Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'My Father's Recollections of 1st July 1916' by Major Philip Wright OBE: Cambs Suffolks on the Somme


The first of July 1916 dawned with a light mist and all the signs of a glorious summer’s day. A thousand yards from the German line, my father’s battalion, the 11th Suffolk (about 900 men), spent the night in and around the small château in trench-riddled Bécourt Wood. From here, despite the unrelenting British bombardment, war seemed remote. Cuckoos called, nightingales sang, dogs barked at the guns; wild and garden flowers grew in profusion. At 4am on 1st July the soldiers breakfasted with the help of a dose of treacly army rum in their tea. At 5am, they filed into position and my father marched his platoon (about 40 men) out of the wood along the trenches. He, like everyone else, was carrying about sixty pounds of equipment. 

Andrew Wright of the Cambs Suffolks
                      The Battalion arrived in trenches to the rear of another unit from Grimsby. My father’s platoon, comprised largely of men from Cambridgeshire, was in the battalion’s third ‘wave’. At 7.20am, ten minutes to ‘zero hour’, every gun in the artillery accelerated to its maximum rate of fire in a hurricane bombardment. Then, with two minutes to go, the ground reeled. Across No Man’s Land and a little to my father’s left, the earth erupted thousands of feet into the air as the Lochnagar mine containing twenty-four tons of explosive ammonal was detonated under the enemy’s trenches. Clods of soil and chunks of chalk rained down as large as wheel barrows.

                            For the first time in a week all the guns stopped and long ranks of men rose from where they had been crouching on the ground. The skirl of bagpipes started up nearby. The British artillery lengthened its range and resumed its bombardment. My father waited for the Battalion’s second wave to leave. He checked his watch and at two and a half minutes after zero hour, blew his whistle and waved his platoon forward some hundred yards to the front line. There was a scramble for ladders and footholds over the parapets, to the tune of German machine guns very much alive to what was coming.

Lieutenant Andrew Wright and D Company - Ripon 1915

                     As soon as the barrage lifted from their front line, the Germans emerged from their deep dugouts hauling their machine guns with them. No Man’s Land was up to six hundred yards wide here but soldiers from the first three waves of the 11th Suffolk had begun to fall within the first one hundred. They went down ’just like corn in front of the farmer’s reaper’, one of my father’s men remembered. But the advance went on, somehow: men with heads bowed as if walking into a gale. At one point my father was advancing alone among small groups of survivors sheltering in shell holes. He got down until he saw a line of men going forward on his right and then continued up to the white lip of the newly blasted crater. With about two hundred men of all units, he remained in the crater until early evening, only leaving its sanctuary to attend to and give water to the wounded strewn in the waste land around.

Captured Enemy Dugout at La Boisselle, France

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                     More than five hundred of the 11th Suffolk were wounded or killed. Of the sixteen officers, the Battalion had fielded, four had been killed, two more were never found and only my father emerged unhurt. Having done all he could for the wounded and dying, Captain James Fiddian, Medical Officer of 11th Suffolk, wrote to my father “Perhaps the most poignant memory of all is of the march next morning, when of some 800 who went in on 1st July about 125 mustered. I know that as I marched at the rear of the column I could not trust myself to speak, that my face was twitching in extraordinary ways and my mind was filled with the feeling that if the potentates themselves had to take part it the wars they made we should have no more of them.” 

                         Note: After the 1st July 1916, Andrew Wright went on to a distinguished career in the British Army and, later, the Diplomatic Service. Wright was awarded the MC for an action as Company Commander, 11th Suffolk during an attack on Hargicourt (Aisne) in August 1917. He was awarded a Bar to his MC during the 1918 Battle of the Lys where he showed outstanding leadership as the second in command of 11th Suffolk. Wright received further awards for active service in WW2 before being appointed Governor to the Gambia and later Governor of Cyprus. He ended his career as Sir Andrew Wright KCMG, CBE, MC. 

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Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Fight for Bolkhov (July 1943)

Following the successful defeat of the German attack on Kursk (Operation Citadel) the Soviet High Command launched the Kutuzov counter-stroke - as planned. Model, the German commander responsible for the force attacking the northern shoulder of the Kursk salient immediately realised that the substantial number of units within the Orel bulge were at risk of encirclement. In particular the 9th Army - exhausted after having been fought to a stand-still in the Ponyri area.

