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, 23 July 2016

Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rememberance and All That Jazz in The Lowlands Breda, Holland - 15th May 2015

In what was becoming something of an annual excursion Owen and I had planned another weekend on the continent with both military history and music on the itinerary.

Yet another old punk band was due to play at the ‘Eurorock Festival’ in Neerpelt in Belgium. The timing could not have been better since the ‘Fragmented Military History’ website had progressed considerably such that I had left Normandy and the 59th (Staffordshire) Division behind and was now immersed in the actions of the Polar Bears in Belgium and Holland.

The town of Breda was to be our base for the next three days from where we would drive in each and every direction in order to visit Turnhout, Wuustwezel, Roosendaal, Arnhem, Nijmegen, Bemmel, Haalderen and Walcheran. A check on the mileometer upon arriving back in London told us that we had clocked up no less than two thousand miles over the three days, mostly in the Netherlands (no mean feat in a country so small!).

Whilst we were planning to see a punk band (Killing Joke, were anyone to be remotely curious) our chosen base was this weekend hosting the annual Breda Jazz Festival. Now I fully appreciate that when it comes to musical taste it is definitely a case of ‘each to their own’. But without a doubt both Owen and I side with Johnny Rotten over Johnny Dankworth! So when a well-meaning waitress in the breakfast room on day two suggested that we were here for the jazz we were a little put out! Casting an eye over the finger poppin’ jazz aficionados of northern Europe that were at that time sharing the restaurant, it was clear to the two of us at least that a wide gulf existed between us and them. Nevertheless in a middle aged punk rock style we corrected her and complimented the chef on the quality of his scrambled eggs. How times have changed!

Caught unawares in a lift finger clicking and ‘extolling the joy of jazz!’

On our first venture out on our first full day of touring was the town of Turnhout. Strangely enough this was not our first visit to this town in the far north of Belgium. Back in April 2011 the two of us in the company of another couple of fans had stayed in Turnhout in order to see The Stranglers play in the town. The band had arranged a five day acoustic tour of Belgium and Holland of which we planned to witness three, Turnhout, Zaandamn and Lessines.

Now Turnhout is a small place, but locating our apartment took over an hour. I am happy to say that the concert was very enjoyable but after the show we headed out of town in the direction of the band’s hotel with a view to grabbing a late beer with them. Within minutes of us setting off, the band’s mini-bus speed past us and the ever truculent bass player took the time to hurl some choice words of abuse at us as they passed (it’s nothing personal, we were on the guest list after all!).

In 2011 I had no idea that this place had any significance to my own family history. All I felt at the time was a sense of frustration as we repeatedly failed to locate our apartment after several traverses of the town. The realisation that my Grandfather was a liberator of the town was a few years off!

Grote Markt in Turnhout on a damp and dreary May afternoon (top)
Grote Markt as seen on a postcard sent by my Grandfather from Turnhout in September 1944 (bottom)

Next up was Wuustwezel, another difficult place name for linguistically challenged Britons such as ourselves. Having said that in the spirit of our forebears who renamed Ypres as Wipers and Foucquevillers as Funkyvillers, Wuustwezel was rechristened to a very anglicised ‘Worst Weasel’…. no offence intended towards our Belgian neighbours, it just made navigation much easier!

Having reached the town as usual we made for the cemetery and here were located the first 11th R.S.F. graves that I had seen since the Fontenay-le-Pesnel cemetery the previous year.

Nine Polar Bears lie in the churchyard of Wuustwezel

During the fighting to liberate Wuustwezel between 20th and 23rd October 1944, 108 British servicemen were killed in action or died of wounds received. Of these men 98 wore the Polar Bear insignia of the 49th (West Riding) Division.

The fallen are commemorated by a memorial erected to their memory in Liberation Square, Wuustwezel. The monument carries the following inscription that attests to their heroic deeds:

‘In this area, the German counter-attacks of 21st and 22nd October 1944 were halted by the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. The people of Wuustwezel express gratitude to their liberators’.

At the unveiling ceremony on 21st October 1984, the Burgomaster of Wuustwezel, Jos Ansoms said this of the monument and what it represents, ‘It is a sober monument, sober and simple as the lads of whom it reminds us. It is convincing and dignified like the British military that are remembered. Constructed in a “V”, it represents victory but also peace, freedom and friendship’.

The Wuustwezel memorial is now recognised as the principal site of remembrance to the Polar Bears in Belgium. Whilst less imposing than its cousin in Fontenay-le-Pesnel, its understated simplicity makes it every bit as moving. The aforementioned sober simplicity of this construction of brick and stone surmounted with a stylised French limestone sculpture of a Polar Bear contrasts starkly with the Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun that also occupies the site, a contribution of the Polar Bear Association in 2009.

Views of the Wuustwezel memorial to The Polar Bears

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