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.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

St. Contest and Galamanche - 11th May 2014

Arial view of St. Contest showing the location of the Church and Chateau

Having spent a full Saturday driving along three quarters of the Overlord front (Utah on the Contetin Penninsula being a little too far when we were hungry and I, as non-driver, had my sights set on assaulting a beer in the nearby town of Bayeaux!) we headed back to our hotel to consider which sites relevant to the 59th we were going to head for in the morning.

As our hotel was located in the north of Caen it was logical that we should initially head into the area where Operation Charnwood played out.

A few days before leaving for Normandy, as a result of contacting the Staffordshire Regimental Museum, I had been sent a chapter of ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’ that documented the actions of the Regiment throughout the Normandy campaign. Armed with this detailed account we aimed to locate the chateaux of St. Contest which had been the scene of such fierce fighting on the night of the 8th July.

Even equipped as we were with a detailed road map of the area, the unique nature of French road signs and their tendency to present the information that they are intended to convey against the direction of travel meant that we took considerably longer than anticipated to locate St. Contest and its church spire.

St. Contest Church

Parking up in front of the church, we left the vehicle to cross the road to the location of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.

Memorial to the 59th (Staffordshire) Division
St. Contest, Normandy

The simple plaque commemorates the role played by the men of the 59th Division in the St. Contest area on 8th and 9th July that was ultimately to lead to the liberation of Caen.

The fighting in St. Contest and neighbouring Galamanche centred on the 'chateau', then occupied by the SS.

Of this chateau I recall an often repeated anecdote of my Grandfather's that involved a house (as he described it) the ground floor of which was occupied by two British soldiers whilst, unbeknownst to them, the upper floor was the chosen residence of many German soldiers. In my childish mind's eye, I equated this house to something like the council house that my Grandparents lived in (my points of reference were somewhat limited at that age!). The story continued that the two British soldiers emerged from the property unscathed and still unaware of their overnight co-habitees! Such was the unusual nature of this unintentional close encounter with the enemy that the story was relayed back to the UK where it appeared in the national press in the days that followed.

Imagine then my surprise when I read the following passage in the account of the St. Contest action as recounted in ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’.

'Two men of D Company of the 5th Battalion [South Staffordshire Regiment], unknown to each other, had spent the night inside the chateau with the Germans without the enemy knowing of their presence, although both knew the Germans were there. As dawn broke one man crawled away, but was quickly followed by a German with a bayonet clenched in his hands. The other man, Private Parker, looking through a slit, saw what was happening and set off in pursuit. Just as the German was about to rush forward to make his kill, Private Parker killed him with his bayonet thus saving his comrade's life. Private Parker, who was killed at a later date, was awarded the Military Medal'.

So here I had, for the first time, courtesy of the above printed passage a concrete correlation between a contemporary written account of the battle* and one of my Grandfather's rare recollections of his part in the fighting. There were some differences in the detail and my Grandfather spared me the gory conclusion, but I am convinced that both book and anecdote describe one and the same event.

The task was now to locate the chateau and to place it within the context of the fighting.

Looking at the pen and ink map of St. Contest and Galamanche as it appears in ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’ a roughly square feature to the right of the church was a logical candidate for the chateau. 

Access to the property (at least from this side) was via a gate which runs onto a courtyard in front of the house.

Having found what we believed to be our chateau, I was ever keen to photograph the property for this site**. As I snapped away through the gate my actions clearly aroused the suspicions of the owner who emerged from the building in order to establish exactly why two black-clad strangers were busy photographing his rather desirable house. In fairness to him, in his shoes I would not have been impressed either! Anticipating another poor reception from an irate Frenchman (two days previously, some words had been exchanged over parking with a rather unpleasant farmer at the gates of Serre Road Cemetery No. 1 in the Somme region), we moved forward to greet the owner.

On this occasion, our expectations were unfounded, as once we explained the reason for our visit in rusty school French aided by English pointing (in the direction of the memorial), and our interest in his house he was very obliging. The owner, whose name I am sorry to say I didn't get, confirmed that our assumptions were correct and that his property had indeed been the focal point of the fighting in the area in July 1944 since it was serving as an SS Panzer Headquarters. As an H.Q. at the time of the fighting, the chateau would have been bristling with machine-gun posts dug into a warren of interlocking trenches and well concealed snipers would have been in position to pick off unfortunate individuals. One such sniper was positioned in the bell tower of the adjacent St. Contest church. Moreover, the owner was happy to snap away. In one photograph the scars of the fighting can still be seen on the building. Were the pump on the front of the building still required to draw up water from a nearby well, more than one bucket would be required for collection as the pump is riddled with bullet holes (supposedly thanks to the efforts of the bell tower sniper).

View of the Chateau through the gate on the corner of the 'square' of St. Contest
(note the owner on his way out).

The front aspect of the Chateau
(Owen engages the owner as best he can!).

The bullet holed water pump.

The Chateau looking in the direction of St. Contest Church.

The grounds of the Chateau, showing outbuildings on the other side of the gate.

The bell tower of St. Contest church from which a German sniper operated.

After taking these photographs and exhausting our very limited French vocabulary, we parted with the owner who returned to his kitchen and lunch preparations whilst we headed off in the direction of the nearby Cambes-en-Plaine cemetery.

I have to say that the time we spent locating St. Contest and the time spent looking over the exterior of the Chateau were quite emotional for me. On the preparation of this blog, I have described to people how it has once again brought me very close to my Grandfather twenty years after his death. In St. Contest, to be standing in exactly the place where he fought as a young soldier of 'A' Company on 8th July 1944 was, for wont of a better word, surreal.

* ‘Your men in battle; the story of the South Staffordshire Regiment- 1939-45’ is a compilation of official and unofficial reports by the officers of the regiment that was published by the Wolverhampton Express and Star in 1945).

** Not long after this visit the confusion about the Chateau objective of the 59th was resolved. Whilst as already stated the Grand Farmhouse located in St. Contest was indeed fought over, it was the Chateau in Galmanche, a couple of kilometers away that was the focus of the SS defence.

Later I was able to find an old postcard of the building prior to the fighting.

Chateau de Galmanche in more prosperous times.

This RAF aerial reconnaissance photograph clearly shows the importance of this position and the lengths that the German SS units went to defend it on the outer limits of Caen.

In the fighting of the 8th and 9th July and in subsequent bombardments the Chateau de Galmanche was reduced to rubble, the cornerstone of the building becoming the 59th Staffordshire Division memorial on the small square of St. Contest.

However, a small memorial honours the fallen of the 59th close to the site of the former Chateau.

Memorial to the 59th (Staffordshire) Division
(Photograph courtesy of Bert Bamford of the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment)

It is worthwhile to compare the original Chateau with the more modest version that replaced it. Notably the spiraled wrought iron gates of the original have been reproduced.

Galmanche today.

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