Ron Pollitt joined up into the 2/6 South Staffordshire Regiment of the 59th Infantry Division. The 59th Division, which had been disbanded after WWI, was reborn as the duplicate of 55 (West Lancashire) Division in 1939. After some shuffling of battalions in order to maintain a semblance of regional integrity the 59th was officially labeled "Staffordshire", even though it contained battalions from Lancashire and Norfolk.
59 Division spent the next five years training, including an extended period of field exercises in Northern Ireland, followed by a redeployment to Kent and a year of preparation for the Second Front.
“Before embarking for Normandy we were moved out of Dover Barracks and to a tent site at Bridge near Canterbury. Things became extremely boring despite their trying hard to occupy us. One day they offered lessons on driving a Bren Carrier. There were no driving tests during the war and I held a license so I jumped at the chance. I fell in love with the Bren Carrier and learnt to handle it quickly.”
In 1944 the 59th Division was honoured as the last division selected for the Normandy operation part of the invasion follow-up Corps. They landed in Normandy as part of the Second Army on the 27th of June, and theirs was the only WWII duplicate division to fight overseas. However, due to the severe casualties suffered by other units in the British Second Army and the consequent need for more reinforcements, it was disbanded.
“As a Private I joined the 5th Battalion Seaforths in the field from the 2nd/6th South Staffs. 59th Division at around the end of June still only 18 years old. I was straight into battle again. Many of my friends made this switch of Regiments and initially we were able to keep together. Two such mates Tich Easton and Flaherty were stalwarts to me, both were in their thirties.
My first flash back is that of being stranded outside a walled villa which we failed to capture. Night had fallen and the Germans were crawling around outside, when Tich saw a gap in the wall. All of 5’2″, he took over and said we should go through and head for the basement.
Flaherty went first, crawling quickly over a large tree which had been felled by one of our shells earlier. I was next, but as I was silhouetted going over the tree a shot rang out! The bullet clean cut my helmet’s chin strap alongside my right ear and my helmet spun around with the impact. The sniper had not seen Tich who was virtually alongside him, so Tich sneaked off his bayonet and stabbed him in the back. The three of us then made it into the basement and we could hear the Germans all night, it wasn’t until the early hours when they abandoned the villa.
At dawn our Company arrived led by a tank and in it was a war correspondent. He could hardly believe what had happened, the story appeared in the British Press a few days later. It turned out that this had been an SS Headquarters! Unfortunately, this incident gave the wrong impression and when the next listening/fighting patrol was required it was Easton, Flaherty, Pollitt and 7 volunteers.
We moved on into the Bocage country, this time we had about 10 tanks supporting us. They were not Shermans they were English, so lets call them “Churchills”. We were making rapid progress, they must have expected this as we were carrying very heavy battle packs.
Out of the blue, someone spotted a German Tiger Tank on a hill very far in the distance and a moment later it fired it’s first shot. It out-gunned and out-armoured the Churchills, one by one it put every Churchill out of action. A Rocket Firing Typhoon was called up and it destroyed the Tiger, we were then very thin on the ground with no tanks and no artillery to support us. We were instructed to abandon our heavy packs and withdraw.
One of our lads had a shrapnel wound in his thigh, the medics had left the area with badly injured tank crews. We knew that the we would be coming back so we left our casualty camouflaged in a hedgerow. It was 2 days before we were able to make it back. We took the medics to where we had left our casualty and yes he was still alive. I was horrified when I saw that his wound was infested with hundred of maggots! The medics, however, were made up as they explained, “he won’t have any infection now.” As for our packs, Jerry had been through each one and removed our soap and socks!
We began moving again and as the evening approached we positioned ourselves, dug in, brewed up, and had a smoke. Suddenly we heard the Moaning Minnies coming our way and all ran and dived into our trenches. Flaherty must’ve just been casually strolling to his and he caught a load of shrapnel in his bum!
He was evacuated home to Liverpool where my parents managed to visit him in hospital. I believe he was discharged after treatment.
Still in the Bocage country we moved forward all day under a creeping barrage. The Royal Artillery had a Sgt. Observer in full radio contact with his gunners along with a driver in a Bren Carrier. All at once our gunners got the range wrong, we were plastered with high explosives and air burst shells. We had many casualties and only one medic. The RA driver had been killed, the Sgt. Observer managed to stop the shelling but one of his legs was hanging off. The medic screamed out, “Can anyone drive this carrier?!” as it was the only way to get the severely wounded out. There were no officers around at this point so I ran forward and said I had been trained (I didn’t mention it was for one day!). We moved all the radio equipment out and got the worst of the casualties on board.
