Filed under: RAF | Tags: Flight Sergeant, Gardermoen Airfield, Gliders, Hurricanes, Norman Shepherd, Norway, Nottingham, Operation Doomsday, Oslo, RAF, Rhine, Royal Airforce, Short Stirlings, Special Air Service, Spitfires
RAF veteran Norman Shepherd, 88, from Nottingham, who visited Norway on a Heroes Return visit, is urging other veterans to apply for funding for a first or second trip.
Norman joined the RAF in 1943 and after training joined 196 Squadron 38 Group. The Flight Sergeant was a flight engineer in Short Stirlings in operations over occupied Europe.
The squadron carried out various transport, glider-towing and supply-dropping flights as well as Special Air Service parachuting missions over occupied territories.
He said: “I flew something between 20 to 30 wartime operations. Most of them were dropping supplies or soldiers parachuting from our aircraft. My job as flight engineer was checking the engines and fuel.
“One of the most memorable operations was when we had to tow gliders over the Rhine. We flew from Suffolk to Essex to pick up the gliders. Some were full of troops, others had jeeps and weapons.
“There were hundreds of planes in the sky. A lot got hit by flack and we saw a few go down. We were also hit but we weren’t badly damaged. It was really terrifying when we got hit. We were flying so low towing the gliders that we wouldn’t have survived bailing out.
“After the gliders detached themselves we headed back. The rope used to tow the gliders was extremely thick and heavy and we were trained to drop it on targets. On the way back we dropped it over an anti aircraft position and the rear gunner called out from the back saying we hit it. We all gave out a big cheer.
“On another operation I remember we had to transport fuel for Spitfires and Hurricanes in jerry cans. We were like a flying bomb. One tracer bullet and we would have exploded. That was a bit hairy.
“There was a high loss rate of crews. When I was first started on operations I remember looking at a seasoned aircrew and thinking ‘what a scruffy lot’. Two months later they never returned from an operation and so we then became the scruffy lot. You got used to people not coming back.”
One cargo Norman wasn’t expecting was at the end of the war. His crew were delivered a dozen Jewish children who had been freed from a concentration camp and were to be flown to England.
He said: “They were aged between eight and 12 and I was put in charge of them. I gave them a chocolate bar each and they gobbled them all down. But they weren’t used to it and it made them sick in the aircraft.
“They got all tearful when I went over. They were cowering in fear – I think they thought I was going to hit them, the poor little things.”
Norman visited Oslo, Norway, last year for his Heroes Return 2 visit. He had been invited to take part in a ceremony to commemorate crewmen lost during Operation Doomsday – the supervision of the surrender of German forces in occupied Norway following the Allied victory in Europe on May 8 1945.
More than 360,000 German troops still occupied Norway and the Allies launched a massive operation to take 30,000 soldiers to Norway.
On May 10 1945 three Short Stirlings crashed enroute to Gardermoen Airfield. Norman joined relatives of the lost men at Gardermoen and also visited the crash site and cemetery where the men now rest.
He remembered: “We took off but the weather became dreadful about two-thirds of the way. We were recalled but three aircraft carried on. All three crashed, including one carrying the Commander of 38 Group Air Vice-Marshall James Scarlet –Streatfield.
“It was tragic – that could have happened to us. It wasn’t down to a particular person or crew – it was luck or fate what happened. They actually went to their death on Ascension Day so they went up like Jesus to the right place as far as I’m concerned. I really enjoyed the trip to reminisce. Sixty-seven years is a long time to think about these things. The visit brought to all to the surface.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: D-Day, Army, France | Tags: D-Day, Normandy, Sword Beach, France, Caen, VE-Day, East Lancashire Regiment, 5th Batallion, Robert Coupe, Operation Charnwood
Robert Coupe is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme. Since 2009 it has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
Shortly after his 18th birthday, Blackpool lad Robert was called up for Army Service. He underwent basic training before being posted to the 5th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment.
