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, 30 August 2014

Operation Charnwood - The Germans

At the beginning of July, the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW) had made it clear that the defence of Caen remained a priority. Thus at the commencement of Operation Charnwood, the German forces opposing the British and Canadian formations were formidable.

12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend

Positioned on the left flank and centre.

The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was a unique formation composed of soldiers drawn from the Hitler Youth movement commanded by officers of the 1st SS Panzer Division Lebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler with combat experience gained on the Eastern Front. The command structure was supplemented with other officers transferred from army divisions.

Created in early February 1943, the Division was only declared as ready for combat operations in the first week of June 1944 on the eve of the Allied landings.

As members of the Hitler Youth, it was said that some of the Panzergrenadiers (essentially motorised infantry soldiers) were so young that the usual rations of tobacco and alcohol were replaced with sweets. And yet, as members of the Hitler Youth movement, these young men were steeped in Nazi ideology and fought their battles with a ferocity borne out of the indoctrination that they had received.

In action for the first time on 7th June 1944 (D-Day + 1) the Division suffered badly during the Battle of Normandy that saw their strength reduced from 20,000 soldiers at the beginning of June to the 12,000 that emerged out of the inferno that was the 'Falaise Pocket' in the last two weeks of August.

After Normandy, the Division saw further action fighting the Americans in the Ardennes and the Russians in Budapest. The end of their war came on 8th May 1945 when the remaining 10,000 soldiers of the 12th SS Panzer surrendered to US forces in Austria.

The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was most notably commanded by Kurt 'Panzer' Meyer.

The extreme youth of the soldiers of the The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend is evident from this photograph of a captured, wounded Panzergrenadier.

16th Luftwaffe Field Division

This was a formation born out of of political considerations. The brainchild of the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, the principle behind the Luftwaffe formations was to create additional units from the ground and support personnel of the Luftwaffe.

The rationale for the recruitment of Luftwaffe soldiers into new army formations was purely political in that Göring considered that elements of the Luftwaffe were formed of 'political soldiers', men who were completely aligned with the aims and ambitions of the Nazi state. To his view, this contrasted favourably with the conservative, traditionalist military outlook of the Wehrmacht.

From the point of the formation of such divisions in 1942, the intention was that they would be commanded by Luftwaffe officers. However, by 1943, military necessity meant that the Luftwaffe divisions became standard infantry divisions under army officer command. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe designation was retained.

As airmen, the Luftwaffe divisions were tasked to undertake duties that would release other infantry troops for front line combat. However, in the face of the Allied landings on 6th June 1944 such a role was no longer an option and the 16th Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen, to give it its German name, found itself opposing the experienced 3rd Infantry Division north-east of Caen.

In battle, the inexperience of the 16th in combat was a contributing factor in the progress of the 3rd Infantry Division on the left flank of the Charnwood fighting.

16th Luftwaffe Field Division near Colombelles to the east of Caen in July 1944
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-721-0353-27A / Vennemann, Wolfgang / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Operation Charnwood - The Allies

3rd Canadian Division

Positioned on the right flank of the assault.

A formation that landed on Juno beach on 6th June, by the close of D-Day, the 3rd Canadian Division had made the furthest advances into occupied France of any of the landing formations and it's D-Day objectives were secured on 7th June.

In the first week of Overlord the 3rd Canadian faced the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend in the environs of Carpiquet and inflicted considerable damage to their armour. On 4th July, the Division participated in Operation Windsor prior to the commencement of Operation Charnwood.

59 (Staffordshire) Division

Positioned in the centre of the line in front of the northern suburbs of Caen.

A follow-up formation described at length on this site.

3rd Infantry Division

Positioned on the left flank of the assault.

Also informally known as the 'Iron Division', like the 2/6th South Staffordshire Battalion, the 3rd Infantry Division had been part of the British Expeditionary Force that was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in late May/early June 1940.

The 3rd Infantry Division returned to France, landing on Sword Beach on 6th June and despite advancing 5 miles inland by the end of D-Day, German resistance halted the attack some three miles from the day's objectives of Caen and Carpiquet.

Memorial in Caen commemorating the D-Day landing of the 3rd Infantry Division and the role it played in the liberation of Caen on 9th July 1944 in Operation Charnwood
(Photograph: Nick-D)

Monday, 25 August 2014

59 (Staffordshire) Division Deployment for Operation Charnwood

From the excellent MorssWeb site:

59 Division Deployment

Objla Bijude, Epron
Opp: 1st Btn, SS PG Regt 25
ObjGalmanche, St. Contest, Mâlon
Opp: 2nd Btn, SS PG Regt 25
176 Infantry Brigade
  • 7 Royal Norfolk
  • 7 South Staffordshire
  • 6 North Staffordshire
under command:
  • A Company, 7 RNF (machine gun)
  • 271 Anti-tank Battery
  • 248 Anti-tank Battery (1 troop)
  • 13/18 Hussars (27 Armoured Brigade)
  • 116 Field Regiment RA
  • 257 Field Company RE
197 Infantry Brigade
  • 1/7 Royal Warwickshire
  • 2/5 Lancashire Fusiliers
  • 5 East Lancashire
under commmand:
  • 2/6 South Staffordshire (ex 177 Brigade)
  • C Company, 7 RNF (machine gun)
  • 298 Anti-tank Battery
  • 248 Anti-tank Battery
  • 1 East Riding Yeomanry (27 Armoured Brigade)
  • 270 Anti-tank Battery
  • 110 Field Regiment RA
  • 510 Field Company RE
RESERVE (Cambes-en-Plaine)Notes
177 Infantry Brigade
  • 5 South Staffordshire
  • 1/6 South Staffordshire
under command:
  • 269 Anti-tank Battery
  • 61 Field Regiment RA
  • B Company, 7 RNF (machine gun)
In support of 59 Division for Operation Charnwood:
  • 27 Armoured Brigade (less one regiment)
  • flails (22 Dragoons) and crocodiles (141RAC), 79 Armoured Division
  • ARE (less two squadrons)
  • 248 SP (M10) Battery, 62 Anti-tank Regiment

