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, 31 December 2016

Haalderen, Holland 16th May 2015

The idea was that we would have an easier day on the Saturday with less driving planned for Owen. In the evening we were due to attend a part of Eurorock Festival near to Eindhoven. The band that we had travelled to see were the headline act and were not due to take the stage until after midnight that evening. The schedule we drew up was to drive up to Nijmegen and onto the Island before heading further north to Arnhem.

Within Nijmegen I had a specific task to fulfil, retracing the family’s 1973 visit to the town with my Grandfather, but more of that in the pages that follow. For now the plan was to stop off in Haalderen as we progressed towards Arnhem. We deliberately took a route to the brigdes similar to that taken by XXX Corps on ‘Hell’s Highway’ as the Allies struggled to reach the British 1st Airborne who were pinned down in Oosterbeek. In the early morning spring sunshine it was difficult to relate to that desperate journey seventy-one years earlier for the roads were clear and the fields on either side of the road were nothing but picturesque. Crossing the Maas at Grave, we passed through Nijmegen and crossed Waal to access ‘The Island’.

Passing through Lent before turning off the N325 in the direction of Bemmel where the men of ‘D’ Company 11th R.S.F. were formed up as the counter-attack company on 4th December 1944. It was only after driving through a near deserted Bemmel that our navigational problems started. Never mind the proverbial ‘All Roads Lead To Rome’, on this Saturday morning it was more a case of ‘All Roads Lead to Bemmel’ as try as we might to reach the neighbouring village of Haalderen, after several circuits of the area it was nowhere to be found, but we found ourselves driving back through Bemmel from each of the four compass points. Were it not for the assistance of a helpful jogger with a better grasp of the local geography, Haalderen may have never have been reached!

Our approach to Haalderen was from the same direction from which the Fusiliers entered the village that December. Turning right onto the N839, Van der Mondeweg, we headed south east down the road toeards the Church (the original of which is shown at the head of this chapter). The Church, now rebuilt, houses a memorial to the fighing in the village that occurred between September and December 1944.

Never Forget
Never Repeat


Our time here was limited and with no disrespect to Haalderen, there was not so much to photograph easily with the exception of a view down the main street. The direction from which the German 16th Parachute Regiment Companies advanced and the direction that the Fusilier’s took to reach the forward positions of the beleaguered Companies of the 7th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.

The reconstructed Church in Haalderen.

The main road through Haalderen (Van der Mondeweg) looking in a south easterly direction (facing the German assault).

Street Fighting Haalderen, Holland 3rd – 4th December 1944

The shattered ruins of Haalderen Church.

In the first week of December the tide of war once again broke over Haalderen (literally given the flooded state of this part of The Island). In an attempt to reach the Great Waal Bridge near Lent, the Germans launched an attack which was intended to push through to the bridge via Haalderen and Bemmel.

Before describing in any detail the first engagement for the Fusiliers on The Island it is necessary to recount the situation faced by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. At the beginning of December The Dukes were positioned on the right flank of the Divisional front in the area of Haalderen. The conditions on the ground were horrendous with heavy flooding throughout the area. To the mud and filth that are a part and parcel of flooding were added the remains of soldiers of both sides killed in the struggles of late September/early October when Allied units tried desperately to the aid of the British 1st Airborne then confined in the Oosterbeek Perimeter on the western outskirts of Arnhem.

Military operations in the Haalderen area were severely hampered as a result of the conditions. The protection offered by slit trenches was limited as the height of the water table restricted the depth to which they could be dug before filling with water. Moreover, the movement of man and armour throughout the sector was limited to the high ground, i.e. across the top of the dykes. Such movement was perilous for a number of reasons, notably due to the fact that the tracks that topped the dykes were constructed with light agricultural traffic in mind and not the heavyweight trucks and tanks of an Army on the move. Furthermore, the presence of men and vehicles on the top of the dykes offered the enemy something akin to a fairground duck shoot as targets were dangerously exposed in silhouette against the sky.

To further set the scene, I refer to the relevant sections of the 7th Dukes War Diaries. From 1st December, the Battalion positions were coming under heavy artillery fire. German forward patrols were observed to be occupying houses on the main road through the village. At the same time, the diary records ‘water rising about 3” to 6” per day. Daylight supply of Btn forbidden’. The diary elaborates some more on the worsening flood conditions stating that at 2150 hours on the 2nd ‘’D’ Coy reported that water was rising rapidly in the coy area’. This situation calls to mind the earlier story, mentioned in an earlier chapter, that my Grandfather related of being perched on a stack of bricks armed with a yardstick monitoring the rate by which the water levels were rising throughout the night. William Douglas corrected my earlier assumption that this incident occurred in the Roosendaal area and stated that it was much more consistent with the situation in Haalderen. As recounted a little later, he arrived in the area with the 11th R.S.F. on the morning of 4th December.

By the morning of 3rd December 03 Brigade advised that ‘Dykes may have been breached by weight of water or military action. HAALDEREN, the highest point of the “Island” may be attacked by the enemy. NIJMEGEN is being heavily shelled at an increasing rate. Be on the alert for counter-attacks’.

At 0710 a trip flare was triggered forward of the ‘D’ Company’s position. The Dukes remained vigilent, observing even in this dreadful place mundane domestic activities as it was reported at 0930 hours that ‘1 Boche seen to run out of house S of rd at 763662, chased chicken. Man shot chicken and went back into house’. More Germans were observed on the main Haalderen road throughout the day. In the early evening, enemy flares were spotted and sporadic Spandau fire was reported at 2235 and 2255. Something was in the offing.

At 0315 on 4th December, Spandau fire coincided with reports coming in from ‘D’ Company of an attack, with 18 Platoon stating that 17 enemy had passed through their positions with more approaching. Some 15 minutes later, more Germans, about a company in strength, also passed through leaving 18 Platoon completely surrounded although holding their position.