Landing on Sword Beach on the morning of D-day under a hail of enemy fire, he recalls: “We were all so seasick. I didn’t care whether I got shot or not. I just wanted to get off that landing craft and get my feet on the ground.”
Once a beachhead had been established Robert and comrades were given the order to march on Caen as part of Operation Charnwood, an Anglo-Canadian offensive to capture the German-occupied French city an important Allied objective during the opening stages of the Normandy Invasion.
He recalls; “Caen was the key to Normandy. If the Germans broke through at Caen they would have been on the beaches in no time. And they knew that if we punched through them at Caen that would be their lot in France.”
Soon to travel to Normandy on a Heroes Return 2 grant Robert will visit cemeteries and attend 69th anniversary D-Day commemoration events to pay his respects to fallen comrades. To read his moving story in full, visit our newsroom.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Army Commandos, Hertfordshire, Hoddesdon, Italy, La Molina, Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, Middlesex Regiment, Reg Downes, Royal Marine Commandos, Salerno, Sicily, Territorial Army, Tito, Vietri, Vis, Winston Churchill, Yugoslavia
World War Two veteran Reg Downes, 91, from Hoddesden in Hertfordshire, recently made a commemorative visit to Salerno, Italy, thanks to funding from the Heroes Return programme.
Reg joined the Territorial Army in 1938. Called up at the outbreak of war he joined the Middlesex Regiment, aged just 17 before volunteering in the Army Commandos. In 1941 he was posted up to Achnacarry near Fort William where he underwent a tough six-week intensive training course on fitness, weapons training, map reading, climbing, and demolitions operations.
He remembers: “I was always a bit of a daredevil, humdrum life didn’t suit me. The training was hard but I was never fitter in my life than I was then.”
Training completed and at rank of Private, Reg was assigned to the Motor Transport section No2 Army Commando under the command of Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, distant relative of Winston Churchill.
Reg was posted out to North Africa and from there to Sicily where he saw his first action as the troop landed near the town of Scaletta in advance of Monty’s Eighth Army. Here they engaged the German rearguard.
He remembers: “It was a bit hairy being our first action. I was the section driver and we were loaded up with bombs. We got involved in house- to-house fighting in Scaletta, but by then most of the Germans had retreated to Messina and then back to mainland Italy.”
After success in Sicily the invasion of Italy followed on 3rd September 1943 when No. 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mare, in Salerno in the early hours of the morning. The troop’s first task was to take a German gun battery but after finding it undefended they moved on to secure the town of Vietri where they set up a headquarters and opened up the beach for allied landings.
Supported by the Royal Marine Commandos, Reg and comrades moved on to take a German observation post outside the town of La Molina which controlled a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. Despite heavy German opposition they eventually captured the post taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad.
Reg said: “This was a heavy battle. We held the beachhead but they really came after us. We were a thorn in their sides and they were trying to wipe us out. We were only supposed to hold it for eight hours but we were stuck there for over two weeks. People had fear. You wouldn’t be telling the truth if you said you hadn’t. But comradeship was very good. You had to rely on your comrades. At first it was very hard to kill people but after a while you got a bit cynical about it. There weren’t many prisoners taken on either side. It was live or die.”
The commando units went on to face fierce resistance from crack German troops in Salerno with 367 killed, wounded or missing out of the 738 who had taken part in the landings.
In January 1944 Reg was posted to the Yugoslavian island of Vis. With half the unit depleted they carried out assaults on German garrisons, and raids on shipping.
He recalls: “We used to pick up and destroy boats carrying German ammunition to the Island. Yugoslavia was full of partisans. Tito had insisted that they were included in our raids on the Germans. They were mostly youngsters very wild and silly, waving machine guns around. It was all a bit risky.”
The troop saw further action in Albania in raids at Himare and at Sarande where they were heavily outnumbered and pinned down by superior German forces until support units arrived, and the town was captured cutting off the German garrison in Corfu which later . surrendered to the Commandos in November 1944.
