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.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Recollections of the Liberation of Turnhout (Part 2) August 2016

In my correspondence with Jacques Boone, he suggested that I make contact with his friend John Peters of Sint Niklaas (a town approximately 66 kilometers to the south west of Turnhout.

John was a teenager of fifteen at the time of the liberation. Since his father, Hendrik Peters, was the manager of the power plant that served Turnhout and several other local settlements, it is fair to say that the Peters family held some standing within the town.

The power plant was located on the Koningin Elisabethlei part of which also served as the family home. The Koningin Elisabethlei, heading across the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in the direction of Breda, is one of two routes by which to leave the town. The other route out of town is via Steenweg op Oosthoven in the direction of Tilburg. The Peters family were on the front line in late September 1944.

Map of central Turnhout showing the key locations in John's account of the town's liberation
(many thanks to John Peters!)

It was on 19th September that the Germans ordered the civilian population to evacuate their homes and to seek alternative accommodation. The street in which the Peters family lived fell within this area and so they moved in with family to Oude Vaartstraat some 250 meters from home. Since the plant provided both electricity and gas, commodities vital to the capacity for the Germans to maintain control over the town, it was considered to be essential that the plant manager to located at the plant. For this region, the Ortskommandant (the appointed administrator of the town) ordered Hendrik to return home to ensure the continuation of supply. For a time John, along with his mother, father and sister lived in the cellar of the house, from where John recalls hearing the steel-shod boots of German patrols regularly passing overhead.

On the eve of the liberation (23rd September), Hendrik Peters was summoned to the Kasteel, a grand moated building in which the Kommandatur of the town had taken up. Whilst there the Ortskommandant was called into the Kommandatur’s office to take a telephone call. The conversation that followed was at volume and the door to the office was left ajar, such that Hendrik was able to deduce the flow of conversation with ease. The capability of the German forces in the town to put up a serious defence was the topic.

German troops in Grote Markt in the centre of town (St Peters Church is visible on the right). This picture was taken on the eve of liberation (23rd September 1944) when the Germans elected to leave the town for positions to the north over the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal.

At the conclusion of the call the Kommandatur informed Hendrik Peters that as the town could not be effectively defended the decision had been taken that all German forces were to withdraw to a position behind the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal in the area of Koningin Elisabethlei. No. 1 Bridge was to be accessible until 21.00 hours to allow the withdrawal. At 21.00 hours sharp, the bridge would be blown.

The Kommandatur added that since the townspeople of Turnhout had caused the occupiers little trouble over the years, the withdrawal would be effected ‘without firing a single shot.

Shortly after 20.30 hours, Hendrik, accompanied by John stepped out into the deserted street in time to see the Ortskommandant and his deputy pass by on bikes heading towards the bridge some 400 metres distant. As they rode past both men raised an arm in salutation and called ‘Guten Abend Herr Peters!’

The street returned to silence. Turnhout was free from soldiers for now and the Polar Bears were on their way.

Early on the morning of 24th, Hendrik Peters set to work to ensure that the low voltage aerial network was intact and undamaged by the blast from the destruction of the bridge. He and two volunteers inspected the integrity of the network pole by pole. When working up the ladder the workmen were in full view of the Germans positioned over the Canal, but no shots were fired. On approaching the Canal, it was observed that the door to a stone/brick built substation located just on the north bank of the Canal had been blown open when the bridge was destroyed. This presented a great danger to any unsuspecting person were they to venture inside. Hendrik Peters therefore negotiated with a German officer who was overseeing the preparation of the new German defensive positions  to get the door closed. The substation key was secured to a rock which was thrown over the Canal (presumably taking sufficient care that it did not hit the officer!). The officer duly shut and locked the door and threw the key back over the water. Both men exchanged a ‘Guten Tag’ and continued with their own tasks, Mr Peters and his volunteers returned to the Company office.

The electricity substation viewed from the north bank of the Canal with the rebuilt Bridge No. 1 on the right.

