East Lancashires in terms of infantry and other supporting units. Also at this time, some units of the Division suffered early fatalities as a result of Luftwaffe night time bombing raids targeting the coastal towns where they were stationed.

The first full year of the war saw the 59th (Staffordshire) Division beginning to undertake duties and functions as a fighting body of men in the face of great inexperience and extreme shortages in equipment, not least weapons, but with a full store of enthusiasm to take the fight to the enemy.

In the unofficial history of the 59th, the activities of the Division throughout 1940 are summarised as follows:

a) Mobile reserve for 10 Corps
b) Anti-parachutist duties
c) Counter-attack on aerodromes
d) Aid to the civil powers
e) Defence of the coastline from Filey to Blackhall Rocks

In October of 1940, 59th Division left the coast and moved into winter quarters and training continued into the first months of 1941.

The appointment of a new Divisional Commander on 15th February 1941, one General Sir James S. Steele, was to have a profoundly positive effect on the preparedness of the Division as a Field Force.

General Sir James S. Steele

Steele brought the weight of his forceful personality to bear on the Division and in doing so rose their profile and placed them firmly on the map. 

A flavour of his methods and that ‘forceful personality’ can be gleaned from the wording of his first Training Instruction in which he laid out his aspirations for the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.

To this order he added with measured pragmatism,

‘I do not expect all this to happen at once, but we must get a move on.’

To achieve these lofty targets, the focus of the Division had to change and thus it was that the security function of the Division gave way to intensive training, this was accompanied by a parallel scaling down of the administrative work involved in the running of the Division. Focus on training was also facilitated in February 1941 by the taking up of east coast defensive duties by the newly established Northumbrian, Durham and North Riding Divisions.

At this point in time, the Divisional strength was 679 officers and 15,260 other ranks.

Training was interrupted by further stints of coastal defence in order to relieve other troops for training purposes.

In the summer of 1941, the Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, Sir Alan Brooke, inspected the Division and in an Order of the Day, the Divisional Commander recorded that Brooke had ‘sensed atmosphere’ and an ‘eagerness in the eyes’ observations which showed the Division ‘to be on it’s toes’. Things were shaping up very well for the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.

The summer of 1941 saw continued movements of all three of the Division’s infantry brigades, progressing around the north east of the country once more, participating in exercises and strengthening the defences in the region further still, again under the watchful eyes of the R.E.

On the subject of exercises, ‘The 59th Division – Its War Story’ at this point records a fantastic example of improvisation that could easily have been scripted by Perry and Croft for an episode of ‘Dad’s Army’! In the absence of thunderflashes the task of simulating the noise and confusion of battle befell appointed ‘umpires’, distinguished by a white armband, whose responsibility during exercises was to manoeuvre across the ‘battlefield’ in order to surprise soldiers with vocal  imitations of machine guns, mortar fire etc etc. Ludicrous as these arrangements undoubtedly were, the aim of these exercises (to prepare the men for the real combat experience that all knew lay ahead) was deadly serious.

In October 1941, the 18 month stay by the Division in the North East of England came to an end as the entire 59th Division decamped to Northern Ireland.

*In this post I have focussed on the known movements of the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment (as part of 177 Brigade). It should be noted that at this point my Grandfather had yet to be transferred to the 5th South Staffs. That transfer from the North Staffordshire Regiment occurred on 10th June 1940. However, his activities between arriving at Lichfield I.T.C. and the time of transfer are unrecorded. Therefore, I have included known information about the movements of the 177 Brigade in the months prior to his transfer.

No comments:

Post a Comment