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.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Last Action of the 59th - 5th Battalion in Menil Vin and Rabodanges

The 5th Battalion were involved in the last offensive action of the Staffordhire Regiments in Normandy.

Having secured Fresnay, the Battalion advanced to the river achieving a crossing on 16th August approximately two miles to the south of Thury Harcourt by way of a small ferry. Resistance coming from the town had largely been subdued over the previous few days as a result of an attack on the stronghold on by the 2nd Gloucestershire Regiment. With the crossing effected by the 5th South Staffords to the south and the news that the 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers had reached Le Grand Donnay some four miles south east of Thury Harcourt the defenders of the town feared being cut off from the main body of the retreat. Upon crossing the only opposition encountered by the 5th came from a few snipers in the rear guard, who were put to flight by returning fire. Those that did not flee surrendered and were taken prisoner.

The next strongpoint objective had been identified as the small settlements of Menil Hermai and Rabodanges, also on the Orne approximately twenty miles to the south east of Thury Harcourt. 'A' and 'B' Companies under Major Grey and Major Smallwood respectively were to capture Menil Hermei village in an attack supported by tank and artillery. However, upon advancing on the objective, after the artillery ceased firing, the village was found to be clear of the enemy. The Germans were replaced by French villagers who filled the main street to celebrate in such numbers that the tanks were prevented from moving forward.

French girls pour a drink for a British soldier in Vernon, 25 August 1944 © IWM (BU 59).

'A' and 'B' Companies were ordered to hold Menil Hermei against a possible counterattack and to provide a secure base for 'C' and 'D' Companies who were to attack the village of Rabodanges and the nearby objective high ground of Point 206. 'C' Company (under Major Hall) and 'D' Company (under Major McIntyre) advanced along the Menil Hermei-Rabodanges road screened by carriers. When the leading carrier was destroyed after hitting a mine, this signaled the commencement of the German defensive response with heavy fire brought down upon the two Companies from every weapon available. Regardless, the attack Companies forged ahead and achieved contact with the enemy. Fighting raged for several hours before 'C' and 'D' Companies were ordered to consolidate the gains and dig in a short distance from Point 206.

The fighting had left the Companies short of ammunition such that a counterattack would have had grave consequences. It was the courageous actions of one Captain Graham Ellis, who with a pioneer platoon, cleared a path through mines whilst under heavy fire, that allowed desperately needed ammunition to be brought up the line. For this feat Captain Ellis was awarded the Military Cross. He was later killed in action. The anticipated counterattack never came, in part as a result of aggressive patrolling and heavy artillery fire brought down on the known German positions throughout the night.

It was on the 21st August after further artillery 'softening up' of the Point 206 objective that the high ground was taken . The Germans attempted to dislodge the 5th Battalion from Point 206 with heavy fire from their long range guns, but no counterattack was put in by the infantry.

In this way the last battle of the 59 (Staffordshire) Division concluded with the enemy encircled in the Falaise area and focused only on their efforts escape from the jaws of the 'Pocket' that the Allied armies had created.

No comments:

Post a Comment