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, 28 February 2015

1/6th Battalion Take Control Of St Benin Ridge Over the Orne Valley And 2/6th Battalion Fight Their Last Enagement

Once more in the vicinity of Sur le Mont, 1/6th Battalion now comprising three companies, all of which were seriously depleated, held the forward slopes of the feature. A frontal assault was being planned as attempts to take the St Benin ridge from the east to west had failed. This attack was to be attempted in the knowledge that the German positions on the ridge were defended by three infantry companies.

The St Benin ridge rose steeply from the road for approximately 200 yards before rising to the summit in a 1 in 4 gradient. The slopes were thickly wooded from the foot of the slope to the top with a finger of woodland protruding out towards the east and pointing in the direction of the river.

1/6th were ordered to take the ridge on the 11th August, although final instructions were not received until 0200 hours on that day. This prompted a patrol to gather further information about the enemy positions and strength. The patrol was expected to return with this intelligence by first light. In the meantime the men were ready and waiting to move off. When the officer leading the patrol, Captain John Evans, returned he reported that from the crest of the hill he had observed the Germans from a distance of 100 yards digging into their positions. Key for the assault was the fact that the forward slopes up which the 1/6th were to advance were free of enemy troops.

The plan of attack was that ‘B’ Company, following the line of advance taken by the earlier patrol, were to move up the slope as far as possible without alerting the Germans of their presence. The other two companies were to manoeuvre around the ‘B’ Company position. Assisted by the early morning mist that enveloped the ridge and afforded valuable cover the men got into close proximity to the unknowing enemy. A surprise attack was launched, this was a serious of skirmishes that left many German dead for few British casualties.

On that morning of the St Benin action, many individual deeds of bravery were recorded including that of one Private ‘Ginger’ Partridge who, having killed a number of the enemy already, crawled fifty yards to take out a machine gun position and its gunners with grenades. In this he was successful, but he himself was mortally wounded a short while later.

Now ‘A’ Company pressed home the attack, advancing at 5.30 am through the wood up to the finger that ran to the east along the summit of the ridge. This position was reached by 6.30 am at which point the Company assembled in readiness for the attack. The men of the Company launched themselves upon the company of Germans who were within the wooded finger. Again caught unawares by the ambush heavy casualties were inflicted and the company position was routed, leaving many dead with others taken prisoner. At this point, German artillery responded which resulted in a number of casualties within ‘A’ Company who were caught before they were able to dig and occupy slit trenches.

The ‘A’ Company position was strengthened when ‘C’ Company moved up the slopes to protect their right flank. The situation remained extremely perilous since German troops in strength that was at least equivalent to two companies were close by. The distance that separated the forward positions ranged between 40 and 100 yards. It was thought that the German units did not realise how weak in strength the 1/6th companies were by this time.

The anticipated German counterattack was launched at dawn on 12th August, again utilising the protective early morning mist that wrapped over the land. The German attackers managed to approach to within 15 to 20 yards before they were spotted. Battalion machine gun and small arms fire then opened up cutting down the leading soldiers. In only one section of the line was British ground retaken, but this situation was again quickly reversed as Captain Evans regrouped the dislodged men for a counterattack and the position was secured with some twenty Germans killed (others taken prisoner) for a British loss of five men. The remaining men of the German attack company withdrew in considerable confusion.

View of Thury Harcourt looking west towards the station with the St Benin ridge in the background

Later in the evening of 12th a second, half-hearted, German attempt to regain lost ground was made but this broke down as further heavy casualties were suffered.  When a British officer ordered ‘Cease fire!’ and ‘Kamerad!’ the remaining German soldiers threw down their weapons and ran towards the Stafforshires positions desperately relieved to be out of the fight. Thus the German opposition was overcome and the St Benin ridge seized. In the morning light the ridge was clear of the enemy and the road to the Orne River was open.

The Orne River seen from the west bank with the St Benin bridge visible in the background

A closer view of the St Benin bridge

The River Orne at Thury Harcout, clearly showing the topography of the river valley

The men of 1/6th Battalion were ordered to ‘advance to contact’ as the enemy were now in rout. The advance was to take the Battalion over the Orne through Ouilly, Le Detroit, Rapilly and Menil Vin to their next objective, a height given the name Point 205.

The entire area of this advance was free from enemy activity. The only Germans encountered were individual soldiers bearing British propaganda ‘safe passage’ passes. As the Battalion made headway through the villages French civilians thronged out into the streets eager to share the euphoria of liberation after four years of German occupation.

It was not until the afternoon of the 17th August that ‘C’ Company encountered any further enemy opposition. Fire came from a collection of buildings a couple of hundred yards to the east of Rapilly. In response. two attempts were made to overcome the position but these failed resulting in a company withdrawal. A renewed assault was mounted on the morning of the 18th, this time with tank support. The assault was launched only to find the buildings clear of any German soldiers. Thus, tanks and infantry were then able to continue the advance to Point 205 without further trouble.

Both ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies reached the top of the Point 205 objective unchallenged, but as they traversed the ridge German machine gunners opened up with captured British Bren guns. As a result a British officer, Major Barber, was shot through the chest and the two companies were ordered to halt the advance and consolidate the hill. This was the last action of the 1/6th Battalion as on the 20th August they learned that they were to be disbanded.

The Falaise Pocket had been closed and the German 7th Army, thus encircled by the Allied armies, faced annihilation.

The 2/6th Battalion advanced to the west of Sur le Mont with an objective of a yet higher feature situated at the western end of the Bois de la Motte.

This high ground was characterised by a two mile slope that ran down to the western bank of the river. These slopes were thickly covered with woodland through which 2/6th would have to fight. Intelligence received by the Battalion indicated that only light opposition could be expected. However, the reality of the action was quite the reverse and the Battalion experienced some of the hardest and most intense combat yet at close quarters. This was especially so for 'D' Company, the progress of which was measured yard by yard. Several days fighting ensued and it was not until 17th August that the forward companies had gained the higher slopes overlooking the Orne.

With 176 and 197 Brigades now positioned to the east of the Orne river and engaged in operations intended to close the Falaise Pocket, 2/6th Battalion were relieved on the evening of 17th by soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and taken out of the line for the last time. The withdrawal of the companies of the 2/6th was completed by midnight on 18th August.

Whilst still on the Orne, the Brigade Commander delivered the same message that the 1/6th were to receive concerning disbandment. It was with heavy hearts  that that the men moved out of the sector on the 19th to an orchard near to Courvadon, some ten miles north of the Orne. Here they resided for a full ten days, resting and more importantly bidding farewell to their comrades as they were transferred to other regiments within divisions that were also desperate for reinforcement after the monumental struggle for Normandy.

No comments:

Post a Comment