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.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Prelude To The Assault Of Le Havre

Aerial photographs to assess the effectiveness of the R.A.F. on one of the raids of 5th September on Le Havre

Prior to D-Day for the investment of Le Havre, i.e. 9th September, the defences of the port, as described earlier, were to be ‘softened up’. This was to be achieved by close cooperation between Bomber Command of the R.A.F., the Royal Navy and the massed Artillery Regiments supporting the 49th and 51st Infantry Divisions.

The mammoth task to disrupt the defences and to reduce the capability of the garrison to withstand the landward assault commenced on 5th and carried on through to the 7th September. Over this period, a total of 8,300 tons of high explosive were dropped on the target zones. However, the bombing raids conducted over the nights of the 5th and 6th killed an estimated 5,000 French citizens, many of whom perished when the R.A.F. bombed a residential area of the city. On 31st August, the Fortress Commandant, Oberst Hermann-Eberhard Wildermuth, ordered the remaining citizen population to leave the city, but this order was countered by the Maquis who posted notices urging the civilians to stay in order to prevent the anticipated mass pillage of property by the remaining German Army. Thus it was that the numbers of civilians still resident in Le Havre was high upon the start of the Allied bombardment.

Earlier in the week, with the knowledge that a large scale Allied attack on Le Havre was an inevitability and knowing British sensitivities towards collateral damage in terms of French citizens, Widermuth appealed to the British then amassing in front of the city’s outer defences.

Two senior officers of 1/4 King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) of 146 Brigade were requested to escort two German officer envoys by staff car to Brigade HQ. The envoys carried a message from the Fortress Commander requesting that the Allies permit the evacuation of the remaining civilians (estimates to be in the order of 20-30,000 as of the end of August) prior to the battle. The German officers explained that Hitler's personal orders were that the port of Le Havre was to be defended 'to the last man and the last round'. As for the Allies, they were adhering to a policy of unconditional surrender. Brigadier Johnnie Walker telephoned Wildermuth's proposal through to GOC General Sir Evelyn 'Bubbles' Barker. The proposal was turned down with the words 'I wish you good luck and a Merry Christmas'.

Oberst Hermann-Eberhard Wildermuth
Fortress Commandant of Le Havre

The night raid of 6th September, involving Lancaster and Halifax aircraft numbering one thousand, unleashed 1,500 tons of explosive, a large proportion of which was targeted upon the Grand Clos Battery in Bréville located to the north of the centre.

The devastation of the city wrought by the by the R.A.F. could actually have been more extensive, but the bombing campaign was hampered by appalling weather. The unfavourable conditions were such that D-Day for Operation Astonia was postponed by 24 hours from the 9th to the 10th September.

The combined firepower of the three arms of the Allied Armed Forces resumed the bombardment on Sunday 10th, ahead of the start of the infantry assault. A series of timed bombing waves was set that targeted specific regions of the city's defences.

  • Alvis - duration: 1645 to 1745 over the Northern defences targeting exterior wire positions and anti-personnel defences
  • Bentley – duration: 1845 to 1900 over the Southern plateau defences targeting barracks and fort positions with high explosive
  • Buick – duration: 1900 to 1930 with the same objective as Bentley but over the Western defences
  • Cadillac – duration: D+1 to end at 0800 on 11th September targeting the Western defences (the installations of the harbour areas) with high explosives.

Map of the port showing the target zones for the successive bombing waves (shaded)

The total payload dropped on Le Havre on 10th September was 4,719 tons from 992 aircraft.

Off the coast the monitor class battleships, HMS Erebus and HMS Warspite, once again opened up the naval bombardment ‘on the casemated guns on the perimeter defences of Le Havre’. The hit rate of both ships was impressive according to the reports of spotter aircraft over the port area. 

HMS Erebus in 1944

HMS Warspite in 1944

Eventually, HMS Warspite was credited with silencing the three 17cm guns and one 38cm gun of the Grand Clos Battery.

