Bob Curtis, from Warwickshire, first became aware of the Hill 112 Memorial Foundation in July 2017 after visiting the Normandy grave of his uncle, Joseph Alfred Curtis, for the first time. During that trip he visited the Memorial and also met Monsieur Gilles Osmont, President of Odon Cote 112 Association.
Bob has spent the past four years researching the life and untimely death of his uncle, Joseph Alfred Curtis, who served with The Herefordshire Regiment and died on Hill 112 during Operation Epsom in July 1944.
He tells us: “I am committed to preserving his memory, and those of his comrades, and understanding the part that the 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment played in Operation Epsom and its immediate aftermath.
“Officially Operation Epsom lasted five days, from 26 to 30 June 1944. The Herefords had five men killed in action during this ‘official’ period but then lost another seven, including my uncle, on 1 July. The events of the first week in July seem to have been overlooked by historians but deserve to be recognised as a significant part of the story of Hill 112.” During his visit Bob became friends with Vincent and Maryvonne Robillard, who live in Evrecy and now regularly put flowers from their own garden on Joseph’s grave. Here, Bob tells us about the life and career of Joseph Alfred Curtis:
Joseph was born on 30 March, 1917 in Coventry, the fourth child of eight children born to Charles and Eliza Curtis.
He attended Red Lane School, which is where he met Ruby Bird, who would become his wife on 6 August 1938. After leaving school he worked at Hewins and Mills Butter Manufacturers as a butter blender and warehouseman
Joseph and Ruby moved in to 61 Elgar Road, Coventry. Their first son Robert was born on 19 February 1939 and the following February Joseph was enlisted into the Territorial Army and given the number 4036562. He was sent to the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry Training Centre at Shrewsbury.
On 30 July 1940 Joseph was posted to the 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment, stationed at Castlewellan in Northern Ireland. By November 1941 they were based in Crewe and Joseph began his long association with the four-man bren gun carrier, qualifying as a driver/mechanic in March 1942.
They converted to the Lorryborne Infantry Brigade of the 11th Armoured Division (The Black Bulls) in May 1942. Training continued at various locations around the UK and on 29 November 1942 Joseph was granted the rank of Corporal, enabling him to assume command of his own bren gun carrier. Four days later his second son, Alan Joseph, was born.
By the time Joseph had completed a "Waterproofing of Carriers" course in December 1943, he was part of Support Company Carrier Platoon within 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment. The 65-strong platoon was made up of 13 bren gun carriers which also carried PIAT anti-tank weapons.
In April 1944 the regiment was based at Aldershot. One week before D-Day a group photograph of the Carrier Platoon, Support Company, 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment was taken.
On 10 June, D-Day plus 4, Joseph embarked from Albert Dock in London aboard an American motor transport ship. After being delayed off Southend, he and his colleagues landed on the extreme eastern edge of Sword beach five days later. The platoon made its way to the battalion assembly area around the village of Cainet, about six miles inland from Gold Beach, where it joined the rest of the 11th Armoured Division.
In a letter to his eldest brother Walter, dated 18 June 1944, Joseph said that throughout the time the vehicles were being moved from the ship on to a flat landing craft they were being shelled by what appeared to be the only big onshore German gun that was left.
He said nobody seemed to be taking any notice of this gun. The shells were dropping all around them, right up to the beach where they landed, hardly wetting the wheels of the vehicles. Joseph mentioned that the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were supporting them well and that Spitfires were flying over nearly all day. As usual, he also said: "Send me a few cigarettes, give my love to Mam and tell her not to worry about me.”
Joseph’s regiment then spent a surprisingly leisurely two weeks, de-waterproofing the vehicles, training, reading, swimming, playing sports and getting plenty of rest.
In a letter to Ruby dated 20 June, he wrote: "Things are going very well over here and everything points to success.”
He added: "We have had plenty of rest. There is a great variety in our rations. Do you know? We had tinned sliced peaches for sweet yesterday and they tasted delicious, and we are not short of a drink of tea. Is Bobby behaving, and is he learning at school? Tell him I want a little letter from him, or perhaps he can draw something for me. I bet Alan is a rogue now that he can get about more.
“Well, sweetheart, I'm afraid I must close now as the light is getting bad and it is time for bed. Goodnight darling, God Bless you and the children. Yours forever XXX Joe XXX I love you XXX".
