Len Swatton – Military Service in Europe and Palestine

My uncle Len enlisted in the Territorial Army on 2nd April 1941, aged 18 years 10 months, as Private 6215692, assigned to the 70th (Young Soldiers) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, being raised and trained at West Molesley in Surrey by Lt Colonel Edwin Flavell who had won two Military Crosses during WW1.

The following year, Len re-enlisted in the Regular Army, on 21 April 1942, signing up for 7 years (and a further 5 years in the Reserves). On 20th Feb 1942 he was made acting Lance Corporal and on 16th March 1943 was posted to the 2nd Battalion Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment, known colloquially as the “Kensingtons”, relinquishing his corporal’s stripe on being posted to this front line unit.

In January 1944 Len qualified as Driver-Mechanic Class II. A brief side note on the nature of the 2nd Kensingtons… they were one of eight regiments converted to “Machine Gun Regiments” in the 1930s, motorised units utilising the Vickers-Armstrong Universal Carrier, known also, but incorrectly, as a Bren-Gun Carrier. Below is an artist’s impression of the 2nd Kensingtons in action in France. Len, as driver would be the low sitting position at the front of the vehicle. For operations in Europe they were part of the 49th (West Riding) Division, known as the Polar Bears from their distinctive badge.

Luckily, a small part of the war diary of the 2nd Kensingtons is available online so I have been able to piece together the unit’s movements in the early part of 1944.

In the lead up to D-Day the unit moved to its initial marshalling area, bizarrely just outside Great Yarmouth in the village of Rollesby. On 5th June, the battalion moved south to Purfleet on the River Thames arriving on the 6th June when they heard news of the first landings in Normandy.

On 8th June the battalion moved to West India Quay in London’s dockland and boarded the motor transport ship SS Fort Poplar. The following day the ship sailed to a holding area off Southend before moving down to Newhaven on the 10th June. At 11pm that night the ship sailed for France, arriving off Normandy at 7am the following morning. That day, due to lack of landing craft only a couple of the machine gun carriers could be landed but those were from B Company, Len’s company, so maybe he was one of the first to land from his battalion?

However, the following day, 12th June, the full battalion disembarked from the Fort Poplar despite an attack by German Focke-Wolff 190 dive bombers. The battalion took up position at St Gabriel, 5km south east of where the British Normandy Memorial now stands.

Two days later the battalion HQ moved a couple of km further south east to Carcagny while the machine gun carrier companies went forward to support the infantry units to which they were assigned. Len’s unit, 6 Platoon of B Company were assigned to support the 7th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment which attacked a wood to the south on the 17th June.

The position to be attacked was occupied by 12th SS Panzer Division troops, the fanatical Hitler Jugend Division. It took two days of confused fighting before the woods were cleared, thereafter standing patrols were set up to probe the positions of the enemy forces during the following days.

On the 23rd June, when Len’s platoon was returning to their company HQ after one such patrol, his carrier hit a mine. His service record simply states, “Wounded in action. Blast injury abdomen.”

Len was evacuated to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station on the outskirts of Bayeux and then back to England, arriving 30th June 1944.

It took him two months to recover and he was then posted to a Replacement Holding Unit on 27th August 1944, awaiting reassignment back to a front line unit. His posting back to the 2nd Kensingtons eventually came through and he re-joined that unit on 10th October.

During the period when Len was recuperating in England the 49th Division to which the 2nd Kensingtons were attached was involved in a number of operations.

The 49th’s first major action came during Operation Martlet, the initial phase of the British attempt to capture Caen. The operation commenced on 25 June and initially went well, with the first phase objective, the town of Fontenay, being captured by the end of the first day against units of two German panzer divisions (the 2nd and 9th). However, capturing Rauray itself proved more difficult although, after hard fighting, much of it in close quarters, it eventually fell on 27 June. For the next few days the Germans launched a series of very fierce counterattacks which were repulsed with heavy losses on both sides.

The division then held the line for the next few weeks, absorbing reinforcements and carrying out patrols until its participation in the Second Battle of the Odon in July.

In August the division took part in the advance towards the Falaise Pocket, where the Germans were attempting to retreat to, capturing thousands of Germans in the process.

The division reached the River Seine in late August, and, upon crossing the river, turned towards the capture of Le Havre, which was captured on 12 September with very light casualties to the 49th Division and its supporting units − 19 killed and 282 wounded − and capturing over 6,000 Germans in the process.

