'Normandy: The Search For Sidney'

This article by Christopher Long was inspired by a privately published book by Thomas J. Bates (2000/2001) telling the story of his post-war search for another Tom Bates, a 23 year-old corporal, who was killed in the 1944 Battle of Normandy in one of the most courageous personal actions of WWll, earning him a posthumous VC.

Book review by Christopher Long

On a summer day in Normandy, in 1944, a British soldier stepped out of his slit trench and advanced alone through a hail of bullets across a meadow towards a position held by some of the most formidable elements of the German army. Firing his bren gun from the hip, he was hit and fell. He got up and continued his advance, firing all the time. Again he was hit and again he got up, still firing from the hip. Finally he was hit once more and fell for the last time. Nevertheless, mortally wounded, he carried on firing from the prone position in the long grass. He died two days later.

Why would a 23 year-old battle-hardened British corporal throw away his life in a desperate and lonely assault against an attack by 50-60 élite members of an SS Panzer Corps who could, and did, so easily train their machine guns and mortars on him?

Perhaps his anger simply erupted: a few seconds before Sidney began his lone advance, his friend 'Tojo' Tomlin had died in his arms, hit in the head. It was Tojo's bren gun that he was using.

Perhaps Sidney, like so many exhausted soldiers, had simply had enough and decided to end it all: taking as many of the enemy with him as possible.

Or was it that Sidney Bates, a simple working-class lad from London, knew what General Montgomery knew: that the whole Battle of Normandy was to hinge on denying the Germans control of a bleak and apparently obscure but vital hill-top position above the little village of Burcy.

A sergeant who witnessed the event believes that Sidney simply acted as any well-trained, first-rate infantryman would have done. Attack was the best means of defence and by advancing he greatly improved his field of fire.

We'll never know what Sidney was thinking but the consequence of his actions is beyond any doubt. A lone soldier did indeed prevent those élite German forces from taking that hill. And that hill controlled the main east-west road across Normandy. And that road (from Condé-sur-Noireau – Vire) was what the Germans had to control if they were fulfil Hitler's orders and halt the Allied advance in its tracks at Mortain.

Posthumously Sidney Bates won 'a very well-deserved' VC, the highest British military honour. But many who read this excellent book Normandy: The Search For Sidney may conclude that Sidney's greatest memorial is not the medal, nor the monument on the edge of 'his' field, but that Europe is free today because of men like him.

Anyone who has explored a battlefield knows the feeling... Here, among these peaceful fields and hedgerows, momentous, bloody and grim events took place. But time has cleansed the landscape and who would believe it now...

Not content with a broad view, we want to know exactly where and how. Where were the enemy lines? Where were 'our' trenches? Did that barn exist then? Are there really shards of shrapnel buried forty years deep in those old oak trees? Often it scarcely seems possible and we search for some evidence – any evidence – that helps us to bridge the years. A vivid imagination helps, a good battle-field guide is better. But best of all is to be in the company of men who were there...

Author Tom Bates does just that for us in Normandy: The Search For Sidney. In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings, he invited two old soldiers from the Royal Norfolk Regiment to re-visit France and help him discover precisely where and how their mate, 23 year-old Corporal Sidney Bates – no relation of the author – made his extraordinary and tragic 'last stand' at the Battle of Perrier Ridge in the Norman bocage.

Tom Bates' quest had begun several years earlier and he already knew a great deal about the Normandy campaign and of this specific battle in the British sector of Normandy, a battle in which Sidney's single-handed assault on an advancing enemy was a turning point. But although Tom Bates is himself a veteran of the grim Burma campaign in World War ll, he too wanted to know more...

Gently he shepherds his two old warriors, Bill Holden, MBE, and Ernie Seaman, MM, around the leafy lanes of the bocage. The landscape is often barely recognisable and they lose their way, as Tom Bates already knows they will. But he gives them time and space to kindle memories and cope with emotions they've held in check for forty years. Soon they're on the right road again and Tom Bates is listening to every word, logging every detail they remember as they head closer and closer to their target – 'Sidney's field'.

