The internet has been an invaluable resource in this historical jig-saw puzzle that I embarked on sone 18 months ago. One site that has been of great relevance is that of The Polar Bear Association (a.k.a. PBA).
It was with great pleasure that I received my first issue of ‘The Polar Bear News’ and I look forward to a weekend’s read of the content of the June issue of the newsletter. Even so, a cursory flick through the first pages amply demonstrates the Association’s unerring commitment to gain the promised recognition of the 49th Division’s veteran’s crucial role in the liberation of France and beyond and indeed to ‘Keep the Old Bear alive!’
When I completed the PBA application form last month the administrative information provided was the bare minimum required to establish my connection with a veteran of the 49th. Now I would like the opportunity to elaborate somewhat upon my interest in the Association.
My late Grandfather was L/Cpl James Kitchener Heath No. 5051929 (known to his friends as Jim and to his close family as Kitch). He died in February 1995 at the age of 80 and this marked the start line of a rather protracted journey that has only recently resulted in my contact with the PBA.
At the time of his death I did my best to put some words together on paper that described what we knew of his military service (on the day of his funeral, the Royal British Legion flag bearers were in attendance, the coffin was draped in the Union Flag and a bugler played the ‘Last Post’ ) as whilst he spoke very rarely of his time in Europe in his last years it was a defining period of his life. Sadly the history that I prepared for the presiding cleric to recite on such a poignant occasion was grossly inaccurate and a clear indication in how little his immediate family knew of his wartime experiences.
With this understanding, I resolved to establish an accurate account of his period of service between January 1940 and March 1946. I started well in 1995 with the acquisition of his military records held by the MOD, but then other family issues resulted in the project being shelved for a good number of years.
In the months leading up to the 70th Anniversary D-Day commemorations I was spurred into action to start the search once again. The information I gathered I documented on-line in a blog (address below).
In short, a Staffordshire man, located in Brighton at the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the North Staffordshire Regiment but was rapidly transferred to the 5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment who landed in Normandy as a follow-up regiment on 25th June as a fighting unit of the 59 (Staffordshire) Infantry Division.
In July his Company fought cheek by jowl with the 11th RSF at Fontenay Le Pesnil and Noyers Bocage to the south west of Caen. As you will be aware, as a younger Division, the 59th were disbanded in order to enable reinforcement of hard pressed older formations that had been mauled in the early weeks of the Normandy campaign. Thus it was that my Grandfather was transferred on 26th August to the 11th RSF as part of the 49 (West Riding) Division.
I have, courtesy of the Regimental Museum in Glasgow the ‘Summary of Operations from June 1944 to May 1945’ of the 11th RSF. This invaluable document was used by myself and a friend last month as our guide in our efforts to retrace the progress of my Grandfather from Turnhout in Belgium into Holland. Once over the border, Polar Bear memorial sites at Wuustwezel and Roosendaal were sought out. Key for me was to locate the village of Haalderen were I understand my Grandfather saw the worst fighting of his war.
An open question that I have in my full understanding of Jim Heath’s time in the 11th RSF relates to the Company in which he served. This level of detail is not included in his MOD records and by the same token, historians at the museum were unable to establish this information.
I do have however some circumstantial evidence that suggests that he was part of D Company of the 11th RSF. In 1973, my family travelled to Holland in the company of my Grandfather. The family holiday took a detour to Nijmegen and specifically the Jonkerbos War Cemetery within the city. The reason for this visit, as recalled by my parents (I was four years old at the time), was so that he could locate the headstone of ‘my sergeant’ whose death he had witnessed. The headstone was located on that occasion. My research has shown that the only Fusilier of the 11th RSF holding the rank of sergeant buried in Jonkerbos is one William Little. Incidentally, a photograph from the 1973 visit shows my Grandfather in discussion with my father in a position very close to the location of Willam Little’s plot.
Of William Little more is recorded since he was a recipient of the Military Medal. I do know that he was Platoon Sergeant of 16 Platoon of D Company of the 11th RSF. It is therefore, admittedly with a substantial leap of faith I can possibly place my Grandfather within Sgt Little’s 16 Platoon of D Company.
Is there any means of establishing battalion association at a company and even platoon level? Unfortunately information received from the Regimental museum has only been able to show him as a soldier of the 11th RSF with no further detail.
Were it possible to establish Company and possibly platoon it would confirm (I think) his participation in the notable waterborne raid over the Rhine as documented in the 11th Btn Summary of Operations and described by Colonel Douglas of the 11th in the IWM audio interview.
As part of my research, I was happy to obtain a copy of Fusilier Ken West’s wartime memoir which goes a long way to describe the day to day experience that my Grandfather as an infantryman of the 11th RSF would have known. Imagine my surprise then to read in the June newsletter that not only is Mr West still with us but as of May he was still active in the Association and that he was in Holland just two weeks prior to my visit.
I understand that Mr West was in 17 Platoon of D Company and as such would have known soldiers of 16 Platoon who also saw action Wuustwezel and then in the streets of Haalderen in December 1944. It is a long shot after the passage of so many years but I am left wondering whether Ken would have known my Grandfather, Jim Heath, if indeed I am correct in placing him with 16 Platoon of D Company.
Is it possible that this information could be passed on to Mr West, with a message of thanks for documenting his time in France in his book that has added the human element to the drier war diaries and helped my research greatly.
With kind regards,
(Grandson of L/Cpl Jim Heath No. 5051929 11th Btn RSF)
P.S. My work in progress is documented via the following website which is currently up to the point of his transfer from the 5th South Staffs to the 11th RSF. It is my intention to complete the story from his wounding at Nijmegen on 7th April 1945, to his administrative role within D.P.A.C.S. at Bergen-Belsen and finally through to his 35th year battle back home to receive a war pension commensurate with the wounds that he received in Holland.