After the capture of Le Havre the division was rested for a week after having endured almost three months of action since landing in Normandy and suffered over 5,000 casualties. The division then received the order to move, travelling some 200 miles to a concentration point ten miles south of the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal, in the south of the Netherlands, arriving there on 21 September. Over the next few days, the division liberated Turnhout and crossed the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal. It was during this period that the division was awarded its first and only Victoria Cross (VC) of the Second World War, belonging to Corporal John Harper of the Hallamshire Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. The division, after being on the offensive since landing in Normandy, then spent the next few weeks on the defensive along the Dutch frontier, during which time Len re-joined his unit.

In Len’s service record there is no reference to which company of the 2nd Kensingtons he joined after returning to the battalion. This is significant because the battalion was referred to as “divisional troops”, that is the separate companies were split up to be assigned to the support of other infantry units in the division. Hence, as we don’t know what company he was in we can’t know which other units he was assigned to, so the following description concerns the action of the 49th Division as a whole.

(Note: I am trying to arrange for someone to go to the National Archives in Kew to copy the 2nd Kensington War Diaries for the latter part of 1944 and into 1945 which might enable me to pinpoint more clearly what actions Len might have been involved in. I will update this as and when I have that information.)

The 49th Division went back over to the offensive in the third week of October, liberating Tilburg and Breda, then capturing Roosendaal after ten days of vicious fighting.

Further fighting continued until the division ended up at Willemstad at the Hollandsche Diep and then helped in the clearing of the west bank of the River Maas, along the Dutch border, fighting in very wet and muddy conditions.

The next few months for the division were spent mainly in small-scale skirmishing, including numerous patrols in attempts to dominate no man’s land, and garrisoning the area between the River Waal and the Lower Rhine, known as “The Island”

However, in late March 1945, the division received orders to clear “The Island”, which, after much hard fighting but relatively light casualties, was cleared in early April whereupon the 49th Division advanced north-eastwards towards Arnhem. The 49th Division’s last major contribution to the Second World War was in the fierce battles leading up to the liberation of Arnhem.

The division, now part of I Canadian Corps, and supported by Canadian tanks of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, liberated the city at a cost of less than 200 casualties, but over 4,000 Germans became casualties.

Just after the German surrender on 7 May 1945, the 49th Division played a part in the liberation of Utrecht and subsequently played a humanitarian role by bringing desperately needed food supplies to the starving population of Holland. Shortly after this the 2nd Kensingtons moved into Germany as part of the British army of occupation and, by 25 May 1945, their HQ was just south of Osnabrück, north east of Dortmund.

During the course of the Second World War, from Normandy to Arnhem, the 49th Division had suffered 11,000 officers and men wounded or missing, with 1,642 of these being killed in action.

This is Len (on the left) during his time with the 2nd Kensingtons. The badges visible on his sleeve are the Polar Bear emblem of the 49th Division and the curved red insignia above that is the Kensington badge.

What happens next is a bit of a mystery. On 28th Dec 1945 Len was admitted to No.6 General Hospital. His record states “Sustained injuries of a sever nature. Not on duty and to blame.” There is nothing further in the record about what these injuries were or how they were caused

He was evacuated home on 6 Jan 1946 and must have spent the next entire year recovering from his injuries because he wasn’t posted back to the Middlesex Regimental depot until  5 Feb 1947.

For the next four months Len moved between different postings at 57 PTC (Primary Training Centre) which was the Middlesex Regimental Depot for the training of new recruits, by this time the majority being through National Service which began in 1947.

On 5 Jun 1947 Len embarked for Palestine to join up with the 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment serving with the Middle East Land Force. He was taken onto the staff there on 25 Jun 1947 and within a month was in trouble. On 16 July 1947 he was deprived of 10 days pay for “driving a War Department vehicle in a dangerous manner”!

Len in Palestine

The British Army in Palestine was wholly unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with escalating terrorism and resorted to increasingly heavy-handed policing and curfew tactics. I would imagine Len was keen to get out and was counting down the days until his service was completed. That day finally came on 24 March 1948 when Len was finally struck of staff due to reaching the end of his service period and embarked for return to the UK a week later. He disembarked in the UK on 14 April 1948 and his military service ended… for the moment.

The British Army evacuated completely from Palestine less than three months later and left the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the war that followed.

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