The War Diary reported ‘Heavy stonking in the bn area and BEMMEL 7367. It was the 11th R.S.F. who were on the receiving end of the shelling in Bemmel. The ‘Summary of Operations’ takes up the story and decribes how in the early hours of 4th December the Battalion was subjected to one of the German’s most concentrated artillery fire for a period of nearly two hours, being the prelude to an attack on the right sector of the Brigade front [i.e. the 7 DWR in Haalderen]. ‘D’ Company under Major Leslie Rowell were to take the role of counter-attack Company in just such an event. In Major Rowell’s words ‘At Bemmel on the 4th December D Coy were in reserve with the task of counter attacking in support of 7 DWR at Haalderen, at approximately 0300 hours the Coy was ordered to ‘stand to’ and later was ordered to move. The Coy commenced to its task at first light at 0730 hours’.
Meanwhile back in Haalderen, the at 0400 the & DWR War Diary described the situation as ‘very confused’ with fighting taking place in nearly every house in the village. The Germans had reached as far as ‘A’ Company HQ and the school buildings on a road junction approximately 100m along the road from the Church. White flares fired at 0500 hours from the new German positions were thought to be signals that the planned objectives had been successfully taken.

At 0515 hours the Commanding Officer, Major Hamilton, ordered the Duke’s Carrier Platoon to re-occupy the school and for ‘C’ Company to counter-attack ‘D’ Company 18 Platoon’s positions in order to close the gap in the line through which the Germans had passed. It was estimated that the German infiltration of the Battalion area was approximately one company in strength. Major Hamilton requested that the 11th R.S.F. move up, as counter-attack battalion, to the area of Battalion HQ.

In the early hours further German advance along the main road was checked. At 0615, the Carrier Platoon successfully retook the school and ‘B’ Company reoccupied a number of houses. Nevertheless, confused close quarters fighting continued in the area of the ‘A’ Company HQ. At 0620 the 11th R.S.F. assembled in this area (on the right, that is south west side of the main street) and received orders to attack in an easterly direction, thereby pushing the Germans towards the 7 DWR forward positions.

In darkness and in the confused nature of house to house fighting there was a real danger that the 7th DWR Company and ‘D’ Company of the 11th R.S.F. would sustain casualties due to ‘friendly fire’. To avoid such a clash, Major Rowell ordered that ‘D’ Company take responsibility for the clearance of houses on the right hand side of the street as far as the road junction. This was tasked to 17 Platoon under the command of Lieutenant McIntosh. Next 18 Platoon, under Lieutenant Douglas would work their way up the left had side of the street once the situation in the houses opposite ‘A’ Company HQ had been established. At this time my Grandfather with 16 Platoon, under Sergeant Little, took up reserve fire positions protecting ‘A’ Company HQ.

Crossing the start line at 0700 hours 17 Platoon cleared the first house as the 7 DWR arrived in the houses opposite and 18 Platoon set off up the left hand side of the street. In this manner both of the Fusilier platoons advanced up the street offering mutual support as far as the road junction objective. The enemy were being pushed back down the road from where they originally advanced.
At this point, I am reminded of my Grandfather, who would break off from one of our regular Saturday night games of darts in the kitchen to describe, with the aid of an invisible, but poised, Lee Enfield, just how soldiers on opposite sides of the street would cooperate in house clearing actions! I wonder whether at such times he was mentally transported back to Haalderen.

The men of ‘D’ Company received additional information about houses along the street that were German occupied as 18 Platoon of the Fusilers further advanced from the north east towards the crescent of Kolkweg. In this they were assisted by 16 Platoon Bren Corps and 17 Platoon who also provided covering fire. The 18 Platoon assault was successful. The men of ‘D’ Company were still coming under fire from houses on the street when the final phase of the attack commenced which was to clear all houses on the north eastern side of the street. The attack was led by 16 Platoon supported by covering fire from both 17 and 18 Platoon. At the point of reaching the send house off the street, the enemy surrendered. The remaining Dukes laid down smoke to aid the advance of 16 Platoon on the last objective before consolidating the ground taken on either side of the road.

As Prisoners of War were taken back, it was established that the units engaged with the Dukes and Fusiliers were men of the German 16th Parachute Regiment of the 6th Parachute Division (6. Fallschirmjäger-Division).

By 1215 the original 7 DWR Battalion positions had been restored and the Dukes claimed a total of 108 P.O.W.s and many enemy dead. For their part, the 11th R.S.F. accounted for 77 P.O.W.s with one Fusilier killed and two wounded. Those Germans not killed or captured retreated across the fields back towards their frontline. 4th December closed with a heavy artillery bombardment on the battalion area.

On 5th December, ‘D’ Company were located at the south eastern end of the village located in the ruins of some semi-detached houses that overlooked fields that stretched out in the direction of the German frontline positions. Of that time William Douglas, then commanding 18 Platoon recalls a deadly game of ‘cat & mouse’ with a German railway gun. ‘So I ended up at the far end of the village in some ruined semi-detached houses looking out across the open fields, the Germans of course knew exactly where we were because they’d been there and somewhere up in the Arnhem area they had a very big railway gun and you could hear the confounded thing, you knew when it was going to fire, so you were fairly safe, you could hear it going tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk, then the most tremendous bang and you could practically see the thing coming through the air. Of course, when it landed it would destroy several houses, and they started firing at the village with this confounded thing and of course we had positions in all the windows looking out across the fields. But fortunately all these Dutch houses had cellars, so into the cellars we go and as soon as the firing stops we rush back into the positions, you hear him fire again, back down into the cellars, this confounded gun, every time it fired it seemed to come closer and closer to the house that we were in. Roofs were disappearing on the other side of the road, entire houses going down, oh God! It was one of the most frightening times of the whole thing, there was nothing that you could do about it, you just sat there, 10 chaps down in this cellar, you as the officer, trying to appear frightfully brave and not the least bit worried and getting ready to shout ‘Go!’ the moment you thought he’d finished firing and your back up top in case they were coming again. This went on for a couple of hours, it was not amusing. I always remember when they say ‘Were you ever frightened?’ and I say ‘Yeah I was pretty frightened down in that cellar I have to say! The next one’s gonna land on us!’.

