I am out of the closet (or should that be the crypt?) as a self-proclaimed taphophile. Graveyards have long held a fascination for me and many hours over my fifty plus years have been spent in cemeteries both here in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

On occasion, on my forays into these tranquil spaces, a particular grave will pique my curiosity. This may be for a variety of reasons, an association with local history, an intriguing epitaph or a family connection.... it doesn't take much. The online availability of censuses, official registries and newspaper archives have in recent years made it possible to learn something more about the lives lived by those remembered only as fading names carved in stone. These resources provide an opportunity to put 'flesh on old bones' as the turn of phrase goes, hence the title of this blog 'Beyond the Grave'.

If anyone reading these posts has anything to add please feel free to contact me at adrianandrews@myyahoo.com.

Thursday 8 July 2021

Private George Alfred Robinson of the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment Remembered On This Day

 In a follow up to my post earlier in the week, today I laid a cross of Remembrance on the Robinson family plot that remembers Private George Alfred Robinson. 77 years ago today he was killed in action whilst fighting with the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment in the Operation Charnwood engagements intended to deliver the strategically critical city of Caen into Allied hands.

The grave was not easy to locate, not least because I took the first photo some months ago and secondly that in keeping with many cemeteries in the UK now there is a policy to leave the grounds untended during the Spring and Summer months in order to encourage pollination and the proliferation of local flora and forna. I am fine with that.... I just struggled to find the grave again given that it has quite a low profile in in comparison with the extent of the summer growth. But find it I did and laid an RBL cross. If you look carefully, there is a small splash of red in the lower right hand corner of the photograph. If anything I was reminded of the war diary report of the battle that involved a treacherous advance through developing corn fields on that fateful July day.

Many thanks are due to Clive Kitchener of the Bishops Stortford Branch of the Royal British Legion for struggling through torrential British Summer rain in order to honour my request for an RBL cross to mark this anniversary. A very bedraggled Clive delivered the requested item to my door!

Now where is that bottle of calvados that I mentioned?

Lest we forget.

Friday 2 July 2021

Remembering Private George Alfred John Robinson of 7th Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment - Killed In Action, 8th July 1944


Venture into any British cemetery of an 80 year vintage or more and there is a very high probability that you will spot at least one Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) headstone, instantly recognisable by their rectangular shape and gently curved top. Of limestone cut from the numerous quarries of Portland in Dorset these headstones are imbued with a brightness that ensures that they stand out from their more drab granite, marble and sandstone neighbours in any graveyard.

When entering a cemetery previously unknown to me, it has become second nature to scan the headstones from afar for that oh so familiar shape. Even if I say so myself, I have become rather adept over the years at spotting them almost instantaneously. However, the official war graves do not represent the full story of the losses experienced across the villages, towns and cities of the UK, far from it in fact. Every plot in the CWGC cemeteries across The Somme valley and Flanders, Normandy and in every other theatre of war fought over by Commonwealth soldiers contain the remains of personnel who were not repatriated. More tragic still are the memorials to the missing that bear the names of those thousands of soldiers with no known burial place.

In his 1914 poem ‘The Soldier’, a patriotic verse concerning the death of an English soldier on the Western Front, Rupert Brooke rather romanticised a death on a battlefield far from home.

‘The Soldier’

‘If I should die, think only this of me:
   That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
   In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
   Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
  And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
   In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’

These are certainly fine and stirring words but they would have offered little comfort to the mothers, fathers, wives and sweethearts of the fallen left to grieve back at home. Denied in life of the possibility of visiting a memorial place locally, lost sons and husbands were often commemorated in absentia on family headstones. These memorials are more difficult to spot, but no less poignant for that.

One of my last COVID lockdown walks saw me once again in the Old Cemetery in Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire. It came as some surprise to me that I had missed a mention of a young soldier killed in action in Normandy on 8th July 1944. The inscription appeared on a rather overgrown headstone that marked the final resting place of his mother and father.

‘8th July 1944’, ‘Killed in Action in Normandy’. A date and a place very well known to me for reasons that I will explain.
A search of the British Newspaper Archive revealed the news of the young soldier’s death as reported in the Saturday 29th July 1944 edition of the Herts & Essex Observer. 

