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

Walcheren, Bevland Peninsula -15th May 2015

My Grandfather did not drive the German Army out of Holland single handedly, oh no! Others were there too. As part of our field trip to visit Polar Bear positions we took the time to travel onto the Beveland Peninsula and specifically onto Walcheren Island at its western end.

It was here that Owen’s wife’s uncle, a gentleman by the name of Able Seaman George McAuliffe, participated in a commando landing in November 1944.

Whilst the city and port of Antwerp was retaken by the British 2nd Army in early September, Allied utilisation of the port was prevented by the presence of the German 15th Army on Walcheren and South Beveland. Their heavily fortified positions made the approach of shipping along the Scheldt Estuary impossible.

In early October, Montgomery ordered that priority should be given to the clearing of the Scheldt Estuary in order to render the port of Antwerp usable to Allied shipping since the strains of supply were ever mounting as the advance continued towards Germany. A coordinated plan of action, under the name ‘Operation Infatuate’ was drawn up.

The Operation consisted of two assault landings, one at Flushing in the south by No. 4 Commando and 155 Bridage of the 52nd (Lowland) Division (Operation Infatuate I) and the other at Westkapelle to the west by the 4th Special Service Brigade (Operation Infatuate II). At the same time, the Brigades of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were to fight their way across the Walcheren causeway to gain access to the Island.

The dykes of Walcheren were deliberately breached by the RAF, thereby flooding the interior of the Island and forcing the defenders onto the dykes, which were heavily fortified. The units of 4th Special Service Brigade were to take control of the shoulders of the blown dyke at Westkapelle from where they would move to the north east and south east. To the south at Flushing, No.4 Commando and 155 Brigade would fight their way to the south west and north to connect with 4th Special Service Brigade and units of 2nd Canadian Division respectively.

Low-level vertical aerial photograph taken shortly after the daylight attack on the sea-wall of Walcheren Island, Holland, showing a breach in the wall at the most westerly tip of the island, caused by the extremely accurate bombing, being widened by the incoming high tide and inundating the village of Westkapelle (top right) © IWM (C 4668).

George McAuliffe, landed at Westkapelle, with Royal Naval Beach Commando L of the 4th Special Service Brigade on 1st November.

Bitter fighting ensued over the eight days of the operation with heavy casualties recorded among defenders and attackers alike. The toll of casualties was also high among the civilian population of Walcheren. On the morning of 8th November the Allies took the surrender of some 40,000 German troops on the Island after which the Royal Navy cleared the Scheldt Estuary of mines in order to make the port accessible to Allied shipping by the end of November.

Memorial of commemoration of the Commando landings of 1st November 1944

George was indeed a courageous man. Prior to the landing at Westkapelle he had been a beachmaster on Juno. Now in his nineties, he lives in Australia.

Travelling across the peninsula I was struck how remote this area is. Vast expanses of the North Sea provide the dominant view in each direction. On the Island, now given over to holiday parks and outdoor pursuit centres, cars seemed to be greatly outnumbered by bikes ridden by healthy, tanned Amazonian matriarchs leading their healthy, tanned tribes over the polder. A stark contrast to we two travelers in all of the above mentioned attributes!

Another thing notable about Westkapelle in particular was the absence of war graves. The local cemetery near to the lighthouse carried the familiar white bordered, green sign of a Commonwealth Wargrave Commission Military Cemetery, however our search only revealed the headstones of civilian casualties of the fighting. A cross check with the CWGC website shows that the graveyard  in the town has the plot of one unknown soldier. The cemetery at Flushing contains the remains of 200 Commonwealth servicemen, but the vast majority of these are airmen. Where do the fallen of the November ’44 fighting lie?

Detail from the monument commemorating the landing of No. 4 Commando on 1st November 1944

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