59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division

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59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division
59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division
59 inf div -vector.svg
Shoulder sleeve insignia of the 59th Division.
Active 1939−1944
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Motorised infantry
Infantry
Size Division
Nickname(s) "The Pithead Division"
"The Fiftyninth"
Engagements World War II
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Sir Ralph Eastwood
Sir James Steele
Lewis Lyne

The 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division, also nicknamed the "Pithead Division" due to its shoulder sleeve insignia, was an infantry division of the British Army that saw active during World War II. The division, after training throughout the United Kingdom for four years from 1940 to 1944, served as part of the 21st Army Group during the early stages of the Battle of Normandy a few weeks after the D-Day landings, which took place on 6 June 1944. Broken up in mid-August, it was one of two divisions of the army group that was disbanded due to a very severe shortage of manpower in the British Army.

Formation

The 59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division was created on 21 August 1939 as a second-line Territorial Army (TA) duplicate of the first-line 55th (West Lancashire) Motor Division as, by this time, another European conflict against Germany was deemed to be inevitable.[1] The 55th Division was split in two and sent the 166th Infantry Brigade and the 177th Infantry Brigades to help form the new 59th Division. Also transferred were the 61st and 116th (North Midland) Field Regiment, RA, together with the 509th and 510th Field Company, RE.[2] The 59th Division's first General Officer Commanding (GOC) was Major General John Blakistan-Houston, who was brought out of retirement.[3][4]

On 4 September, the day after World War II began, the 166th Infantry Brigade was redesignated the 176th Infantry Brigade.[5][6] Like its parent formation, the 59th Division was originally raised as a motorised infantry division of only two motorised infantry brigades and supporting elements.[7][8] Unlike most second-line TA divisions, most of which formed exact 'mirror' duplicates of their parent units, some, including the 59th, were instead separated on a geographical basis, with all the units from Staffordshire being sent to the 59th, while the 55th retained the units from Liverpool and Lancashire.[9][1] However, this had the effect of creating two TA divisions with a mixture of first and second-line units, and, rather than having one trained up to TA standard and one not, both would be regarded as untrained.[10] As it turned out, the 59th's parent formation, the 55th Division, apparently never recovered from having both first and second-line units serving side by side and, unlike the 59th Division, never served overseas during the conflict.[10] On 15 September the 59th (Staffordshire) Motor Division officially came into existence.[3][1]

World War II

Training in the United Kingdom, 1940−1944

After its official formation the embodied 59th Division, stationed throughout Staffordshire under Western Command, was engaged in training the largely raw recruits, although there were numerous difficulties as there was a severe shortage of not only equipment, but trained officers and NCO's, coupled with the addition of newly called-up conscripts, which made a relatively simple task extremely difficult.[11] The division's task was made harder still by providing guards for vulnerable points, further disrupting training.[12]

This routine continued throughout the winter, although the situation for the division, now commanded by Major General Ralph Eastwood,[3] had not much improved by the spring. In late May 1940 the division, now commanded by Major General Frederick Witts, succeeding Eastwood on the latter's appointment to command a division, moved to Yorkshire, transferring from Western Command to Northern Command in the process.[13]

In late June, the 197th Infantry Brigade (comprising three infantry battalions from Lancashire) from the disbanded 66th Infantry Division, along with the 110th (Manchester) Field Regiment, RA, the 68th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA and the 257th Field Company, RE, was assigned to the 59th Division[14] and the division, now redesignated the 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division, was reorganised as a standard infantry formation of three brigades along with its supporting units.[3] This was due to a perceived poor performance of the motorized divisions during the battle of France in May–June 1940, which led to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) being forced to retreat to Dunkirk where most of the BEF, including the 1/6th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, from the 177th Brigade, which had departed for pioneer duties in France back in January, was evacuated to England.[15][1]