‘Killed in Action – Mr. and Mrs. George Robinson, of 59, Dimsdale Crescent, have received notification that, their son, Pte. George A (Alfie) Robinson, Royal Norfolk Regiment, was killed in action in July. Pte. Robinson was 22 years of age, was an old Hockerill School boy and at the time of joining up was employed by Messrs. S. Barker & Sons, bakers and confectioners. Three other members of the family are serving in the Forces.’

George was born in Bishops Stortford on 27th January 1922. I have been unable to ascertain much detail of his early life. Detail of Ancestry based family trees state that George was born in Sawbridgeworth and yet there is no clear indication that his family moved away from the Bishops Stortford area. In the 1911 census the family are recorded as living in Middle Row in the Newtown area, whilst the extraordinary 1939 census sees the family, George included, as residing in Dane Street, in the area of the railway station. Likewise, a family tree source states that he was christened in Thorley. As his parents were married in 1907 at Holy Trinity Church it seems to me to be unusual that their growing family would not be christened in this church rather than another in an area at that time rather distinct from Bishops Stortford. Nevertheless, his early life is not the focus of this post, although of course being an inquisitive soul, I would be interested to know more of his life prior to service.

Private George Alfred John Robinson 5783776 was a soldier of the 7th Batallion Royal Norfolk Regiment. The Battalion was part of the British Expeditionary Force that in 1940 fought in what became known as the Battle of France. Early in the war as a fighting unit within the 51st Highland Division they were not part of the Dunkirk evacuation, they fought on until, depleted of food and ammunition, they were forced into an humiliating surrender at St. Valery-en-Caux on 12th July 1940. Their Commanding Officer, Major General Fortune surrendered 10,000 troops to Erwin Rommel and his 7th Panzer Division.

Back in England the Battalion was reformed in July 1940 around a nucleus of one officer and 29 other ranks who had returned from France, after which the ranks swelled with regular intakes of civilian recruits. As was normal for a newly formed battalion it was assigned duties that combined coastal defence (the 7th defended Grimsby docks for the remainder of 1940) with intensive training.

As Britain’s High Command struggled with the reorganisation of the British Army, successive reassignments of the 7th Royal Norfolks eventually saw them stationed in Loughgall, to the north of Armagh, Northern Ireland, as part of the 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division’s 176 Brigade. This was the point at which the history of the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment and consequently Private Robinson became very familiar to me as well as that fateful date of 8th July 1944. This was because several years ago, as the 70th anniversary of D-Day approached I started researching my maternal Grandfather’s military service in World War II. He was a soldier serving with the 5th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment which was also under the command of the 59th (Staffordshire) Division, but with 177 Brigade. As such from the point at which the 7th Royal Norfolks joined the Division to train in the Mountains of Mourne, my Grandfather’s service history and that of George ran along parallel lines.

The 'Pithead' insignia of the 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division

The Battalion returned with the rest of the Division from Northern Ireland and were stationed in Kent as part of 12 Corps from March 1943. In the preparations for D-Day, the North West Europe invasion that all knew to be on the horizon, 59th Division were designated as a ‘follow up’ up Division. Training continued at an intensified pace including Operation ‘Harlequin’ that simulated the mobilisation of men right down to the water’s edge at Dover before the men were turned back. Few of the rank and file knew that this was an exercise rather than the real thing!

The commencement of the Second Front, better known now to history as ‘D-Day’, occurred as we all know on 6th June 1944. As a follow-up division, representatives of the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment along with all other Divisional units attended a service of commemoration at Canterbury Cathedral where no doubt the thoughts and prayers of all were with their brothers-in-arms who had landed on the British and Canadian assault beaches early that morning.

On 7th June a personal message from General Montgomery (Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group) was read out to all troops:

1. The time has come to deal the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe. The blow will be struck by the combined sea, land, and air forces of the Allies - together constituting one great Allied team, under the supreme command of General Eisenhower.

