Wednesday, 30 November 2022

The 82nd Airborne on the Cotentin Peninsula (June 1944)

The population of the South-West of England, including Bristol, were saved the trauma of V-Weapon attacks by the success of Operation Overlord - the huge scale amphibious attack on German occupied Normandy by Allied forces on 6th June 1944. The loss of the Cotentin Pensula over subsequent weeks put paid to German plans to activate launch sites in the Cherbourg area. 

Last month I spent a week in Normandy exploring parts of the battlefield. The weather was glorious and conditions were perfect for hiking. I started by exploring the ground covered by Major General Matthew Ridgeway's 82nd 'All-American' Airborne Division to the west of Sainte-Mère-Église in the vicinity of La Fière and Eteinville. Landing by parachute and glider the 82nd Airborne were to assist with the capture of Sainte-Mère-Église, secure the approaches to the Utah Beach landing areas and push westwards to capture a couple of crossing points over the River Merderet.

'Iron Mike' statue at La Fiere

Using Paul Reed's excellent book 'Walking D-Day' as a guide, I parked up in the car park near the church in Sainte-Mère-Église where a dummy parachutist representing John Steele of the 505th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne is suspended from the church tower. Steele's parachute was caught on one of the pinnacles of the church tower and he hung there for two hours before being cut down and taken prisoner by the enemy (he escaped a few hours later). Walking due west from the centre of town brings one to the site of the river crossing at La Fière, easily discernible because of the striking 'Iron Mike' statue overlooking the bridge.

Sainte Mere Eglise - John Steele Dummy & Parachute

Nowadays the river runs in an orderly fashion underneath the bridge and the causeway beyond offers a raised roadway over green fields. On the 6th June 1944 the river valley had been deliberately flooded so the causeway offered the only real way of getting men and material across - so as to cut the Carentan / Cherbourg road and railway routes. The bridge was secured on D-Day but was recaptured by the Germans shortly thereafter. The battle to secure the area raged for four days and the situation was finally resolved on the 10th June with the help of the 90th Division which had landed on Utah Beach during the original assault.

Memorial Area on Utah Beach

Following Paul's advice I walked over the bridge to La Chapelle de Cauquigny on the other side. The church and the surrounding buildings were taken by men from the 507th PIR under Captain Robert Rae on the 10th June, an attack by men from the 325th Glider Regiment having been repulsed 24 hours earlier.

There is a memorial plot outside the church and a rather striking stain glassed window to the 82nd inside. From the 10th June the causeway was open and available for traffic but the fight at La Fière had taken a heavy toll - more than 250 American lives. From the church I struck out across the fields to the right where many of the gliders from the 82nd Airborne landed during the initial assault. Today the paths are rarely trodden and the surrounding countryside is a peaceful place. One can only imagine the impact that the 'All-American' airborne assault had on the area all those years ago.

Bridleway near La Fiere

Following the path through the fields one passes the apple trees which mark what is known as 'Timmes Orchard'. Colonel Charles Timmes held on here from D-Day to the 9th June with a mixed force of men from 325th GIR, and 507th and 508th PIRs until linking up with the troops who had managed to get across the nearby causeway. Further on one comes to the outskirts of Amfreville where on the Rue de la Rosiere there is a large barn that was used as a German field hospital in June 1944.

Timmes Orchard

The walk continues past the entrance to a private road leading to what the Airborne troops called 'The Grey Castle', a chateau visible across the fields. The nearby church at Amfreville was used as an opbservation position until the tower was destroyed by naval gunfire from a US battleship anchored off Utah Beach. I followed the rest of Paul's walk up on to the high ground known as 'Hill 30' and then on to the site of the second contested river crossing at Chef du Pont. Again, at the time of the battle much of the river valley in this area was flooded.

Unexpected encounter near Amfreville

After returning from the walk, I would definitely recommend the American Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église. I'm not one for museums generally - preferring to walk the ground, but this one is definitely worth visiting - picking up, as it does, the linked actions of both the 82nd 'All-American' Airborne Division and the 101st 'Screaming Eagles' Airborne Division 

The American Airborne Museum - Normandy

The museum houses a C47B Dakota and a Waco CG04 glider - the two main workhorses of the airborne assault. In addition there are hundreds of contemporary artefacts including weapons and uniforms. The displays are complemented by compelling film footage and a vast array of letters and personal documents. 

For my full portfolio of photographs taken during this trip to Normandy (including this 82nd Airborne walk) click here

Friday, 14 October 2022

Clevedon's Own Lancashire Lads

One day in May 1915,  twenty or so young women from Clevedon took an excursion to Tidworth in Wiltshire.  Their trip was not without purpose, for it is no coincidence that men from the 56th Infantry Brigade had moved to Tidworth to complete their military training having spent three months in Clevedon from January of that year. It is very likely that one of the day-trippers was Rhoda Cooper of Old Street. After a whirlwind romance, Rhoda had married Private John Stainton of the 7th King's Own, Royal Lancaster Regiment just a few weeks before. Sadly, as will be come apparent as this story unfolds, Rhoda's new found happiness was to be short lived.

