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

The Battle for Noyers – The 5th South Staffordshire Regiments Second Engagement (Phase I)

The remains of a farm, Noyers June/July 1944

In the aftermath of Operation Charnwood (7th to 9th July) all four battalions of the South Staffordshire Regiment (1/6th, 2/6th, 5th and 7th Battalions) were taken out of the line for a rest and to allow units to reorganise after their first blooding in and around the villages of Bijude and Galamanche.

A mere 48 hours after going into reserve, the South Staffords received orders that they were to participate in an action intended to secure the fortified village of Noyers located in the centre of the Pomegranate front line. Across this front, 59th Division occupied the centre with the 49 (West Riding) Division and 53 (Welsh) Division on their right and left flanks respectively.

The intention of Operation Pomegranate was to enlarge the Normandy bridgehead and if things went well to break out of it.

The village of Noyers was heavily defended and was itself approximately three miles inside the German lines. With limited objectives the plan of attack for the men of South Staffordshire was as follows:

1/6 Battalion were to attack on the right or north side of the Caen to Noyers railway.
5 Battalion were to attack on the left or south of the railway line
2/6 Battalion were held back along with tank support to exploit any successes on either side with the objective of getting into Noyers if at all possible.

Each battalion was to have the usual support from artillery and mortar formations.

In this third week of July, the British and Canadian forces were holding a line that ran from the bridgehead across the River Orne to the north of Caen, through Caen and onto Tilly in the west. To the south of Caen, the village of Noyers formed the approximate location of Montgomery’s hinge within which it was crucial to hold up the German forces (their heavy armour in particular) for as long as humanly possible in order to facilitate a rapid breakout of the US 1st Army, then fighting down through the Contentin Penninsula to the north west.

Two problems immediately presented themselves to the attacking forces, the first was the bocage, the network of high, dense, mature hedgerows that were a defending army’s ideal terrain, and the second was the thorough defensive measures that the German’s had employed. Six weeks into the Normandy campaign brought the German Army to the realisation that the original intention to drive the Allies back into the sea had dispersed like so much smoke on the battlefield. Emphasis shifted to a plan of determined defence with every yard of ground to be fought over. Villages in the area, as well as the approaches to Noyers itself, were laid thickly with mines.

Five minutes in advance of ‘H’ hour at 0530 hours, the artillery opened up with the established tactic of pinning the defenders down whilst alerting the enemy of the immanency of an attack. Under the barrage of guns in their hundreds, the supporting  tanks rolled over the start line.

1/6th South Staffords, under the overall command of Lieutenant-Colonel D.G.B. Ridout was formed up as follows:

  • ‘A’ Company (under Major T.J. Rutherford) with the objective of the woods and outbuildings of the village of Brettevillette.
  • ‘B’ Company (under Major Brian Barber) who were to attack a known enemy position located in a group of buildings halfway along the road between Brettevillette and Quediville.
  • ‘C’ Company (under Captain Mervyn Seldon) on the left , with Quediville as its objective.
  • ‘D’ Company (under Major Jerry Roy) was held in reserve in order to pass through ‘A’ Company and capture the remainder of Brettevillette and to take the forward positions of Bordel if the opportunity presented itself.

1/6th ‘A’ Company progress into the orchards of Brettevillette was seriously hampered by the now to be expected heavy and accurate mortar fire, but eventually the orchard objective was reached, albeit at a high cost in terms of casualties.

A notable deed within the Company is worthy of mention here.

‘The platoon assaulted according to plan, but the opposition was fierce. Lieutenant J. Lunn, commanding No. 7 platoon, did some fine work, but immediately afterwards was seriously wounded and died some time later. All three platoons by now had entered the first orchard, but were pinned down to the ground by withering fire.

Company H.Q., following closely, also got into the orchard. Casualties were now mounting, among them being Lance-Corporal Preston who was carrying the wireless set. He was killed in a minefield and, as communication to bring down supporting fire was essential, Private C.H.S. Drain, without hesitation, crawled over the minefield to where Lance-Corporal Preston lay, removed the set and brought it back to safety. When he got back he found that the aerial rods had been left behind, so he made the perilous journey again to get them. He was able to get the set working and bring down gunfire to stop the fire from the left flank. For this action Private Drain was awarded the M.M. (Military Medal)’. ‘His steadiness and coolness’, the citation concluded, ‘were an example to his comrades, who were all having their first experience of battle’.

