Filed under: France, Heroes Return, memorial | Tags: film, France, funding, Heroes Return, History, Just imagine, Lottery Good Causes, Normandy, Robert Coupe, Second World War, veteran, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Just imagine if the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme wasn’t there to support World War Two veterans wanting to make a return journey to where they served. This National Lottery Good Causes film tells the story of Robert Coupe who applied for funding for a commemorative trip and has since successfully applied for a second trip.
Since 2009, over £25 million has been awarded to more than 52,000 World War II veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK for journeys in the UK and to countries including France, Germany, the Middle East, the Far East.
To use the new ‘Good Cause Finder’ to see projects in your area, or to find out more about Just Imagine January, visit www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and follow Lottery Good Causes on Twitter: @lottogoodcauses
Filed under: D-Day, Navy | Tags: Christmas, D-Day, Far East, H.M.S Pique, H.M.S Scylla, Heroes Return, History, Ian Gordon, Juno Beach, Manchester, Norway, Royal Navy, Second World War, Singapore, Tunsberg Castle, VJ Day, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Royal Navy coder Ian Gordon struggled desperately to escape as the Tunsberg Castle began to sink beneath the icy December waters of the Norwegian fjord. The exploding mine had ripped through the quarterdeck killing five men and jamming shut a solid steel door entombing Ian and his shipmate in a tiny cabin below. As the black water rose, Ian, just 19, did not expect to see 20.
The approach of Christmas for WW2 veteran Ian Gordon, now 88, will bring back very special memories of 69 years ago when he was given survivors leave for a surprise visit home, and an emotional reunion with his family on Christmas morning 1944.
As the festive season brings 2013 to a close, the Big Lottery Fund has to date awarded over £26.6 million to more than 54,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK under its Heroes Return 2 programme.
Ian from the Isle of Wight is just one of many veterans receiving a Christmas award today. Born in Manchester, Ian was conscripted into the Royal Navy in July 1943 aged 18. After a series of tests he discovered he was colour blind so was assigned duties as a coder in naval communications, responsible for deciphering Morse code transmissions.
First Christmas in hospital
After training at combined operations base HMS Vectis, Ian caught jaundice and spent his first Christmas in the Navy laid up in hospital. Once recovered he underwent further training in Warrington before being posted to Devonport, Plymouth to prepare for the D-Day assault on Juno Beach aboard HMS Lawford, headquarters ship for Assault Group 1, Force 1.
He recalls: “At the beginning of June 1944 we left the Beaulieu River to join the frigate
H.M S. Lawford lying in Cowes Roads amid a big concentration of ships and landing craft of all descriptions. We weighed anchor at about 2100 on June 5th and slipped out through the Spithead Channel to lead our flotilla of assault landing craft south for Normandy, battle ensign streaming.
“Later that evening we gathered in the wireless office where our group signals officer unrolled a chart of the Normandy coast. He described the general plan for the invasion – our first official intimation that this was the real thing. Our group was to land the Canadians on Juno Beach.
“After the initial assault on Juno on D-Day I was off watch and fast asleep in the after mess deck when two 500lb bombs struck us amidships. Up on deck I could see that some men were already in the water, no doubt having been blown there by the explosion.”
“The ship was listing severely to starboard. A group of us on the quarterdeck were ordered to make our way to the forecastle, which we did, but there was clearly nothing we could do to save the ship.”
He continued: “Another lurch to starboard and I heard a voice on the bridge immediately above us: ‘She’s going Sir’, then came the order to abandon ship. I don’t know how long our small group were in the water clinging to a rolled-up scrambling net; probably about an hour before we were picked up by the minesweeper H.M.S. Pique. Some of the survivors had broken bones and there was one guy wrapped up in cotton wool. He had been in the boiler room and was scalded very badly.
“Wrapped in blankets and warmed by a tot of neat rum we were transferred to the cruiser H.M.S. Scylla, and our Captain was promptly ordered to find himself another ship and get back to the Normandy coast a.s.a.p.
Farewell to old shipmates
Ian said: “Lawford never came back. She’s still there, lying some 30 metres deep off Arromanches with 26 of my shipmates who didn’t make it when she was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft in the early hours of June 8th when coming to anchor off Gold Beach.
He recalls “I was transferred to HMS Frobisher and returned to England. We got four days leave. I was sent to HMS Waveney and then back to Exbury. It was there that I heard that the Captain (D) Liverpool base was looking for a coder. I volunteered as I thought I would be near home.”
