Thursday, 27 October 2016

Centennial event for the men of the Cambs Suffolks who fell at Roeux on the 28th April 1917

A while ago I wrote a piece on the recovery of Lance Serjeant Charles Stevens's mortal remains in the village of Roeux by a local homeowner who was preparing groundworks for a garden wall. Stevens was killed in action on the 28th April 1917 and the story can be re-read by clicking here.
Next year, on the 100th anniversary of the ill fated attack on the Chemical Works at Roeux, local dignitaries, interested parties and (hopefully) relatives of those who served in the 11th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, will participate in a short service of commemoration on the spot where the Cambs Suffolks fought on that day. Colin Fakes (who has a prime mover in finding a way of paying tribute to his Grandfather, Charles Stevens) and myself will be hosting a three or four day tour of places relevant to the Cambs Suffolks' first 18 months on the Western Front. As well as Roeux we will spend time at Erquinghem Lys and La Boisselle. We are particularly keen for relatives of the 82 men killed on the 28th April who have no known grave to attend as they will be commemorated on a new memorial which will be the focus of the trip. Here is a list of those men:

Askew, Harvey - 14419 - Willingham
Barber, Soloman (Sergeant) - 16606 - Coton
Barlow, William (Lance Corporal) - 24220 - Girton
Batchelor, Arthur Elton - 9687 - Diss, Norfolk
Battley, Arthur James - 43414 - Wrentham, Lowestoft
Bax, Reginald - 13114 - Chelmondiston, Suffolk
Biggs, Harry Robert - 28422 - Chittering
Bowles, George - 9132 - Back Hill, Witchford
Bradbury, Albert Russell Milles - 43424 - Lowestoft
Branch, Albert Sidney - 22480 - Chittering
Brown, Clifford Albert - 16123 - Haverhill, Suffolk
Browne, Ernest Frederick (Corporal) - 43399 - Norwich
Butcher, Allan Robert - 16123 - Ipswich, Suffolk
Catchpole, John - 24830 - Thetford, Norfolk
Charles, Frederick William - 16401 - Waterbeach
Cherry, Sidney (Serjeant) - 50457 - Luton, Bedfordshire
Circus, Thomas Edwin (Lance Corporal) - 14427 - Elsworth
Clark, William - 23996 - Bentley, Suffolk
Clarke, Henry William - 43441 - Lowestoft
Cooper, Arthur James - 22263 - Woolwich, London
Cutter, Charles Henry (Lance Corporal) - 17365 - Hinxton
Daines, William - 24160 - Oulton Broad, Lowestoft
Dennis, Walter - 28331 - St Albans, Hertfordshire
Durtnell, Richard Neville (Second Lieutenant) - Sevenoaks, Kent
Dyson, Arthur Reginald - 9765 - Thurston, Suffolk
Fiske, Alfred - 18961 - Gislingham, Suffolk
Flagg, Samuel - 16277 - March
