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, 4 July 2015

11th Royal Scots Fusiliers 1940 to 1944 (The Seine)

It is not my intention to give within these pages to give a detailed history of the 11th R.S.F. prior to the date of Jim Heath's transfer in August 1944. But, some words are required in order to understand how it came to be that men of the 59th were transferred to the 49th (West Riding) Division and the 11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.

11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers was formed on 5th June 1940. Once the unit had reached field strength it took up the responsibility of coastal defence activities in the Norfolk area. At this time it formed a part of the 76th Infantry Division. Life for a soldier in the nascent 11th pretty much mirrored that of a soldier of the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment of the 59th Division. Time not spent in defence work was occupied by intensive training through endless exercises that were intended to physically transform civilians into soldiers. Classes and practicals in combat techniques and weaponry were also the order of the day.

On 7th September 1942 the 11th R.S.F. joined the 49th (West Riding) Division, with whom they were to remain for the duration of the war. Training stepped up a gear at the end of the year with sections of the Battalion selected for specialised mountain combat training. When in May 1943 the 49th (West Riding) Division was identified as a beach assault division, the remainder of the 11th moved up to Scotland to continue training. Notably from this time, the exercises took on a far more realistic nature. At Rothesay on the Isle of Bute the Battalion practised and mastered beach landings from LCA (Landing Craft Assault) boats, the very same ones that would be used in Normandy the following year. In Perthshire, Engineers constructed full scale German fortifications with all of the barbed wire, trenchworks and gun positions that were known to be defending the Normandy beaches. Lieutenant William Douglas (later Colonel Douglas), described this part of the training and the readiness of his men thus 'We practised with Bangalore torpedoes, you know the thing like a drain pipe full of explosives which you push through the barbed wire, bang and up it goes, storming in, flame throwers, grenades, through the slit trenches and so on and we got to the stage where we could do it in the daylight, we could do it in the dark. You didn’t really have to give any orders to your men, you just sort of said ‘There it is, usual plan, off we go!’'

Then however the 11th Battalion suffered a bitter blow to their morale. Field Marshall Montgomery expressed the opinion that as a formation thus far untested in the field, the 49th Division should be replaced as a beach assault division by one that had recent battle experience. One such division was 3rd Division, also known as the Iron Sides, a division that had previously been under the command of Montgomery himself. The 3rd Division took the place of the 49th Division, who in turn were to become a 'follow up' division to the main invasion force.

In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, the 11th R.S.F. concentrated in Great Yarmouth on the 6th June prior to embarking the 'Cheshire' in Southampton. An uneventful crossing saw them landed on the Normandy shore at the small port of Le Hamel, located on the 'Gold Beach' area some way east of Arramanches. The landing took place on 11th June (D+5).

Once ashore the Battalion concentrated in the area of Fresnay le Crotteur prior to relieving the 1/4th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) in the area of Bronay on 15th June.The Battalion first engaged with the enemy on 16th June with a diversionary attack on the village of Christot which resulted in the first Battalion casualties. The liberation of Bronay was achieved later that same day.

Later in the month the 11th Battalion were engaged as part of 'Operation Martlet'. 'Martlet, represented the first occasion in which all formations of the 49th operated at a Divisional level. The 49th along with the 50th (Northumbrian) Division were given the task of capturing Juvigny-sur-Seulles, Vendres and Rauray, in doing so thus protecting the right flank of the VIII Corps who were to commence 'Operation Epsom' which had the objective of breaking out of the bridgehead to the west of Caen, to cross the River Orne in order to take the high ground to the south of the city.

A three -phase attack was planned for 147 Brigade of the 49th, with 11th Battalion having the first phase objective of Fontenay le Pesnel, in the second phase another Battalion were to take St Nicholas Fe, with the 11th engaged once more in the 3rd phase with the objective of Rauray. The attack commenced at 4.15 a.m. on 25th June. The preparatory artillery bombardment was intense, but a combination of the dust and debris thrown up by the shelling, concealing smoke laid down at the time of the advance and the early morning mist reduced visibility to about two yards. Into this curtain 'B' and 'C' Companies of the Battalion moved forward. This poor visibility coupled with with the devastating defencive fire of the 12th Panzer Division resulted in chaos as men became lost as they moved forward. To make matters worse, all their radios were knocked out. In this confusion opposing forces engaged in vicious hand to hand fighting and casualties were high. Several hours into the attack, the reserve companies of 'A' and 'D' moved forward, gathering up the remnants of their sister companies as they did so. Enemy fire remained heavy and accurate such that by late morning only about 70 men remained. However, despite the odds, by noon, 'A' and 'D' Companies had gained a foothold on the western end of Fontenay le Pesnel and by 3pm had consolidated their position, being too low in numbers to advance further. The other Battalion successfully attacked the rest of Fontenay on passing through to the second phase objective of St Nicholas Fe. With the Fusiliers dug in, stock was taken of the casualties of the day which amounted to 7 officers and 194 other ranks.