The 59th Division, now assigned to X Corps,[13] commanded by Lieutenant General William Holmes, was, for the next few months, given the role of beach defence, and alternated between anti-invasion duties in the event of a German invasion, and training for offensive operations. Equipment, however, was still scarce, with most of the British Army's being left in France and, with the equipment there was (which was sent to southern England where an invasion was considered most likely), there was never enough and the division was forced to requisition civilian transports.[16]

The division was able to relinquish its role of beach defence in October after being relieved by the newly created independent brigades, formed specifically for static beach defence, and by 1941 brigade and division exercises were becoming increasingly common in a way which would not have been possible just a year before.[17] On 15 February 1941 the GOC, Major General Witts, was posted elsewhere and succeeded as GOC by Major General James Steele.[3] Soon after the latter's arrival the division commenced highly intensive training and also began receiving new equipment in increasing numbers and, in April, was officially released from coastal defence duties, being assigned to Lieutenant General Francis Nosworthy's IX Corps,[13] becoming the corps mobile reserve.[18] Soon afterwards General Sir Alan Brooke, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces inspected the division, and came away highly satisfied, believing the men possessed an "eagerness in the eyes", and that the 59th "has made great progress during the last year, since Steele took over".[18]

Motorcylists of the 59th Battalion, Reconnaissance Corps at Ballykinlar, Northern Ireland, 6 December 1941.

After continuing in this capacity for the next few months, including during the summer, the 59th Division was, in October, sent to Northern Ireland, arriving there in November, being stationed in Ulster, on the border with the Irish Free State.[19] Coming under the command of Lieutenant General Desmond Anderson's III Corps,[13] the division spent most of 1942 on extensive field exercises, including in the first combined Anglo-American exercise with newly arrived American troops, codenamed Atlantic, in June 1942.[20] The exercise saw the division, now under Major General William Bradshaw (succeeding Major General "Daddy" Steele upon the latter's promotion to the command of II Corps), serving under command of Major General Russell P. Hartle's U.S. V Corps, face off against the U.S. 34th Infantry Division and the British 61st Infantry Division.[21] Also in June, before the exercise, the 59th Division was visited, very briefly, by King George VI and the Queen Elizabeth.[22] The rest of the year was spent under the command of British Troops in Northern Ireland on further exercises, with 1943 following much the same trend until, in March, the division, after over 16 months in Northern Ireland, was ordered to return to England.[23]

Men of the South Staffordshire Regiment of the 59th Division climb up onto a harbour wall during an amphibious exercise in Northern Ireland, 24 April 1942.

Returning to England, the division was sent to Canterbury, Kent, where it became part of Lieutenant General Montagu Stopford's XII Corps,[13] which included, in addition to the 59th, the 43rd (Wessex) and 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Divisions. The corps, assigned to the recently formed 21st Army Group (which included the First Canadian Army under Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton and the British Second Army under Lieutenant General Sir Kenneth Anderson) under General Sir Bernard Paget, had been selected for participation in the Allied invasion of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, then to take place in spring the following year, and so training, already at a very high standard throughout the division, was increased in its intensity, and training in combined operations, amphibious landings and combined infantry and tank cooperation continued throughout the year, with the 34th Tank Brigade being attached to the division from September until January 1944.[24][25]

In late March 1944 the division, still in Kent as part of XII Corps (now commanded by Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie), received a new GOC, who would eventually lead "The Pithead Division" into battle, Major General Lewis Lyne,[3] succeeding Major General Bradshaw, who had commanded the division for 23 months, the longest of any of its GOCs. Around the same time the division received a large number of Canadian Army officers as part of the CANLOAN scheme. Major General Lyne, a favourite of the new 21st Army Group commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, was a highly experienced battlefield commander at the relatively young age of 44 (making him the youngest of the division's GOCs), having commanded the 169th Brigade of the 56th (London) Infantry Division in action in Tunisia and Italy, most recently in Italy in the Anzio beachhead where the brigade had endured some of the most ferocious fighting encountered by the Western Allies in the war so far.[26] The new GOC concluded that, while the 59th Division was undoubtedly superbly well-trained (a considerable tribute to its previous GOCs), there were too few senior officers who possessed any combat experience, and thus the training, to a certain extent, lacked realism. Furthermore, he also believed that the men could not understand that, within a matter of weeks, they would be fighting overseas.[27] By the time the division received its orders to embark for France, some two weeks after D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, these problems had largely been overcome and so the 59th, after four years of training, finally embarked for overseas service, almost five years after its creation.[28]

