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, 27 February 2016

Infantry Advance! 10th September 1944

This Churchill Mk VII Tank located in Fontaine-la-Mallet on high ground above the port area of Le Havre serves as a memorial to the men who fell in Operation Astonia

At 5.45 pm on the 10th September, the 56th Brigade advanced through a number of lanes that were cleared by two squadrons of the 22nd Dragoon's flail tanks. The infantry also had tank support from the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and AVREs to tackle their strong-point objectives.

Churchill tanks and infantry in action during the assault on Le Havre by Canadian I Corps, 10 September 1944 © IWM (BU 864).

The 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers advanced on the right with the 2nd battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the left. With the South Wales Borderers and the Gloucesters objectives subdued, the plan required the 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment, mounted on kangaroo's and also with AVRE and tank support, to pass through to capture two strong-points and two bridges that crossed the Fontaine river (a tributary of the Lézarde) and secure a bridgehead on the southern plateau.

A Churchill AVRE advances in support of an assault on the German garrison at Le Havre, 10 September 1944 © IWM (BU 863).

On the left, the Gloucesters fought their way to their objectives with few casualties. The South Wales Borderers however had a harder time of it when attempting to take their objectives, three woods on a ridge. Each wood contained a strong defensive position. The first wood was captured by 'D' Company, but 'A' Company came under heavy fire from the second wood and took significant casualties. 'B' Company was brought up and this wood, along with the third, was silenced with the assistance of flame-spewing crocodiles. 

The 2nd Essex entered the fray at 10 pm, advancing on foot through one of the remaining open lanes. The other lanes were by this point obstructed by an array of knocked out armoured vehicles. The Essex objectives were achieved by 10.30 pm. The northern plateau was captured along with three intact bridges spanning the Fontaine.

Upon learning that 147 Brigade on their left were held up in their advance on a mined road, the Gloucesters continued onto their Phase III objectives and pushed on into the centre of the town. On reaching the Place de la Liberté many prisoners were taken with the assistance of the FFI fighters.

The assault by 147 Brigade was lead by the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment who were too pass through elements of 56 Brigade to capture a defensive feature on the southern flank overlooking Harfleur. The attack commenced at 11 pm and after a struggle achieved their objectives to the east of the Forêt Montgeon and a critical bridge leading into the port area. 

Map showing the deployment of 147 Brigade (11th R.S.F. can be seen to the east as highlighted).

The Summary of Operations indicates that the 11th R.S.F. in the operation was successful and achieved for relatively few casualties. Progress was slowed by the fact that the approaches were all heavily mined, in many cases by a German innovation called the anti-personnel glasmine, a device constructed almost entirely from glass and therefore largely invisible to mine detection equipment. The 11th R.S.F. accounted for 600 prisoners of war, over half of which surrendered to 'B' Company.

Finally of the Fusilier's involvement, Brigadier Major Paul Crook wrote:

'11 RSF were then given their task of clearing the whole of the southern flank (of the 147 Brigade front) which proved harder than expected, owing to the number of strong-points and fortified houses which had to be tackled. 7th Battalion of the Duke of Wellingtons Regiment (DWR) advanced through Montivilliers in kangaroos and dismounted at the bridge captured by the Leicesters and 'A' and 'B' Companies marched straight through into the centre of Le Havre'.

On their final approach into the centre, the Dukes were disappointed to be pulled out of the action after two of their kangaroos were disabled by mines. The soldiers watched on as the Gloucesters fought on.

On the eastern flank of the division, 146 brigade was prepared for its two allotted tasks i) to mount a diversionary attack that would draw the defenders away from the 56 Brigade assault to the north and ii) to clear the enemy east of the the Lézarde river and to bridge the same river to allow passage into Le Havre.

On 10th September, the 1/4th KOYLI again attacked the strong-points on the approaches to Harfleur. This time with immense firepower from tanks, artillery mortars and flame throwers, the strong-points were overrun and captured. The Lincolns established their Battalion HQ in Harfleur by nightfall of the 11th. 

To  the north west of the centre, the 51st (Highland) Division were forcing an entry into the town. The high ground of Le Havre was occupied by the evening of the 11th. At the same time, in the centre, the Gloucesters of the 56th Brigade were dug in in a cemetery adjacent to the Fort de Tourneville which served as Wildermuth's battle headquarters.

Fort de Tourneville, Le Havre

The capability of the garrison to resist the onslaught was on the brink of collapse.

The fire from the massed artillery was unrelenting. When the Fort de Tourneville was threatened by the tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, Oberst Wildermuth, wounded and in pyjamas (which nevertheless bore his medals!) surrendered the garrison. Hundreds of his soldiers had the same idea and were giving themselves up in droves. In fact many of the defenders seemed to be well prepared for surrender as observed by William Douglas.

'The Germans were all ready to surrender, Hitler said that all these fortresses must fight to the last round and all this kind of thing and obviously the General in charge of Le Harve didn’t go big on Hitler. And in fact, half his men had little suitcases ready packed for surrender.

They wrecked the port mind you, so to that extent they’d done their job. They certainly didn’t fight on to the end, they just gave up and marched away. .. 100’s, 1,000’s marching down the road in three’s looking frightfully glad to go and happy to be out of it'.

Thus was the vital port of Le Havre was delivered into Allied hands. However, as mentioned by Douglas above, such was the destruction wrought upon the port by both the Allied bombardment but critically by the Germans who were determined to render the dock unusable, the port was not to be back in operation until 9th October.

In terms of human costs the operation to liberate Le Havre cost the Allies just under 500 killed, wounded or missing, of which the 49th Division losses amounted to 19 killed and 282 wounded.

The action also resulted in the taking of 11,300 prisoners of war (significantly more than the original estimates of the garrison's strength) as well as many dead among the defenders.

The final words on the conduct and success of Operation Astonia go to Brigadier-Major Crooks.

'Although he received plenty of support, in the end it was the British infantry who had to go forward and attack fortified positions in the face of enemy fire. It was due to the dogged courage, determination and skill that such a successful outcome was so rapidly achieved'.

And from G.O.C. Major General Barker's Order for the Day.

'Today has been a memorable one for 49th Division. After an attack against very strong defences, in a matter of hours, the Division supported by armour has broken through and relieved the port of Le Havre which is essential for the maintenance of the American Army'.

Churchill tank memorial
May 2016

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