All this time, though, thousands of shells were constantly passing overhead from the offshore warships attacking the German positions around the city of Caen, which was proving difficult to liberate. The great storm from 19 to 22 June badly damaged the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, disrupted supplies and added to the delay.
Some of the troops in the regiment were beginning to wonder just when they were going to see any action. Despite having had four years of thorough training, Joseph’s regiment had not experienced combat.
Joseph’s last letter to Ruby and the children was written on 27 June. The letter must have been written during the morning because it contained no hint that at 12:15, the battalion would be moving up to an assembly area at Norrey-en-Bessin.
Joseph finished his letter: "Well sweetheart, I haven't any more time to spare at the moment, so I will close now, with all my love to you and the children. Yours forever XXXXXX Joe XXXXXXX. The 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment, was about to play its part in Operation Epsom.
Operation Epsom had begun in earnest on 26 June, which proved to be a difficult day. By the end of it the village of Cheux had been taken, but most of the eight Scottish infantry Battalions had suffered losses running into three figures.
By 5.15pm the next day the 15th Scots Division had achieved its objective of reaching the 13 feet wide bridge over the River Odon at Tourmauville. They found it intact and unguarded and declared it capable of carrying all vehicles.
By that evening, 159 Brigade, comprising The 1st Herefords, The 4th KSLI and The 3rd Mons, began the advance towards the bridge to relieve the Scots via Cheux and Colleville.
By 2am on 28 June The Herefords were in defensive positions in Tourmauville and KSLI were similarly placed in Baron, just three-quarters of a mile to their left. The 3rd Mons arrived on the north bank of the river by dawn.
Hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles began crossing over the small bridge on to Hill 112. The objective of VIII Corps was to reach and cross the Orne river only five miles away across the hill. The Herefords were under fire from Carpiquet airfield, Ruray Hill to the north west and Tiger tanks to the south.
The next day, mortars continued to rain down incessantly on the Herefords. British tanks lost control of the hill tod the 9th an 10th SS Panzer Divisions and at 3.05pm the enemy attempted to infiltrate on the right flank of the Herefords from the direction of Gavrus. The situation was restored after a fire fight using machine guns and mortars. There were considerable casualties in A and C companies due to shells bursting in trees.
Since dawn, air reports had been coming in showing large scale enemy movements from Flers, Argentan and Vire. General Roberts concluded that the British troops were out on a limb and the order came down from General Dempsey to "call it a day".
General Roberts ordered the withdrawal from Hill 112, but said present positions would be maintained and that the bridgehead over the River Odon must continue to be held (by 159 Infantry Brigade). The withdrawal took place between 11pm and 4am, leaving the Herefords in Tourmauville and the KSLI in Baron "to face the music", as the CO of 159 Brigade, Brigadier Jack Churcher, later said in his book "A Soldier’s Story”.
The Germans re-occupied Hill 112 on 30 June and were ready to attack. Thankfully 159 Brigade were supported by 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry Shermans and the might of 12 artillery regiments of 8 Corps AGRA.
At 10pm the 10th SS Grenadiers moved in to attack. The British barrage, including that coming from 16" Naval guns 21 miles away, saved the day. Brigadier Churcher calculated that 8 AGRA fired 38,000 shells on to the German positions from 3am to 4:30am.
Sergeant Frank Moppett, a member of Joseph’s Platoon, said: "It went on for hours and we suffered mentally as much as the Germans - the constant scream of shells overhead, the crash of German shells exploding amongst us".*
During the barrage, the 3rd Mons were on the high ground on the west bank of the River Odon. Joe How noted: "A night of bangs and crashes and flashing light. In the bridgehead across the river the Herefords and Shropshires were getting a pasting. Explosive flashes darted rapidly about in the valley below - strings of tracer curved slowly and gracefully into extinction - flames flickered in the darkness and Very lights hung seemingly motionless over the valley. The noise was deafening. How I wondered, could anyone survive down there.”*
The events surrounding the death of Corporal Joseph Alfred Curtis on 1 July 1944 were established from four different sources:
Firstly, from the book "The Black Bull - from Normandy to the Baltic with the 11th Armoured Division" by Patrick Delaforce. On page 42 it recounts: On 30 June a determined counter attack, in Frank Moppett’s (Herefords) words "was only held off by our divisional artillery, who were superb. Their DF fire saved us". On the next day he was ordered: "No fighting Moppett, just a recce, but no one had told the Germans". He took his carrier gingerly up to the top of the hill, which gave a good view over Esquay, and found six to eight knocked-out tanks and eight or ten wounded Germans. As his Company CO, Captain Barneby, arrived in a second carrier, Moppett spied enemy helmets peeping above the high yellow corn and the Herefords were immediately swamped with fire. Captain Barneby was hit, and died later, and Corporal Curtis, the smallest man in the Regiment, was killed on the spot. A mortar then fell on top and wounded four more men.
