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.

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