The 38 cm gun of the Grand Clos Battery

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance taken over Le Havre, France after daylight raids by aircraft of Bomber Command on 5, 6 and 8 September 1944. A large area of devastation can be seen in the city centre west of the Bassin de Commerce, over which smoke from burning buildings is drifting. Further attacks on and around Le Havre were carried out on the three following days in an effort to reduce the German garrison still holding out in the city © IWM (C 4601)

The bombardment by air, sea and land earned Le Havre the dubious distinction of being the most damaged town in France with 82% of it declared as destroyed. This accounted for 12,500 buildings left beyond repair and 4,500 partially destroyed. The bombings of 5th to 12th September rendered half of the civilian population homeless.

With echoes of the bombing of Caen three months previously, a tremendously high price had been paid in terms of civilian casualties and destruction of properties for limited military gain. In Oberst Wildermuth's words after capture:

' The air bombardments and the shelling from the sea had only a general destructive effect, but did not create much military damage. The real effective fire came from the Allied concentrated artillery which had devastating results in knocking out the guns of the fortress'.

Crucially, what the concerted bombardment did achieve was an almost complete disruption of the German's telecommunication systems within the city which severely hampered the capability to coordinate the defence.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Fusilier Ken West Interview on BBC Radio Leicester May 2015

Whilst just pottering around the subject of the R.S.F. this evening I stumbled across the audio interview with Fusilier Ken West that now features in the side panel to the right of the screen. Recorded for BBC Radio Leicester on the eve of the 70th anniversary of VE Day, Ken reflects on his disappointment to be heading back to Germany on the big day, May 8th 1945, as his leave pass expired on that day and he was obliged to return to his unit.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Operation Astonia - The Opposing Forces

The Attackers

As mentioned previously, the task of capturing Le Havre was designated to the 51st (Highland) Division and the 49th (West Riding) Division of First British Corps of the First Canadian Army.

49th (West Riding) Division

The 49th (West Riding) Division were positioned on the left flank of the assault. The Division are described in detail across this site.

51st (Highland) Division

The 51st (Highland) Division formed the right flank of the assault attacking from the North.

The Division formed part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) but on 20th April 1940 it was detached from the Force and command was transferred to the French Third Army. After the encirclement of the B.E.F. at Dunkirk, the Division, now under command of the French Tenth Army, took up a position on the River Somme. After fierce fighting in early June 1940, the 152nd and 153rd Brigades were forced to surrender at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux with the capture of some 10,000 troops.

In August 1940, the 9th (Highland) Infantry Division, the second line Territorial duplicate of the 51st took on their name and the Division was once again posted overseas in June 1942 when it participated in the Second Battle of El-Alamein and the invasion of Sicily.

The Division landed in Normandy on D-Day + 1 as part of 1st British Corps and saw significant action in the campaign, although it would seem that Montgomery was not impressed with their performance at this time. On 1st August 1944, 1st British Corps was incorporated into the 1st Canadian Army, as part of which the 51st engaged in Operation Totalise prior to the crossing of the Seine. With a score to settle, the Division proceeded to and liberated Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, scene of their humiliation some four years previously. This achieved, the Division doubled back in readiness to take the port of Le Havre.

The Defenders

The garrison of Le Havre was estimated to be between 7,350 and 8.700 men. Of these 4,500 were infantry, according to information gleaned from post-war interrogations. Being a port, naturally many of the troops, an estimated 1,300, belonged to the German Navy and as such were untrained in the combat techniques required for effective fighting on land. Many of the soldiers belonged to artillery and anti-aircraft batteries and also therefore ill-prepared to repel a determined and well-supported infantry assault. Moreover, many of the garrison forces were injured or of questionable fighting value for the defence of the city.

226 Infantrie-Division

Formed on 26th June in the 27th formation wave, this Wehrmacht Division was active in the line until the point of surrender in May 1945.

245 Infantrie-Division

Formed in Routen, France in September 1943, the Division were again active in the line until May 1945.

