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

177 Brigade and The Struggle For The Ridges Overlooking The Orne

Whilst their comrades in the 7th Battalion were being hard pressed in the Grimbosq bridgehead the other South Staffordshire battalions of 177 Brigade did not remain static. Between the Brigade and the river lay a series of ridges of increasing height before the land dropped away into the Orne valley. Each of these ridges overlooked its lower predecessor.

The ‘Your Men In Battle’ account describes the forward movement of 1/6th Battalion on the 5th August after a short period located in St Agneau le Malherbe, with the men of ‘C’ Company (which formed the advance guard) moving up towards the river on a fleet of bicycles shielded by a screen of carriers. The task of ‘C’ Company was to take the high ground of La Vestrie and Point 232 located approximately to the south east of their position in the direction of the Orne. Although these heights were unoccupied by the Germans, such was the nature of the undulating terrain that were the enemy to be in control of the ridge opposite La Vestrie and Point 232 every movement made by the Battalion would be observed which would spell disaster.

Facing 1/6th ‘C’ Company was a feature called Sur le Mont, the first of major the ridges. Additionally, another ridge of high ground lay between Point 232 and Sur le Mont with the features of La Rocque and La Merit Lavria to the right and left respectively. These latter two objectives would have to be secured quickly.

‘B’ Company were tasked to take the objective of La Rocque whilst it was the job of ‘D’ Company to capture La Merit Lavria. Critically, no tank support was available for the attacks which were to go in at 1400 hours.

The ‘B’ Company assault was pressed home successfully and although they were shelled, few casualties resulted. ‘D’ Company had a harder time of it and the fact that most of their advance was made under the eyes of the Germans meant that the defensive mortar fire was deadly accurate. Upon approaching the objective of La Merit Lavria the Company separated, with two platoons moving to the right and the other platoon along with Battalion H.Q. moving to the left. The fighting was heavy and news coming back out of the line was sparse, other than messages received to say that the men were under heavy long range machine gun fire. ‘A’ Company under the command of Major Geoffrey Ball were requested to come to the assistance of ‘D’ Company but they were unable to do so, reporting back that they were ‘too tied up’. Artillery and tank support was called upon.

At 1700 hours a message came through from ‘D’ Company’s commander to state that one company and Battalion H.Q. had reached the objective and that the other two platoons were attempting to link up with H.Q. ‘A’ Company were ordered to attack the position at 2100 hours. At the point where the two parties of ‘D’ Company met up a shell exploded wounding two officers. Consequently, the command of ‘D’ Company was taken up by C.S.M. Balding.

The 9 pm assault by ‘A’ Company was successful and all units were able to dig in, assisted in doing so by the failing daylight. The Battalion was now holding ground facing, but under, Sur le Mont. The Germans knew the Battalion position and laid down heavy fire. In response, British guns returned fire threefold.

The next challenge for the Battalion was to take Sur le Mont itself. If successful this would leave one further ridge remaining before 177 Brigade would control the last high ground over the River Orne. To achieve this objective, ‘A’ Company were to attack a hamlet called Sous le Mont to the left whilst ‘B’ Company were to take the settlement of La Vaucelle on the right. Both companies were successful in achieving their objectives and the German units were in retreat. At this point, a patrol lead by one Lance Corporal Walker captured ten Germans, one of whom cooperated and directed the British Artillery guns on to the remaining German positions and this action was enough to persuade the enemy to withdraw. Thus the objective of Sous le Mont was delivered into Allied hands for a minimum of casualties.

In order to consolidate the Battalion gains, ‘C’ Company under the command of Lieutenant Ellison lead an assault, with tank support, on a position over the ridge called La Paugeais. The attack was successful and brought the 1/6th to within one mile of the river bank. In the wake of the attack, the Germans retreated further towards the St Benin ridge in full sight of the British thus making themselves an easy target.

Sur le Mont was taken. The Battalion now controlled the east to west orientated road that ran over the Orne, through Thury Harcourt across to Falaise. However, the prize of the final ridge over the river, St Benin, was still occupied by both British and German troops.

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