Gedge, Arthur George - 17518 - Chesterton, Cambridge
Goldsmith, Arthur (Lance Corporal) - 13422 - Wickham Market
Goose, Percy Alfred (Lance Corporal) - 24219 - Willingham
Gould, Stanley Edmond (Lance Corporal) - 50460 - Loughton, Essex
Green, Walter - 20135 - Croydon, Cambs
Hale, John - 18718 - Bury St Edmunds
Hancock, Harry Baxter - 24422 - Oundle
Hardy, Sidney - 26293 - Long Melford, Suffolk
Harrison, George - 21004 - Stamford, Lincolnshire
Hawkins, Ernest - 43489 - Cardington, Bedfordshire
Hayes, Frank - 41158 - Harrogate, Yorkshire
Hepher, James William - 23971 - Swavesey
Hill, Owen - 18474 - Linton
Hollingworth, George William - 41159 - Leicester
Howell, Charles - 43490 - Clown, Derbyshire
Howlett, Ernest Osborne - 16235 - Wicken
Hunt, John William Reynolds (Second Lieutenant) - Coton
Jepson, William Livesey - 41132 - Darwen, Lancashire
Johnson, John Alfred - 16914 - Fordham
Kirby, Joseph - 15881 - Ely
Linford, Alfred Aaron (Serjeant) - 15663 - Swavesey
Lush, Rowland - 43498 - Bordersley, Warwick
Mannall, Robert - 20813 - Charsfield, Suffolk
Mayhew, Walter - 18434 - Redingfield, Suffolk
Mead, Charles Arthur - 24166 - East Bergholt, Suffolk
Missen, Arthur - 18367 - Lavenham, Suffolk & Trumpington
Neal, Nathaniel (Corporal) - 16248 - Littleport
Nunn, Albert George - 9597 - Stowlangtoft, Bury St Edmunds
Palmer, Charles William - 18212 - Beck Row, Suffolk
Parr, Thomas Kelly - 39788 - Fordham, Ely
Patterson, William George - 25238 - Catton, Norwich
Pettit, William Charles - 13606 - Horningsea
Phillips, Albert James - 26873 - Longstanton
Pipe, Willoughby Henry - 15105 - Spexall, Suffolk
Presland, Reginald - 16310 - Croydon, Hertfordshire
Rignall, Albert Bartingale - 14774 - Longstanton
Runnacles, Harry (Lance Corporal) - 12080 - Badingham, Suffolk
Sanders, Ernest - 50049 - Cromer, Norfolk
Smith, Harry - 235222 - Newark, Nottinghamshire
Smith, James - 21006 - Stetchworth, Newmarket
Snare, Lewis - 24876 - Fordham, Newmarket
South, Ernest - 24738 - Wilbraham
Speechley, Harold - 24420 - Glapthorne, Northamptonshire
Stevens, Charles William (Lance Serjeant) - 17203 - Swaffham Bulbeck
Steward, Samuel - 24704 - Woolpit, Suffolk
Taylor, William - 16604 - Harston, Cambridge
Thomson, Alexander William - 50686 - Shepherd's Bush, London
Topham, Percy - 24316 - Unknown
Tyndall, Thomas Image - 39449 - Wisbech
Tynet, Thomas Harold - 27669 - Paddington, London
Watson, Clement Frederick - 16419 - Cambridge
Wedd, Albert - 20115 - Melbourn, Hertfordshire
White, George - 34159 - Tottenham, London
Willingham, William George (Corporal) - 43388 - Ipswich, Suffolk
Wright, William - Quy, Cambridge - 31855