Later ‘D’ Company of the R.S.F. were relieved by ‘C’ Company who entered the area for this purpose and to reinforce the tired Dukes. Between 1700 and 2130 on 6th December, the rest of the Regiment moved into the village to relieve the 7 DWR who moved back to Bemmel.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Rock ‘n’ Roll, Remembrance and All That Jazz in The Lowlands Breda, Holland 15th May 2015

In what was becoming something of an annual excursion Owen and I had planned another weekend on the continent with both military history and music on the itinerary.

Yet another old punk band was due to play at the ‘Eurorock Festival’ in Neerpelt in Belgium. The timing could not have been better since the ‘Fragmented Military History’ website had progressed considerably such that I had left Normandy and the 59th (Staffordshire) Division behind and was now immersed in the actions of the Polar Bears in Belgium and Holland.

The town of Breda was to be our base for the next three days from where we would drive in each and every direction in order to visit Turnhout, Wuustwezel, Roosendaal, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Bemmel, Haalderen and Walcheran. A check on the mileometer upon arriving back in London told us that we had clocked up no less than two thousand miles over the three days, mostly in the Netherlands (no mean feat in a country so small!).

Whilst we were planning to see a punk band (Killing Joke, were anyone to be remotely curious) our chosen base was this weekend hosting the annual Breda Jazz Festival. Now I fully appreciate that when it comes to musical taste it is definitely a case of ‘each to their own’. But without a doubt both Owen and I side with Johnny Rotten over Johnny Dankworth! So when a well-meaning waitress in the breakfast room on day two suggested that we were here for the jazz we were a little put out! Casting an eye over the finger poppin’ jazz aficionados of northern Europe that were at that time sharing the restaurant, it was clear to the two of us at least that a wide gulf existed between us and them. Nevertheless in a middle aged punk rock style we corrected her and complimented the chef on the quality of his scrambled eggs. How times have changed!

Caught unawares in a lift finger clicking and ‘extolling the joy of jazz!’.

On our first venture out on our first full day of touring was the town of Turnhout. Strangely enough thid was not our first visit to this town in the far north of Belgium. Back in April 2011 the two of us in the company of another couple of fans had stayed in Turnhout. The band had arranged a five day acoustic tour of Belgium and Holland of which we planned to witness three, Turnhout, Zaandamn and Lessines.

Now Turnhout is a small place, but locating our apartment took over an hour. I am happy to say that the concert was very enjoyable but after the show we headed out of toen in the direction of the band’s hotel with a view to grabbing a late beer with them. Within minutes of us setting off, the band’s mini-bus speed past us and the ever truculent bass player took the time to hurl some choice words of abuse at us as they passed (it’s nothing personal, we were on the guest list after all!).

In 2011 I hand no idea that this place had any significance to my own family history. All I felt at the time was a sense of frustration as we repeatedly failed to locate our apartment after several traverses of the town. The realisation that my Grandfather was a liberator of the town was a few years off!

Next up was Wuustwezel, another difficult place name for linguistically challenged Britons such as ourselves. Having said that in the spirit of our forebears who renamed Ypres as Wipers and Foucquevillers as Funkyvillers, Wuustwezel was rechristened to a very anglicised ‘Worst Weasel’…. no offence intended towards our Belgian neighbours, it just made navigation much easier!

Having reached the town as usual we made for the cemetery and here were located the first 11th R.S.F. graves that I had seen since the Fontenay-le-Pesnel cemetery the previous year.

Nine Polar Bears lie in the churchyard of Wuustwezel.

During the fighting to liberate Wuustwezel between 20th and 23rd October 1944, 108 British servicemen were killed in action or died of wounds received. Of these men 98 wore the Polar Bear insignia of the 49th (West Riding) Division.

The fallen are commemorated by a memorial erected to their memory in Liberation Square, Wuustwezel. The monument carries the following inscription that attests to their heroic deeds:

‘In this area, the German counter-attacks of 21st and 22nd October 1944 were halted by the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. The people of Wuustwezel express gratitude to their liberators’.

At the unveiling ceremony on 21st October 1984, the Burgomaster of Wuustwezel, Jos Ansoms said this of the momument and what it represents, ‘It is a sober monument, sober and simple as the lads of whom it reminds us. It is convincing and dignified like the British military that are remembered. Constructed in a “V”, it represents victory but also peace, freedom and friendship’.

The Wuustwezel memorial is now recognised as the principal site of remembrance to the Polar Bears in Belgium. Whilst less imposing than its cousin in Fontenay-le-Pesnel, its understated simplicity makes it every bit as moving. The aforementioned sober simplicity of this construction of brick and stone surmounted with a stylised French limestone sculpture of a Polar Bear contrasts starkly with the Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun that also occupies the site, a contribution of the Polar Bear Association in 2009.

The Polar Bear memorial
Wuustwezel, Belgium.

Last Days In Belgium October 1944

At the beginning of October, the 11th R.S.F. were to be found in the area of Zondereigen, a few hundred meters south of the Dutch border. Here they spent five days in a defensive position that provided protection to the left flank of the Polish Armoured Division as it pushed north into Holland.

The Battalion was very mobile in the first weeks of the month as they criss-crossed the Divisional front. A new defensive position was taken up on 11th October at Maerle for a further week. 

On 19th October the Battalions moved westwards to Oostmalle from where on the following day they crossed the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in their initial advance into Holland. As part of 1st Corps the 49th Division were positioned in the centre of the line of advance with the Polish Armoured Division on their right and the 4th Canadian Division on their left. The Polar Bears were directed towards Roosendaal, whilst the Poles and Canadians aimed for the towns of Breda and Bergen Op Zoom respectively.

49th Division were to advance along a line of axis that ran from Oostmalle and passed through Brecht, Wuustwezel, Nieuwmoer, Essche and Roosendaal, a distance of approximately twenty miles. The advance was to be lead by 56 Brigade and 147 Brigade, with 146 Brigade concentrated in Oostmalle.

The Polar Bears were opposed across their front by 245 Division a fighting unit of 88th Corps of the German 15th Army.

The lines of advance into Holland.

