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, 12 July 2014

The Waiting Ends – The 59 (Staffordshire) Division Sail

On 17th June, the long anticipated orders came through for the 59th to proceed to the marshalling areas ahead of embarkation. The advance parties of the Division departed on the same day, with the man body of men moving of on the following day, 18th June, destination Newhaven in East Sussex. The exception to this transit to the Sussex coast was the 2/6th South Staffords who accompanied the divisional transport to Tilbury Docks on the Essex stretch of the Thames.

Further frustration was felt within the Division when poor weather conditions resulted in the troops kicking their heels in the marshalling areas for another full week.

Immediately ahead of embarkation, the morale of the Division was lifted by receipt of the following stirring words in a message from their colonel, Major-General Comings.

Speech delivered to units of 59 (Staffordshire) Division on the eve of departure to the Normandy beaches.
Click on the image to enlarge.

Eventually, the Division sailed on 25th June, meaning that, as mentioned in an earlier post, ‘D-Day’ for my Grandfather and his brothers-in-arms was in fact 26th June 1944.

Such was the compression of the transport timetable as a consequence of the bad conditions that the advance parties, intended to receive the Division in Normandy, only arrived 24 hours ahead of the main body of troops and transport.

On 26th the weather was still poor, but it proved to be an uneventful crossing for my Grandfather who was with ‘A’ Company of the 5th South Staffords. The same cannot be said for his battalion comrades of ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies whose landing craft developed a fault and consequently drifted into a minefield. A helpful destroyer of the Royal Navy came to their aid and gave them safe-passage through a clear channel to the beach.

The 2/6th Battalion transport (including Battalion H.Q.) likewise did not have such an easy time of it as bad weather kept them off the beaches for several days before they were able to land. A rough ordeal for these Midland men with limited experience of the high seas!

Some sources state that the 59th Division landed on the British/Canadian ‘Juno’ beach, however, another detailed account of the South Staffordshire Regiment’s active service* clearly describes a landing on the eastern extreme of the British ‘Gold’ beach with the ‘tiny seaside villages of Arromanches and Tracy-sur-Mer on the right'.

View over 'Gold' Beach (looking East)
10th May 2014

A landing at Arromanches seems most likely, at least for the 5th Battalion and is consistent with my Grandfather’s envelope ‘chronology’ that states Arromanches as the first location after D-Day.

The village of Arramanches (looking West from the headland over 'Gold' Beach)
10th May 2014

Marker on the Arromanches observation platform

The fact that the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches was up and running by 26th June (or at least Mulberry B was, Mulberry A having been badly damaged in a storm on 19th June) would also suggest to me that this would have been the logical landing location for a follow up formation such as the 59th.

Remaining fragments of the Mulberry artificial harbour
10th May 2014

Panorama of the Mulberry artificial harbour from the radar station (now observation platform above Arromanches
(excuse the noise, it was very windy up there!)

An aerial oblique photograph of the Mulberry Harbour off Arromanches. Artificial harbours were constructed along the beach shortly after D-Day so that armoured vehicles and heavy guns could be landed (© IWM (BU 1024))

However, again from the ‘Your Men In Battle’ record, reference is made to the fact that as a consequence of minimal opposition by the enemy, water-proofed tanks (presumably DD or Duplex-drive tanks) were able to wait for low tide in order to drive up onto the beach in very shallow water rather than in the anticipated deep water of a high tide. This suggests that some, if not all, of the transport landed directly from boat to beach rather than via the pontoon roadways that connected floating quays with the beach at Arromanches (centre of the photograph above).

Sherman DD (Duplex Drive) amphibious tank with waterproof float screens. When in the water the float screen was raised and the rear propellers came into operation © IWM (MH 3660).

DD Sherman tank (with canvas curtain now raised) takes to the water.

Any clarification as to exactly how the Division landed in Normandy would be gratefully received!

As indicated above, in stark contrast to the hellish reception of sand, steel and blood endured by the troops who landed on 6th, all was quiet and the Germans were no longer in evidence. The indicators of war were limited to ‘a broken-backed landing craft’ on the beach and the roar of Allied aircraft overhead.

Inland the situation was very different indeed, a fact well understood by the South Staffords as the Division concentrated in the area between Bayeux and Cruelly. Given the delays, this concentration was achieved very rapidly and by 1st July, the Division was in one place, less elements of the Royal Army Service Corps (R.A.S.C.).

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