Talking about the Stevens story to Gerald Main from the BBC - click here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

General Konstanin Rokossovsky at Kursk (1943)

We'd heard bad things about the city of Kursk but decided to stopover in the city on our way up to Orel anyway. We found Kursk to be a fascinating place with some beautiful churches and public buildings. It's also a handy jumping off point for the German Military Cemetery at Besedino and the site of General Rokossovsky's 1943 headquarters complex in the village of Svoboda.

Gas powered bus in the city of Kursk

Kursk, was of course slightly to the west of where the 9th and 4th Panzer Armies (attacking from the north and south respectively) would have met up had the German plan been executed successfully. The driver for the German plan was the prospect of encircling the vast quantities of men and material that the Soviet army had committed to the defence of the Kursk salient.
Wedding party on Victory Avenue, Kursk
A good place to orientate yourself in the city, is the stunning Sergiev-Kazan cathedral with it's impressive bell-tower and richly decorated interiors. The church was made into a provincial museum pre-war and in anticipation of Barbarossa rolling through the city, an attempt was made to hide artistic treasures in the walled up nave of the lower church. Sadly this attempt failed - the invading Axis forces broke open the false wall and removed the priceless contents to the Reich. Under German jurisdiction the church was returned to it's original religious use.

View of Kursk from the Sergiev-Kazan cathedral tower
Outer sanctuary of the Sergiev-Kazan cathedral
General Rokossovsky established his headquarters bunker complex at the village of Svoboda which lies about twenty miles north-west of Kursk city via a minor road. This hugely respected Soviet commander was mixed Russian-Polish by birth and his career very nearly ended in the pre-war Stalinist purges. He was rehabilitated into the Russian Army in 1940 and in the winter of 1941-2 defence of Moscow earned plaudits for his outstanding leadership. His all-arms defensive operation in the Kursk salient was an outstanding achievement which opened the door to Operation Kutusov (which will be the subject of a future blog entry).
Memorial at Svoboda
Konstantin Rokossovsky - Svoboda Bunker Complex

The military cemetery at Besedino - about fifteen miles to the east of Kursk city contains about twenty five thousand German (and their allies) military graves of which a minority are known. The names of the 'Battle of Kursk' fallen where there is no known grave are listed on a series of upright stones flanking the main path through the cemetery. The cemetery was opened in 2009 and there are new internments every year.

Besedino German Military Cemetery

During our drive through Kursk we noticed a neon sign announcing an 'English Pub' - quite a common sight in Russia nowadays. Given that there are very few English speaking visitors to Kursk we thought we'd give it a try. German beer, Scottish ornaments - including tartan curtains and bar staff who were completely indifferent to the fact that three of us shared our nationality with their brand. A great night but quite bizarre!
Ringing the bells

We received a more effusive welcome at the Sergiev-Kazan where one of the bell-ringers, who had a few too many vodkas, took a shine to our small party and took us up the ladders to the bell tower where I had an impromptu bell-ringing lesson.

City of Kursk Flickr pictures here.
Rokossovsky Svoboda pictures here.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Army Detachment Kempf at Kursk (July 1943)

Manstein's assault on the Southern Sector of the Kursk Salient was spearheaded by Hoth's 4th Panzer Corps. Army Detachment Kempf was ordered to protect the eastern flank of the attacking force. The units that Kempf had at his disposal were formidable - III Panzer Corps, XI Army Corps and XLII Army Corps. A total of three panzer and six infantry divisions.

Arrival at Belgorod Station

Having arrived at Belgorod by train, we decided to follow the route Kempf took during the period 5th to 17th July 1943. This took us on country roads running parallel to the main line of attack by the SS Panzer Corps - operating a few miles to the west. This leg would take us to the village of Belenikhino a couple of miles south of Prokhorovka and would offer up some fascinating battlefield walks.

Road to Gostishchevo

During the first five days of the battle, the tanks of Army Detachment Kempf made relatively good progress across wide, flat terrain however from the outset the extraordinary defence of the Soviet 70th Army was such that valuable German assets were required to hold the right flank as the lead echelons advanced. This continual need to protect the flank left the attacking spearhead with less firepower than had originally been envisaged.

Gostishchevo - Old Road West to East
Memorial to 281 Rifle Brigade & 93rd Rifle Division

As we passed to numerous memorials and roadside graves in the area it became apparent that the axis of the main road network has changed significantly since 1943. The first picture above shows the Druzhnyy to Gostishchevo road running west-east and the second shows a Soviet battlefield monument at the point where that road was bisected by Kempf's advancing force travelling in the south-north direction (as per the modern road). What a story this memorial and the nearby military cemeteries tell - authentic and informative! - two characteristics that the new crop of monuments at Prokhorovka lack.

Soviet Memorial at Gostischchevo

The memorial above sits in the village of Gostischevo itself. The figure is looking east across one of the many balkas which are a feature of the landscape in the area. Prior to the attack the Russians had proved adept at using civilian labour to augment these natural obstacles with additional ditches and earthworks. Kempf reached Sabynino and Gostischevo on the 10th July and almost immediately started to encounter the fresh infantry divisions of the Soviet 69th Army. Meanwhile to the west - the SS Panzer Corps were further forward - a misalignment which once again pulled much needed troops into the protection of their eastern flank.

The Village of Teterevino
After a brief pause on the 10th July, Kempf launched the second stage of his northern thrust. The initial objectives were Rzhavets to the north east and Teterevino to the the north. We took the road to the latter and found a village full of military cemeteries and memorials. The picture below shows a memorial to local men - there are many common names.

