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, 31 December 2016

Street Fighting Haalderen, Holland 3rd – 4th December 1944

The shattered ruins of Haalderen Church.

In the first week of December the tide of war once again broke over Haalderen (literally given the flooded state of this part of The Island). In an attempt to reach the Great Waal Bridge near Lent, the Germans launched an attack which was intended to push through to the bridge via Haalderen and Bemmel.

Before describing in any detail the first engagement for the Fusiliers on The Island it is necessary to recount the situation faced by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. At the beginning of December The Dukes were positioned on the right flank of the Divisional front in the area of Haalderen. The conditions on the ground were horrendous with heavy flooding throughout the area. To the mud and filth that are a part and parcel of flooding were added the remains of soldiers of both sides killed in the struggles of late September/early October when Allied units tried desperately to the aid of the British 1st Airborne then confined in the Oosterbeek Perimeter on the western outskirts of Arnhem.

Military operations in the Haalderen area were severely hampered as a result of the conditions. The protection offered by slit trenches was limited as the height of the water table restricted the depth to which they could be dug before filling with water. Moreover, the movement of man and armour throughout the sector was limited to the high ground, i.e. across the top of the dykes. Such movement was perilous for a number of reasons, notably due to the fact that the tracks that topped the dykes were constructed with light agricultural traffic in mind and not the heavyweight trucks and tanks of an Army on the move. Furthermore, the presence of men and vehicles on the top of the dykes offered the enemy something akin to a fairground duck shoot as targets were dangerously exposed in silhouette against the sky.

To further set the scene, I refer to the relevant sections of the 7th Dukes War Diaries. From 1st December, the Battalion positions were coming under heavy artillery fire. German forward patrols were observed to be occupying houses on the main road through the village. At the same time, the diary records ‘water rising about 3” to 6” per day. Daylight supply of Btn forbidden’. The diary elaborates some more on the worsening flood conditions stating that at 2150 hours on the 2nd ‘’D’ Coy reported that water was rising rapidly in the coy area’. This situation calls to mind the earlier story, mentioned in an earlier chapter, that my Grandfather related of being perched on a stack of bricks armed with a yardstick monitoring the rate by which the water levels were rising throughout the night. William Douglas corrected my earlier assumption that this incident occurred in the Roosendaal area and stated that it was much more consistent with the situation in Haalderen. As recounted a little later, he arrived in the area with the 11th R.S.F. on the morning of 4th December.

By the morning of 3rd December 03 Brigade advised that ‘Dykes may have been breached by weight of water or military action. HAALDEREN, the highest point of the “Island” may be attacked by the enemy. NIJMEGEN is being heavily shelled at an increasing rate. Be on the alert for counter-attacks’.

At 0710 a trip flare was triggered forward of the ‘D’ Company’s position. The Dukes remained vigilent, observing even in this dreadful place mundane domestic activities as it was reported at 0930 hours that ‘1 Boche seen to run out of house S of rd at 763662, chased chicken. Man shot chicken and went back into house’. More Germans were observed on the main Haalderen road throughout the day. In the early evening, enemy flares were spotted and sporadic Spandau fire was reported at 2235 and 2255. Something was in the offing.

At 0315 on 4th December, Spandau fire coincided with reports coming in from ‘D’ Company of an attack, with 18 Platoon stating that 17 enemy had passed through their positions with more approaching. Some 15 minutes later, more Germans, about a company in strength, also passed through leaving 18 Platoon completely surrounded although holding their position.

The War Diary reported ‘Heavy stonking in the bn area and BEMMEL 7367. It was the 11th R.S.F. who were on the receiving end of the shelling in Bemmel. The ‘Summary of Operations’ takes up the story and decribes how in the early hours of 4th December the Battalion was subjected to one of the German’s most concentrated artillery fire for a period of nearly two hours, being the prelude to an attack on the right sector of the Brigade front [i.e. the 7 DWR in Haalderen]. ‘D’ Company under Major Leslie Rowell were to take the role of counter-attack Company in just such an event. In Major Rowell’s words ‘At Bemmel on the 4th December D Coy were in reserve with the task of counter attacking in support of 7 DWR at Haalderen, at approximately 0300 hours the Coy was ordered to ‘stand to’ and later was ordered to move. The Coy commenced to its task at first light at 0730 hours’.
Meanwhile back in Haalderen, the at 0400 the & DWR War Diary described the situation as ‘very confused’ with fighting taking place in nearly every house in the village. The Germans had reached as far as ‘A’ Company HQ and the school buildings on a road junction approximately 100m along the road from the Church. White flares fired at 0500 hours from the new German positions were thought to be signals that the planned objectives had been successfully taken.

At 0515 hours the Commanding Officer, Major Hamilton, ordered the Duke’s Carrier Platoon to re-occupy the school and for ‘C’ Company to counter-attack ‘D’ Company 18 Platoon’s positions in order to close the gap in the line through which the Germans had passed. It was estimated that the German infiltration of the Battalion area was approximately one company in strength. Major Hamilton requested that the 11th R.S.F. move up, as counter-attack battalion, to the area of Battalion HQ.