5th Security Regiment (Sicherungs Regiment) 

A fighting unit within the 325th Security Division (Sicherungs Division).

The 325th Security Division was created in May 1943 for the purpose of the defence of Paris. Most of the troops of the 325th left Paris before the liberation and the men were dispersed among other formations that had been decimated in Normandy, They, including men of the 5th Security Regiment, continued to fight as the Allies liberated towns and cities across North West Europe, but the troops were generally considered to be of poor combat quality.

36th Grenadier Division

A Wehrmacht formation originally formed as the 36th Infantrie Division on 1st October 1936 and mobilised in August 1939.

The Division participated in Operation Barbarossa as a part of XXXXI Panzer Corps. Originally a motorised division, it was demotorised in May 1943 and in the same month saw action in the Battle of Kursk. 

Effectively wiped out in the Russian summer offensive of 1944 at Bobruysk in Belarus, some survivors managed to make their way back to Germany where they formed the seed of the newly created 36th Grenadier Division on 3rd August. This formation was sent to North West Europe to attempt to slow the Allies Eastward advance.

The Defences of Le Havre

The essential, commercial port of Le Havre was well defended by the forces of nature as well as by the combination of the firepower of Krupp factories and the concrete of the Todt Organisation. The port is protected by water on three sides, the sea to the West, the flooded valley of the Lezarde river to the East and the estuary of the Seine to the South. These natural defences were supplemented by a system of bunkers and strong points that fairly bristled with machine guns and anti-tank weaponry. The only possible approach for a landward assault i.e. from the North would be severely hampered by defencive positions located on the high ground of Octeville-sur-Mer and on two plateaus to the North East of the port area. The Northern approaches were also protected by an anti-tank ditch some twenty foot wide by ten foot deep. Further into the centre of the town, were located many artillery positions (albeit largely with their guns trained out to sea), nevertheless, the Forts of Ste Adresse and Saniv combined with pill boxes, bunkers, wire and roadblocks to form a formidable interlocking system of defences that protected the port area from land approaches.

Two German strong-points on the Northern plateau faced by the men and arms of 56th Infantry Brigade

Nevertheless, despite such formidable defences, the fighting ability of a high proportion of the available troops was in doubt, through injury or a lack of experience in combat. Post war interrogation transcripts reveal such concerns:

'Battle-experienced men on leave from the Eastern front, hastily banded together into two battalions, had not yet shaken-down into a smooth-working team. The men of 81 Fortress Unit and two battalions of 5 Sicherungs Regiment (Protective Regiment) were infirm and of small fighting value. The fortress commander having considered the quality of his troops and the facilities for defence, had reported to the Commander of Fifteenth Army, so he alleged later, that the fortress could be held against an assault for 24 hours in unfavourable circumstances, or 72 hours if circumstances favoured the defence'

Monday, 4 January 2016

And then..... September 2015

Hi Adrian,

I was out to dinner with Col. Douglas last week and I took the opportunity to raise with him the question regarding whether or not your grandfather was in 16 Platoon, D Company. I also showed him extracts from your blog regarding your grandfather and the photographs on there of your grandfather.

Unfortunately, whilst he said the name rings a bell, he said he couldn't really remember. He said it was easy to remember those who were "very good" or those who were "very bad", but difficult to remember the bulk of the men who just went about their business quietly and efficiently, as they should.

He did say that if Sergeant Little MM was your grandfather's sergeant then in all likelihood he was in 16 Platoon. Whether he was on the Haalderen raid would be more difficult to say. The likelihood is that he would be there if he was in 16 Platoon but inevitably there might be one or two men left behind for all sorts of reasons.

He said the only way you might be able to find out more would be to track down Corporal/Sergeant Mellor DCM (who took over as Platoon Sergeant from Sergeant Little) or a member of his family if he is no longer alive. He may have kept in touch with people post war. As Col. Douglas went to Africa with KAR after the war and then joined the regular army a couple of years later he rather lost touch with many of his men, and in those days it wasn't so easy to track people down.