War Memorial & Cemetery at Teterevino
The furthest point of the advance was the railway junction at Belenikhino. The south-north railway from Belgorod to Kursk ran dead centre of the Kempf line of attack. The village is not the easiest of places to find and we resorted to local intelligence in order to discover the whereabouts of the 5th Guards Army memorial which we knew to be in the area. the picture below shows a farmer pointing the way with a footbridge over the railway behind him.

Pointing North towards Belenikhino

At Belenikhino the advancing units of Army Detachment Kempf met up with men of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte who were seeking to secure their right flank as the 5th Guards Tank Army continued their decisive attacks from the 12th July onwards. The water tower at Belenikhino Station has been rebuilt and can be seen in the picture below.

Belenikhino Station & Partly Restored Church
Memorial to the 5th Tank Corps

The memorial above is flanked by two huge rolls of honour (not shown). The wording reads 'Memorial to the 5th Tank Corps - 5th July to 3rd August 1943 - Defenders of the Village.' Again the old west-east road is shown by a paved pathway which, in this case, is part of the memorial. From Belenkihino it is just a few miles to Prokhorovka but the Soviet defences with the 5th Guards as the main component - had proved too strong. It is perhaps fitting that this third instalment relating to the southern attack at Kursk should end with a tribute to these brave soviet soldiers.

Click here for the Psel Bridgehead, Battle of Kursk (July 1943) and here for the Tank Battle at Prokhorovka (12th July 1943).

Click here for my collection of photos taken in the Prockorovka area in May 2016.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka (12th July, 1943)

"What is this?" said the Russian border guard at Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport as he extracted a large lump of metal from my suitcase. "I think it's part of a tractor, or something ....." I rather weakly replied. Luckily the queue behind me were very keen to get through airport security and the Russian official opted for the easiest option - and nodded me through. The piece of track from a T34 tank picked up at Prokhorovka is now proving to be a very effective paperweight.

Part of a T34 Track from Prokhorovka Field

Prokhorovka is remembered as the largest ever tank battle. In the collective Russian memory it was the turning point of the Battle of Kursk when the infamous Liebstandarte II SS Panzer Division was stopped in it's tracks. This point of view is immortalised on the battlefield in the form of the iconic Prokhorovka Bell Tower and the recently installed art works in front of the impressive local museum.

Bell Tower, Prokhorovka Field
T34s v.s. Tigers

The truth is somewhat different although the phenomonal achievement of the Red Army in thwarting the double fronted Axis thrust at Kursk should not be under-emphasised. We were joined by a leading expert on the battle - Professor Valerie Zumulin. Valerie's research reveals that the turning point of the battle was at Ponyri Station in the north when Model's XXXXI Panzer Corps were fought to a standstill by Soviet 13th Army. The Battle of Prokhorovka was concerned with the Soviet 5th Tank Army's counter thrust against Hausser's II SS Panzer Corps with the Liebstandarte in the defensive vanguard.

Natalya, Katya, Sergey, Valerie, Alan & Mark

We started our day of battlefield walking on the top of Hill 258.2 on the 3rd defence line about three kilometres south of Prokhorovka. Beyond the third line was the flat ground where the German tanks could be made ready to receive the imminent Soviet counter thrust. On the 10th July seventy five Soviet defenders held out against the lead German tanks for an astonishing six and a half hours.

1 SS Panzer's Heavy Tanks 1km North of Hill 258.2
The Road to Prokhorovka - now raised and hardened

The flat ground south of Prokhorovka  - just to the west of the modern road and the Belgorod to Kursk railway line was the deployment position for the Liebstandarte's seventy tanks and self propelled guns (Healy has II SS Panzer Corps fielding a total of 294 tanks and self propelled guns on the 12th July - p.20, 'Zitadelle: The German Offensive Against the Kursk Salient 4-17 July 1943').

Hill 258.2 showing lines on 11th July 1943

The Soviet reserve 5th Tank Army (with, by Healy's reckoning, 830 tanks and self propelled guns) was poised to the north (three and a half kilometres from the modern day Bell Tower). One of the Soviet observation bunkers has been reconstructed and the roof of this bunker gives an excellent viewpoint over the flat open fields were these two echelons of tanks and armoured vehicles clashed.