Detail of the Polar Bear memorial located at Fontenay le Pesnel

It was after the fighting at Fontenay le Pesnel that the the 11th had to take on drafts of reinforcements from English regiments, a process that raised concerns about the character of the Battalion and its 'Scottishness'. However, as Colonel Douglas (11th Battalion) later stated 'A couple of days later we got a lot of reinforcements from English regiments because on the whole they were running out of Scotsmen and there was a certain amount of gloom at getting all these Englishmen. Oh dear, you know, how are we going to get on with them. Of course, like converts to a new religion, they became more Scottish than the Scots, they were terribly proud to wear their Scottish bonnets, learn the history. They guarded our traditions better than our own chaps in the end!'.

On 28th June the 11th R.S.F.moved west, taking up a position to the north of Juvigny and forming the right flank of 49th Division. For the next nine days the Fusiliers were engaged in aggressive patrolling and efforts to strengthen their defensive positions. Between 7th July and 25th July the 11th Battalion spent time in the line several positions, including Rauray and in rest areas Ducy St. Marguerite and Chouain. Nevertheless, harrying, offencive patrolling was also maintained in this period. The end of the month saw the Battalion in defensive positions at Frenouville to the south east of Caen where they remained until 9th August.

By this time in August the writing was on the wall for the forces of the Reich west of the Seine. 'Operation Totalise' aimed to punch through the German defences south of Caen in the direction of Falaise, the area of which formed the pivotal point or hinge of the German front.

As part of 'Totalise' the 11th Battalion of the 49th Division (currently transferred out of XXX Corps and under the command of I Corps) were to progress parallel, but to the east, of the main advance along the axis of the Caen to Falaise road. The objective was to take positions in the village of Vimont, approximately due north of Falaise itself. The attack opened on 10th August in a two phase plan. The first phase commenced at first light and the Battalion lost six tanks to anti-tank mines laid alongside the main railway line to Caen. Phase two started at 0640 hours when 'B' and 'C' Companies advanced on the objective. However, the advance was held up by heavy shell fire and machine gun fire, and under such fire, it was impossible to commit the reserve Companies of 'A' and 'D'. The leading companies could not consolidate their gains, neither could tanks dislodge the machine gun positions without risking heavy losses. As a result, the Fusiliers were ordered to withdraw to a line that could be held. This was to be at Bellengraville. The action was not without human cost with casualties suffered of 6 officers and 44 other ranks.

During the night of 12th to 13th August, the 11th Battalion were relieved by the 1st Leicesters (who had recently replaced another Battalion in 147 Brigade), the former returning to Frenouville where they remained until 15th August.

On the 15th the 11th Battalion returned to Vimont, passing through the Leicesters to positions in Moult which was found to be clear of the enemy, who were by this time executing a rapid retreat. Here the Battalion rested until 19th August when they moved on transport to positions to the east of Mezidon where they relieved the 11th Durham Light Infantry.

Locations of the 11th R.S.F. in mid August 1944

After this point, the pursuit of the enemy in the direction of the Seine became a much more mobile affair and the men of the Battalion moved mounted on tanks, trucks, abandoned German vehicles and any thing else that was still capable of forward movement. The Battalion progressed rapidly now eastwards in the direction of the Seine, passing through St Plait, Dumont, Baignard, Ouilly-Le-Victome, Lieury, St Martin and Appeville to the banks of the River Touque. Fighting was sporadic as the Germans in retreat put up a periodic stand. One such engagement occurred at  Ouilly-Le-Victome on the evening of 22nd August when the Battalion along with the 1st Leicesters were to attack the village in order to establish a bridgehead across the River Touque. This action resulted in the loss of two Fusiliers killed and three wounded. Thus the Touque was crossed. Further east, the River Risle was crossed in the area of Appeville, after 'C' Company had secured the bridge on 26th August. This was the same day as the transfer of my Grandfather from the 5th South Staffords to the 11th R.S.F.

After a circuitous route of 150 miles in a ramshackle convoy of twenty abandoned German vehicles in order to cover a direct distance of 15 miles, the Battalion reached their crossing point of the great Seine at Elbeuf, some 14 miles to the south of the city of Rouen. The crossing was made on 4th September 1944.

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