Operation Charnwood in Context

Priest self-propelled gun passes a Humber scout car of 79th Armoured Division, during Operation 'Charnwood', the attack on Caen, 8 July 1944 © IWM (B 6657).

'Operation Charnwood' was one of a series of actions that together made up I Corp's dogged attempts to take the city of Caen.

The ancient capital of the Normandy region was considered to be critical to the success of the Battle for Normandy. Caen was a D-Day objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division, but congestion at the beachheads on the 6th June leading to delays in moving off the beaches and the absence of the full complement of divisional armour meant that it was an understrength 3rd Infantry Division that assaulted the city. Timely reinforcement by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjungend caused the attack to falter on the outskirts of the city.

The early capture of Caen was of great strategic importance to the progress of 'Operation Overlord' since with the city in Allied hands, Caen would serve as a staging post for the advance to Falaise and then further east to Argentan and on towards the Touques river. The city and its surrounding areas would also provide airbases from which air support could be provided to the left flank of the US First Army as it advanced inland on the Cotentin Penninsula to the west.

With Caen still under German control after D-Day, there followed a series of operations intended deliver the city into  the hands of British and Canadian forces.

'Operation Perch' (7th June)
A pincer action intended to encircle the city with I Corps to the east, attacking from South of the Orne river and XXX Corps attacking across a front to the west. The eastern assault was halted by determined resistance from the 21st Panzer Division, whilst the western advance was checked at Tilly-sur-Seulles by the Panzer-Lehr Division. Tilly-sur-Seulles eventually fell to the XXX Corps on 19th June.

'Operation Martlet' (25th June)
A prelude to 'Operation Epsom' intended to secure the right flank of the VIII Corps.

'Operation Epsom' (26th June)
An VIII Corps action to the west of the city from Rauray in the west to Carpiquet in the direction of Caen. The objective was to gain control of the high ground at Bretteville-suer-Laize, once again with the intended outcome of an encirclement of the city. This action was opposed and halted by 9th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg of the II SS Panzer Corps.

'Operation Mitten' (27th June)
An 8th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division operation intended to capture the strongholds of Chateau la Londe and Chateau le Landel to the north of Caen. The objectives were secured on the morning of 28th June after heavy fighting which earned the area the grim epithet of 'the bloodiest square mile in Normandy'. The delay in achieving its objectives resulted in the cancellation of a planned Canadian action codenamed 'Operation Aberlour' which was to target the strongholds that 'Charnwood' attacked some days later.

'Operation Windsor' (4th July)
The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division attacked the village of Carpiquet and Carpiquet airfield on the western outskirts of Caen. The village was taken on 4th July, but the airfield still remained in German possession. With a change in command of the German forces in the west, Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, who favoured redeployment of the main German defences to positions opposing the US First Army, was replaced by Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge and the defence of Caen was once again the German priority.

With knowledge of the change within the German High Command, Montgomery opted for a frontal assault to the north of the city. The orders for 'Operation Charnwood' were issued on the 5th July 1944.

Map detailing the environs of Caen and the June and July operations that made up the Battle of Caen.

On the Eve Of Battle

Now concentrated, the Division then had two days (that is until 3rd July) to settle in. The exception to this was 177 Brigade (of which the 5th Battalion South Staffords formed a part, Grandfather included). Under the command of 1st Corps from 1st July, the 177 Brigade were to relieve the hard pressed 3rd Division, which had been the first British formation to hit ‘Sword’ beach on 6th June.

On 31st June the men of 177 Infantry Brigade moved up to the front line for the first time.

The 1/6th Battalion took over the line from the Royal Ulster Rifles at Cambes, a large village approximately four miles to the north of the besieged city of Caen.

The 2/6th Battalion moved to an orchard just south of the village of Anisy to the north of Cambes.

The 5th Battalion moved to the area of Galamanche slightly to the east of Cambes.

The movement of thousands of troops and tons of transport over the previous three weeks of a Normandy summer had resulted in the formation of a thick layer of dust across the terrain. This presented a risk as rising dust clouds gave away any troop movements in daylight. Dust allowed German observers to direct their artillery fire down onto the heads of formations on the move. Consequently, 177 Brigade were shelled as they moved into position, but on this occasion casualties were few.

A Humber scout car passes a sign warning of the dangers of raising dust, 12 July 1944 © IWM (B 7018)

The action in which my Grandfather was about to participate was codenamed ‘Operation Charnwood’

Portrait Of The Soldier As A Young Man

In all the time that I knew my Grandparents, this portrait of my Grandfather in his dress tunic adorned the living room wall. Later, after they died, this photograph was reunited with two similar portraits of my Grandmother and of my mother Margaret and uncle James. The photograph was hand tinted at this time. It is notable that my Grandfather appears rather swollen in the face in this picture and the story went that at the time of the sitting he was suffereing from excruciating toothache!