2. On the eve of this great adventure I send my best wishes to every soldier in the Allied team. To  us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history; and in better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings. We have a great and righteous cause. Let us pray that "The Lord Mighty In Battle" will go forth with our armies, and that His special providence will aid us in the struggle.

3. I want every soldier to know that I have complete confidence in the successful outcome of the operations that we are now about to begin. With stout hearts, and with enthusiasm for the contest, let us go forward to victory.

4. And, as we enter the battle, let us recall the words of a famous soldier spoken many years ago:-

" He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who dare not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all."

5. Good luck to each one of you. And good hunting on the mainland of Europe.

B. L. Montgomery
C - in - C 21 Army Group

The words of Monty are famous, but to my mind, with references to teams, enthusiasm for the contest, this great adventure and good hunting, they strike me as more in keeping with speeches in the halls of Eaton or Harrow than for the ears of the massed ranks of a civilian army!

According to the original plan the 7th Royal Norfolks alongside the rest of 59th Division were due to land on Juno Beach on D-Day + 16 i.e. 22nd June. However, violent storms in the English Channel over the 19th to 21st June meant that the Division was delayed and remained in marshalling areas for some days. For the marching troops (distinct from the Divisional transport) bivouacked in Brighton’s Stanmer Park in fine weather the enforced delay was not as irksome as it could have been.

The Marching troops eventually embarked for Normandy at Newhaven, landing at Courcelleson on 28th June after which they concentrated at Le Manoir. The Battalion’s vehicles and armour sailed out of Tilbury Docks landing at Le Hamel on 29th June.

The 7th Royal Norfolks were permitted scant time to acclimatise to life in a theatre of war, finding themselves at the front line from 5th July when they relieved my Grandfather’s 5th South Staffordshire Regiment.

Private Robinson, his battalion comrades and the rest of 59th Division were about to participate on a three division frontal assault on Caen. The ancient Norman capital had originally been a D-Day objective, but such was the strategic importance of the city in terms of the facilitating an Allied breakout of Normandy and an advance on Paris that it was defended in great strength.

Operation ‘Charnwood’ was to be the push that would deliver Caen into Allied hands. Given the fact that the planned encirclement of Caen had floundered by virtue of a fanatical German defence, Charnwood intended to hammer the city’s defences from the north. The 59th Division was situated in the centre of the battlefront with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on their right flank and the British 3rd Infantry Division on their left.

With the information that I have I cannot pin George Robinson down to a particular Company, but the engagement that cost him his life ran along the lines of the narrative that follows.

Operation Charnwood saw the first involvement of Bomber Command in engagements on the North West European front. From 21.50 hours to 22.30 hours on the night of 7th July, George Robinson would have witnessed a display of air power not yet seen in the war to date. A raid comprising no fewer than 467 Halifax and Lancaster bombers pummelled the city with a combined payload of 2,560 tonnes of high explosive, incendiary and delayed-action ordinance. It was a firework display like no other, but the necessity and effectiveness of the raid is still a hugely debated topic almost 77 years after the event.

Head of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris insisted on a 6,000 yard safety margin relative to the forward positions of the British and Canadian troops massed for the assault at zero hour on 8th July. This margin meant that the aerial bombardment fell behind the German front line fortifications and resulted in the decimation of the northern suburbs of the city (as opposed to the intended network of strongly defended positions in the villages and hamlets beyond the city limits that were the attacking forces objectives in Operation Charnwood. The loss of civilian life was high.

Such an overwhelming display of might would have undoubtedly provided a much needed morale boost to soldiers such as George Robinson and my Grandfather as they contemplated the prospect of their first combat, but it offered little in terms of a strategic advantage.


Diagram showing the concentration of the aerial bombardment of 7th July that fell behind the forward enemy positions.

It was known that the 59th Division in their first engagement would be facing formidable opposition, not least the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Jugend (comprising fanatical young men drawn from the Hitler Youth movement) and the 1st Panzer Division Lebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (formed from the ranks of Hitler’s personal bodyguard).

