A SLOGGING MATCH
The Battalion arrived on the Normandy Beachhead 18 June. Landing by LSL. They were warned for battle on 26 June. The Regimental History describes fighting over the next 2 months as "A slogging match"
4th Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment
Private Walter Edward Stephenson, 4th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment
formerly of The Royal Army Service Corps
A native of Warton, killed in action 7 August 1944, age 26 years.
The story of a Father I never knew
John Edward Stephenson June 2004
This soldier was my father. He was the son of James and Rachel Stephenson of 4 Archer Hill Millhead, Carnforth, husband of Hilda and father of Jean. The father I never knew. He died in August 1944 and I was born in February 1945. With thanks to my mother and everything she kept with reference to him I have been able to follow up the story of my father.
My sister was two years old when he died. In letters home he sends love and kisses and cannot wait to hug her. No reference to me of course - but I think he knew I was on the way!
His paybook, AB 64, records he enlisted in Chesterfield on the first day of February 1940, for "The duration of the emergency",. Why Chesterfield? In our papers there is a card from my mother from Chesterfield with a message "arrived safely" , and a letter of sympathy from a friend who lived in Bolsover near Chesterfield. They had connections there and it was where they spent their honeymoon
He enlisted into the RASC. He was passed first class in rifle shooting (that is something I must have inherited from him because my hobby is clay pigeon shooting) and various other weapons and training courses. Importantly he went on a Bren Gun Carrier Course and so eventually finished up in the Carrier Platoon of Support Company of 4 Wiltshires. A copy of the entry in the AB 64 is shown below along with his aide memoire on Radio
Before he joined up he worked for Ireton's in Market Street Carnforth. In those days they were agricultural engineers and ironmongers and stocked everything for the farmer and gardener; from ploughs and harrows to shooting cartridges. Their very comprehensive stock is shown at the top of a letter sent to my mother by Mr J Lupton who worked with my Father and Mr Ireton himself, offering their sympathy on the news of my fathers death. A facsimile of the letter is below.
He was educated at Warton United School and I have a reference given to him by the Headmaster, Mr Anderton, in January 1932 saying: "He is a most willing and reliable youth. He is gifted with a great amount of common sense beyond his years and you will find he will give every satisfaction if he is given the chance to prove himself". A facsimile of the letter is shown below along with a copy of a letter of sympathy to my grandparents 12 years later.
He attended Warton Parish Church and was confirmed there on the 8th May 1930, and had his first communion on 11th May. He was presented with a Communion Book by the Vicar and a copy of the entry is shown
His name is on the cenotaph in Warton Churchyard, but It just says "Edward " Stephenson, not "Walter". I vaguely remember my Mother saying he disliked being called Walter and was known to everyone as Ted - save for his army comrades who obviously knew him affectionately as "Steve". Edward is now a family name which is being passed down in his memory. I am John Edward and one of my grandsons is George Edward, and another Grandson Edward.
He and my mother were married on the 27th July 1940 so for all their married life - 4 years - he was in the army/ My mother never married again and brought up myself and my sister on her own. She herself died young, only 50 years old in May 1968. She is buried in Warton Churchyard with my father's mother and father. She had to work hard all her life and was well known locally as the cashier at the Roxy cinema in Carnforth for many years. For her, no man could replace Ted, the obvious love of her life. We have letters he sent to her from the battlefield, including one written four days before he was killed. Their mutual love was clear and the letters are, for my family, very moving and precious
He was, I have been told, a keen sportsman, and played football amongst other things. In the papers my mother kept about him, I found letters and papers about A H Broom - "The worlds premier physical culture expert", he had signed up for a weight lifting course. An extract from a letter from Broom is below.
People who knew him, and there are not many left now, say I have a lot of his mannerisms. Well I can't have copied them from him! Recently I learned something from my last elderly surviving uncle who was my fathers brother in law and pal, and I had never heard the story before. Apparently my Fathers ambition in life was eventually to own his own truck and to be a haulage contractor. Well that is what I am and have been most of my working life Perhaps he achieved his ambition through me. I like to think so.
The family papers contain a number of letters, one from a soldier pal who was with him when he was killed, saying that he was "killed instantly" when the trench he was in was hit by a shell. When they picked my father up he had already died. He said it was getting dusk and they had to leave him, for the troops advancing behind buried the dead. The soldier was trying to reassure my mother that he had not suffered. He was killed in action on Mont Pincon. An extract from the letter written by his pal says:
" As an old pal of Steve's I was with him when he got killed. It was an unimportant place on the map, just an orchard, but to us of the 4th Wilts it is a place to go back to and pay respect to a comrade and fine pal"
When one reads the extracts from the Regimental History shown at the end, clearly the Divisional General didn't agree that it was "unimportant"; in his appreciation it was "an important strategic feature".
