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, 17 January 2015

A Word About ‘Bocage’

Bocage in the locale of St Lo in 1944

Any account of the Battle of Normandy that you care to read will for certain make reference to the ‘bocage’ and the influence that this ancient feature of the Normandy landscape had on the nature of the fighting in the engagements that took place to the south of Caen.

The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘bocage’ as follows:

‘n. 1. the wooded countryside characteristic of Northern France, with small, irregular-shaped fields and many hedges and copses. 2. woodland scenery represented in ceramics [c 17: from French, from Old French bose]'.

In their first engagements with the enemy, to the north of Caen, the ground was fairly open and, of course, as the fighting proceeded through the outskirts of the city and thence slowly into the centre, the soldiers struggled through a ruined cityscape subduing German resistance block by block, house by house.

It was in the terrain to the south of Caen that the troops first encountered the challenges presented by the Norman bocage. Typically, as described in the above definition, in bocage country small agricultural plots between which ran sunken lanes that were edged on either side with mature hedges, several feet in height and cultivated out of earth mounds.

This terrain was first encountered by the 59th during operation Pomegranate in the countryside to the south west of Caen.

Bocage provided coverage to the enemy that was second to none and a great asset to a defending army. To an attacking force such effective cover at close quarters presented a great danger of ambush.

A camouflaged Tiger tank in the bocage

Here I recall another anecdote of my Grandfather’s, seemingly one of a number of close escapes during his months in North West Europe. He and possibly the rest of his platoon or section were advancing through typical bocage terrain along the edge of a small holding. The objective was a farmhouse or outbuilding enemy position that had been causing the men a deal of trouble. Upon reaching the building, a lone German machine gunner surrendered. As the soldier was duly taken prisoner, my Grandfather took the opportunity to take up position behind the gun. He discovered that the gun was sighted along exactly the line of approach that he and his fellow South Staffords had taken in order to reach the machine gun position. The fact that the gunner did not open up on the advancing men may have been the action of a spent soldier who wanted out of the cauldron of Normandy. However, a more likely explanation is that the cover afforded by the bocage was so complete that the soldiers were upon the position before he could offer any effective resistance. It may well be that this small action occurred during the Battle of Noyers, however, sadly I have no way of ever knowing for sure.

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