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, 9 July 2016

Last Days In Belgium - October 1944

At the beginning of October, the 11th R.S.F. were to be found in the area of Zondereigen, a few hundred meters south of the Dutch border. Here they spent five days in a defensive position that provided protection to the left flank of the Polish Armoured Division as it pushed north into Holland.

The Battalion was very mobile in the first weeks of the month as they criss-crossed the Divisional front. A new defensive position was taken up on 11th October at Maerle for a further week. 

On 19th October the Battalions moved westwards to Oostmalle from where on the following day they crossed the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in their initial advance into Holland. As part of 1st Corps the 49th Division were positioned in the centre of the line of advance with the Polish Armoured Division on their right and the 4th Canadian Division on their left. The Polar Bears were directed towards Roosendaal, whilst the Poles and Canadians aimed for the towns of Breda and Bergen Op Zoom respectively.

49th Division were to advance along a line of axis that ran from Oostmalle and passed through Brecht, Wuustwezel, Nieuwmoer, Essche and Roosendaal, a distance of approximately twenty miles. The advance was to be lead by 56 Brigade and 147 Brigade, with 146 Brigade concentrated in Oostmalle.

The Polar Bears were opposed across their front by 245 Division a fighting unit of 88th Corps of the German 15th Army.

The lines of advance into Holland

On the morning of 20th October ‘Operation Rebound’ was launched which was intended by the combined efforts of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and the 49th Division to secure the Belgian-Dutch border area and in doing so facilitate the liberation of the Scheldt Estuary. With the estuary under Allied control the key port of Antwerp could be utilised.

It was the task of the 49th Division to advance towards Loenhout from the area of Brecht. Having secured Loenhout, the plan was for another composite taskforce named ‘Clarkeforce’ (under the command of Brigadier W.S. Clarke of 34th Tank Brigade) to punch their way through into Holland.

21st October saw the 11th R.S.F. located in and around Wuustwezel which was captured with relative ease. However, on 21st and 22nd 245 and 346 Infantry Divisions launched savage counter attacks with heavy tank and SP supporting fire. These attacks came in from the Wernhout area just over the Dutch border. These counter attacks were halted in a series of fierce engagements in the hamlets of Braken, Kruisweg and in the area of Stone Bridge (the only crossing of the Weerijs that could bear the weight of heavy armour).

In his 1990 Imperial War Museum interview Colonel William Douglas recalled some of the fighting in Kruisweg, not to mention his brush with death.

‘October 23rd, we’d ended up in a place called Kruisweg, Kruisweg Ridge. I’d been out on another night patrol, a recce to find the enemy, we’d found them and reported back and I went back to my platoon headquarters just as first light was coming up. And, the sergeant had been in charge all night obviously, and when I got to the position he had the entire platoon in a beautiful Dutch barn, a big fire going. All the chaps were drying their socks and having breakfast.

 ‘What the Devil do you think you are doing?’
‘Where are the sentries?’
Why haven’t you got anybody out?’

 ‘Oh, it was a dark night Sir and I thought the lads needed a bit of a cheering up.’

‘They’ll need cheering up in a minute, the Germans are only half a mile away!’

So I chased some sentries out, scattered them out and got them all into positions and we set the headquarters in a cellar in the village and I’d just taken my socks off and thought I’ll get some breakfast now when the sentry came running in saying ‘Come quick, come quick! There’s a haystack coming down the village street!’.

‘Now you’ve been drinking the rum laddie!’.

Anyway, he was dead right, there was a haystack coming slowly down the village street, about I suppose three quarters of a mile away. I got my field glasses and had a look. It was a German Panther and he’d put loads of hay on top by the turret, I suppose for camouflage. He wasn’t too sure what we had in the village and he was coming along pretty carefully, you know, having a good look and swinging his turret from side to side. I thought ‘My God, if he gets in here, it’s curtains for us. So I grabbed the PIAT anti-tank projectile and a couple of bombs and headed down to the front garden.... here’s Douglas’s chance for the VC or something!

I got down behind a low wall, I suppose about two feet high. Now the trouble with the PIAT was that it was most effective when it hit its target, but its range was about 100 yards, so you had to wait and wait and wait and this chap came on 400 yards, 300 yards, 200 yards, waiting, waiting, waiting and this great big gun came round and he tried to lower it like that, but of course you can only lower a tank gun so far and then you hit the hull where the driver is and he couldn’t get it any lower. Stupid me, I should have realised that the tank commander is eight feet up and I’m two feet behind a wall and he could see me and he knew what I’d got, so he let fly with his great 88mm round. Well he couldn’t hit me because he couldn’t get the gun barrel down, but it thundered into the wall of the old rickety farmhouse behind me and the whole thing came down on top of me. In fact it saved my life. He then apparently came down the village , put a round into the cellar, killing most of the HQ chaps, caused absolute pandemonium in the platoon, they all got down in their trenches, my sergeant, that I’d just given a rocket to, got a military medal out of it I heard later. He dashed down to the crossroads and got an anti-tank gun, which a detachment of anti-tank gunners had there and he swung this gun round and fired at this thing and knocked it out and the infantry who were coming with the tank got a bit dispirited at this and they put a rather poor attack in on our position and were driven off. I by this time had been dragged from under this farmhouse and carted off on a stretcher and woke up in an ambulance on the way to the Canadian Hospital in Antwerp. I only heard what the sergeant had done weeks later when I got back to the Battalion’.

The Sergeant that Douglas refers to was Sergeant William Little of No 16 Platoon of ‘D’ Company. As such he was my Grandfather’s Platoon Sergeant and he will feature again in this narrative.

As stated Sergeant Little was awarded the Military Medal for his actions in Kruisweg. The citation which recommended the award reads as follows:

On 23rd October 1944, L/Sjt Little was platoon Serjeant of a platoon detached under the command of Carrier platoon to hold a defensive position at KRUISWEG – 1:25,000 Sheet 24 NW 814160.

Following a very heavy and accurate concentration of mortar fire the enemy attacked with infantry, a tank and two SP guns, and L/Sjt Little’s platoon commander [William Douglas] was seen made a casualty leaving him to command the platoon.

The tank and an SP gun penetrated the positions and the infantry gradually approached within short range.

The action lasted about two hours before the arrival of another Coy and a sqn of tanks dispersed the enemy forces.

Throughout this timethe majority of L/Sjt Little’s platoon were on the enemy side of the buildings and they were in the nerve-racking position of being faced by enemy infantry and having an enemy tank and SP gun in their rear.

The citation document bears the signature of one B.L. Montgomery – Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief 21 Army Group.

The 11th R.S.F. Summary of Operations adds a little more detail to the action recording that ‘A force composed of the Carrier Platoon, one platoon from D Coy and two A/tnk guns that RA were holding one sector which was counter attacked by SP guns and infantry. One SP gun actually got behind our lines and Sgt Little, Platoon Sgt, D Coy was magnificent in control of the men. The two A/tnk guns RA had been put out of action, one by a direct hit and the other because it was in a burning house. Showing admirable courage and coolness, Sgt Little got his gun out and with the help of others of his platoon dragged it back to a position from which it could be fired at this troublesome SP gun and knocked it out’.

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