On the morning of 20th October ‘Operation Rebound’ was launched which was intended by the combined efforts of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and the 49th Division to secure the Belgian-Dutch border area and in doing so facilitate the liberation of the Scheldt Estuary. With the estuary under Allied control the key port of Antwerp could be utilised.

It was the task of the 49th Division to advance towards Loenhout from the area of Brecht. Having secured Loenhout, the plan was for another composite taskforce named ‘Clarkeforce’ (under the command of Brigadier W.S. Clarke of 34th Tank Brigade) to punch their way through into Holland.

21st October saw the 11th R.S.F. located in and around Wuustwezel which was captured with relative ease. However, on 21st and 22nd 245 and 346 Infantry Divisions launched savage counter attacks with heavy tank and SP supporting fire. These attacks came in from the Wernhout area just over the Dutch border. These counter attacks were halted in a series of fierce engagements in the hamlets of Braken, Kruisweg and in the area of Stone Bridge (the only crossing of the Weerijs that could bear the weight of heavy armour).

In his 1990 Imperial War Museum interview Colonel William Douglas recalled some of the fighting in Kruisweg, not to mention his brush with death.

‘October 23rd, we’d ended up in a place called Kruisweg, Kruisweg Ridge. I’d been out on another night patrol, a recce to find the enemy, we’d found them and reported back and I went back to my platoon headquarters just as first light was coming up. And, the sergeant had been in charge all night obviously, and when I got to the position he had the entire platoon in a beautiful Dutch barn, a big fire going. All the chaps were drying their socks and having breakfast.

 ‘What the Devil do you think you are doing?’
‘Where are the sentries?’
Why haven’t you got anybody out?’

 ‘Oh, it was a dark night Sir and I thought the lads needed a bit of a cheering up.’

‘They’ll need cheering up in a minute, the Germans are only half a mile away!’

So I chased some sentries out, scattered them out and got them all into positions and we set the headquarters in a cellar in the village and I’d just taken my socks off and thought I’ll get some breakfast now when the sentry came running in saying ‘Come quick, come quick! There’s a haystack coming down the village street!’.

‘Now you’ve been drinking the rum laddie!’.

Anyway, he was dead right, there was a haystack coming slowly down the village street, about I suppose three quarters of a mile away. I got my field glasses and had a look. It was a German Panther and he’d put loads of hay on top by the turret, I suppose for camouflage. He wasn’t too sure what we had in the village and he was coming along pretty carefully, you know, having a good look and swinging his turret from side to side. I thought ‘My God, if he gets in here, it’s curtains for us. So I grabbed the PIAT anti-tank projectile and a couple of bombs and headed down to the front garden.... here’s Douglas’s chance for the VC or something!

I got down behind a low wall, I suppose about two feet high. Now the trouble with the PIAT was that it was most effective when it hit its target, but its range was about 100 yards, so you had to wait and wait and wait and this chap came on 400 yards, 300 yards, 200 yards, waiting, waiting, waiting and this great big gun came round and he tried to lower it like that, but of course you can only lower a tank gun so far and then you hit the hull where the driver is and he couldn’t get it any lower. Stupid me, I should have realised that the tank commander is eight feet up and I’m two feet behind a wall and he could see me and he knew what I’d got, so he let fly with his great 88mm round. Well he couldn’t hit me because he couldn’t get the gun barrel down, but it thundered into the wall of the old rickety farmhouse behind me and the whole thing came down on top of me. In fact it saved my life. He then apparently came down the village , put a round into the cellar, killing most of the HQ chaps, caused absolute pandemonium in the platoon, they all got down in their trenches, my sergeant, that I’d just given a rocket to, got a military medal out of it I heard later. He dashed down to the crossroads and got an anti-tank gun, which a detachment of anti-tank gunners had there and he swung this gun round and fired at this thing and knocked it out and the infantry who were coming with the tank got a bit dispirited at this and they put a rather poor attack in on our position and were driven off. I by this time had been dragged from under this farmhouse and carted off on a stretcher and woke up in an ambulance on the way to the Canadian Hospital in Antwerp. I only heard what the sergeant had done weeks later when I got back to the Battalion’.

The Sergeant that Douglas refers to was Sergeant William Little of No 16 Platoon of ‘D’ Company. As such he was my Grandfather’s Platoon Sergeant and he will feature again in this narrative.

As stated Sergeant Little was awarded the Military Medal for his actions in Kruisweg. The citation which recommended the award reads as follows:

On 23rd October 1944, L/Sjt Little was platoon Serjeant of a platoon detached under the command of Carrier platoon to hold a defensive position at KRUISWEG – 1:25,000 Sheet 24 NW 814160.

Following a very heavy and accurate concentration of mortar fire the enemy attacked with infantry, a tank and two SP guns, and L/Sjt Little’s platoon commander [William Douglas] was seen made a casualty leaving him to command the platoon.

The tank and an SP gun penetrated the positions and the infantry gradually approached within short range.

The action lasted about two hours before the arrival of another Coy and a sqn of tanks dispersed the enemy forces.

Throughout this timethe majority of L/Sjt Little’s platoon were on the enemy side of the buildings and they were in the nerve-racking position of being faced by enemy infantry and having an enemy tank and SP gun in their rear.

The citation document bears the signature of one B.L. Montgomery – Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief 21 Army Group.

The 11th R.S.F. Summary of Operations adds a little more detail to the action recording that ‘A force composed of the Carrier Platoon, one platoon from D Coy and two A/tnk guns that RA were holding one sector which was counter attacked by SP guns and infantry. One SP gun actually got behind our lines and Sgt Little, Platoon Sgt, D Coy was magnificent in control of the men. The two A/tnk guns RA had been put out of action, one by a direct hit and the other because it was in a burning house. Showing admirable courage and coolness, Sgt Little got his gun out and with the help of others of his platoon dragged it back to a position from which it could be fired at this troublesome SP gun and knocked it out’.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Recollections of the Liberation of Turnhout (Part 2) August 2016

In my correspondence with Jacques Boone, he suggested that I make contact with his friend John Peters of Sint Niklaas (a town approximately 66 kilometers to the south west of Turnhout.