(Joseph’s Army record confirms his height as 5 feet 1 inch.)
Secondly, from the Herefords’ War Diary: July 1st 12:00: B Coy supported by Sqn of Churchill tks carried out offensive sweep on high ground ref.939620 to clear it of enemy who might have remained from previous night’s attack and to deny him O.P's. Sweep entirely successful. One or two M.G. posts mopped up.
(No casualties’ names appear throughout the whole war diary).
Thirdly, an extract from a sympathy letter dated 27 July 1944 sent to Ruby from Herefords Captain G H Lloyd: "There is not a great deal I can tell you about the circumstances. He was out on a Carrier patrol a little forward of our position with his Platoon Commander. The country was difficult to see far in owing to the woods and crops of corn. Two or three German machine guns opened up on them from the flanks. The patrol did its job and returned but sustained a few casualties, it was then that your husband was killed. His Platoon Commander was also wounded seriously and died soon after. It was a bit of very bad luck, but unavoidable I fear in War. Your Husband is buried in the corner of a little orchard on the edge of a very small village which we were holding (Tourmauville). A few more of our lads be buried there too".
Fourthly, an extract from "A Soldiers Story" by Brigadier J.B.Churcher: "The following day (01-07-1944) we had to clear off some remnants of Boche machine gun detachments still on our side of the crest line and this we did with the aid of a squadron of Churchill tanks which could move across the front keeping below the sky line and winkle out with our Carrier platoon the elements which the Germans had left behind. This was successful and we lost our first serious officer casualty in the shape of Captain Barneby, commander of the Carrier platoon".
Note - The map reference 939620 mentioned in the War Diary entry of 1 July refers to the 1943 Standard British Army 1:25,000 tactical map used at the time. The contours on the map were produced without access to the territory being mapped, and the maps of enemy occupied Normandy had printed on them "not been checked on the ground". Map reference 939620, according to the map contours, should be at the top of the hill, but in reality the top of the hill is a further 148 yards away. As Sergeant Moppett’s account said he took his carrier to the top of the hill, which gave a good view over Esquay, this information has been used to determine a likely position of the area where Corporal Curtis and Captain Barneby lost their lives.
Note - It was not until January 1947 that the family was informed of the final resting place of Joseph, at Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery. Here Joseph lies with ten others from his Regiment who died on Hill 112. The remaining man, Captain Barneby, is buried at Secqueville-en-Bessin War Cemetery.
*Source - "The Black Bull - from Normandy to the Baltic with the 11th Armoured Division" by Patrick Delaforce. Delaforce served with the Royal Horse Artillery of the 11th Armoured Division as a troop leader in Normandy. He wrote more than 20 military history books.
Note - Lt-Col J B Churcher, as Commander of the 1st Herefords, received the D.S.O. for operations over the River Odon.
The Herefords did indeed maintain their position defending the bridgehead. A lot of credit was given to Brigadier Churcher, CO of 159 Brigade, for the decisions he took throughout this period.
The Germans occupied the hill, but they seemed to be on the defensive, establishing a buffer in front of the Orne crossings rather than creating a springboard for further advance. Despite this, from 1 to 5 July the War Diary shows the Herefords were troubled by mortaring. The loss of seven men on 1 July bears witness to the severity of the situation.
By 5 July the battalion was very tired. In the afternoon an advance party of the 4th Dorsets arrived to take over and by 2am the next day the relief was complete and the battalion was on its way back to a rest area at Fresny-le-Crotteur. When 23 year-old Corporal Reg Worton (S Company Carrier Platoon), came off Hill 112 after 11 days fighting with hardly any sleep, he was said to have been “in a coma for many hours.”
