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.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Eykynforce and the Assault on the Depot de Mendicité

The success of the crossings forced by the Polar Bear Regiments in comparison with the failure of the attempts made by the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was, in the opinion of Francis Huijbrechts, Chairman of the Hoogstraten Heritage Association, was due to the more thorough reconnaissance carried out by the Polar Bears across the stretch of the canal from Sint-Lenaarts and the areas north east and east of Turnhout from which the latter and also the area in front of Rijkevorsal were considered to be the most favourable for a successful crossing.

The task of the first crossing of the canal in the area of Turnhout was given to the 7th DWR. They were to attempt the crossing just to the east of Blown Bridge No. 2 to the north west of the town. Planned to take place a 7.30 am on the 25th it was first postponed and then cancelled. The 26th September saw the 7th DWR transferred to the area of the Rijkevorsal bridgehead.

Later in the day on 25th, at 1500 hours, a daylight crossing was achieved by the 11th R.S.F. on the stretch of the canal to the north east of Turnhout in the area of Meirgoorhoeve a short distance from the town.

The line of advance, once over the canal, for the 11th R.S.F. was westward to the road and railway that ran northwards to Baarle- Nassau inside Holland. In the advance towards Baarle-Nassau, it was hoped that the 11th could roll-up the German defences to the north of Turnhout. However, the German opposition was effective and the Battalion was ordered to withdraw on the afternoon of the 26th September. In the advance at least seven Fusiliers were killed in action or subsequently died of their wounds. The men lie in the communal cemetery in Kwakkelstraat.

On the same day as the withdrawal Eykynforce was established. This was a short-lived, composite formation comprising the 11th Battalion R.S.F along with anti-tank units, Royal Engineers, machine gun and heavy mortar sections, as well a Carrier Platoon of the 7th DWR and ad-hoc units of the Belgian White Brigade (elements of the Belgian resistance). Such composite formations were formed out of necessity. Since the breakout from Normandy, the war on the ground had become highly mobile, meaning that units were required to defend and patrol very large areas. In the case of the Polar Bears, by 27th September, eight out of a possible nine Infantry Battalions of the 49th Division were active in the area surrounding the Rijkevorsel bridgehead, an area estimated to be around four to five kilometres in both width and depth. Further to the west, the 11th R.S.F. as part of Eykynforce held the sector on the canal to the north of Beerse all the way across to Arendonk.

In the weeks that followed, other composite formations were brought into existence such as Bobforce and Clarkeforce (which again included my Grandfather) when were allotted specific tasks for the brief period of their existence.

The Summary of Operations of the 11th Battalion describes that function of Eykynforce in terms of holding ‘the thin red line’ of this broad sector, meaning operating as a thinly spread military formation holding the line in the face of a determined opposition (the term ‘thin red line’ has its origins in just such a situation the the British Army found themselves in at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War).

On 2nd October the 11th R.S.F. were to be relieved by 146 Brigade. In the event, two Battalions arrived for the relief. After some degree of confusion, the Hallams completed the relief, the 11th Battalion returned to command under 147 Brigade and Eykynforce was disbanded.

The men of 146 Brigade were engaged elsewhere along the Divisional front. The 1/4th KOYLI attacked the village of Rijkevosel on the 24th September with the aim to widen the bridgehead.`A highly notable Polar Bear action in this period was the capture of the Depot de Mendicité. This was a formidable complex that was located between Rijkevosel and Merxplas. In peacetime, Depot de Mendicité functioned as a prison, workhouse and asylum. For his part in the action, Corporal John Harper was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His remains lie in the Leopoldsburg cemetery and a memorial to his feat can be located in the area of the Depot de Mendicité where he fell.

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