John was a teenager of fifteen at the time of the liberation. Since his father, Hendrik Peters, was the manager of the power plant that served Turnhout and several other local settlements, it is fair to say that the Peters family held some standing within the town.

The power plant was located on the Koningin Elisabethlei part of which also served as the family home. The Koningin Elisabethlei, heading across the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in the direction of Breda, is one of two routes by which to leave the town. The other route out of town is via Steenweg op Oosthoven in the direction of Tilburg. The Peters family were on the front line in late September 1944.

Map of central Turnhout showing the key locations in John's account of the town's liberation
(many thanks to John Peters!)

It was on 19th September that the Germans ordered the civilian population to evacuate their homes and to seek alternative accommodation. The street in which the Peters family lived fell within this area and so they moved in with family to Oude Vaartstraat some 250 meters from home. Since the plant provided both electricity and gas, commodities vital to the capacity for the Germans to maintain control over the town, it was considered to be essential that the plant manager to located at the plant. For this region, the Ortskommandant (the appointed administrator of the town) ordered Hendrik to return home to ensure the continuation of supply. For a time John, along with his mother, father and sister lived in the cellar of the house, from where John recalls hearing the steel-shod boots of German patrols regularly passing overhead.

On the eve of the liberation (23rd September), Hendrik Peters was summoned to the Kasteel, a grand moated building in which the Kommandatur of the town had taken up. Whilst there the Ortskommandant was called into the Kommandatur’s office to take a telephone call. The conversation that followed was at volume and the door to the office was left ajar, such that Hendrik was able to deduce the flow of conversation with ease. The capability of the German forces in the town to put up a serious defence was the topic.

German troops in Grote Markt in the centre of town (St Peters Church is visible on the right). This picture was taken on the eve of liberation (23rd September 1944) when the Germans elected to leave the town for positions to the north over the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal.

At the conclusion of the call the Kommandatur informed Hendrik Peters that as the town could not be effectively defended the decision had been taken that all German forces were to withdraw to a position behind the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in the area of Koningin Elisabethlei. No. 1 Bridge was to be accessible until 21.00 hours to allow the withdrawal. At 21.00 hours sharp, the bridge would be blown.

The Kommandatur added that since the townspeople of Turnhout had caused the occupiers little trouble over the years, the withdrawal would be effected ‘without firing a single shot.

Shortly after 20.30 hours, Hendrik, accompanied by John stepped out into the deserted street in time to see the Ortskommandant and his deputy pass by on bikes heading towards the bridge some 400 metres distant. As they rode past both men raised an arm in salutation and called ‘Guten Abend Herr Peters!’

The street returned to silence. Turnhout was free from soldiers for now and the Polar Bears were on their way.

Early on the morning of 24th, Hendrik Peters set to work to ensure that the low voltage aerial network was intact and undamaged by the blast from the destruction of the bridge. He and two volunteers inspected the integrity of the network pole by pole. When working up the ladder the workmen were in full view of the Germans positioned over the Canal, but no shots were fired. On approaching the Canal, it was observed that the door to a stone/brick built substation located just on the north bank of the Canal had been blown open when the bridge was destroyed. This presented a great danger to any unsuspecting person were they to venture inside. Hendrik Peters therefore negotiated with a German officer who was overseeing the preparation of the new German defensive positions  to get the door closed. The substation key was secured to a rock which was thrown over the Canal (presumably taking sufficient care that it did not hit the officer!). The officer duly shut and locked the door and threw the key back over the water. Both men exchanged a ‘Guten Tag’ and continued with their own tasks, Mr Peters and his volunteers returned to the Company office.

The electricity substation viewed from the north bank of the Canal with the rebuilt Bridge No. 1 on the right.

Elements of the 49th Division Recce Regiment entered the town shortly after lunchtime. Initially two armoured vehicles parked up close to the St Theobaldus Chapel at the junction of Koningin Elisabethlei and Steenweg op Oosthoven. Not much further happened until about 15.30 hours when a vehicle moved up Koningin Elisabethlei stopping very close to the Peters house and the power plant. Four soldiers emerged from their Bren gun carrier, one of whom enquired where the lavatory was (how very British one could say!). Shortly after incoming gunfire from over the canal prompted the Fusiliers to order the gathered, curious civilians back into their homes for their own safety.

With the liberators deep inside the town and the Germans over the Canal, armed civilians bearing the armband of the Belgian Resistance on Elisabethlei, but on turning the gentle curve in the road, they found themselves in the line of fire from the other side of the Canal and so were forced to divert down Beirenmolenstraat.

As evening fell, the weather turned for the worse and a heavy rain fell. At 7.30 two soldiers knocked on the door of the Peters household looking for information and places for the men of ‘C’ Company 11th R.S.F. to bed down. Six to eight men with their officer, Lieutenant Robert Galloway entered the property. The men took advantage of the stove and sought to dry their sodden battledress.

The stove was a central feature of most households and in Belgium (as no doubt almost everywhere else in Europe) wartime fuel shortages were a driving force for innovation. This was the case in the Peters house where a tank had been welded around the stove pipe that enabled the heat produced by the stove to utilised in the most efficient way possible, from heating food through to plate warming. On the night of 24th September, several Fusilers used this heated metal surface for the purpose of drying out many soaked French bank notes! After the war and on a return to Turnhout, LT Galloway spilled the beans. Fighting in the Le Havre area has seen the destruction of a bank to the extent that the safe was blown. Legitimately, these spoils (an estimated 4.5 million French Francs) had been distributed amongst the troops who captured the town. Eventually, the soldiers were able to send the money back to the UK where these sums of French Francs were exchanged for sterling. One dried, troops and banknotes alike, the soldiers left the kitchen of Hendrik Peters to bivouac with their fellows.

On Monday 25th September, with the town free of Germans, the townspeople of Turnhout returned from further afield and started the process of getting things back to a normal pre-war state. Ever keen to assist their liberators, the workshops within the confines of the power plant in which they were billeted, were put to good use and the Fusiliers and plant engineers worked together to repair damaged radio antennae

As a teenager with an interest in the equipment and trappings of a modern army befriended one Frederick Gilby of ‘C’ Company who took it upon himself to assist the student John in his English language tuition, starting with ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’! Frederick was perhaps more useful to young John when he dragged him under safe cover when a German fired grenade narrowly missed the workshop that they were in.

