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.

adrianandrews1@sky.com

Sunday, 18 January 2015

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

The Presebytery in Noyers
June/July 1944

The second phase of the Battle for Noyers commenced at 5.30 pm when the 2/6th Battalion units, held in reserve to exploit the gains of the 1/6th and 5th, crossed their start line advancing to the northern perimeter of Noyers village.

The Battalion were to carry out a relatively simple battle plan which was as follows. 'A' Company (under Major Garrett) and 'C' Company (under Major Deuchar M.C.) were to lead the assault with 'A' formed upon the right and 'C' to the left of the main road that ran from Quediville to Noyers. It was the task of 'B' Company (under Major Logan) and 'D' Company (under Captain Glauert) to follow on and mop up the positions.

The well entrenched German defenders of Noyers were to be dealt with in the following manner. The infantry units were to advance towards Noyers behind an artillery barrage sighted on suspected German strongholds in the village. Dug in machine gun nests were the target of two Sherman tank squadrons whilst the on-coming infantry were to see to the German anti-tank guns.

The landscape into which the soldiers advanced was horrific. Colonel Finlinson described the scene in the following terms 'strewn with very dead cows and very dead Germans with knocked out tanks on both sides'.

When my Grandfather took the time to recount his memories of his time in Normandy he spared me the more graphic details of the realities of 'total war', he did however recall the unpleasantries endured by the soldiers who were sharing the fields of Calvados with the same 'very dead cows' as described by Colonel Finlinson. Dead cattle were a ubiquitous feature of this landscape in the summer of 1944. Very dead indeed with legs pointing skyward. After death the animals started to bloat (a normal process of putrifaction as the the bacterial fauna present in all mammals got down to business). The heat of summer accelerated this process. The problems for the troops would begin when a bullet or shrapnel fragment opened the corpse up thus allowing the accumulated gases to escape. The resulting stench was atrocious and remained as one of his abiding memories of his time in Normandy.

The troops advanced towards Noyers and found German opposition to be light and limited to spasmodic artillery and mortar fire over the first two thousand yards of their forward movement. Resistance increased somewhat as the soldiers neared the woods and orchards just north of Noyers. Well camouflaged snipers and machine gun posts opened up but some of their crews fled their positions fearful of being overrun by the on-coming tanks.

Noyers church before the fighting

Before 6.30 pm 'A' Company were in the proximity of the station and 'C' Company had reached the farm buildings on the northern perimeter of Noyers village as darkness started to fall. This was achieved with low casualties. 

Without a firm foothold in Noyers and with a new understanding that the village was larger than originally anticipated, house to house fighting by depleted units in failing light was not an option. Under such circumstances it was necessary to consolidate the gains and dig in until dawn. During the night, the German defenders returned to their original positions close to the station and their mortars harried the offensive British patrols.

Noyers station before the war

Meanwhile, 'C' Company (Major Pearson) of 5th Battalion, having received orders the previous evening, moved up the line and launched an attack at 5.30 am on the station with tank support to assist the hard pressed 2/6th Battalion. Reports that the area was free of the enemy proved to be inaccurate and the 5th Battalion fought viciously until 1.30 pm in the afternoon against strongly held German positions for little gain.

Once again the South Staffords regrouped and the much depleted Companies  of the 2/6th were brought under the temporary command of Major Pearson (5th Battalion) who along with his own 'C' Company launched another assault on the left flank.. The station was near at hand by eight that evening, but the defence continued to be determined and effective. As night fell, the attackers took up positions surrounding the station so that heavy fire could be brought down on the railway station.

The shattered shell of Noyers station after the fighting of July

This phase of the action brought in many German prisoners and the Battalions PIATs (Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank (PIAT), a British man-portable anti-tank weapon) accounted for three enemy tanks. However, these gains were achieved at a very heavy price. For example, 'C' Company of the 5th Battalion lost 75% of its effective force, killed or wounded in the action.

After the fighting on 17th July 'C' Company rejoined 5th Battalion.

The remainder of 5th Battalion received orders to exploit earlier successes and advance the attack on Noyers from the north east on order to move in line with the 2/6th. At the same time 1/6th Battalion's orders were to capture Bordel and likewise draw up in line with the 2/6th, thus reaffirming the front line of the 1/6th on the right, the 5th on the left and the 2/6th in the centre. The intention was for the 1/6th and 5th to coordinate their assaults down the main road to Noyers at 12.55 pm. The attack was supported by tank squadrons although at this point in the battle tank numbers were very much depleted.

Initially on the right, 'B' and 'D' Companies of the 1/6th made good progress against light opposing machine gun and mortar fire. 'D' Company, with the objective of an orchard to the right of some of the buildings of Bordel, advanced deep into the orchard and were at the point of emerging when well concealed German forces of some considerable strength inflicted very heavy casualties on the South Staffords with intense and accurate machine gun fire. The men were ordered to withdraw in the face of such deadly and effective resistance. Subsequent attempts by 'D' Company of the 1/6th proved to be futile and the attackers withdrew to the orchard's edge.

Meanwhile on the left, the 5th were similarly facing fierce opposition from a determined enemy in defence to the extent that orders were issued to consolidate rather than to attempt any further advance.

Small scale attacks and harassing manoeuvres continued for the next few days with the objective of grinding down the Germans grip on Noyers. However, in the aftermath of the intensive combat over the 16th to 18th July it was clear that the fighting units were in great need of reinforcement before any further effective use could be made of the South Staffords.

Noyers church in ruins (July 1944)

Subsequently, the 1/6th held the line through the Noyers position, the 2/6th moved back into reserve, the 5th moved to Missy approximately a mile to the south east of Noyers and the 7th moved to Brettevillette and subsequently to Rauray.

The village of Noyers remained contained by the Allies until the first week of August when, upon learning of an attempt by the defenders to withdraw to the line of the River Orne to the south west of Caen, the 2/6th Battalion launched an attack on the 2nd August with the intention of gaining a position astride the Noyers to Villers-Bocage road. At 0430 hours 'C' Company, commanded by Major Clarke, advanced on the objective of Point 142, a position of high ground in front of the Battalion that straddled the road. With tank support the objective was achieved with little difficulty, although Major Clarke suffered fatal wounds in the assault. Subsequently, the rest of the Battalion moved up close behind in the area of Landel.

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