Otrada Station, Orel Oblast, Russia
The 3rd Guards Tank Army launched an attack on an East/ West axis towards Orel on the 16th July 1943. Just five days later the Soviet 2nd Corps had taken the strategically important town of Otrada. In doing so the railway line to the German forces in the vicinity of Plavsk was cut. As the German panzers began to move back across the Oka river bridges in Orel city the situation began to look increasingly desperate for the Germans.

Bolkhov after liberation in July 1943
The same scene in May 2016

Knowing that Bolkhov needed to be held in order to retain control of the north-eastern section of the battlefield and to facilitate an orderly withdrawal to the new constructed Hagen Line at the base of the Orel bulge, Model reorganised his command. Gruppe Harpe was an ad-hoc battle group consisting of the XLI, LII and XXII Corps. Amongst the forces committed to the newly formed battle group were the 9th and 20th Panzer Divisions. (Note: The blue building in the picture above is one of two such blocks built on the site of a wartime German cemetery in Bolkhov).

Capture of Bolkhov Convent on 26th July 1943
The same spot in May 2016

Bolkhov is a beautiful town and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in what appeared to be an old monastery. The town is dissected by the River Nugr (a tributory of the Oka) and whilst the main road bridge was rebuilt after the war, a second was not and is now marked by a rope bridge. Many of the churches in Bolkhov have been rebuilt and the golden domes are visible for many miles.

View of Bolkhov from the Officer's Cemetery 
T34 (correct vintage) at Bolkhov

We decided to walk the route of the German 20th Panzer Division which succesfully counter-attacked at the village of Wjasowaja on the 18th July. We also had every intention of getting to the villages of Betowo, Krasnikovo, Jatschnoje and Rylowo all of which saw heavy fighting involving the 9th and 20th Panzer Divisions during the third week in July 1943. The criticality of the sector to the Germans is evident in the fact that Model relieved General Scheller, Commander of the 9th Panzer Division on the 21st July for failing to execute a 'suicidal' night attack on Krasnikovo.

Abandoned houses at Wjasowaja
The road from Bolkhov to Wjasowaja has a good surface and few potholes. En-route we spotted a number of small battlefield cemeteries. The village was revitalised in the 1970s for Russian emigres returning from Poland. Unfortunately few came and most of the buildings in the village are derelict. The picture above shows unfinished blocks which stand empty next to the few traditional houses inhabited by today's tiny and aging population.

Unfortunately the end of the village meant the end of the metalled road. The routes through the forest to the other places we had intended to visit were very muddy tracks - many of which would be impassable even with a four wheeled drive vehicle. A villager and his wife had just returned from an exhausting trip - by horse and trailer - to the weekly market at Krasnikovo. Clearly the trip had been too much for them and for their horse. 

Only transport available at Wjasowaja 
The impassable road to Betowo

The 20th Panzer Division's War Diary for the 18th July 1943 reveals how difficult the fighting was in Wjasowaja. Kampfgruppe Demme (20th Pzr) launched an attack at 03:30 in the morning. By 6:05 the village was in German hands. Three Russian tanks broke through at 7:00 with another fifteen at 07:30. At 08:30 a German request for reinforcements was rejected. After heavy fighting through the afternoon, Demme consolidated his defending force on a line anchored on Hill 220.4 aided by 6 of the 20th Division's panzers.

The author explaining the actions in Wjasowaja

We visited two cemeteries in the village. The first is on a ridge overlooking the southern approaches. It's a contemporary battlefield plot with a private memorial to a Soviet Airman within the perimeter. The second is the village memorial and cemetery which can be found in the grounds of the local school. Both are carefully looked after by the local population.

Battlefield cemetery at Wjasowaja
Village cemetery at Wjasowaja school

Our visit to the Bolkhov, Krasnikovo and Wjasowaja was considerably enhanced thanks to a terrific briefing pack prepared by my friend Martin Nevshemal, author of Objective Ponyri: The Defeat of XXXXI Panzerkorps at Ponyri Train Station (ISBN 978-0-9922749-1-7.

The full photo set for Bolkhov can be found here on Flickr.