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

5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment Assault on Fresnay

Ariel photograph of Thury Harcourt showing the loop in the Orne

Whilst 1/6th Battalion were engaged in the area of Sur le Mont, the sister battalions of the 2/6th and the 5th were preparing to move forward.

  • On 3rd August 2/6th moved to La Vestrie where they remained for a few days planning operations that were ultimately cancelled.
  • On the morning of the same day, 5th Battalion also started an advance from the Noyers sector through Villers-Bocage. In doing so the intention was to harry the German withdrawal and to force a river crossing for the tanks so that the encirclement of the German forces in the area of Falaise could be completed.

With prior knowledge of a 53 (Welsh) Division attack on enemy positions still held in the Villers-Bocage area, resistance was expected to be light and this was indeed the case. In covering the eight miles to Villers-Bocage only a few snipers were encountered along with some small pockets of resistance put up by fanatical men of the SS. My Grandfather’s ‘A’ Company lead this advance under the command of Major Grey.

It was only with the Orne in sight that serious opposition was met with. Intelligence reports informed that the high ground of the Fresnay was held in strength. Capture of his ground was critical as it afforded a clear view of the bridges over the Orne at Thury Harcourt. The 5th Battalion were ordered to capture the Fresnay position and force a river crossing.

R.A.F. reconnaissance photograph of Thury Harcourt with the bridge and ford circled

The plan of attack was as follows:
  • A two company assault by ‘A’ Company (under Major Grey) on the left and ‘B’ Company (under Major Smallwood) on the right from the village of Fresnay to capture the high ground overlooking the Thury Harcourt crossings
  • ‘C’ Company (under Major Pearson) and ‘D’ Company (under Major McIntyre) to force a river crossing by any means and to secure and hold a bridgehead until bridges could be constructed.

Supporting fire power for this action was limited to a few small artillery pieces, 3-inch mortars and several Churchill tanks. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies launched the assault at 2.30 on the afternoon of 8th August but were quickly pinned down by accurate heavy mortar and machine gun fire and the attack was temporarily halted. The Churchill tanks of the Guards Armoured Division that were up with  the leading platoons attempted to assist by diverting around the left flank to establish effective firing positions in order to neutralise the German fire. However, conditions were such that after four of the tanks became bogged down the tactic was abandoned and the remaining mobile tanks concentrated on supporting the infantry companies who were taking cover whilst returning small arms fire.

The casualties inflicted upon ‘A’ Company (50%) and ‘B’ Company (10%) testify to the accuracy and ferocity of the German defence of the Fresnay ridge. In the face of these high casualty rates chances of imminent success in capturing the high ground were minimal, especially since artillery support was not forthcoming (the guns of the Division were either moving up from the Noyers sector or supporting the 1/6th Battalion assault to the right of the 5th). Orders were received to hold the position overnight whilst continuing to patrol the area aggressively.

It was apparent that the enemy wished to break off the engagement at Fresnay in order to concentrate on smashing the Grimbosq bridgehead and securing their northern flank within the Falaise Pocket. By way of belligerent patrolling, the 5th Battalion aimed to keep the German troops occupied in defence and away from the bridgehead.

The importance of taking the ridge near Fresnay remained to be of critical importance as from the high ground observers would be able to direct artillery fire down onto the German formations attacking the bridgehead positions.

5th Battalion were ordered to renew the assault on the high ground, but with ‘A’ Company now in reserve and seeking reinforcements (having been relieved by ‘D’ Company) it fell to ‘C’ Company to complete the task.

Once again intelligence reports suggested that the enemy were jittery and nervous in anticipation of the next Allied move. British positions were untroubled by German patrols at this time. The decision was made that ‘C’ Company, under Major Pearson, would attack the German positions over the night of 9th and 10th August. The terrain over which ‘C’ Company were to advance leading to the assault was ideal. Thick undergrowth ran up the slopes to within fifty yards of the leading German positions and as the light faded on the evening of the 9th the Company advanced with stealth to the edges of the concealed area in front of the German foxholes. It was apparent to the men of ‘C’ Company that the Germans were completely unaware of their close proximity to the Staffords. The Germans believed that they were secure behind a protective wall of dense shrub, the disturbance of which would additionally offer an advance warning of any attack.

Finally the men of the Company were in position in light conditions that friend could be distinguished from foe at a distance of only two yards. The Company then closed the separating 50 yard gap between opposing positions and fell upon the enemy in a surprise attack. Screaming and howling they engaged their bewildered adversaries in a vicious struggle at close quarters with heavy reliance on the bayonet and grenade.

The ‘Your Men In Battle’ account records that the fighting continued throughout the night. Surprisingly there were periods of eerie stillness, but these were punctuated by occasional cries of German soldiers being dispatched by a bayonet. Dawn brought with it five enemy counter attacks in quick succession, but each were repelled and the Germans retreated in disarray leaving behind many of their dead comrades and a mess of abandoned equipment.

The high ground around Fresnay was now finally under British control and thus the 5th were in a position to establish artillery observation posts from which devastating fire was directed on to German positions opposing the 7th Battalion in the bridgehead and the 1/6th Battalion to their right. For the 1/6th this was a satisfying reversal of the situation they had faced at Dunkirk back in 1940.

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