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

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.

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