Now the shock… I had trained on a carrier with a conventional steering wheel, this one had tiller bars. I managed to adapt and drove what must have been over 3 miles to Brigade HQ, by which time it was dusk. The first person I met was an RE Sapper who informed us we had just driven through a field full of mines! Then out of nowhere came my Company Commander who said “What are you doing here?” (I felt like asking him the same question!) and then rather loudly, “Get back to your position immediately!” Not even a cup of tea for my troubles!
The next day it was all clear ahead of us and we moved fast towards Falaise, this time I can remember the date as it was my 19th Birthday: 20th of August 1944.”
Bocage country in Normandy is characterised by small fields, high hedgerows and sunken lanes. All the fighting in this area was by ambush.
Obviously the attacking troops were at a disadvantage because they had to move forward. Each hedgerow across the axis of advance might conceal a nest of enemy resistance, in which good positions for flat-trajectory weapons could be quickly organized, with short but excellent fields of fire across the nearest fields.
It only needed one shot from an enemy tank or SP, whereas the allies had to put multiple shots in the side or the rear of the Tigers or Panthers. The chances of penetrating the front of a Tiger with a 75mm gun were slim.
Furthermore, due to high hedgerow walls the attacking forces found difficulty maintaining good communications on their flanks and in coordinating the attack if units were larger than a company. The challenge for the Allied forces was huge.
“As we halted a French civilian came up to us and told us there was a Senior German Officer hiding under a bridge about 3km away. My platoon officer was extremely suspicious, told me to grab a sten gun and ordered me into his jeep with the Frenchman. It was no trick, sure enough the German came out as soon as we stopped. I took both his hand guns from him, a Luger I handed in and a Berreta which I kept.
After Falaise we proceeded unhindered heading for St Valery. The idea being that this would be a kind of revenge attack for what went on in the failed evacuation of our lads in 1940. On arriving outside St Valery our scouts found that the German Garrison was no longer there, the French informed us that they had all moved into Le Havre. This was significant as 49th Polar Bear Division was preparing to mount an attack on Le Havre. The port facilities could be useful but most of all to silence the Germans’ heavy guns which were reaching the Normandy beacheads. However, the size of the new German Garrison coupled with the formidable defence structure anti-tank and blockhouses, meant it would have been suicidal to try to take tanks in. Therefore, we (the 51st Highland Division) were added to the attack as support.
That night searchlights gathered, enough to create an artifical moon. The attack started at around midnight and it took around 2 to 3 days to complete. The French civilians unfortunately suffered a lot of casualties and were angry with us that we had not negotiated a truce to allow them to leave. We must have thought of this but I suppose the element of surprise was the crucial factor for this particular attack.”
The assault on Le Havre began at 17:45 hours 10th September. Naval vessels engaged the coastal batteries and RAF bombers dropped 5000 tons of explosives for 90 minutes prior to the assault on the ground. The Battle claimed approximately 5000 civilian lives.
“We were then taken to Etretat just outside of Le Havre where we were well received by the local farmers. First of all it was to be a rest period, then the rumours abounded as our heavy equipment like anti-tank guns were removed. “We were going back to Blighty, that’s what was promised!” shouted some of the original Sans Peur lads. Well, this was not to be, as the Arnhem Airborne was faltering we were quickly reformed and rushed through to Holland. I think at worse we were meant to cause a diversion and at best get through to Nijmegen. Again, this was not to be, our supply lines were too far stretched and we became cut off. We were short on rations and although we did find a German bunker full of cigarettes, they were vile!
After 4 days we moved and got a few O/R replacements. One came to our platoon, he was very friendly and told me that he had been released from hospital the day before. He was now alongside me going to St Oedenrode. During the fighting I remember crossing the River Dommel on a steel Girder Bridge. We took up defensive positions, paired off and dug in to consolidate, the new replacement stayed with me. We were told to split the watch one hour resting, one hour on guard. I had just finished one of my stints and was lying down when suddenly there was an almighty explosion and my new friend fell on top of me mortally wounded. It appeared that a rifle fired grenade or small mortar shell had landed on his head blowing a hole in his helmet and resulting in the most horrific head injury which I shan’t be too graphic about. The medics arrived and I quickly became deranged. Although I don’t remember, I was told later that I fought the medics when they tried to take my rifle from me. I was evacuated to Eindhoven, then flown by Dakota to the 8th British General Hospital in Brussels. Two months on I was downgraded from A.1 to C.1 and so declared unfit to handle firearms.
I was sent to Calais to help start up and run 112 Transit Camp, a complex of five camps capable of handling 9000 troops each way. I remained a Seaforth Highlander and in 1947 I was sent to Fort George and later on to York for De-Mob.”
Ron now lives in Merseyside with his wife Audrey. Both were very pleased to return to Normandy for the 65th Anniversary. They were able to visit 177 graves out of almost 400 men Ron fought with, one in particular at Fonteney-le-Pesnil on the last day of the trip where Ron laid a poppy wreath in remembrance.