Reg recently returned to Salerno with his sons, he said: “I thought the grant was wonderful. I couldn’t have afforded to go without it. I looked for the place we landed at Vietri sul Mare, but I couldn’t find it. Then I asked a local and he pointed it out. I also went to Salerno War Cemetery to see the graves of the chaps I fought with. We lost quite a lot there. The graves were beautifully kept. It put a lump in my throat.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: France | Tags: 88 Squadron, Arimistice Day, Bomber Command, Croix de guerre, D-Day, Douglas Boston, Dunkirk, E-Easy, France, Friendly Smoke, Leslie Valentine, memorial, Michael Turner, Normandy, RAF, RAF Hartford Bridge
RAF Flying Officer Leslie Valentine hurtled along at 250 mph 50 feet above the D-Day Normandy shoreline, his Douglas Boston light bomber ‘E’ Easy running the gauntlet between a devastating barrage of Royal Navy gunships and German 88 heavy artillery defences.
Holding his nerve the 24 year-old blazed a trail of thick smoke across the British landing beaches, shielding his comrades below from enemy view. It was a valiant mission, and one of 60 back to back operations that the plucky young pilot would carry out during WW2.
Leslie is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
Shortly to celebrate his 95th birthday, Leslie from Hethe, Oxfordshire is the only surviving of two British servicemen to hold the revered Croix de guerre (cross of war) with Silver Star, one of France’s highest accolades for heroic deeds performed in the liberation of France. Leslie’s derring-do has also been captured for posterity in a stunning watercolour painting ‘Friendly Smoke’ by renowned artist Michael Turner – though at the time the artist had no idea that a striking coincidence would reveal the true identity of the real pilot immortalised in his historic depiction.
Called up for military service at the outbreak of war, 19-year old Leslie joined the Highland Light Infantry as a Private. A few months later in the wake of Dunkirk he was posted to northern France but was recalled back to England after just ten weeks.
Spotting an RAF recruitment poster on the battalion notice board calling for pilots and navigators Leslie, a mathematician, readily volunteered to use his skills and along with a 2nd Lieutenant from the battalion was one of only two accepted from 800 applicants.
Leslie recalls: “Unfortunately the 2nd Lieutenant broke his arm and so I went alone through the selection process and was later installed as a student Pilot in the RAF.”
Leslie joined RAF 88 Squadron 2nd Tactical Air Force, Bomber Command, where he carried out mainly daylight sorties across France, sabotaging vital supply lines to disrupt transport of enemy reinforcements, such as road bridges, rail yards, road transport convoys, submarine pens and the deadly V1 rocket launching sites.
He recalls: “We flew in very close formation, an arrowhead, six aircraft, two in front and three behind. We had a lead navigator who got you over the target. He was in charge. You needed a very good navigator. You were always a bit apprehensive but once you’d started the job you had to concentrate on what you were doing.”
Such were the abilities of the Boston that it was the operational choice to undertake the hazardous task of laying smoke over the beaches to protect the invading UK forces from enemy fire on D Day 6th June 1944. Entrusted with this critical role Leslie took his Boston ‘E-Easy’ down to just 50 feet above the D-Day beaches.
Above and over his aircraft arched the trajectories of shells from the 14” guns of the capital ships of the Royal Navy 8 miles off shore, and the German 88 heavy guns firing back from just inside enemy lines.
Leslie recalls: “I’d anticipated that it was going to be a little hairy. I had just 46 seconds to let off four canisters of smoke. The Germans were only half a mile back off the beach. The noise of the shells was deafening.
“Not only was there the chance of being hit in the crossfire but, as the UK forces on the ground were unsure who the aircraft flying so low above them were, they also let fly with small arms fire. I was flying at 250mph at only 50 feet I had to hold it very steady, at that speed and height if I’d even sneezed that would have been it.”
Two aircraft were lost on this mission, but Leslie returned safely to 88 Squadron base at RAF Hartford Bridge, going on to fly many more sorties against tactical targets by both night and day. Surviving two tours of operations, 60 in all he said: “After a while you felt you had become lucky.”