In the week commencing 24th September rumours of a German counter attack caused some panic within the town. John’s family home on Koningin Elisabethlei was once again potentially on the front line and the house was became a key defensive position for the 11th R.S.F.

John recalls one character of the Company who went by the name of ‘Rusty Knob’, a small chap, an experienced soldier, and maybe by virtue of his colouring one of the original Scotsmen of the Battalion. He was positioned in an upstairs room of the house next to John’s parent’s bedroom awaiting the anticipated German counterattack. This soldier clearly made an impression upon John Peters, firstly he recalls that Rusty kissed the last round that he placed in the magazine of his Lee Enfield promising it for the first German to appear within his range. Secondly, he recalls the same soldier stating that he had swum over the Canal on a patrol, armed with a knife, in pursuit of ‘a couple of Germans who had disturbed him’. The outcome of this particular patrol is not recorded. However, on the basis of John’s account, far from being the ‘Nijmegen Home Guard’, an opinion held by some of the Division’s role in Holland, Rusty’s actions and attitude were indicative of a body of men that were tried, tested and proven in battle.

The anticipated counter attack failed to materialise and calm descended once again on the town. The tension in the town subsided and some of the men of the battalion could spend some off-duty hours in the company of the people of the town, the young ladies in particular!

Word reached the town that the Polish Armoured Division had successfully crossed the Canal at Rijkevorsal and the German forces had fled for fear of being surrounded. On Sunday 1st October the men of the 11th R.S.F. packed up and cautious approached the Canal. Once across they fanned out into the fields and disappeared from view heading in the direction of the Dutch border. Behind then they left a grateful town and many memories that remain vivid in the minds of the inhabitants even after the passage of more than seventy years.

With John Peters in Turnhout
24th September 2016

Recollections of the Liberation of Turnhout (Part 1) June 2016

Following on from my earlier correspondence with Francis, I contacted the local museum in Turnhout to enquire about the availability of an article entitled ‘In het spoor van de IJsberen’ (‘Tracing the Polar Bears’) that was published in the local annual journal Taxandria in 2008. An archivist from the museum duly responded and confirmed my suspicions that the article, whilst available, is in Dutch (a language over which I have no command whatsoever).

However, the helpful archivist also provided me with another contact within the town, a gentleman by the name of Jacques Boone. I subsequently emailed Jacques with my now well-rehearsed potted history of my Grandfather’s service, the website and book plans and within a couple of hours I received the following reply:

Dear Mr Andrews,

Many thanks for your interesting mail.  Every information  about the  11th Btn, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, does interest me very much, indeed. On 24th September 1944,  as a 17 years old boy, I was living in Turnhout and attended the liberation of the town,( I kept it vivid  in my memory, almost as if it happened yesterday) by the 49th Reconnaissance Rgt of the 49th Polar Bear Division,  followed immediately by the 11 Btn, the R.S.F. and the 7th Btn, the Duke of Wellington’s Rgt.

My text  on the liberation of Turnhout  was published by “Forces War Records”in their Magazine , issue 10, Special Edition , ‘Your Stories’, December 2015. Some photographs of me were  shot on 24th September 1944 by a late cousin of mine, on the Turnhout Market square , while I was fraternizing with  the Recces.

A friend of mine, Ken West, was a  member of the 11th RSF. Hereby some correspondence. I read his book “An’ it’s called a Tam- o’- Shanter”, Ken’s war memoires.   I opened my contact to him with  my letter of 1st October 2007, I asked him if he knew the 11th RSF man whose  photograph I had taken in Normandy in 2007.  Ken did not;  he actually  did not “liberate” Turnhout,  on 24th September 1994 he was in an hospital in England, in treatment for severe burn wounds he  had gotten in action on the Normandy front.

I am convinced that my friend John Peters (address provided)  knows  English very well  and I am almost certain  he could give  you some interesting data . Tell him I gave you his address.

With kind regards,

Jacques Boone

Member of the 49th (WR) Infantry Division Association.

Belgian teenagers and British tank crew on a Humber Mk IV (Jacques Boone is standing third on the left, in a long raincoat)
Turnhout 24th September 1944.
(photograph taken by François Boone and reproduced with the kind permission of his widow Jacqueline Boone)

I replied, thanking Jacques for the link to his article and the additional contact. I explained that Ken West was indeed a mutual acquaintance and sent on a photograph of Ken and I in Leicester in 2015. In addition, 

Jacques bounced back with another prompt email:

Dear Adrian,
Thank you for the nice photograph of you with Ken.  The last time of our meeting was in 2014, in Normandy, in front of the Polar Bear monument at Fontenay-le-Pesnel. He was leading an important group of Normandy Veteran Association members. What a pity this association has been dissolved. We met several times in October at a memorial ceremony  at Wuustwezel in Belgium  next the PBA monument  and also one time at Merksplas, at the monument of Cpl John HARPER, VC.

My motto is: Remember ! Often, I attend ceremonies , last week to remember crashes  of 3 RAF bomber command bombers, for a Manchester, a Halifax and a Stirling at the village of Kasterlee.  I had again the pleasure of meeting there British and Canadian acquaintances to members of the crews. I had to make a speech in English at the Manchester monument.

Kind regards,

With Jacques Boone.
Turnhout 24th September 2016.

The 11th R.S.F. move up to the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal 21st to 24th September 1944.

Lietenant Thomas Salmon of the 49th Recce Regiment surrounded by the grateful townsfolk of Turnhout. This photograph was taken shortly prior to his fateful journey up to the Canal.

(photograph taken by François Boone and reproduced with the kind permission of his widow Jacqueline Boone)

After three days in the Dieppe area, the Battalion started the move north early on the 21st September and crossed the border into Belgium at about 1600 hours. By 1800 they had reached the outskirts of the town of Tournai where they spent the night. The movement into Belgium continued the following day via Brussels, through Malle and onto Turnhout on the Antwerp – Turnhout Canal. 

