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.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Canadian 2nd Infantry Division Assault at Sint-Job-in-‘t-Goor 24th September 1944

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.

Colonel Douglas on the Antwerp-Turnhout Position on 24th September 1944

Churchill tanks crossing a Bailey bridge over the Antwerp-Turnhout canal at Rijckevorsel during the attack north of Antwerp, 22 October 1944 © IWM (B 11112)
(Note the Polar Bear insignia on the sign at the bridge exit).

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

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 Havre 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. 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.