My Grandfather, Jim Heath, was born in Silverdale, Newcastle-under-Lyme in September 1914. Although he left The Potteries in 1936 to join his older brothers who had found labouring work in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, soon after war came he travelled to Brighton to enlist. In January 1940 he joined the North Staffordshire Territorials and received instruction to report to Lichfield Infantry Training Centre where upon completion of his basic training he was transferred to ‘A’ Company of the 5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. It was with the South Staffords, as part of 59th Division, that he sailed to Normandy as a follow-up Division in the third week of June 1944.
In our small travelling party were close family members (sons and nieces) laying wreaths at the graves of their relatives. But, my Grandfather came back. Nevertheless, I wanted an act of Remembrance of my own. With hundreds or even thousands of graves in each of the three British War Cemeteries that we visited I did some homework to find someone in each with whom I could say that there was a connection with my Grandfather (be it home town or fighting unit or as in this case). Some basic research on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission website threw up some worthy candidates. I picked one Private William Edwin Robinson, like my Grandfather a soldier of the 5th Battalion and of a similar age, separated by 12 months or so (in relative terms at 30 and 31 they were old within their ranks).
On 7th July 1944, the newly arrived troops of the 5th South Staffs looked on from their forming up positions directly north of Caen as Bomber Command sent in wave upon wave of Halifax and Lancaster bombers (467 aircraft all told) over the northern perimeter of the Norman capital. They dropped a combined payload of 2,560 tons of high explosive, incendiary and delayed action bombs. This action was controversial and still triggers passionate debate despite the passage of 75 years. The issue was that Bomber Command insisted upon a 6,000 yard distant safety margin forward of the British line. However, such was the close proximity of the two opposing forces that the raid only served to damage areas behind the German defences and the result was that the bombing gained very little strategic advantage. At best it provided a morale boost to the newly arrived Staffords about to experience combat for the first time.
The 5th South Staffs (of 177 Brigade) were to be held in reserve in front of the fortified village of Cambes-en-Plaine with a view to exploit any gains of 197 Brigade opposite Galmanche and 176 Brigade facing La Bijude, La Londe and Epron.
The 5th first went into action on the afternoon of the 8th July with an attack on the Chateau of Galmanche. In a baptism of blood and fire the 5th Battalion and the 2/6th Battalion suffered heavy losses. Private Robinson’s ‘D’ Company launched a further attack on the Chateau in the half light of evening but were forced to withdraw. A regrouped ‘D’ Company would renew the assault on the 9th.
The fighting on the 9th and 10th July* in which ‘D’ Company of the 5th Battalion were engaged is described within the Battalions War Diary. Where military abbreviations have been used I have added the meaning in brackets for ease of reading.
‘At 1915 hrs 9 July, orders were received for the Coy (Company) attack to be put in on GALMANCHE, an enemy stronghold which the 2/6 S. STAFFORDS had not been able to capture. A recce (reconnaissance) was carried out and a plan was made. A troop of tanks was given to the Coy to support this attack.
The Coy was brought up from the assembly positions and the attack was timed to go in at 2045 hrs. At 2040 hrs the tanks were withdrawn from the Coy, as they had to go and rejoin their Regt. As arranged the attack went in, 16 Pl (Platoon) right, followed by 17 Pl who were detailed to carry out the thorough clearing of the buildings. The final objective was a row of trees some 400 yards from the start line.
The Coy advanced about 200 yards before it was opened up on by 6 or 8 M.G.s (machine guns) firing from either flank – the fire from these M.G.s was held until such time as the nearest M.G.s were firing almost into the rear of the Coy, thereby hemming them in. The enemy M.G.s fire was so fierce, that it was impossible for the Coy to advance further., although some men from 16 Pl actually reached the objective – they were however so few in numbers that they were unable to hold it.
17 and 18 Pls made desperate efforts to enter and clear the buildings, and under the leadership of Lieut L.A Stilling and Lieut T.H. Dando they succeeded in killing several Germans. Fierce fighting continued in the area of the buildings and adjoining orchard, until the enemy fire made it necessary for both the Pls to be withdrawn to the line of the hedgerow some 50 yards from the main buildings. Meantime the remainder of 16 Pl and Coy HQ were pinned to the ground by strong enemy fire from the left and from M.G.s sited in the upper rooms of the house. As it was by this time impossible to advance further, the only alternative was to remain under cover till dark, when it would be possible to withdraw the Coy. At approx. 2315 hrs the Coy was withdrawn, after having been more or less under continual heavy fire for almost 2 ½ hours.
