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, 21 June 2014

The Troubled Rebirth of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division

Disbanded after the Great War, as part of the demilitarisation in the UK, events in Europe and the inevitability of new major conflict saw the resurrection of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division. However, the evolution of the Division to the structure that landed in Normandy as a  follow-up formation in 21st Army Group in June 1944 is highly convoluted. This post covers the situation up to June 1940, the make up of the Division by D-Day was somewhat different again.

I’ll be honest and admit that the complexity of the recreation makes my head spin, but I have tried to put together a summary as I understand it from the unofficial history. I apologise in advance for any omissions or inaccuracies and I am happy to be corrected should anyone read this and know better than I.

What this complexity testifies to is the extent to which the General Staff was tripping over itself in its need to bring some structure to the British Army and its reserves in the last weeks of peace in the late summer of 1939.

The driving forces that shaped the 59th (Staffordshire) Division were a heady mix of logistics, shortages, tradition and regional pride.

The story begins with the creation of new battalions specifically equipped to defend the nation against invasion and aerial bombardment. After the World War I, which saw Zeppelin raids over many British towns, including London, advances in aviation came along on an exponential scale, to a large extent driven by recognition of the potential of aircraft in warfare. So it was that the nature of any future conflict was fairly well understood and air power was to be the key.

In recognition of the rapidly changing face of warfare in this modern age, in the inter-war years, existing Territorial Army (T.A.) artillery regiments were converted to Anti-Tank, Anti-Aircraft and Searchlight Battalions.

Those T.A. infantry divisions depleted by this reorganisation were disbanded and the remaining units were reallocated to other formations. As a consequence of this early redeployment, the 46th (North Midland) Division T.A. and the 139th (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigade T.A. ceased to exist. Remaining units were transferred to the 55th (West Lancashire) Division. Of the disbanded 139th, the 5th and 6th South Staffordshire Battalions and the 6th North Staffordshire Battalion were incorporated into the 166 (South Lancashire and Cheshire) Infantry Brigade, a part of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division. The shortage of reserve soldiers to fill the ranks of the reordered divisional units necessitated a deviation from the traditional structure of a Division. Thus it was that 55th (West Lancashire) Division (along with two other T.A. divisions) were designated as ‘Motor Divisions’, the difference from a standard division being that such mobile divisions had two of everything (infantry brigades, field artillery regiments and so forth) instead of the usual three.

In April 1939 with knowledge that conflict was unavoidable, the Territorial Army received an order to duplicate itself and so ‘duplicate’ divisions were created and manned. Clearly, with only the structure of divisions duplicated, great gulf existed  in terms of staffing, training and experience, between ‘original’ and ‘duplicate’ divisions. In August 1939, the 55th (West Lancashire) Divisional Commander insisted that the make up of the Division actually reflected its geographical designation (i.e. the Division would include only West Lancastrian units) and as such the 55th would be made up of units drawn from both the ‘original’ and ‘duplicate’ divisions. In likewise fashion, the Staffordshire units would form the duplicate 59th Division with the geographical ‘Staffordshire’ designation. This proposal was to have far-reaching consequences for the future 59th and other T.A. divisions.

Opinion of this demand was very much divided as one drawback of the proposal was obvious. In the event that the outbreak of war came quickly, rather than having one trained and one untrained division, the proposal if carried through would result in two divisions that due to the influx of ‘duplicate’ units would necessarily be considered to be untrained. Despite the logic of the argument the wishes of the 55th Divisional Commander were accommodated and the split was made along regional lines.

The 59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division came into existence.

At some point prior to August 1939, the 166 (South Lancashire and Cheshire) Infantry Brigade (itself within the 55th (West Lancashire) Division) changed its regional designation and became the 166 (Staffordshire) Infantry Brigade, then on 1st September, whilst on annual camp on the Gower peninsula, the 166th split into two infantry brigades, namely the 176 (Staffordshire)  and the 177 (Staffordshire)  Infantry Brigades. The infantry battalions that made up these two brigades are shown in the diagram below.

On 4th September, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, the transfer of all Staffordshire units from the 55th (West Lancashire) Division to 59th (Staffordshire) Division was affected.

That is not the end of the story though. On 23rd June, the incorporation of a third infantry brigade with its supporting arms, the 197 Infantry Brigade (transferred from the 66 Division, a duplicate of the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division) transformed the 59th from a motor division to a standard infantry division. The addition of 197 Infantry Brigade once again changed the its nature, moving it once again away from the regional division promoted by the 55th Commander the previous year, for the 197th comprised of the 1/5th Lancashire Fusiliers,  the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers and the 5th East Lancashire Battalions.

One further geographical anomaly warrants explanation. How was it that a Staffordshire division was home to men of Norfolk in the form of the 7th Royal Norfolk Battalion? A unit of each regiment serving with a second line formation was turned into a draft-finding unit to ensure that a flow of trained reinforcements into the Field Force units. However, as a consequence of the earlier split along regional lines, the 59th was no longer a second line division and the North Staffordshire Regiment had no battalions serving in a second line division. Therefore, in October 1942, 7th Battalion North Staffordshire Regt,  the junior battalion,  was transferred to a Lower Establishment division and replaced by the 7th Royal Norfolk Battalion. At the same time, the 1/5th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was replaced inn 197 Infantry Brigade by 1/7th Battalion Royal Warwicks.

This then is how, at least to my understanding, the infantry units of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division looked at the point where they crossed the Channel Normandy bound in June 1944.

And there you have it, I told you it was complicated. I am going for a lie down!

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