Of his part in Michael Turner’s famous painting of ‘E’ Easy he recalls: “My son had bought the painting for me some years ago. One day I was looking at it and I had a sort of feeling about it so I went and got my log book out and saw that my log entry for 6th June showed that I had flown ‘E’ Easy on that day.
“I couldn’t believe it. We got in touch with Michael Turner and he visited me with some other copies of the painting and asked me to sign them while he signed my copy, saying ‘thank you for being the subject of my painting’.”
Accompanied by his son Dudley, Leslie recently visited the Bomber Command Memorial in London and was invited to a private audience at 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister David Cameron presented him with the WW2 Defence Medal.
Now, living in Hethe, Oxfordshire, only four miles from Bicester where he was trained in 1943, Leslie is looking forward to his Heroes Return trip to Northern France next month where he has been invited to attend a special Armistice Day commemoration, and from there he will return to the Normandy beaches to pay his respects to fallen comrades.
He said: “I think heroes return is a marvellous idea and I would like to thank the Lottery.”
Filed under: Navy | Tags: Alsterufer, Cherbourg, D-Day, HMS Glasgow, Malta, Omaha Beach, Petty Officer, Royal Navy, Spitfire
Veteran Ron Veitch, 88, from Billingham in Teesside is about to make his first visit under the Heroes Return programme and is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for funding for a first or second journey back to where they served.
Ron is visiting Malta, where his ship HMS Glasgow was repaired after being bombed by Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean. Ron was a Petty Officer on board the cruiser.
His most vivid memory of the war is the early morning bombardment and landings at Omaha beach on D-Day.
He said: “We hadn’t been told anything, but when we first set off and saw the amount of shipping, we realised this was it. This was the invasion.
“It was my job to check two boiler rooms to make sure the engines were running well. I had to alternate between the two rooms.
“At 6.30am our ship opened fire and bombarded German forces at Normandy. While going between the boiler rooms I popped up to sneak a look. What an incredible sight it was.
“The sea was black with ships. To the left and right of us were warships and landing craft full of US servicemen heading for the shore. They were bobbing up and down and being tossed around like corks. They must have been so seasick. We were firing broadsides and the noise of the bombardment was horrendous.
“We were six miles out so I couldn’t see the shore but we heard from the captain that the US troops were getting annihilated and casualties were mounting up.”
With the assistance of air spotters, HMS Glasgow continued to pound targets ashore and more than 500 six inch shells were fired from the cruiser that day.
Ron’s first close brush with death during the war came a few days later when HMS Glasgow and an Allied task force was sent to the coast off Cherbourg to provide support to US Army units engaged in the battle at the French city.
The naval force bombarded the German fortifications near and in the city and became engaged in repeated duels with coastal batteries. When German salvos from the outskirts of Cherbourg began falling among Allied minesweeper flotillas, HMS Glasgow with Spitfire spotters began returning fire on the German batteries before coming under fire herself.
Ron said: “US army units were facing resistance from the Germans at Cherbourg and we were sent there. I was in the engine room. We could hear our guns were firing and could tell from the orders coming into the engine room that we were engaging with the enemy.
“My hair was standing on end – I thought ‘we are in trouble here’. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. We had been hit twice. Most of the lights went out and the emergency lights came on. There was a strong acrid smell of cordite and dust everywhere.
“The explosions had wiped out our anti aircraft guns. We knew it would take a lot to sink a ship of our size so everyone stayed focused on the job at hand – our engines. The captain ordered us to increase speed so we could get out of danger.”
The cruiser briefly broke off the engagement to assess the damage, before returning to the battle, firing on German batteries. After the battle, Glasgow underwent a complete refit at Palmer’s Yard at Hebburn on the river Tyne.