The progression of the Battalion was unglamorous even by Army standards. Colonel William Douglas described the move in the following terms:

‘I think it was about 10th September we moved into Belgium and it was a comic old move because we’d had to lend all our transport to other divisions in the Corps when we swung left to Le Harve because they were heading on as fast as they could towards Brussels and Antwerp and swinging right, keeping on the flank of the American advance and all our transport went on and we were either marching or travelling in the most awful collection of German junk, French civilian junk, these trucks that had gas tanks on the back, they worked on some kind of gas, frightful things, you were all rather embarrassed to be in these things. Anyway, there wasn’t a great deal of fighting going on so it didn’t greatly mater’.

At the time of this movement into Belgium, the men of the Battalion were cheered at the spectacle of hundreds of aircraft, many towing Horsa gliders, passing overhead as they flew north bound for Arnhem. This was of course the Market Garden armada and such was the scale of the operation, that soldiers reported that the skies above were full of aircraft for a full ten minutes or more.

146 and 147 Brigades of the 49th Division crossed the Albert Canal on the 22nd and 23rd September and the 11th R.S.F. moved up with the right hand column of the Divisional advance. The Battalion moved up towards Turnhout at approximately 1100 hours on the morning of the 24th, advancing from Herentals to Turnhout. 

Based upon information contained in 147 Infantry Brigade Operational Instruction No. 19, issued at 0200 hours on the morning of the 24th, the Brigade were to anticipate resistance from the enemy in the environs of Turnhout. The following instruction was issued ‘147 Infantry Brigade will advance on 24th September with the object of capturing or investing the town of Turnhout’. In this endeavour, the Fusiliers were to take the lead. The task was to be achieved by the infantry with support from 756 Fd Coy R.E., a battery of 143 Fd Regt R.A., 160 Fd Amb (Casualty Clearing Post) and a Detachment of Provost (a Military Police unit assigned the responsibility of bringing order to the chaos of moving large volumes of men and armour). The 7th Duke of Wellington Regiment (DWR) of the 147th Brigade were ‘to be called forward when required’. The task of the 49th Division was stated in the following terms ’49 Div is to establish a bridgehead across the canal 24 Sep with 147 Bde RIGHT and 146 Bde LEFT’.

The first elements of the 49th Recce Division entered the centre of Turnhout on the afternoon 24th September with ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies of the 11th R.S.F. passing into the town in the late afternoon. Lietenant Thomas Salmon was the first liberator of Turnhout to fall. His sacrifice is commemorated close to the spot where he was fatally wounded on the immediate approach to the canal on the northern side of the town.

View of Antwerp-Turnhout Canal at Bridge No. 1close to the memorial to Lieutenant Thomas Salmon of 49th Division Reconnaissance Corps, R.A.C (September 2016).
August 2016.

Memorial to Lieutenant Thomas Salmon, 49th Division Reconnaissance Corps, R.A.C. (August 2016).

The memorial reads:


By 1845 hours, both companies were positioned on the southern bank of the canal, but no suitable crossing points were found, all bridges having been destroyed. Troop movements brought down accurate fire from the German defenders of the opposite bank. One 19 year old Fusilier,a Robert Marshall Pratt,  was mortally wounded by mortar fire in these exchanges on 24th September. Fusilier Pratt lies in Geel Cemetery. Two further Fusiliers were also injured at this time.

One of the original wartime documents that I have in my possession is a postcard, written by my Grandfather to his wife, June, in the week of the fighting over the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal.

The photograph features a photograph of the Grote Markt in which St. Peter’s Church is visible. A visit to the same location in May 2015 showed the Square to be little changed, although the building on the left, which then served as the Town Hall is long gone.

On the reverse of the postcard, my Grandfather describes how his unit passed through the town on Sunday morning [24th September], however, as already described this is an inaccuracy since ‘D’ Company did not arrive in the centre of Turnhout until the afternoon of the 24th. He goes on to briefly describe the reception that the Fusiliers received from the newly liberated townsfolk, and more tellingly of the perils of coming under shell-fire having secreted gifts of tomatoes and cigars inside one’s battledress!

‘We came through here on a Sunday morning, all the people turned out to greet us, giving us cigars tomatoes, which I stuffed in my Tunic Blouse, which I regretted later. The Germans holding the other side of the river held us up we had to dive for cover. I had a Blouse full of Tomatoes & Cigars you can imagine what a mess that made. Later met a woman from Manchester who married a Belgian.’


In his account, Colonel Douglas describes how ‘D’ Company, having crossed the Canal came under fire from powerful 20 mm ack-ack guns.

‘24th September we hit the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal, a pretty hefty canal , about I suppose 50 yards wide with quite high, steep concrete banks. Our Battalions job was to do a diversionary attack so that the main attack could go in further down towards the sea. We attacked in the dark and got over at first light, knocked out the, erm, lock-keepers house where the Germans were and moved forward to the line of the road which I suppose was a couple of 100 yards in from the canal and there we waited because we’d been told that the Germans use this road, particularly for their transport, to communicate with one side of the low line and the other. And there we waited to get a suitable ambush. And unfortunately, the first thing that came along was one of, or a group of these 20mm ack-ack trucks which were very nasty weapons. They had four or six barrels on the open back of a truck and they fired very nasty 20mm shells which I suppose were about 10 inches long and a couple of inches across and they were exploding shells for firing at aircraft and if fired at human beings they didn’t do an awful lot of good. You know it took great chunks out of you and we unfortunately took this thing on, knocked a few of them off the  back of the trucks with our first volley , but they were brave guys and they swung these things round and began to wreck the top of this bank that we were on. Several chaps got great pieces shot out of them and it didn’t do them any good at all. We then realised that the way to do it was to throw hand grenades at them and we started throwing mills grenades over, which they didn’t like a bit. So they gave us one last volley and set off, and hared down the road again. We hung on to this position then, waiting for the main attack to go in further down the canal, until by mid afternoon we were told we could pull back over the canal. The attack had gone through and our diversion had done what it was supposed to do. We had of course by this time dug quite a good position in the middle of a field with the correct spacings and with some roofs on it, an excellent position which we would have held very nicely. We got back over the canal onto the far bank when an enormous bombardment came down on the position that we had just vacated and the entire field disappeared in clouds of dust and flames and a great German attack came in supported by tanks on fresh air, we were awfully chuffed, we thought that was very funny and we pulled back then to a safe distance and let them have it’.

