I wrote to him on the off-chance that he and my Grandfather were acquainted when serving with 'D' Company of the Regiment.
Concerning L/Cpl James (Jim) Kitchener Heath 11th R.S.F. No. 5051929
Dear Mr. West,
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Adrian Andrews and I am writing to you in connection with some family research that I have been conducting over the past two years into the wartime experiences of my late Grandfather.
My Grandfather’s name was James Kitchener Heath, better known to his friends and colleagues as Jim and to close family simply as Kitch. My interest in piecing together his war story stems from the time of his funeral sadly when, whilst trying to pen some words about this defining period of his life for the presiding cleric to read out, it became clear that the understanding within the family of what he did back then was at best confused and at worst wholly inaccurate! After the funeral I obtained his MOD records but other family issues meant that further exploration was shelved for a number of years.
In short, his military history ran parallel to that of the R.S.F. Enlisting in Brighton in January 1940, he joined the North Staffordshire Regiment as a territorial before embodiment into the regular Army. Born in Stoke-On-Trent, a Staffordshire regiment was his natural choice.
Shortly thereafter he was transferred to the South Staffordshire Regiment with which he completed his training before being posted overseas. On 25th June he landed with the Battalion in Normandy as part of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division as a follow up formation.
After the brutal engagements in the areas of Caen, Fontenay-le-Pesnil and Noyers Bocage
The 59th were disbanded in order to reinforce other hard pressed established regiments. Thus it was that my Grandfather was transferred across to the 11th R.S.F. on 26th August 1944. In his IWM audio archive interview Colonel William Douglas describes the transfer in terms of receiving many men from the Staffords having incomprehensible accents but extraordinary digging skills on account of their long mining heritage.
I have a great account of his time in Normandy from contemporary sources detailing the actions of the 59th and specifically the 5th South Staffords. Likewise, I have the accounts included in the 11th R.S.F. Summary of Operations from June 1944 to May 1945, the aforementioned audio interview with Colonel Douglas as well as a rather good book by one Fusilier K.J. West!
Two years ago I spent some days touring Normandy when I took in Galamanche/St. Contest and the cemeteries of Cambes-en-Plaine and Fontenay-le-Pesnil (of course, taking in at the same time the Polar Bear memorial on the main road).
Following on from my trail across Normandy, I was in Belgium (Turnhout) and Holland in May (a mere two weeks after your visit) to visit Wuustwezel, Roosendaal and Haalderen.
It is worth noting here that first hand accounts of his active service were limited. I was fascinated with the war at the age of 7 or 8 at which time he related sanitised accounts of his experiences (dead cows and mosquitoes in Normandy, standing sentry, waste deep in water with a yardstick measuring rising floodwater (Roosendaal or Haalderen?)).
As I became more seriously interested in my early twenties about the details of those events of ‘44/’45 he was very much more emotional and less able to articulate details. He died in February 1995 at the age of 80.
Another location that I visited earlier in the year when in Holland was the military cemetery in Jonkerbos, Nijmegen and it is in this regard that I have a number of questions that you may or may not be in a position to shed some light upon.
The information that I have is rather circumstantial at present, but I hope that it may ultimately lead me to a better understanding of with which unit he served whilst with the 11th R.S.F.
In 1973 my family travelled to Holland in the company of my Grandfather. During this family holiday we took a detour to Nijmegen and specifically to Jonkerbos cemetery. The reason for this visit, as later recounted by my parents (as whilst present I was only four at the time) was so that he could locate the last resting place of the man he described as ‘my sergeant’ whose death he had witnessed. My research has shown that the only Fusilier of the 11th R.S.F. holding the rank of sergeant was William Little MM.
The only other circumstantial evidence that I have that it was indeed Sgt. Little’s headstone that he was seeking is a photograph taken at the time by my Grandmother that shows my Grandfather in discussion with my Father close to the plot of Sgt. Little.
Whilst I know my Grandfather’s Company in the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment, I cannot as yet confirm the Company in which he served when with the 11th R.S.F. With something of a leap of faith, based on the ‘evidence’ explained above, I would suggest that he was in 16 Platoon of ‘D’ Company with Sgt. Little.
Having spent time in ‘D’ Company 17 Platoon are you able to confirm this (or suggest a possible means of establishing this fact)?
The death of William Little is well recorded since he was recipient of the Military Medal. I understand that he was killed in a very notable and daring waterbourne raid over the Rhine that was widely reported in ‘Current Reports From Overseas’ as an exemplary assault. I would love to be able to place him at the Company level and even better at Platoon level if possible.
My Grandfather did not make it into Germany as a combatant with the Regiment. He was evacuated with wounds on the 7th April 1944 (in the final clearance of the Island or after). He returned to the Battalion as part of D.P.A.C.S. of the British Army of Liberation and worked in administrative role role at Bergen-Belsen camp until he was demobbed in March 1946.
Ken, I have no idea of how much you can remember of people with which you served after the passage of 71 years but I have enclosed a scanned photograph of my Grandfather. I understand that it was taken in an office within Belsen camp in July 1945.
I appreciate that my positioning of my Grandfather within the R.S.F. is based upon circumstantial information and you may not have known him from Adam. Nevertheless, even if you have no recollection of him, I have to say that your book brought me far closer to him that any of the official records. It was, as you described in your preface, an account of an ordinary soldier of the European campaign, the human story of a civilian army.
I look forward to hearing from you.
With kind regards,
Grandson of Fusilier Jim Heath 11th R.S.F.