Ron experienced other battles during the war, including Operation Stonewall – a blockade against the import by Germany of seaborne goods. In late December 1943, Glasgow and the cruiser Enterprise fought a three-hour battle with several German destroyers and torpedo boats protecting the cargo ship Alsterufer. Three enemy ships were destroyed but two of Glasgow’s ships company were lost.
He remembered: “After the battle the captain gave us a run-down of what happened. We learnt that several torpedoes had been fired at us – some even went right underneath us. I remember the gasp that went around the crew when we heard that.”
Now, Ron is looking forward to making a Heroes Return commemorative trip to Malta, where Glasgow was repaired for damage caused by Italian glider bombs. He plans to visit the dockyard and the Rotunda of Mosta church, where a German bomb pierced the dome and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. Miraculously, it did not explode.
He said: “I’ll be going with my son to show him the places I remember. It will bring back memories of how wonderful the people were and the kindness they showed to us. They were very grateful to the Allies for risking and losing their lives at sea for them.”
Filed under: D-Day, Normandy | Tags: Belsen, Caen, D-Day, Faroe Islands, John Murtagh, Messing Officer, Normandy, Northern Ireland, Prisoners of War, Royal Army Service Corps, Russia, Sword Beach
When Northern Irish veteran John Murtagh, 91, joined up to help the war effort in 1943 he could never have imagined the adventure and experiences that lay ahead.
John was part of the Royal Army Service Corps that supported the allied offensive as it made its way across Europe during 1944 and 1945.
He landed on Normandy’s Sword Beach shortly after D-Day, advancing through Europe and into Germany, before eventually reaching Belsen concentration camp where he witnessed some of the war’s most harrowing images.
He received a grant from the Heroes Return 2 programme to return to Normandy last year, and it proved an emotional experience.
“I could see it all,” said John. “I could see the faces of our friends. It was upsetting, but I am glad I went back,” says John, a quiet man who denies he is a hero.
“It was important for me to remember what happened there when we landed on the beach on D-Day, the brave men who fell and the sacrifices they made and the heroes they truly were. It was the first time I’ve ever been back and it really meant a lot to me.”
John’s war began in the Faroe Islands where he was a Messing Officer, buying in the food and helping load and unload boats and warehouses for forces fighting in Russia.
Then in May 1944 he was called back to London to join the allied offensive in Europe. He landed on Sword Beach on June 9, shortly after D-Day.
John explained: “There was so much noise, but the infantry and tanks were between us and the Germans. I was a supporter at the back, but we still took a lot of enemy fire. We brought the supplies in and looked after the soldiers who had suffered injuries.”
After tending the wounded, John moved to Caen which had been devastated in an Allied bombing. “We were not welcomed with open arms. The people were very resentful of what had happened,” he recalls. “The town was completely flat and the stench was awful. The troops had to get the corpses out of the rubble. There were dark patches where the blood had flowed.”
“We moved on to Belgium after that and I helped organise Prisoners of War to send to the UK. They were mostly young fellows of 15 or 16, just like us really. We had been given such a bad name by the Germans as to what we would do to them, so they were very, very frightened.”
“I continued to provide support for the forces as we moved down through Europe and I was in Holland when I found out the war was over. It was a great time and we celebrated in style.”
But the celebrations ended abruptly when John arrived in north western Germany in 1945 to help with the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. “I could not describe the smell or the people when we arrived there,” he said. “It was one of the most harrowing things I have ever seen. They had been so badly treated, some were just skin and bone, I don’t know how they survived. The faces were tortured – that’s the best description I can give of it.
“We fed them and gave them clothes and tried to clean up. It was shocking to see how people could be degraded in such a way. There was one man I thought was dead, and it was only when his tongue moved in his mouth I realised he was still alive. He died soon after.”
For John, getting the chance to pay his final respects was hugely important. “This was the first time I have ever been back,” he said. “I wanted to do it now as I’m not getting any younger. I read about the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme in the local paper and I applied straight away. It meant so much to be able to pay my final respects. I’m so grateful.”