He is buried in the British war cemetery at Tilly Sur Seulle, near Caen in Normandy, France. His original resting place, marked by a cross, is shown in the photograph. On the back of the photograph is stamped: "Tilly-Sur-Seulles BRITISH CEMETERY; Plot V Row c Grave 9. No: 1 Cemetery Construction Unit." As with all the battlefield graves the original crosses were later replaced by the standard Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstone. This enables relatives to have their own personal inscriptions carved on them.
Mothers papers contain a number of official letters concerning his death. Typically they show a deep sympathy and sensitive care with which a soldiers death in conflict is dealt with by kindly people in the War Grave Departments. One such pamphlet is from The War Office "War Graves 1939-1945", which tells next of kin what the War Graves Commission do for them. A very helpful document. Interestingly it contains the extract shown below, saying "All
ranks lie in cemeteries near the places where they died". I didn't know that was the policy.
I have visited his grave several times and I am pleased that my daughters now take their children. My sister and her children have also visited so I know he will never be forgotten. He now has five grandchildren and nine great grand children! The photographs show my fathers regimental regalia and his medals, together with the Flash of The 43rd Brigade. The medals were sent to my Mother together with the little certificate and an explanation, both illustrated on the next page.
The cutting from the Lancaster Guardian about my fathers death is shown below along with the receipt for the insertion. No small price back then!
Looking at some of my fathers last letters to my Mother I read:
" I got back OK (after 14 days disembarkation leave) . . . . .I don't think you had better write until you hear from me for we have just found out we are going onto the East coast . . . ." Letter posted 11 July 1944
". . . you will understand that this is the first chance I have had to write and even now I can't give you an address . . .we are somewhere in France. I am all right . . they are treating us fine here . . . trip across was something similar to the one which we took to the Isle of Man" Letter posted 20 July 1944
"I don't need to remind you that tomorrow is our fourth wedding anniversary . . . if things carry on as they are . . . won't be many more tomorrow's before I do come home and then we can really celebrate . . ." letter posted 27 July 1944
" . . . I'm in the pink myself . . .enjoying the warm weather . .. ..they are a grand lot of lads here. . .all good pals . . . . . give Jean a big kiss from me" Letter posted 3 August 1944 - four days before he was killed.
I draw much comfort from the typical soldierly understatements such as "In the Pink", and even more from the words of love to his wife Hilda, which of course are private.
The story of my father as I knew it is almost over. However I found out that a local group were preparing a "Book of Honour" containing biographies of the men named on the local war memorials, and so I told them my story. To my surprise I was asked to present the Book of Honour to the community of Warton at their Parish Church on the sixtieth anniversary of D Day - 6 June 2004.
As part of the presentation, the group obtained the war diaries and Regimental History of the 4th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment and they prepared a short account of the Battalion's actions as a part of the Invasion Forces which established a foothold in Normandy in 1944 and which led to the downfall of Hitler and the German Army. I include a copy of this account below. I have now learnt more about my Father and I am very grateful to the Group for this follow up information about my Father and for the signal honour of asking me to present the Book to the community of Warton.
As a I said at the beginning of this story, I never knew my father. However armed with information from the Lancaster Military Heritage Group, my visits to France and my mothers keepsakes I now know him better. .
THE WARTON BOOK OF HONOUR
Presented by The Lancaster Military Heritage Group
On the Sixtieth Anniversary of D Day 6 June 2004
The Lancaster Military Heritage Group are honoured to present a Book of Honour to the Parishes of Warton, Yealand, Borwick and Priest Hutton. The Book contains biographies of those commemorated on the Parish War Memorials. It is a loose leaf open box which will easily contain later additions. We are also very pleased to be able to ask John Stephenson, the son of Walter Edward Stephenson who is commemorated on the Warton Memorial, to present the Book on our behalf. John never knew his father who was killed before he was born. This small leaflet describes the D Day landings in outline and the actions of the 4th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment (in
which John's Father served ) in more detail.
On the 6th June 1944 over 300,000 men, five sea borne and 2 airborne divisions, supported by 4000 ships and 11,000 aircraft launched Operation OVERLORD, the landings in Normandy which led to the defeat of Hitler's Armies. The allied forces landed on the five beaches as shown; despite strong resistance on OMAHA which held up the American landings, and fierce opposition on JUNO which split the British and Canadian forces, the landings were an astonishing success. For the first 6 days the Allies concentrated on securing a continuous and well defended beach head from which to expand the offensive and to support and supply the attacking forces. In a telegram to Churchill, Montgomery stated " My strategy is to accept the strong German armoured thrust on my left flank, thus allowing the American forces to expand around Cherbourg and then to breakout to the south and east." Whilst CAEN took some time to occupy, this strategy was an overwhelming success.