The last time they were here the lanes and fields were choked with military vehicles and smoke, the cacophony of mortars, shells and machine guns and the débris; and chaos of war. It's amazing that Bill Holden and Ernie Seaman find their way at all, but local families step forward to help and the search for Sidney becomes a Anglo-French affair.

And as we get closer and closer to Sidney's field Tom Bates deploys his encyclopaedic knowledge of the 1944 Normandy campaign to explain the vital British 'Operation Bluecoat' that worked hand-in-glove with the American 'Cobra' offensive. Dozens of maps and illustrations explain the situation of British, Canadian and American forces while there are scores of photographs of men of all ranks who fulfilled Montgomery's and Patton's master-plan.

And now Tom Bates, Bill Holden and Ernie Seaman have reached Sidney's field. There below them is the vital road that elements of the Norfolk and Monmouth Regiments (the NorMons) prevented the German Panzer Divisions from controlling – thus supplying the first nail in the ll Panzer Corps' very large coffin. The old soldiers explain that there, in those farm buildings behind us, was the Company HQ. In that orchard were the stretcher-bearers. Down the road there was Battalion headquarters. And here, in this field, Ernie Seaman ran out with his stretcher to bring in the dying boy from Camberwell in south London...

In the end the search is almost pointless. All there is to see is a field and monument. The significance of this book is that never again will we have guides like Ernie and Bill to show us their Normandy. And the joy of this book is not the 'finding of Sidney' but Tom Bates' engaging, enthusiastic and informed company as he and his companions search for something that has gone for ever.

An ingenious aspect of this book is that it appears simultaneously in French and English (translated by Normandy war historian and former WWll résistant Jean Brisset). The language versions appear, line for line, in two columns on each page.

The book carries a forward by the Canadian Col. John Ross Matheson who served with the British Eighth Army 1940-44.

Right: The author, Tom Bates now lives in California. British by birth, he served in the Burma campaign in World War ll. Much of his life in the last 20 years has been dedicated to Normandy, in France, where he has tirelessly ensured that memories are not forgotten and that well-placed monuments record for posterity the achievements of the hundreds of thousands of British servicemen who lived and often died in the liberatation of Europe.

The book also contains two other accounts:

  1. 'The Madame Lenauld Story' — an account by Tom Bates of a girl who not only witnessed the D-Day advance through Colleville-Montgomery on the Norman coast, but whose life has been transformed by witnessing the death of an unknown soldier. Her story provides the opportunity to give a detailed description of the actions which established the British/Canadian bridgehead north of Caen. He also takes the opportunity to establish that a terrible and unjustified slander occurs in Daryl Zanuck's film The Longest Day.
  2. 'The 1 Suffolk and D-Day' An authoritative account by Eric Lummis of the actions by the 1st Battalion The Suffolk Regiment which suppressed and them took the formidable HILLMAN – the almost impregnable German defensive complex which stood between the Normandy landing beaches and the bridgehead holding area north of Caen.

'Normandy: The Search For Sidney' by Tom Bates (published 2002)
Order from Bates Books
Price: UK: £25 sterling — USA – $30 dollars — Canada: C$40 dollars
Or order from: USA: +1 510 655 6685; United Kingdom: +44 138 771 0274;
France: +33 2 3109 2466; India: +91 530 0605.

Above: It was here that the decisive battles in the Normandy campaign took place after D-Day (6 June 1944) which resulted in the liberation of France in 1944 and of the rest of Europe in 1945. The orange circle marks the location of Perrier Ridge, south of the village of Burcy, which dominated the strategic Condé-sur-Noireau – Vire road. Holding this ridge against a German assault was vital to the Allied effort since Hitler had ordered his ll Panzer Corps to 'extirpate the festering abscess' and mount a massive offensive – Operation Luttich – to stop Patton's American forces in their tracks at Mortain. This offensive might well have been successful had Perrier Ridge not been held and the Condé-sur-Noireau – Vire supply road denied to the Germans. In the holding of Perrier Ridge the actions of one man, Sidney Bates, were to prove crucial. It was to take forty years before another Bates, quite unrelated, told his story.

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