No matter how many times I revisit this situation in early July 1944, I struggle to comprehend the idea that a civilian force drawn from the factories, farms and offices of Britain were pitched against the elite forces of the Third Reich, many of whom were hardened and bloodied veterans of many campaigns, not least of them, the Eastern Front.

The objectives of the 7th Royal Norfolks and 176 Brigade on 8th July were the fortified villages of Epron, the approach to which necessitated an advance through cornfield crops that were two feet high. These fields were surrounded by hedges and banks in which the Germans had established deadly defensive positions. The situation on the ground was such that the opportunities for reconnaissance in advance of zero hour were limited and heavy reliance was placed on aerial photography. This factor cost much in terms of casualties suffered on the day of the battle.

Map showing the position of Epron and La Bijude and the advances of the 21st Army Group Divisions that resulted in the capture of Caen.

Zero hour for Operation Charnwood was set to 0420 hours. Moments before the off a few artillery pieces stuttered a few bursts which heralded the full fury of the Division’s supporting artillery. At the same time, the big guns of the Royal Navy waded in with their formidable contribution to a dawn chorus from hell. HMS Belfast, Emerald and Rodney anchored in the beachhead added significant weight to the bombardment that became known as the ‘Monty barrage’.

The German defenders were quick to respond, sending over shells from their own artillery, although this left the Norfolks unscathed.

Orders were received at 0620 hours to start phase II of the attack at 0730 hours. This order was made on the assumption that the first phase had concluded successfully. Moreover one of the earliest casualties of the second phase was the Battalion’s radio communication which was rapidly put out of action. The leading Companies of the Battalion, advancing upon their objectives through the aforementioned corn crops, encountered a very confused situation. Despite the fact that the Norfolks had rehearsed an advance through cornfields, a combination of accurate mortar and machine gun fire from the hedgerows enclosing the crop fields, pinned the men down within the fields. Their issues with the advance were compounded by the fact that the opening artillery created a mass of dust that severely compromised visibility to an estimated 300 yards. As a result the tanks were unable to provide any effective support to the advance.

In this confusion the attacking ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies struggled to make any headway. ‘C’ Company headed towards the fire coming from nearby La Bijude rather than the correct objective of Epron, whilst every officer of ‘A’ Company became a casualty. ‘B’ Company in support were due to mop up after the ‘A’ and ‘C’ Company assault, but they too suffered heavy losses upon deployment in ‘C’ Company’s direction.

It was not until 1045 hours when a runner managed to get a message back to the Commanding Officer that it became clear that the attack had failed and La Bijude remained in German hands rather than with the 6th North Staffordshire Battalion as planned. The loss of the Battalion's 18 sets (field radio) lead to this communication breakdown throughout the morning of 8th July.

With the realisation that the 6th North Staffords had faltered, ‘D’ Company of the 7th Royal Norfolk Battalion with the support of a tank squadron were ordered to capture La Bijude. At the same time the remnants of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies were reorganised and put in reserve. The combined scratch Company strength was reduced to just fifty men.

‘D’ Company’s assault commenced at 1400 hours but once again fierce and concealed resistance was encountered. Notably, after his own tank was ‘brewed up’ (in Tank Regiment parlance of the day), one Major Cotter continued to direct the tank fire by walking between the machines within full view of the enemy and with little regard for his own safety. A Lieutenant Bartlett was felled, but not before silencing a Spandau machine gun position to the south of the village that was harassing the advance.

At the end of the fighting ‘D’ Company held the southern part of La Bijude, such that anti-tank guns could be brought forward for a continued assault on Epron, but ‘D’ Company were effectively spent by 1530 hours. This being the case, ‘A’ Company of the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment were placed under command with orders to take Epron by nightfall.
It was planned that ‘A’ Company would attack the strongly fortified earthworks located to the west of La Bijude whilst ‘D’ Company 7th RNR took Epron. The composite Company comprising the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies remained in reserve.

The final push to capture Epron started at 2030 hours when tanks opened up against all possible hedgerow positions before the infantry of ‘D’ Company and ‘A’ Company advanced to clear the way into Epron. By 2200 hours, only the odd diehard sniper remained in the village. By night fall, positions were consolidated and anti-tank guns were in place for an anticipated counter attack that never materialised. Reconnaissance into the village reported scores of enemy dead left behind at the German units withdrew from contact with the Allied forces.