He did comment on some parts of the blog. He's pretty certain that measuring the depth of the water would have been on The Island, near Nijmegen, after the Germans had breached the flood defences and there were spring floods. He says it would be unlikely to be Rosendaal as there was no water of significance, or at least which was a problem there.

He also thinks that the wounding on 7th April 1945 may not have been in Nijmegen itself but nearby, on The Island, whilst clearing it prior to the liberation of Arnhem. Your grandfather may have been taken to Nijmegen for treatment. Nijmegen at that time was pretty safe, he recalls, and the clearing of The Island started on around 2nd April 1945 and there were pockets of localised fighting for a few days thereafter as they push up across The Island.

Col. Douglas says that Sergeant Little was his third Sergeant of the North West Europe campaign, Sergeant Mellor the fourth. The first lost his life in the fighting around Fontenay/Rauray, the second to the East of Caen (whilst Col. Douglas was at an 'O' Group meeting and he was waiting outside, a stray mortar shell came literally out of nowhere on a quiet day and it was a direct hit, leaving in Col. Douglas's words, pretty much just his boots and his weapon). Sergeant Little, as you know, was killed immediately on landing behind the enemy lines at Haalderen. Apparently he shouldn't have actually been the first man off the boat, he should have been the last man off, to make sure that everyone else got off, but he was very eager.

I'm sorry I can't have been of more assistance.

Best wishes,

It’s a wonderful thing this military research, frustrating and confusing at times, but thoroughly absorbing and on occasions such as tonight highly satisfying!

Response Received in August 2015

My enquiry resulted in the following response........ which rather embarrassingly I have seen for the first time tonight!

Hi Adrian,

If you are interested in 11 RSF generally Ken West's book "An' it's called a Tam O' Shanter" is worth a read to get an idea of what it was like from a non-officer/non-military history perspective.

I understand you've listened to the IWM recordings of Bill Douglas 11 RSF, which deals with 59 Staffs Divn and it's disbandment and re-distribution, and the Haalderen Raid.

Bill Douglas led 16 Platoon on the Haalderen Raid and is still alive, aged 94, and in excellent health. I hope to see him in a couple of weeks. I'll ask about your grandfather. He may not remember, of course, it's only fair to warn you. It was a long time ago.


Information Request Through WW2Talk Forum - June 2015

Back in June 2015 whilst trying to establish with which Company my Grandfather served whilst with the 11th RSF, I posted the following enquiry:


I am researching my late Grandfather's military history and I have a few gaps.

L/Cpl James Kitchener Heath no 5051929 served in NW Europe from 23rd June 1944 to 19th December 1945. In late August 1944 he was transferred from 59 Staffordshire Division (5th Battalion South Staffs) to the 49 West Riding Division (11th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers). 

Within the 11th Battalion RSF I have some reason to believe that he was in D Company (and possibly 16 Platoon) but I have no documentary evidence from the documentation that I have in hand. I have his MOD records and have been in contact with the Regimental Museum, neither of which source can confirm the Company in which he served.

My question is, is there any other means of establishing confirmation of service at the company level?

Many thanks,


The 11th R.S.F. Approach Le Havre

Churchill tank crews of 34th Tank Brigade watch the RAF bombing the defences of Le Havre 10 September 1944 © IWM (BU 855)

After the 11th R.S.F. crossed the Seine at Elbouf, they with the 49th Infantry Division swung westwards in the direction of the major port of Le Havre. For a four day period in the first week of September patrols sought out suitable crossings of the River Lezarde, but the only passable crossing was located through the village of Montevilliers as all other bridges had been destroyed by the Germans and the land in the surrounding areas of the river valley were inundated with flood water.

The area was quiet with minimal harassing enemy activity (it is reported that between 6th to 9th September only two mortar bombs fell in the area occupied by the men of the 11th R.S.F). With the plans in place and the troops of the two attacking Divisions in position, 'Operation Astonia' was soon to be executed.