7th L.N. Lancs, Clevedon - (Phil Curme Collection)

The 56th Infantry Brigade was raised in August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. It's four Battalions - each about 800 strong - were composed of 'Kitchener' volunteers from Lancashire (mainly) and the North of England, part of the second tranche of 100,000 green recruits known for obvious reasons as 'K2 men'. Many of the men had joined with their workmates -  a typical example being Company D of the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment who were colloquially known as the 'Preston Businessmen & Clerks' Company).  On the reverse of the photo above, which was taken at the bandstand on Clevedon seafront in April 1915, the sender has written "do you rcognize Cecil on the front, he is bound to be in it?". 

Photo from 'Clevedon's Own' by Rob Campbell

Given that the population of Clevedon was approximately 6,000 in 1915 the arrival of almost 4,000 Lancashire lads in the town will have made quite an impact. The Brigade HQ was set up at No.2 Bellevue Terrace - until recently an HSBC bank branch. The Battalion HQs were all within a short walking distance from this main hub - the 8th East Lancs at St Gabriel's Convent on Marine Hill, the 7th South Lancs at 'Caer Leon' in Princes Road, the 7th North Lancs at Duncan House on Chapel Hill and the 7th King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment at 'Hawkesbury' in Linden Road (all of these properties still stand, albeit some have different names now). The men were billeted in households across the town - often four or five in a single property.

Kings Own Regiment Museum Archive, Lancaster

Kings Own Regiment Museum Archive, Lancaster

The top picture above, shows four officers outside the Brigade HQ at No.2 Bellevue Road. As the sign says, part of the building served as the Officer's Mess. The photo was taken by 2nd Lieutenant Charles Roberts of the 7th Battalion, Kings Own Loyal Lancashire Regiment. The four officers pictured are all Captains - Openshaw, Nunn, Bradbury and Dawson. Training in Clevedon consisted of various exercises such as live firing at The Butts, bridging and trench construction on the Land Yeo and route marches up to Cadbury Camp or through the surrounding villages. The bottom picture shows machine gun practice on what looks like Wain's Hill (given the ship visible on the horizon).

The Triangle - Clevedon - Imperial War Museum Archive

When the Brigade departed Clevedon by train for Tidworth Camp and then onwards to the Western Front in May 1915, the town must have seemed very quiet. Happily, the Brigade's departure was captured on a Pathe News film which has been digitised by the Archive team at the Imperial War Museum and is available online here. One of the Lancashire lads remains in Clevedon though; that is Rhoda Cooper's husband John Stainton who is buried in the consecrated ground at St Andrews Church in the shadow of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone - albeit mysteriously showing the initial 'T' instead of 'J'. 

Private John Stainton (CWGC) - Phil Curme Collection

John Stainton was born in Ambleside Westmoreland and enlisted in the 7th King's Own, Royal Lancaster Regiment at Barrow-in-Furness on 31st August 1914. The 1911 census shows him to have been married to a woman called Mary. Stainton was an agricultural labourer and he and his then wife were lodging with a workmate and his family in Barrow. Intriguingly, when asked whether he was married when he signed-up, Stainton answered "no". It's not known whether he was a widower or whether he was being 'economical with the truth'! Private Stainton's service record also shows that he had served in the 2nd Battalion of the same Regiment during the Second Boer War and had seen action at the Battle of Spion Kop in 1900. It seems that Private Stainton was a bit of a rogue - he was pulled up three times during his training for 'dereliction of duty' and in one baffling incident was accused of 'losing' a pair of handcuffs.

La Boisselle - German Defences

Private Stainton's date of death is recorded as 11th August 1916 by which time his Regiment had been overseas for over a year. So why is he buried in Clevedon? The answer, of course, lies in his love for Rhoda Cooper in that Stainton's mother was insistent that her son should lie in the town where he had married fourteen months previously. 

After completing training at Tidworth the 56th Brigade were transported to France - as part of the 19th (Western) Division (known as the Butterflies on account of their rather pretty Divisional emblem). The Brigade's War Diary (National Archives - WO/95/2075) records that 'Clevedon's Own Lancashire Lads' were active on the Western Front from the 24th July 1915. The Brigade saw some involvement in a diversionary action during the Battle of Loos in September 1915 but the real baptism of fire came on the 4th July 1916 where the 19th Division were asked to take the strongpoint of La Boisselle. The 34th Division had failed to take the town on the 1st July, and sustained massive losses trying to do so despite the detonation of two huge mines under the German defences. The crater left by the larger mine known as 'Lochnager' is still very evident today and its eastern lip served as a jumping off point for some of the men involved in the 4th July attack. The 19th Division took the town on that day - with the 7th King's Own on point. 

Lochnager Crater, La Boisselle

John Stainton suffered a fatal wound a couple of months later. The Somme Battle had developed slowly and by the end of July the Battalions of the 56th Brigade were rotating in and out of the lines near High Wood. Like the majority of First World war battlefield casualties, Stainton was hit by the burst of an artillery shell which left him wounded in the shoulder, face and thigh. Treated in a Casualty Clearing Station he was transferred to a base hospital on the coast before being repatriated to the English General Hospital in Cambridge. John Stainton succumbed to his wounds on the 11th August 1916 and now lies to the north west of St Andrew's Church. A poignant reminder of the lads from Lancashire who spent three months in the town readying themselves for their participation in what was then known as the Great War.

Main Sources: The National Archives, Kings Own Regiment Museum, The imperial War Museum Archives, The British Newspaper Library, 'Clevedon's Own: The Great War 1914-18' by Rob Campbell.