By 10th July the majority of the Norman capital of Caen was in Allied hands, albeit over a month later than was originally anticipated by Montgomery.

For their part, the men of the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment remained in the locale of Epron for a further 36 hours during which the battlefield was cleared and the fallen were commemorated in a memorial service. On 11th July, the Battalion was moved to Ryes close to Arramanches for a period of rest and reorganisation.

The casualty figures for the Battalion in this first engagement were:

Officers: 3 killed 7 wounded 0 missing
Other ranks: 30 killed 111 wounded 1 missing.

George Robinson is accounted for as one of the 30 of the other ranks.

After the Operation Charnwood battles, the fighting units of the 59th Division continued in their efforts to force the enemy out of Normandy and in the direction of the Seine. The 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment fought heroically over the 7th and 8th August 1944 in a tenuously held bridgehead over the River Orne at Grimbosq. These actions would result in Captain David Jamieson of ‘D’ Company receiving the Victoria Cross for his bravery. Back in June 2019 at the memorial raised to commemorate his actions I delivered a speech and a 59th Association wreath was laid.

In the third week of August 1944, Divisional Commanding Officer of the 59th Staffordshire Division, Major General Lyne was instructed to inform the men under his command that the decision had been taken that the 59th were to be disbanded. This was in order to provide similarly bloodied and depleated regiments much needed reinforcement. In this respect, the 59th, as a more recently established Division, was sacrificed in favour of those divisions encompassing older Regiments of the British Army. Thus it was that in the weeks following the disbandment notification, the men of the 59th were transferred to other English, Scottish and Welsh Regiments.

I have for the past few years been a member of the 59th Staffordshire Division Association, with whom I have travelled to Normandy to pay my respects to the men of the Division who fell in the efforts to break out. Sadly, in my time in the Association, no veterans have been able to make the journey across the Channel, but it has been my privilege to be in the company of friends, who like myself, have a connection with the 59th through a relatives who served in the Divisions ranks. It has been with them that I have had the opportunity to travel to several of the CWGC cemeteries most closely linked to the soldiers of the Division. Not least among these is Cambes-en-Plaine cemetery which is located approximately two kilometres to the north east of Epron and six kilometres from central Caen. George Alfred John Robinson lies within these perfectly manicured grounds.

Our pilgrimage of Remembrance takes in this cemetery since many of the men of the 59th Division who fell during the Charnwood fighting on the 8th and 9th July 1944 are buried here. Among them is Private John Rowden James of the 2/6th South Staffordshire Regiment, the father of a fellow  Association member, also named John James. In June 2019 (the last pre-pandemic visit to the battlefields and cemeteries around the city of Caen), John laid a wreath on the grave of the father that he never had the opportunity to know. Like George, John James senior was killed in action on the 8th July in that first engagement for the men of Staffordshire and Norfolk.

1546112 Private J.R. James
The South Staffordshire Regiment
8th July 1944
Age 30

A member of the excellent WW2Talk forum was kind enough to send me a photograph of George’s Cambes-en-Plaine headstone.

5783276 Private G.A.J. Robinson
The Royal Norfolk Regiment
8th July 1944 Age 22
"Thy Will Be Done"

In addition, the 6th June this year saw the unveiling of the Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer, Calvados. This memorial commemorates no less than 22,442 soldiers, across 30 nationalities who fought and died within British units to achieve the breakout from Normandy which culminated in the liberation of Paris on 25th August. The gargantuan struggle that occurred in Normandy between June and August 1944 marked the beginning of the end of Nazi tyranny in Europe.

George Alfred John Robinson’s name appears on Column 147 of the memorial. His 59th Division comrade, John James is remembered on Column 145. The memorial will be one of my first ports of call at the point when travel to France once again becomes possible without quarantine requirements.

In little over a week, on 8th July, I will be remembering both George and John, in fact I may dust down the bottle of calvados that resides at the back of the drinks cupboard for the occasion!

‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’