The twelve soldiers of 1st Battalion The Herefordshire Regiment who were killed in action on Hill 112 were:
Pte. Frederick Ward - 4041922 - Died 28-06-1944 (OE)
Pte. John Vernon Davies - 4105557 - Died 29-06-1944 (OE)
Pte. Edward Royston Higgins - 14645780 - Died 30-06-1944 (OE)
Pte. George Henry Cooke - 4104881 - Died 30-06-1944 (OE)
L.Cpl. William Alfred Rycroft - 4032353 - Died 30-06-1944 (OE)
Capt. Richard Paul Barneby - 63916 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)
Cpl. Joseph Alfred Curtis - 4036562 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)
Pte. Charles Vincent Bell - 4041611 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)
Pte. Sidney Charles Evans - 4039307 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)Pte. John Henry Jones - 5127583 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)Pte. Graham Hugh Lloyd - 4105413 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB)Pte. Albert Edward Jones - 4039548 - Died 01-07-1944 (TOB) (Key – OE = Operation Epsom; TOB = Defence of The Tourmauville Odon Bridgehead)
Bob Curtis later discovered that Sergeant Frank Moppett had given an eye witness account of the events of 1 July 1944 in a book called Hill 112 - Cornerstone of the Normandy Campaign by Major J.J.Howe, probably in 1984.
Having been forwarded two pages of the book by Phil Jackson, Bob said he was “stunned and shaken by what I read”, adding: “The account brings home the horror of war in all its brutality, particularly concerning my uncle’s death. Yet it took place amid cornfields on a day when ‘All around was quiet. The sun shone in a blue sky. We could forget the war was on’.”
Sergeant Moppett’s account began on 1 July 1944, after a tremendous British artillery barrage of 38,000 shells on to the German positions on Hill 112 had taken place between 00:30 and 04:30.
“The terrible night turned in to a silent dawn. The hunt for the intruders started. Sergeant Moppett of The Herefords was sent forward along the Esquay road, up the slope of Hill 112. His task was to assess the effect of the British artillery fire.
“Arriving at what I thought was the crest, I ordered the men to dismount (from their bren gun carriers). We went forward on foot. It was a false crest. The real one was 100 yards further on. All around was quiet. The sun shone in a blue sky. We could forget the war was on.
“Then I saw the turret of a tank on our left. I crawled through the corn with Lance Corporal Morten. It was knocked out. Behind were several more.
“We returned to the road and moved over the crest. Then I realised why the Germans wanted the hill. You could see for miles - over to Esquay and on to Evrecy and right over the Orne river. Everything was still quiet.
We moved on. Carnage. Dead Germans everywhere, literally in piles amongst the wheat. There were seven or eight knocked out tanks.
“At the side of the road we found a row of wounded Germans. They had received some first aid treatment and then been left for the night. The first man was blond, blue eyes looking into mine. His right hand was blown off and he was leaning his head on the stump. ‘Wasser, wasser (water, water),” was all he said. Next to them was the remains of a headquarters. I
collected some marked maps. The Platoon Commander, Captain Barneby, had come forward.
“As we were discussing the maps my look-out shouted ‘Sarge - Steel helmets in the corn!’ On our right, about 100 yards away, we could see German helmets moving.
“All hell let loose.
“From Esquay, straight up the road, and from both sides came Spandau fire. Captain Barneby was hit in the first burst. I got him into a carrier and sent him back to the RAP.
“My bren guns were answering as best they could. I shouted for the carrier with the 2" mortar and the Vickers gun. It slewed round to give us some cover. I called for everyone to mount. Corporal Curtis was killed instantly, shot through the head as he fell into the carrier.
“I jumped on to the sloping front and we withdrew back over the crest. Then I pulled into a field and got the brens into position in case we were followed. A mortar bomb exploded amongst us. Lance Corporal Morten had shrapnel in the thigh and the Corporal was wounded in the face; one of the drivers was blinded.
“Back in the ‘safety’ of The Herefords’ position, Sergeant Moppett lost another driver who was hit in the head by shrapnel.
Captain Barneby died of his wounds.
“I had a moment of panic. In my first engagement I had lost my Platoon Commander, a Corporal, a Lance Corporal and two drivers. After four years of training together for the war, half my section had gone in a couple of hours.
“How long would we last, I wondered.”