During the clearing of the house excellent leadership was shown by 3770737 Pte (Private) Robinson, who after destroying an enemy M.G. continued to organise parties of men to try and clear the house. The Coy having been withdrawn, it was found that 5 men had been killed and 16 wounded, Lieut L.E. Hall, Comdr (Commander) 16 Pl had also been wounded.
During the night the Coy was reorganised and preparations were made for a further attack the following morning, this time two troops of tanks and on troop of AVREs (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) were in support.
The attack was starting at 1015 hrs and right away the tanks almost completely destroyed the buildings – the Coy advanced with 17 Pl left, 18 Pl right and 16 Pl following 18 Pl to carry out the clearing of the buildings. On this occasion the attack was successful, the objective taken and held until orders were received to rejoin the Battalion. One man was wounded’.
*As one would expect the account included the above quoted Appendix tallies with the information in the body of the War Diary itself in all but one detail. The Annex states that the fighting took place over the 9th to 10th when in fact the battle was fought over the 8th and 9th July, with the 10th occupied by weapons and equipment salvage and burial of the dead.
An aerial reconnaissance photograph of the Chateau and its grounds exists. It is clear even to the non-expert eye the extensive efforts that the SS had made in an attempt to make this stronghold impregnable.
The fortified village of Galmanche ahead of the 59th Division attack.
Today, Galmanche is a remote hamlet. The Chateau has been rebuilt, albeit on a more modest scale. The uninformed visitor would hardly know that anything had happened during the war in this place. Even to those in the know the clues are subtle. If approaching the new building along its extensive drive two of the outer walls of the original Chateau can be seen. Close examination reveals a great many pock marks left by bullets and scars gouged into the masonry by shells. At the top of the driveway almost hidden from view is a memorial to the men of the 59th who gave their lives in the struggle to capture Galmanche.
The battle scarred outer wall of the original Chateau that was destroyed on 9th July 1944.
The memorial to the 59th at Galmanche
(one of the hardest momuments to find in the whole of Normandy).
Our Private Robinson survived the battle and for his leadership of men on 8th July he received the Military Medal.
The citation reads as follows:
‘Pte Robinson took part in “D” Coy attack on the strong enemy posn (position) of GALMANCHE on the evening of 8th Jul 44. His Pl was detailed to clear buildings in which were several enemy machine guns. Several of his section were either killed or wounded, but in the face of heavy enemy fire, Pte Robinson went forward alone with a Bren gun and destroyed one enemy post. He then re-organised his section and continued the attack. Throughout the attack his gallant actions and powers of leadership were an inspiration to his comrades.’
The citation is signed by B.L. Montgomery Commander-in-Chief, 21 Army Group.
The recommendation for the award was initiated on 12th July; just four days after the events took place. However, the passage of the recommendation up the established chain of command was slow such that by the time that Monty added his signature, then Corporal Robinson’s war was over. The Military Medal was awarded posthumously on 19th October 1944.
Corporal William Edwin Robinson was killed on 9th August 1944. He was 31 years old. At that time 176 Brigade had forced a crossing over the River Orne to form a bridgehead opposite the Forêt de Grimbosq. At the same time the 5th battalion with 177 brigade were further to the south fighting for the successive ridges of high ground that approached the river and overlooked the town of Thury Harcourt. It is likely that he fell in this fighting that aimed to hold up German troops and armour and prevent them from turning their attention on the fragile bridgehead at Grimbosq.
In the oppressive heat (37°C in Bayeux) that scorched France on the weekend of our visit, I located the plot and placed a Royal British Legion cross at the grave.
William was son of Emily Duncalf and husband of Annie Robinson, both of Liverpool. His grave bears the inscription ‘A Foreign Grave is a Painful Thing Where Loving Hands No Flowers Can Bring ’.
‘When you go Home, tell them of us and say, For your Tomorrow, we gave our Today’.