Filed under: RAF | Tags: 62 Squadron, Akyab Island, Bombay, Burma, Changi, Hiroshima, HMS Ranchi, Indonesia, Nagasaki, PoWs, RAF, Royal Air Force, Saigon, Singapore
A Royal Airforce (RAF) veteran from Wythenshaw, Manchester, recently embarked upon a Lottery-funded journey to where he served in Singapore. Having enjoyed his emotional return, through the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, he now wants others like him to apply for funding.
Jim Colecliffe, 87, joined the RAF in 1944 aged 18. Sent to Cardington for basic training he went on to Cosford where he completed a Flight Mechanic Engine Course.
He recalls: “I had been in the ATC a couple of years before I joined up. I was always very interested in planes. I had a model aircraft flying on wires in my house.”
Jim was sent to a squadron in Towyn, North Wales from where he received his posting to the Far East.
Boarding a converted troop ship, HMS Ranchi, Jim sailed for Bombay arriving in January 1945, and from there was transferred to Akyab Island in Burma where he served at rank of Aircraftman 1st class with 62 Squadron RAF a Dakota supply unit.
He said: “Once we knew we were being posted overseas we were sent to Morecambe to get kitted out with pith helmets and all the jungle gear. Once we got to Bombay we had four or five days travelling across India by train.
“It was terrible to see the poverty. People with badly maimed limbs even women and children. I couldn’t believe that people could live like that in this day and age.
“We then flew to 62 Squadron base on Akyab Island just off the coast of Burma. Once we got there we had to deal with the monsoons, putting up tents and then digging trenches around them. We were what you might call slightly damp. I was only 18 and it was a different world to me all this.”
Carrying out four to five sorties a day to drop vital supplies to front line troops fighting the Japanese, Jim’s was assigned to keep Dakota ‘U’ for Uncle serviced and flying safely.
Jim recalls: “As soon as they landed I would check the cowlings and the engines and then climb into the cockpit, check over all the instruments and run the engines to make sure everything was working properly.
“It was all quite an experience really. We tolerated the heat somehow, no shirts, just bush hats. We got a cooked breakfast every morning from the RAF cooks and then after that we lived on typical American K rations.
“These were the same as were supplied to all aircrew in case they got ditched. There were packets of biscuits, cigarettes, chocolate, even toilet paper, typical Yank stuff. It was a little bit sparse, but we didn’t starve.
“When I heard the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I felt a bit upset that they’d had to do it. But then we hadn’t had it tough like others.
“We only had one fatality when a Canadian pilot got caught in a cumulonimbus weather cloud and his plane was destroyed.”
Following the Japanese surrender, 62 Squadron was disbanded and Jim was posted to Singapore for three months where he was assigned to looking after VIP aircraft used by generals and admirals.
He was later transferred to Indonesia where he serviced planes flying Japanese PoWs back home. Jim then received his last posting to Saigon at that time a staging post for aircraft between Singapore and Indonesia.
He remembers: “One night I was on guard duty when we had to look after two very high ranking Japanese officers stopping with us in our guard house. They were extremely polite. But I could never work out if they were being very polite because they had lost the war, or if it was just their nature.”
Jim, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, recalls his Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore in June last year where he was accompanied by his daughter Brenda.
“We went round the airfield at Changi where I was stationed. We also visited the Changi Museum and were shocked by the atrocity of some of the stories we read. One was about an Australian lady who had two sons aged 11 and 12 who were both seriously ill.
“In desperation she approached a Japanese guard for help but he smashed her face in with a rifle butt. There was also the story of a Malaysian woman who came to the fence of a PoW camp to pass food through to the prisoners. She was caught by a guard who smashed her with a rifle butt, but she still came back the next day.
“I think the chance to have a second trip with Heroes Return 2 is absolutely fantastic news. I couldn’t believe it. I am over the moon. I wouldn’t have been able to go back without the funding. It was a great experience for both me and my daughter Brenda, and for me to be able to show her the places I knew. The whole thing has made such a big impression on both of us. She has never stopped talking about it.”