Reconstructed 5th Tank Army Observation Bunker

The scene in this area on the 12th July is dramatically captured in the superb Belgorod Panorama. A useful stopover and orientation if, as we did, you arrive in the Kursk area by overnight train from Moscow. 

We undertook three walks on the Kursk southern front. This one, the Psel Bridgehead which can be read here and the route taken by Army Detachment Kempf to the east (which will be covered in my next update). The northern front and the subsequent Soviet Kutosov offensive will be covered in future entries.

View my images of Belgorod on Flickr here.
View my images of Prokhorovka on Flickr here.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Psel Bridgehead, Battle of Kursk (July 1943)

The attack by Hoth's 4th Panzer Army to the south of Kursk in the summer of 1943 culminated in a massive clash of armour in the vicinity of Prokhorovka on the 12th July. The attacking 2nd SS Panzer Corps (III SS Pzr Totenkopf, I SS Pzr Liebstandarte and II SS Pzr Das Reich) were counter attacked by the formidable Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army. The ensuing stalemate coupled with the Allied invasion of Sicily put an end to the Axis ambition to retake the city of Kursk. Earlier this year I led a small walking tour of these battlefields. This first write up will briefly cover the actions of III SS Pzr to the west of Prokhorovka whose mission was to secure the western flank of the 2nd SS Pzr Corps.

Russian Front Line Trench - River Psel

Trenches on the Northern Bank of the River Psel

The northern bank of the Psel river were defended in depth. The pictures above shows the Russian front line near one of the river crossing in the vicinity of the hamlet of Vasilevka. These particular positions were eventually taken from the rear on the 11th July 1943 after Totenkopf's pioneers secured a crossing point a couple miles to the east. The picture below shows the same spot viewed through a pair of binoculars from the position reached by Michael Wittman's Tiger tanks (1 SS Pzr) on the 12th July - about 1 km west of the modern day Prokhorovka bell tower.

Escarpment on the North Bank of the River Psel 

The foreground shows a flat topography typical of the south - north approaches to Prokhorovka. this ground was carefully chosen as a strong defensive position by Hausser's staff as it enabled the proper deployment of the Liebstandarte's 70 tanks and self propelled guns in anticipation of the Soviet 5th Guards Army's counter attack. The picture also shows the steep northern bank of the Psel and the plateau beyond - which was to be secured by III SS Pzr (Totenkopf).

The Same White Scar from the Psel Valley

The picture below shows the exact crossing point of III SS Pzr on the 10th July 1943. The divisional engineering team worked hard to get the heavy tanks up the steep steep river bank. The modern day track leads down to one of the few bridges in the area. I'm very grateful to Professor Valerie Zamulin (author of 'Demolishing the Myth: The Tank Battle at Prokhorovka, Kursk, July 1943: An Operational Narrative). Valerie joined us for a memorable day during our visit.

III SS Pzr Crossing Point, Psel River, 10th July 1943

Mark, Valerie, Myself, Alan and Katya

The purpose of the Psel bridgehead was to secure the heights on the northern bank in the proximity of Hill 226 and screen the north western flank of the Liebenstandarte. The crossing proved much more difficult than anticipated and the Totenkopf suffered four hundred and thirty casualties (Mark Healy, The German Offensive Against the Kursk Salient, 4-17 July 1943, p. 306). The flank was secured however - despite ferocious Soviet resistance.

Memorial to Soviet Anti-Tank Platoon - Hill 226
The Soviet 52nd and 95th Guards Rifle Divisions, supported by the heavily depleted 31st Tank Corps put up a ferocious resistance to the north of the bridgehead. The bridgehead, at the 'high water mark' on the 12th July was about four kilometres wide - the Totenkopf had managed to get about one hundred and twenty tanks and assault guns across the 60 ton bridge built by the division's pioneers. This included the ten tanks of the Totenkopf's 'heavy' company which were able to cross the river on the afternoon of the 10th.

The Plateau Above the River Psel Looking East

With the north western flank secured attention moved to the 1 SS Pzr's assault on Prochorovka - a topic that will be the subject of the next instalment of this blog.