In the early hours further German advance along the main road was checked. At 0615, the Carrier Platoon successfully retook the school and ‘B’ Company reoccupied a number of houses. Nevertheless, confused close quarters fighting continued in the area of the ‘A’ Company HQ. At 0620 the 11th R.S.F. assembled in this area (on the right, that is south west side of the main street) and received orders to attack in an easterly direction, thereby pushing the Germans towards the 7 DWR forward positions.

In darkness and in the confused nature of house to house fighting there was a real danger that the 7th DWR Company and ‘D’ Company of the 11th R.S.F. would sustain casualties due to ‘friendly fire’. To avoid such a clash, Major Rowell ordered that ‘D’ Company take responsibility for the clearance of houses on the right hand side of the street as far as the road junction. This was tasked to 17 Platoon under the command of Lieutenant McIntosh. Next 18 Platoon, under Lieutenant Douglas would work their way up the left had side of the street once the situation in the houses opposite ‘A’ Company HQ had been established. At this time my Grandfather with 16 Platoon, under Sergeant Little, took up reserve fire positions protecting ‘A’ Company HQ.

Crossing the start line at 0700 hours 17 Platoon cleared the first house as the 7 DWR arrived in the houses opposite and 18 Platoon set off up the left hand side of the street. In this manner both of the Fusilier platoons advanced up the street offering mutual support as far as the road junction objective. The enemy were being pushed back down the road from where they originally advanced.
At this point, I am reminded of my Grandfather, who would break off from one of our regular Saturday night games of darts in the kitchen to describe, with the aid of an invisible, but poised, Lee Enfield, just how soldiers on opposite sides of the street would cooperate in house clearing actions! I wonder whether at such times he was mentally transported back to Haalderen.

The men of ‘D’ Company received additional information about houses along the street that were German occupied as 18 Platoon of the Fusilers further advanced from the north east towards the crescent of Kolkweg. In this they were assisted by 16 Platoon Bren Corps and 17 Platoon who also provided covering fire. The 18 Platoon assault was successful. The men of ‘D’ Company were still coming under fire from houses on the street when the final phase of the attack commenced which was to clear all houses on the north eastern side of the street. The attack was led by 16 Platoon supported by covering fire from both 17 and 18 Platoon. At the point of reaching the send house off the street, the enemy surrendered. The remaining Dukes laid down smoke to aid the advance of 16 Platoon on the last objective before consolidating the ground taken on either side of the road.

As Prisoners of War were taken back, it was established that the units engaged with the Dukes and Fusiliers were men of the German 16th Parachute Regiment of the 6th Parachute Division (6. Fallschirmjäger-Division).

By 1215 the original 7 DWR Battalion positions had been restored and the Dukes claimed a total of 108 P.O.W.s and many enemy dead. For their part, the 11th R.S.F. accounted for 77 P.O.W.s with one Fusilier killed and two wounded. Those Germans not killed or captured retreated across the fields back towards their frontline. 4th December closed with a heavy artillery bombardment on the battalion area.

On 5th December, ‘D’ Company were located at the south eastern end of the village located in the ruins of some semi-detached houses that overlooked fields that stretched out in the direction of the German frontline positions. Of that time William Douglas, then commanding 18 Platoon recalls a deadly game of ‘cat & mouse’ with a German railway gun. ‘So I ended up at the far end of the village in some ruined semi-detached houses looking out across the open fields, the Germans of course knew exactly where we were because they’d been there and somewhere up in the Arnhem area they had a very big railway gun and you could hear the confounded thing, you knew when it was going to fire, so you were fairly safe, you could hear it going tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk, then the most tremendous bang and you could practically see the thing coming through the air. Of course, when it landed it would destroy several houses, and they started firing at the village with this confounded thing and of course we had positions in all the windows looking out across the fields. But fortunately all these Dutch houses had cellars, so into the cellars we go and as soon as the firing stops we rush back into the positions, you hear him fire again, back down into the cellars, this confounded gun, every time it fired it seemed to come closer and closer to the house that we were in. Roofs were disappearing on the other side of the road, entire houses going down, oh God! It was one of the most frightening times of the whole thing, there was nothing that you could do about it, you just sat there, 10 chaps down in this cellar, you as the officer, trying to appear frightfully brave and not the least bit worried and getting ready to shout ‘Go!’ the moment you thought he’d finished firing and your back up top in case they were coming again. This went on for a couple of hours, it was not amusing. I always remember when they say ‘Were you ever frightened?’ and I say ‘Yeah I was pretty frightened down in that cellar I have to say! The next one’s gonna land on us!’.

Later ‘D’ Company of the R.S.F. were relieved by ‘C’ Company who entered the area for this purpose and to reinforce the tired Dukes. Between 1700 and 2130 on 6th December, the rest of the Regiment moved into the village to relieve the 7 DWR who moved back to Bemmel.

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