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.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Action Across The Rest Of The Charnwood Front

British soldiers clearing rubble inside Caen on 9th July 1944

Previously I have described the progress of the units of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division, focussing in particular on the role and progress of the South Staffordshire battalions, in the centre of the line. To the left and to the right, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were fully engaged and hard pressed against the enemy.

The second phase of Operation Charnwood opened up at 0730 hours with zero hour preceded by a further aerial bombardment, this time from US B-26 Marauders who dropped a combined 133 tons of bombs over the front. Of the participating aircraft somewhat less than 50% of them were able to release their payloads as a result of smoke obscuring the target area.

On the ground, to the east, on the left flank, the 3rd Infantry Division made good progress in the face of the inexperienced 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. The 3rd passed through the village of LĂ©bisey before encountering stiffer resistance at HĂ©rouville. An attempt to reinforce the struggling 16th Luftwaffe Field Division was checked by an accurate naval barrage as the tanks of the 21st Panzer Division tried to cross the Caen Canal and the tanks withdrew.

Further advances towards Caen with the consequent decimation of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division prompted orders for the remaining troops of the 16th and the heavy armour of the 12th SS Panzer Division to withdraw across the Orne river. The remaining units of the 12th SS Panzer Division facilitated the withdrawal by fighting a rearguard action against the 59th and 3rd Infantry Divisions.

In the west, on the right flank of the assault, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were opposed by elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division, who in combat were far more effective than their Luftwaffe comrades to the east. The objective village of Buron was secured by noon on the 8th July by the Division’s 9th Infantry Brigade with support from the 10th Canadian Armoured Division. The ferocity of the defence put up by the 12th SS is evidenced by a 60% casualty statistic (killed, wounded or missing) for the 9th Brigade. It is worthy of note that whilst the 12th SS Panzer Division fought hard and well, the anti-tank actions of the Canadian 245th Battery and the 62nd Anti-tank Regiment were second to none. During a counter attack on Buron by the fearsome Panzer IV and Panther tanks, the Canadian anti-tank armoury accounted for no less than thirteen enemy tanks for the loss of four tank destroyers and four damaged.

A Panzer IV tank of the 12th SS Panzer Division near Caen

A Panther tank carrying troops during the Battle of Caen

The village of Gruchy was taken by the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, followed by Authie to the south, the capture of which was eased by the successful action of the 59th against St. Contest. Cussy was secured as the summer light began to fail. In this way, the front to the west of Caen was opened up for a further advance on 9th July.

By midnight of 8th July, the three attacking divisions were within 1km of Caen.

During the night of the 8th, the withdrawal of the 26th SS Panzergrenadiers delivered the strategically important Carpiquet airport into the hands of the 3rd Canadian Division. Early the next morning, the Allies started a slow penetration into the shattered streets of Caen itself. Progress towards the north banks of the Orne was hampered by rubble, being described as up to 20 to 30 feet high in places, booby traps set up as part of the retreat and well concealed snipers. In addition, the Germans laid down a deadly defensive fire from positions on the remaining bridges over the river. Nevertheless, the Royal Engineers worked hard to clear rubble and disarm the booby traps and cautious progress was made into the city such that the British and Canadian forces rendezvoused in Caen by early afternoon. By early evening of the 9th July, Caen up to the northern bank of the Orne was firmly under Allied control, thirty-four days later than originally envisaged by General Montgomery. The surviving troops of the three infantry divisions were utterly exhausted and the high casualty rates had depleted all units to the extent that any further advance on the reformed German positions south of the river was out of the question. Thus, Operation Charnwood came to a close.

Bernard Hoo, John MacCouville et J R Kostick of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, 8th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division stand at the western entrance to Caen on the afternoon of the 9th of July. This signpost marked the edge of Caen on the road from Bayeux.

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