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, 7 September 2014

The Battle - Operation Charnwood

Zero hour for the attack was set at 4.20 am of the 8th July. Seconds before the allotted time, a few guns stuttered to herald the start of the attack. Instantly these guns were joined by the the roar of the Division's supporting artillery (the 61, 110 and 116 Field Artillery Regiments) as they opened up on the German fortified positions. Additional supporting fire came in from the sea courtesy of the big guns of the Royal Navy. HMS Belfast, Roberts, Emerald and Rodney, anchored in the beach-head added significant weight to the bombardment, termed the 'Monty barrage'.

'HMS 'Belfast', Normandy, 8 July 1944'
by Francis Russell Flint

As the barrage continued, so the men of the South Straffordshire Regiment formed up at their designated start line in front of Galamanche.

As a result of the haste with which the infantry battalions of the Division were deployed, the opportunity for detailed and accurate reconnaissance was limited, but such was the reality of the mobile and reactive warfare. Nevertheless, unfortunately the expected single opposing company was in fact an extremely well equipped reinforced battalion whose compliment of mortar and machine guns was supplemented with a good supply of anti-tank weaponry. 

It was under these conditions that the 2/6th Battalion (temporarily under the command of 197 Brigade) advanced towards Galamanche. By virtue of the smoke and dust raised by the artillery barrage, visibility from the start line was reduced to 30 yards and as the troops moved forward, they were rapidly swallowed up in the man made fog of war that enveloped the cornfields that separated them from the bristling German positions.

What was ahead of the advancing units of the 176 and 197 Infantry Brigades was an extremely well organised defensive line, consisting of well established trenches connecting the massively fortified village strongholds that they had been ordered to take. Whilst deficient of tank support at the onset of the action, the German positions were strongly defended by light and heavy machine gun posts, well concealed snipers and the fanatical resistance put up by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend  panzergrenadiers who took to the fight with a zeal borne out of indoctrination of the ideals of Nazism.

The demonstrated ability of the defenders to recover from the aerial and artillery bombardment during the six hours prior to the advance testifies to the integrity of the German line in front of Caen.

A Waffen SS soldier pictured in the summer of 1944 in the Caen region carrying an MG-42 of the type that halted the advance of 'A' and 'C' Companies of the 2/6th South Staffordshire Regiment on 8th July 1944
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1983-109-14A / Woscidlo, Wilfried / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Within the 2/6th Battalion 'A' and 'C' Companies had advanced approximately 200 yards at which point concentrated fire from the German MG-42's, commonly known as Spandaus to the British,from both forward and rear positions, pinned the attackers down in the mediocre cover that the cornfields afforded. For a time the only offensive fire was maintained by the barrage. Accurate and effective artillery support was hampered by high casualty rates amongst NCOs and wireless operators who would otherwise direct the fire. Eventually, two troops of Sherman tanks moved up to assist but were obliged to withdraw in the face of heavy mortar fire. The tank withdrawal was aided by a covering smoke screen achieved by the mortars of 'A' Company of the 2/6th.

As the morning wore on, casualties started to return towards the rear passing through the attacking formations. In addition, a trickle of German prisoners started moving backwards towards the British rear. 

On the left flank of the attack, the 6th North Staffords of the 176 Brigade successfully captured the objective of La Bijude by 0730 hours, only to be forced back in a rapid counter attack. The two advance companies of the 6th North Staffords found themselves in an area just north of the cross roads between La Bijude and the infamous Chateau de la Londe, experiencing heavy casualties in the process.

Chateau de la Londe, Normandy in 1944. A key objective of the fighting in the area described as 'the bloodiest square mile in Normandy'. East Yorkshire and Suffolk regiments ultimately took this SS stronghold

In parallel with the 6th North Staffords, the 2/6th South Staffords were likewise taking heavy casualties on the right flank. At the same time 1/6th South Staffords were also encountering stiff resistance to the left of both the 2/6th and 5th Battalions. The latter formation looked on with frustration as their brothers-in-arms and in some cases brothers by blood forged ahead into the maelstrom of the battle.