Overseas service, 1944

The division's lead units landed in Normandy, France, in the last week of June, the last British infantry division to arrive in France. In early July the division transferred from Lieutenant General Ritchie's XII Corps to Lieutenant General John Crocker's I Corps[13] in preparation for the upcoming offensive, codenamed Operation Charnwood, to capture Caen, originally a D-Day objective for the British 3rd Division under Major General Tom Rennie which, against strong German resistance, was unable to capture the city, ending in failure, as had the repeated attempts in the subsequent days and weeks to capture the city.[29] Charnwood was intended to finally capture the city. After a colossal 2,500 tons of bombs were dropped by over 400 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command on the northern outskirts of Caen on the night of 7 July, I Corps, with the British 3rd Division, under Major General "Bolo" Whistler, on the left, and the 3rd Canadian Division, under Major General Rod Keller (both of which had landed on D-Day), on the right, launched its attack the following morning.[30] Supported by elements of the 27th Armoured Brigade, the division attacked through La Bijude and Galmanche, and was engaged in severe fighting against elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division, who refused to give up each and every village without a fight. The bombing from the previous night, although boosting the morale of the attackers, did little, if anything, to hinder the defenders and the ruins created from the bombing made the fighting all the more difficult. However, the three divisions managed to batter their way through the ruins, with German resistance slightly less than that facing the 59th Division, and the centre of Caen was in Canadian hands, bringing the operation to an end, although the Germans still retained the southern suburbs of the city.[31][32] The casualties for the 59th Division during Operation Charnwood were, by the standards of the fighting in Normandy, relatively light, with just over 1,200 casualties being sustained, 239 of them killed, the greater majority of the losses being sustained in the division's nine infantry battalions.[33]

Infantrymen of the 1/7th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment dug in on the outskirts of Caen, France, 9 July 1944.

The division, transferring from Lieutenant General Crocker's I Corps to Lieutenant General Ritchie's XII Corps, was removed from the front lines to rest and refit, absorbing reinforcements for the casualties sustained, which included many men who had been deliberately left out of battle (LoB), as part of Major General Lyne's policy.[34] The division was transferred, on 13 July, to Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall's XXX Corps,[13] in preparation for participation in Operation Pomegranate, part of the Second Battle of the Odon. The division, supported by the 33rd Armoured Brigade, along with elements of Major General Percy Hobart's 79th Armoured Division, was engaged south-west of Caen alongside the River Odon, and was given the task was of capturing the villages of Noyers and Missy. The 59th Division, operating in the centre of the corps with Major General Evelyn Barker's 49th Division on its right and Major General Ross's 53rd Division on its left, attacked in the early hours of 16 July, and was engaged in thick bocage country, and, although the 59th was involved in some very tough fighting, the attack ultimately ended in failure, forcing the division to withdraw and consolidate.[35] The operation, intended as a diversion for Operation Goodwood, had cost the 59th Division 1,250 casualties, but in return almost 600 prisoners of war (POWs) were taken.[36]