At midnight on the 24th the Hallams launched a diversionary attack from Beerse, which attracted much German fire. In this action, their ‘beachmaster’, Captain Douglas Bell, was killed and under such fire the Hallams were unable to launch any boats. The assault was halted. Later in the day, on 25th September,  the 4th Lincolnshire Regiment were able to establish a small bridgehead, two kilometres further to the east, at Sluice 1 at the Sint Jozef-Rijkevorsal  section of the canal. This action also resulted in the Lincolns taking ninety German prisoners. 

Despite determined counterattacks over the following three days, it was the Rijkevorsal bridgehead that became the main crossing of the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal.

The main attack referred to in Colonel Douglas’s account was carried out by the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division who attempted a crossing further along the Canal in the area of Sint-Job-in-‘t-Goor. On 24th September Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and The South Saskatchewan Regiment were to cross on the right and on the left respectively on the sector facing the village of Lochtenberg. Having established a bridgehead, the plan was, once over the Canal, to push on in a north westerly direction towards Camp de Brasschaet.

The assault commenced at 0700 hours and the Fusiliers managed to cross over the canal and make it to the cross-roads in Lochtenberg village before German machine gun fire halted the advance. To their left the South Saskatchewan fared less well as their attempts at a crossing were thwarted by effective sniper and machine gun fire, Later the plan was modified such that they tried a crossing further to the east in closer proximity to the Fusiliers. This second attempt commenced at 1300 hours and within an hour the crossing had been achieved. In the meantime however, the Fusiliers positions had been infiltrated by the Germans and at 1700 hours their positions were overrun and a heavy toll in terms of casualties was paid by the attackers. The bridgehead was too small to defend effectively and the Fusiliers were driven back over the canal and subsequently the South Saskatchewans withdrew to the south bank. The attempted crossing had resulted in a high casualty tally, especially amongst the ranks of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal.

Further Canadian efforts to effect a crossing also failed, despite air and artillery support. Subsequently the decision was taken to push the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division across the bridgehead established by the 49th Division at Rijkevorsal from 28th September. In doing so they also extended the extent of the bridgehead in a westerly direction.

The success of the crossings forced by the Polar Bear Regiments in comparison with the failure of the attempts made by the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was, in the opinion of Francis Huijbrechts, Chairman of the Hoogstraten Heritage Association, was due to the more thorough reconnaissance carried out by the Polar Bears across the stretch of the canal from Sint-Lenaarts and the areas north east and east of Turnhout from which the latter and also the area in front of Rijkevorsal were considered to be the most favourable for a successful crossing.

The task of the first crossing of the canal in the area of Turnhout was given to the 7th DWR. They were to attempt the crossing just to the east of Blown Bridge No. 2 to the north west of the town. Planned to take place a 7.30 am on the 25th it was first postponed and then cancelled. The 26th September saw the 7th DWR transferred to the area of the Rijkevorsal bridgehead.

Later in the day on 25th, at 1500 hours, a daylight crossing was achieved by the 11th R.S.F. on the stretch of the canal to the north east of Turnhout in the area of Meirgoorhoeve a short distance from the town.
The line of advance, once over the canal, for the 11th R.S.F. was westward to the road and railway that ran northwards to Baarle- Nassau inside Holland. In the advance towards Baarle-Nassau, it was hoped that the 11th could roll-up the German defences to the north of Turnhout. However, the German opposition was effective and the Battalion was ordered to withdraw on the afternoon of the 26th September. In the advance at least seven Fusiliers were killed in action or subsequently died of their wounds. The men lie in the communal cemetery in Kwakkelstraat.

On the same day as the withdrawal Eykynforce was established. This was a short-lived, composite formation comprising the 11th Battalion R.S.F along with anti-tank units, Royal Engineers, machine gun and heavy mortar sections, as well a Carrier Platoon of the 7th DWR and ad-hoc units of the Belgian White Brigade (elements of the Belgian resistance). Such composite formations were formed out of necessity. Since the breakout from Normandy, the war on the ground had become highly mobile, meaning that units were required to defend and patrol very large areas. In the case of the Polar Bears, by 27th September, eight out of a possible nine Infantry Battalions of the 49th Division were active in the area surrounding the Rijkevorsel bridgehead, an area estimated to be around four to five kilometres in both width and depth. Further to the west, the 11th R.S.F. as part of Eykynforce held the sector on the canal to the north of Beerse all the way across to Arendonk.

In the weeks that followed, other composite formations were brought into existence such as Bobforce and Clarkeforce (which again included my Grandfather) when were allotted specific tasks for the brief period of their existence.

The Summary of Operations of the 11th Battalion describes that function of Eykynforce in terms of holding ‘the thin red line’ of this broad sector, meaning operating as a thinly spread military formation holding the line in the face of a determined opposition (the term ‘thin red line’ has its origins in just such a situation the the British Army found themselves in at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War).

On 2nd October the 11th R.S.F. were to be relieved by 146 Brigade. In the event, two Battalions arrived for the relief. After some degree of confusion, the Hallams completed the relief, the 11th Battalion returned to command under 147 Brigade and Eykynforce was disbanded.

The men of 146 Brigade were engaged elsewhere along the Divisional front. The 1/4th KOYLI attacked the village of Rijkevosel on the 24th September with the aim to widen the bridgehead.`A highly notable Polar Bear action in this period was the capture of the Depot de Mendicité. This was a formidable complex that was located between Rijkevosel and Merxplas. In peacetime, Depot de Mendicité functioned as a prison, workhouse and asylum. For his part in the action, Corporal John Harper was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His remains lie in the Leopoldsburg cemetery and a memorial to his feat can be located in the area of the Depot de Mendicité where he fell.