THE 4TH BATTALION THE WILTSHIRE REGIMENT
The Bn trained hard in the UK for their role in the breakout battle, arriving in Courseillles on 18 June. Landing by LSL they were warned for battle on 26 June. The Regimental History describes fighting over the next 2 months as "A slogging match" made up of many encounters against a strong and resolute, mainly SS, enemy,. Winston Churchill describes it thus " It was infantry fighting all the way with every little field a potential strong point". They fought their way from the Beachhead, were involved in securing the ground to the SW of CAEN, helped take HILL 112, Maltot and Mount Pincon. Simplified quotes shown below are from the Regimental History and hopefully will serve to illustrate the tenacity and steadfastness of "4 Wilts", a typical British infantry battalion.
Maltot. A stern introduction to war. SS were trained to kill at 100 yards and did -caught in the open by moaning minnies (Nebelwerfer) taking casualties in their first experience of this weapon -excellent steady driving and gunfire from the Carrier Platoon their conduct in the best traditions of their platoon. - the wreck of battle and the stench of shallow buried dead - the Carrier section to guard a bridge to the last round and the last man- -preparation to take Hill 112 whilst watching the great Lancaster raid over CAEN - a fighting patrol by A Coy to capture a prisoner where the Coy Comd staying behind to evacuate casualties ,was ambushed and killed - attacking through waist high corn - fearless message running by two privates crucial in maintaining momentum in the battle for Maltot - many heroes , a few named, but many others performed deeds of heroism - the command post received a direct hit and all but the Commanding Officer and one signaller killed or wounded - a platoon commander wounded 4 times encourages his men from the ground whilst still firing his sten gun - many youngsters of 19 years of age and for many their first battle - The CO joining close quarter fighting in a platoon assault.
Private Walter Edward Stephenson. A letter to his wife posted on 11 July tells her of the impending move of the Battalion; the next letter dated 20 July is from "somewhere in France". It is probable that as a member of the Carrier Platoon, Support Company, he took part in the battle for Maltot.
THE BATTLE FOR MONT PINCON
The Regimental History continues:- The first we heard of this hill was back in England on 7 June when the General made us understand the great importance of this feature - the next was on 4 August, it was our next objective - the advance resumed at dawn on 5 August in a "thrust line" with every man climbing onto whatever vehicle was available - we had to make best speed although wary of minefields - a bridge had been blown but C Coy crossed over only to be met with fierce resistance - casualties mounted but neither side gave ground.
Cpl Jenkins took up the Bren and waited until enemy were within 20 yards before opening a killing fire; later his platoon reduced to 7 men, he took command and won the Military Medal for daring and leadership -The Pioneers bridged the twenty foot wide stream with brushwood after clearing mines - pinned down with heavy fire - casualties one officer and 20 other ranks killed, 37 wounded. - The Bn concentrated for the main attack - narrow lanes blocked by burning vehicles and exploding ammunition - CO ordered to capture Mont Pincon any way he liked!- a miracle when tea and wads served, even a tiny amount to eat and drink puts new heart into marching troops - CO decides to attack, up a steep slope, in a single file formation! - he later noticed some Germans in a slit trench and ordered them out at once, facing such an angry and determined man they gave themselves up - we toiled up laden with weapons, ammunition, picks and shovels expecting to be surrounded at any moment - at the top a thick fog came down and we could hear Germans digging in beyond the crest - we were dog tired expecting to be shelled heavily - during the night enemy patrols infiltrated - at dawn came our guns and vehicles AND the expected shelling - then miraculously our breakfast - our tanks soon dealt with the enemy - casualties were 13 killed 49 wounded - we were relieved at 1200 hrs on the 7th August - sadly the Admin Area in an orchard came under heavy attack - confused fighting followed and the situation finally restored through the combined efforts of all the men including the Carrier and Mortar Platoons - casualities were four other ranks killed - three from Support Company - Ted Stephenson was one of them.
POSTSCRIPT - PALS AND RESPECT
In a letter to his wife dated 2nd August, Ted told her: " I am in the pink myself and enjoying the warm weather. They are a grand lot of lads here - of course at first we were strangers but now just good pals". In a letter to Ted's wife one of his friends wrote:" As an old pal of Steve's I was with him when he got killed. It was an unimportant place on the map, just an orchard, but to us of the 4th Wilts it is a place to go back to and pay respect to a comrade and fine pal"
Private Walter Edward Stephenson, 4th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment
A native of Warton, killed in action 7 August 1944,
Lies in peace in the Military Cemetery at Tilly Sur Seulles near Caen, France.
"The Maroon Square", Regimental History of the 4th Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment
"The Second World War Vol VI Triumph and Tragedy" Winston S Churchill
The Stephenson Family Archive