The next few weeks for the division, transferring again to Lieutenant General Ritchie's XII Corps on 23 July, were spent in the front lines but were not involved in any major engagements, although the GOC, Major General Lyne, encouraged active patrolling, which often included tanks.[37] By early August the U.S. First Army, under Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, to the west had made significant progress in Operation Cobra, launched in the last week of July in an attempt to break out of the Normandy beachhead, causing the Germans to shorten their line and the opportunity arose to force them to fall back towards Falaise.[38] During this time XXX Corps, now under Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks (replacing the former commander, Lieutenant General Bucknall), launched an offensive to capture Mount Pincon, while XII Corps was ordered to drive on to the River Orne, where the 59th Division, supported by elements of the 34th Tank Brigade, during two days of highly intensive fighting, managed to secure a bridgehead over the River Orne at Grimbosq, surviving numerous German counterattacks. It was during this fighting that saw the 59th Division gain its first − and only − Victoria Cross (VC) of World War II, belonging to Captain David Jamieson of Lieutenant Colonel Ian Freeland's 7th Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, part of the 176th Brigade, upon whom the majority of the counterattacks fell.[39] From Grimbosq the division drove on towards Falaise, eventually holding the edge of the so-called "Falaise Pocket", where the Germans were, at the furthest point from the pocket's mouth.[40]

Disbandment

The division was removed from the front lines soon after to rest and refit.[41] However, on 20 August, the division received the news that it was to be disbanded, or broken up, and the men posted to other British divisions − all of which had, like "The Pithead Division", suffered alarmingly high casualties − in order to bring them up to strength. By this stage of the war, the British Army, having been at war since 1939, was suffering from a very severe shortage of manpower, particularly in the infantry, where most casualties were incurred, and, despite strenuous efforts by the British government to ameliorate the situation (including the transfer of men from other branches of the army to be retrained as infantrymen, in addition to the transfer of men to the army from both the Royal Navy and RAF, but these would take time to train and would, in any case, not be available until much later in the year),[42] there simply were not enough men and some units, of which the 59th Division was one, had to be broken up. The division was chosen merely because it was the most junior of all the British infantry divisions fighting in the Normandy, having been formed just two weeks before the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, and not as a result of its performance in battle. After the division's three brigades were broken up, the division HQ was placed in suspended animation and was officially disbanded on 19 October.[3] Being a second-line formation, it was not reformed in the TA after the war, although several individual units that formed part of the division were reconstituted.[43]

The 59th Division's last major action was in the town of Thury-Harcourt, where there is now a road named after the 59th's GOC, Major General Lewis Lyne: the Avenue du General Lyne. In the time after this period, the 197th Brigade (containing 1/7th Royal Warwicks, 2/5th Lancashire Fusiliers and 5th East Lancashires) became a battlefield clearance brigade, tasked with tidying up parts of the Normandy battlefield and returning any ditched, dumped or lost but serviceable equipment.[14]

The 59th Divisional Artillery continued as 59th Army Group Royal Artillery, commanding artillery units in the North West Europe campaign until December 1944, after which it was sent to the Far East to prepare for an amphibious assault on the coast of Malaya (Operation Zipper) that was forestalled by the surrender of Japan.[44][45][46] Similarly, 59th Divisional Engineers continued as 59th GHQ Troops Royal Engineers under 21st Army Group.[47]

Despite the division's disbandment, General Montgomery, the 21st Army Group commander, named the 59th, along with seven other divisions, as one of his most reliable divisions, bemoaning that units such as the 7th Armoured, the British 3rd and 51st (Highland) Divisions were not combat worthy after their initial performance, inland, after landing. The most reliable divisions of the 21st Army Group in Normandy were, according to Montgomery, the 15th (Scottish), 43rd (Wessex), 49th (West Riding), 50th (Northumbrian), 53rd (Welsh), 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Divisions, the 11th Armoured and the 6th Airborne Division.[48]

Order of battle

The 59th Infantry Division was constituted as follows during the war:[7]

176th Infantry Brigade[5]

177th Infantry Brigade[49]

  • 5th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment
  • 1/6th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment (detached January 1940, rejoined June 1940)
  • 2/6th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment
  • 177th Infantry Brigade Anti-Tank Company (formed 13 July, disbanded 31 December 1940)

197th Infantry Brigade (from 22 June 1940)[14]

Divisional Troops

General Officer Commanding

The 59th Infantry Division was commanded by the following officers during the war:[3]