It was not until midday of the 8th that 5th Battalion first received orders to move into an area that would support the efforts of the 2/6th whereby 'C' Company were positioned to oppose any enemy counter-attacks whilst 'D' Company, under the command of Major McIntyre was, alongside the 2/6th, to attack and capture the SS stronghold of St Contest Chateau.

By 1pm signalers were able to get the message back that the remnants of the leading companies of the 2/6th and 5th Battalions had gained the upper hand in St Contest and were fairly well established, except for an area within the orchard to the south of the village in which small numbers of Germans were still offering resistance.

Over to the left, the 1/6th Battalion were being harried by snipers in the environs of Cambes Wood. Within the wood, the resistance was overcome by members of the Battalion's own sniper section that accounted for 6 German snipers for no loss of their own. With this resistance overcome, the rest of the day was spent in consolidating the current positions and digging in.

In the evening, at approximately 8.30pm, in the half light, 'D' Company of 5th Battalion attacked the Chateau, but their attempt to take the building faltered as a result of the fierce resistance put up by the defenders. 'D' company reassembled with the intention of resuming the attack at dawn on the morning of 9th.

In the meantime, at 9pm, 7th Battalion passed through its beleaguered sister battalions to assault the Chateau. Advancing across the railway line to the east of the building 'B' Company and 'D' Company encountered heavy machine gun and mortar fire. In an attempt to outflank the defenders, one platoon of 'B' Company veered round to the right flank but in doing so became caught in an enemy minefield and suffered heavy losses as a consequence. Support of the attack from Sherman tanks across open land was of little use as they encountered accurate fire laid down by German 88 mm anti-tank guns and thus withdrew from the fray.

'B' Company eventually crossed the railway line, but any further advance was halted as the British reached a system of extensive trench works and dug-outs. Vicious hand to hand fighting ensued resulting in the award of the Military Medal to Private Rutter of the 7th Battalion.

As night fell, the two attacking companies were withdrawn with 'C' Company stepping up to defend against a possible counter attack.

Sherman tanks advance towards Epron, north of Caen, during Operation 'Charnwood', 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6749)

By the morning of 9th July, the objective of La Bijude had fallen to the 1/6th Battalion, only the fortified position of Malon held out. The position, directly in front of the 1/6th and about 600 yards from Cambes Wood was stormed at dawn by soldiers of the 6th North Staffs, who after a hard fight gained control of Cambes by noon.

For the 59th, this action marched the end of the Battle of Caen. Elsewhere, the combined efforts of the men of I Corps had secured the the territory of the city up to the north banks of the Orne, but at a heavy cost. The official casualty figures (killed and wounded) for the 2/6th South Staffordshire Regiment up to 0600 hours of 11th July are as follows:

  • 16 Officers
  • 199 Other Ranks

At 4.20am in the predawn of 8th July the men of 59th (Staffordshire) Division stood apprehensively on the start line ahead of their first action, alone with their thoughts and prayers. In the following 36 hours all the toil and training of the previous four years was put to the test in the field. By the close of the 9th July they emerged from 'Operation Charnwood' as battle tested soldiers of the British Army.

Infantry of the 59th Division dug in on the outskirts of Caen, 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6760)

This for many, including my Grandfather, was the start of a long campaign that would take them through France, Belgium, The Netherlands and into the Reich itself before the tyranny of Nazism was overcome ten months later.

Lancashire Fusiliers (59th (Staffordshire) Division) crawl cautiously through a cornfield near St Contest, 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6754)

Carriers and infantry advance across a field of wheat near St Contest, 9 July 1944 © IWM (B 6755)

Infantry and carriers of 59th Division advancing during fighting around Caen, 11 July 1944 © IWM (B 6866)

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