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.

Friday, 10 July 2015

147 Brigade of the 49th (West Riding) Division

Within the 49th (West Riding) Division, my Grandfather's new home from August 1944, the 11th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers were a fighting unit within 147 Brigade of the division along with the 6th and 7th Battalions of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment (the 6th Battalion were later to be replaced in July 1944 by the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment).

The 147 Brigade first saw action in the Second World War when it participated in the ill-fated landings in Norway of 15th to 17th April 1940. The intention of the landings was to regain control from the Germans of the key ports of Narvik and Trondheim. However, with the invasion left in disarray, the Brigade and the rest of the 49th were withdrawn in May 1940 and posted to Iceland.*

Despite its reputation as a barren and often inhospitable island, its location was of critical strategic importance to the Germans and British alike. Control of Iceland meant control of both sea and air traffic over the North Atlantic region. From May 1940 to April 1942 the men of 147 Brigade safeguarded British interests in Icelandic region.

This near two tenure in Iceland provides the explanation as to why the men of the 147 Brigade, including 11th Battalion after September 1942, were identified as soldiers of the 49th (West Riding) Division by the insignia depicting a lone polar bear standing on an ice floe.

1940's Insignia of 49th (West Riding) Division
'The Polar Bear Division'

Yorkshire is certainly remote in parts and often cold, but even so, it is many thousands of years since polar bears roamed over the Ridings!

Thenceforth the Division were more often than not referred to as 'The Polar Bear Division'. This association was further enhanced after the 49th were engaged in fierce fighting around the village of Rauray. In one of his propaganda broadcasts, William Joyce better known in notoriety as 'Lord Haw Haw' described the soldiers of the Division as the 'Polar Bear Butchers', an epithet that was to be carried by the men as a badge of honour as opposed to the insult that Joyce intended.

Cartoon postcard depicting the 'Polar Bear Butchers' in Rauray, Normandy
December 1944

* The 11th Battalion R.S.F. was not at this time a part of 147 Brigade.

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