  • Major General J. Blakiston-Houston (from 15 September 1939 until 1 December 1939)
  • Major General T.R. Eastwood (from 1 December 1939 until 11 May 1940)
  • Major General F.V.B. Witts (from 11 May 1940 until 15 February 1941)
  • Major General J.S. Steele (from 15 February 1941 until 8 April 1942)
  • Major General W.P.A. Bradshaw (from 8 April 1942 until 29 March 1944)
  • Major General L.O. Lyne (from 29 March 1944)

Victoria Cross recipients

See also

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d "badge, formation, 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division & 59th AGRA". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 1 July 2017. 
  2. ^ Knight p. 2
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Joslen, p. 93
  4. ^ Knight, p. 1
  5. ^ a b Joslen, p. 355
  6. ^ Knight, p. 4
  7. ^ a b Joslen, p. 93−94
  8. ^ Knight, pps. 1-3
  9. ^ "59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division" (PDF). British Military History. Retrieved 25 February 2017. 
  10. ^ a b Knight, p. 3
  11. ^ Knight, pps. 5-6
  12. ^ Knight, p. 7
  13. ^ a b c d e f g Joslen, p. 94
  14. ^ a b c Joslen, p. 361
  15. ^ Knight, pps. 15-16
  16. ^ Knight, pps. 15-17
  17. ^ Knight, pps. 15-18
  18. ^ a b Knight, p. 21
  19. ^ Knight, pps. 24-25
  20. ^ Knight, pps. 27-28
  21. ^ https://wwiini.org/story/us-army-in-northern-ireland/
  22. ^ Knight, p. 27
  23. ^ Knight, p. 31-32
  24. ^ Knight, p. 35
  25. ^ Joslen, p. 207
  26. ^ Knight, pps. 37-38
  27. ^ Knight, p. 38
  28. ^ Knight, p. 43
  29. ^ Knight, p. 46
  30. ^ Knight, pps. 46-47
  31. ^ Knight, pps. 48-52
  32. ^ 59th (Staffordshire) Division in WWII: Operation Charnwood
  33. ^ Knight, p. 53
  34. ^ Knight, pps. 54-55
  35. ^ Knight, pps. 55-58
  36. ^ 59th (Staffordshire) Division in WWII: Operation Pomegranate
  37. ^ Knight, p. 59
  38. ^ 59th (Staffordshire) Division in WWII: Orne River
  39. ^ Knight, pps. 63-65
  40. ^ Knight, pps. 66-67
  41. ^ Knight, p. 68
  42. ^ Hart, p. 48
  43. ^ Knight, p. 110
  44. ^ 59 AGRA at RA 39-45 Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  45. ^ 59 AGRA War Diary, August–December 1944, The National Archives (TNA), Kew file WO 171/912.
  46. ^ 59 AGRA War Diary, February–December 1945, TNA file WO 172/7515.
  47. ^ a b c d e f Rinaldi.
  48. ^ Hart, p. 190
  49. ^ Joslen, p. 356.
  50. ^ Lord, p. 151.

References

  • Knight, Peter (1954). The 59th Division: Its War Story. London: Frederick Muller (for 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division Reunion Organisation). OCLC 11398674. 
  • Hart, Stephen Ashley (2007) [2000]. Colossal Cracks: Montgomery's 21st Army Group in North-west Europe, 1944–45. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-811-73383-0. 
  • Lt-Col H.F. Joslen, Orders of Battle, United Kingdom and Colonial Formations and Units in the Second World War, 1939–1945, London: HM Stationery Office, 1960/Uckfield: Naval & Military Press, 2003, ISBN 1-843424-74-6.
  • Cliff Lord & Graham Watson, Royal Corps of Signals: Unit Histories of the Corps (1920–2001) and its Antecedents, Solihull: Helion, 2003, ISBN 1-874622-92-2.

External sources

  • The Royal Artillery 1939–45
  • Richard A. Rinaldi, Royal Engineers, World War II at Orbat.com
  • 59th Division History and Order of Battle
  • History of the 59th Division on memorial-montormel.org
  • "59 (Staffordshire) Infantry Division". Orders of Battle.com. 
  • British World War II Military Data Base
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