June 1944 - Three 70th Anniversaries
3rd Jun 2014
This month of June sees three important anniversaries – the day Sergeant Rogers of The 2nd Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment won his Victoria Cross, D-Day and the Battle of Kohima and all are all the more important as the events took place 70 years ago in June 1944 and on three fronts during the Second World War.
Maurice Albert Wyndham Rogers was born in Plaistow, London and joined the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment in 1934, aged 14 and started his service as a Drummer Boy. In the years leading up to the war he proved to be a strong athlete and was a Corporal at the start of the 2nd World War, serving in France. He was promoted to Sergeant in 1941, and a Platoon Sergeant of the Carrier Platoon, 2nd Battalion, The Wiltshire Regiment and was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry on 1st August 1943 in Sicily.
The 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment had sailed from Naples and landed at Anzio on 12th March 1944, reliving another battalion in the gullies North of La Gogna. Here they dug in and faced the German 4th Parachute Division. After a number of sharp actions they were relieved returning to a rest area that was in fact under constant German bombardment. At the beginning of April they took positions known as ‘The Fortress’ and took over the trenches that in some cases were only 30 yards apart and both sides could hear each other talking. They remained on ‘Stand to; all night and tried to snatch sleep during the day. This war of attrition continued until the break out from the beach head on the 23rd May. The battalion’s part in the break out was to carry out a pre-planned attack on Ardea. On the 3rd June they attacked, and it was during this battle that Sergeant Rogers’ carrier platoon attacked an entrenched German Parachute Division emplacement. His platoon was held up by barbed wire and intense machine gun fire. Advancing alone and only 70 yards from its objective, while the platoon took cover, Sergeant Rogers penetrated the wire, ran across a minefield and destroyed two of the seven enemy machine gun posts. Inspired by his example, the platoon began to assault the enemy position. Still well ahead of the platoon and whilst attempting to silence a third machine gun post he was blown off his feet and wounded in the leg by an exploding grenade. He continued towards the machine gun post and was shot and killed at point blank range. The Germans eventually withdrew and they continued the advance to Rome. In July the battalion sailed from Taranto for Palestine. They spent the rest of the year training near Nathanya, Damascus and Gaza. For his great gallantry and heroic self-sacrifice Sgt. Rogers was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, which was presented to his widow by King George VI. Sgt.Rogers was 24 years during the Battle of Anzio.
The Normandy landings, codenamed Operation Overlord, were the landing operations of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The landings commenced on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 (D-Day), beginning at 6:30 am British Summer Time. The 5th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment spent the early part of the year preparing for their role as a beach battalion in the forthcoming Normandy Landings (Operation Overlord). They were destined to Land on Juno Beach as part of the Canadian 3rd Division. They landed on the beach at Bernieres-Sur-Mer Although a beach battalion they were also a fully trained and equipped Infantry Battalion. After the Canadians landed and moved through it was left to the battalion to mop up German defenders in a number of pill boxes. Each of the defences was attacked in turn with grenades and bayonets. They also dealt with the aftermath in ensuring that wounded men were shipped out quickly and Prisoners of war were processed. Lieutenant Spackman won a Military Cross during this phase of the operation. After all opposition was removed the battalion carried out their primary role as a beach battalion and started work to ensure the supplies and reinforcements landed with the minimum of fuss. They also dealt with the aftermath in ensuring that wounded men were shipped out quickly and Prisoners of war were processed. As time progressed and the situation stabilized whole platoons were drafted away to other units that required reinforcements due to battlefield casualties. Many were sent the 4th and 5th Wiltshire Regiments in the 43rd Wessex Division. By the 26th August the battalion had been reduced to sixteen officers and 136 men. What remained later moved to Rouen. In December they were reinforced by 380 men of a low medical category, but were still designated as a ‘beach group’ unit. . When the Germans attacked through the Ardennes they were formed into a mobile column. In the early hours of Christmas morning they moved into Lille.
The Battle of Kohima
The Battle of Kohima took place from 5th April and ended on 22nd June. It was to prove the turning point of the war against Imperial Japanese forces in the Far East; a battle so fierce it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Stalingrad of the Far East’. The battle fell into two phases, a siege with the British and Commonwealth forces holding off the Japanese forces invading North India followed by a subsequent advance and clearance of the Japanese back across the border with Burma.
During the battle and on May 3rd, the 2nd Division, including men from The 1st Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment (the battalion had moved up to their positions on the Manipur road on 12th April) who were the first unit from the Division to relieve the Royal West Kent’s, launched their attack on Japanese positions surrounding Kohima. Japanese mortar fire proved especially effective in countering this attack, as did the series of inter-locking trenches that the Japanese had dug around Kohima. The hilly terrain was also taking its toll, as was the weather. Rain became a major problem affecting the use of transport and men fell ill with dysentery. Sleep was a luxury. Conditions were reminiscent of the trenches in the First World War where in some cases men were in hand to hand combat. On May 12th, Lee-Grant tanks were used to attack Japanese bunkers – much to the delight of the infantry who had been detailed to attack them. By 15.00 the tanks had completed their task and on May 13th, Japanese soldiers were seen to be leaving their trenches in other areas around Kohima. After five weeks hard fighting 2 officers and 56 men were killed, 15 officers and 239 men were wounded, with a further 60 falling sick. On May 31, Sato ordered his men to withdraw to Imphal. The last major Japanese unit moved back on June 6th/7th. Exhausted and riddled with disease, they were harried all the way by the Allies. Imphal was relieved on June 22, after over 80 days of siege. Early in July, his 15th Army pulled out, the survivors struggling down liquefied roads to cross the Chindwin on to the Burma plains. Only 20,000 of the 85,000 Japanese who had come to invade India were left standing. After a short rest and on 22nd June, the battalion returned to the fight in other areas. The British Commander, Field Marshal Slim now had a springboard for the re-conquest of Burma. The cost to the Allies had been 17,857 British and Indian troops killed, wounded and missing. The dead at Kohima have their own simple and moving monument which bears the epitaph: 'When you go home, tell them of us, and say: "For your tomorrow, we gave our today".' It “was one of the greatest battles of the Second World War, rivalling El Alamein and Stalingrad, though it still remains comparatively unknown.
The photo shows (from left to right) a painting of the Battle of Kohima, a photograph of the 5th Royal Berkshires landing at Bernieres-Sur-Mer and a photograph of Sergeant Rogers' wife Mrs Lena Foster besides her husbands grave in Italy.