‘B’ Company were pulled up short at the point of capturing their objective. Determined resistance from the defenders well dug in in a sunken track halted the advance. The commanding officer, Major Barber, in a stunning display of courage, commanded a number of tanks, each of which, bar the last, was knocked out or ‘brewed up’. Eventually, a combination of tank and infantry was able to overrun the German positions and secure the buildings between Brettevillette and Quediville, their assigned objectives.

‘C’ Company faired badly, having no radio communication at all. Their supporting tanks ran into a minefield. Nevertheless, ‘C’ Company’s objective, Quediville, was eventually taken thanks to the inspired leadership of Major Seldon who received the Military Cross for this action.

As for their alphabetical neighbours, ‘D’ Company also had a hard time of it in the face of the usual heavy mortar fire laid down by the enemy. Another personal account that appears in the ‘Your Men In Battle’ history at once provides a blackly humorous, yet accurate incident that occurred in this action. One Private Riley launched himself into a slit trench in order to gain some cover, but in doing so quickly realised that the trench was not vacant. Exiting almost as quickly as he entered, he explained that he trench had ‘live Jerries in it’. A Sergeant Bills was on hand to ensure that a few moments later  the same slit trench retained its German occupants but they were no longer alive.

At the tail end of the 1/6th Battalion's assault, 7th Battalion were ordered in to attack and occupy the area between Noyers railway station and Brettevillette on the basis of intellegence reports of a German retreat from this land. The attack with heavy artillery and machine gun support resulted in the objective being secured by 5pm in the evening with very few casualties sustained.

On the lest of the 177 Brigade front, 5th Battalion led by Lieutenant-Colonel M.B. Jenkins attempted to take the first allocated positions with two companies passing through to take Battalion objectives.

The deployment of the 5th Battalion was as follows:

Initial assault companies,

  • 'B' Company on the right (under Major Smallwood)
  • 'C' Company on the left (under Major Pearson)

had the combined objective of the orchards to the west of Granville-sur-Odon.

With the orchards successfully delivered into the hands of the 5th Battalion, it then fell to the follow-up  companies of

  • 'A' Company (under Major Grey) and
  • 'D' Company (under Major McKintyre)

to push the advance further in a south westerly direction to take the objective of the area around Bas des Forges.

The enemy were situated a mere five hundred yards from the 5th Battalion forces at the time of this planned action.

Of the attack, Major Pearson of 'C' Company reported that each of the assaulting companies ('B' and 'C') advanced, each with a squadron of tanks in support, of which several were disabled when they ventured off paths that had been cleared of mines.

At a distance of two hundred to three hundred yards the defenders opened up with that accurate and heavy mortar fire which, coupled with well laid mines created a disorientating smoke screen. Nevertheless, 'B' Company eventually emerged through this confusion to enter their objective of the orchard which lay to the north of Noyers railway station. On the left, the 'C' Company advance stalled temporarily at a point one hundred yards in front of the enemy and were forced to reorganise before renewing the assault on the right of their flank with support from one functioning tank that had successfully negotiated the German laid minefield. Ultimately, 'C' Company achieved their objective with an impressive haul of;

  • 87 prisoners
  • 17 machine guns
  • 2 half track armoured vehicles

for a relatively light casualty tally.

The actions of 'C' Company on the 16th July added another two Military Medals to the honours received by the 5th Battalion.

'C' Company's Sergeant Hill (a resident of Stoke) was awarded the distinction by virtue of the fact that despite his own wounds and the near annihilation of his own platoon he insisted upon fighting on. He was ordered to retire to a casualty clearing station on three separate occasions by Major Pearson and finally moved back unaided, by his own insistence, despite a major loss of blood.

A Private Pickstone received the Military Medal when, as a stretcher bearer, he recovered a wounded colleague, Lieutenant Howard, under heavy enemy fire, dragging his 17-stone dead weight across four hundred and fifty yards of terrain to reach medical assistance thereby saving the soldier's life.

At the conclusion of this action, 'D' Company and my Grandfather's 'A' Company passed through their sister companies and secured Bas Des Forges. This concluded the initial phase of the Battle for Noyers.

A local cemetery in Noyers after war passed through
June/July 1944

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