Elements of the 49th Division Recce Regiment entered the town shortly after lunchtime. Initially two armoured vehicles parked up close to the St Theobaldus Chapel at the junction of Koningin Elisabethlei and Steenweg op Oosthoven. Not much further happened until about 15.30 hours when a vehicle moved up Koningin Elisabethlei stopping very close to the Peters house and the power plant. Four soldiers emerged from their Bren gun carrier, one of whom enquired where the lavatory was (how very British one could say!). Shortly after incoming gunfire from over the canal prompted the Fusiliers to order the gathered, curious civilians back into their homes for their own safety.

With the liberators deep inside the town and the Germans over the Canal, armed civilians bearing the armband of the Belgian Resistance on Elisabethlei, but on turning the gentle curve in the road, they found themselves in the line of fire from the other side of the Canal and so were forced to divert down Beirenmolenstraat.

As evening fell, the weather turned for the worse and a heavy rain fell. At 7.30 two soldiers knocked on the door of the Peters household looking for information and places for the men of ‘C’ Company 11th R.S.F. to bed down. Six to eight men with their officer, Lieutenant Robert Galloway entered the property. The men took advantage of the stove and sought to dry their sodden battledress.

The stove was a central feature of most households and in Belgium (as no doubt almost everywhere else in Europe) wartime fuel shortages were a driving force for innovation. This was the case in the Peters house where a tank had been welded around the stove pipe that enabled the heat produced by the stove to utilised in the most efficient way possible, from heating food through to plate warming. On the night of 24th September, several Fusilers used this heated metal surface for the purpose of drying out many soaked French bank notes! After the war and on a return to Turnhout, LT Galloway spilled the beans. Fighting in the Le Havre area has seen the destruction of a bank to the extent that the safe was blown. Legitimately, these spoils (an estimated 4.5 million French Francs) had been distributed amongst the troops who captured the town. Eventually, the soldiers were able to send the money back to the UK where these sums of French Francs were exchanged for sterling. One dried, troops and banknotes alike, the soldiers left the kitchen of Hendrik Peters to bivouac with their fellows.

On Monday 25th September, with the town free of Germans, the townspeople of Turnhout returned from further afield and started the process of getting things back to a normal pre-war state. Ever keen to assist their liberators, the workshops within the confines of the power plant in which they were billeted, were put to good use and the Fusiliers and plant engineers worked together to repair damaged radio antennae

As a teenager with an interest in the equipment and trappings of a modern army befriended one Frederick Gilby of ‘C’ Company who took it upon himself to assist the student John in his English language tuition, starting with ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’! Frederick was perhaps more useful to young John when he dragged him under safe cover when a German fired grenade narrowly missed the workshop that they were in.

In the week commencing 24th September rumours of a German counter attack caused some panic within the town. John’s family home on Koningin Elisabethlei was once again potentially on the front line and the house was became a key defensive position for the 11th R.S.F.

John recalls one character of the Company who went by the name of ‘Rusty Knob’, a small chap, an experienced soldier, and maybe by virtue of his colouring one of the original Scotsmen of the Battalion. He was positioned in an upstairs room of the house next to John’s parent’s bedroom awaiting the anticipated German counterattack. This soldier clearly made an impression upon John Peters, firstly he recalls that Rusty kissed the last round that he placed in the magazine of his Lee Enfield promising it for the first German to appear within his range. Secondly, he recalls the same soldier stating that he had swum over the Canal on a patrol, armed with a knife, in pursuit of ‘a couple of Germans who had disturbed him’. The outcome of this particular patrol is not recorded. However, on the basis of John’s account, far from being the ‘Nijmegen Home Guard’, an opinion held by some of the Division’s role in Holland, Rusty’s actions and attitude were indicative of a body of men that were tried, tested and proven in battle.

The anticipated counter attack failed to materialise and calm descended once again on the town. The tension in the town subsided and some of the men of the battalion could spend some off-duty hours in the company of the people of the town, the young ladies in particular!

Word reached the town that the Polish Armoured Division had successfully crossed the Canal at Rijkevorsal and the German forces had fled for fear of being surrounded. On Sunday 1st October the men of the 11th R.S.F. packed up and cautious approached the Canal. Once across they fanned out into the fields and disappeared from view heading in the direction of the Dutch border. Behind then they left a grateful town and many memories that remain vivid in the minds of the inhabitants even after the passage of more than seventy years.

With John Peters in Turnhout
24th September 2016

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