But Ian soon discovered that far from being closer to home he had in fact volunteered to serve on a Norwegian corvette as part of an Arctic Convoy Escort, and duly sailed on the Tunsberg Castle on convoy JW 62 to Murmansk in Russia, arriving Polyarny at the Kola Inlet early December 1944. After a few days in Murmansk the Tunsberg along with another corvette and two minesweepers, were ordered to proceed to Båtsfjord, a small community at the end of a narrow fjord on the north side of the Varanger peninsula, in Finnmark, Norway, where a radio station was to be established.
Ian recalls: “The fjord was a sort of no man’s land between the Germans and the Russians. The people there were starving and we were taking food and supplies. We were the leading ship. We got into the entrance of the fjord where we sighted a merchant ship.
“My action station was the auxiliary wireless transmitter housed in the ship’s carpenter’s tiny cabin/workshop. It was accessed by one steel door in the after superstructure leading off the quarterdeck. My post was shared with a Norwegian telegraphist, Thorvald (Tony) Andersen.
“We hadn’t been closed up at action stations long before we felt the vibration as the ship increased speed, then almost immediately afterwards, there was a loud explosion. We had hit a mine. The steel deck came up beneath us and we were both sent sprawling. The steel door that provided our only means of escape was jammed tight shut.
Ian continued: “We knew the ship was sinking and we were really struggling for a while but thanks to Tony Andersen, who was much stronger than I was, we eventually forced the door open just enough for us to get through. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”
Ian was rescued by escort corvette Eglantine which came alongside and took off the survivors before Tunsberg slipped beneath the icy waters. With the Tunsberg lost, the operation was abandoned and Ian went back to Polyarny. He was then given two weeks survivors leave and took passage back to the UK in a British frigate.
Surprise homecoming for Christmas
He said: “While I was out in Russia I met this guy from Urmston who said he would let my parents know that I was ok, though he wasn’t allowed to tell them anything about where I was. I arrived back in Manchester on Christmas Eve and stayed at the YMCA overnight before catching the first tram home to Chorlton-cum-hardy on Christmas morning.
It was quite a surprise for everyone when I suddenly turned up on the doorstep. It was great. I spent the time with my family and friends. As I was doing my rounds one guy even said to me ‘third time unlucky’, referring to my previous escapes from sinking ships. I could have done without that.”
Battle ready for the New Year
Christmas over, Ian once again said his farewells before being transferred to Devonport and in spring 1945 was posted out to the Far East with Combined operations as part of a landing party on the Malay Peninsula.
He remembers: “We were sailing into Bombay docks. We were all set with our rations and jungle green uniforms when an Indian newspaper broke the news that the bomb had been dropped. We didn’t know anything about a bomb. Suddenly all the ships started making ‘V’ for Victory. It was wonderful.”
Ian was transferred to Escort carrier HMS Pursuer and sailed up to Port Swettenham in Penang where the captain went ashore with 200 marines.
He recalls: “The Japanese soldiers were piling their weapons and all seemed ok till their officers were asked to hand over their swords. They were very reluctant to do this so the marines held rifles to the heads of Japanese officers telling them they had five minutes to comply. The officers held out for about four minutes then capitulated.”
After three months Ian was transferred to Singapore for Christmas 1945. He said: “It was decided we would have a Christmas dance. So we invited the girls from the Post Office who we were told were very respectable. At the time there was a shortage of ice cream in Singapore so we advertised the dance offering ‘ice cream for ladies only’. It was a good dance and we had a really good laugh.”
Ian finally returned home on HMS Manxman in August 1946. He will travel with his wife on a Heroes Return trip back to Norway in summer 2014.
Looking back, he said: “I was extremely lucky; there were times when I really thought I’d had it.”
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, Heroes Return | Tags: Commemorative, D-Day, D-Day landings, France, funding, Heroes Return, History, Normandy, Older people, Remembrance, Ron Rowson, Second World War, veteran, World War Two, WW2, WWII
In June 2012 Ron took part in the annual pilgrimage to Normandy with D-Day Revisited, his first trip back since 1944, which proved a very moving trip for him. His commemorative journey was funded by the Heroes Return 2 programme.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Heroes Return, Remembrance Day | Tags: £27 million, Commemorations, Europe, Far East, funding, Heroes Return, History, Infographic, Journeys, Middle East, Remembrance, Remembrance Sunday, Second World War, veterans, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Since launching in 2009 the Heroes Return programme has funded more than 50,000 veterans to make commemorative trips to where they served in World War Two.
These journeys have included emotional reunions on the beaches of Normandy, meeting old comrades across the battlefields of Arnhem, pilgrimages to remembrance sites across the Far East, and attending events and commemorative trips across the UK.
- The Big Lottery Fund has paid for 55,001 veterans and their companions to visit places where they saw action
- £27m has been awarded under the Heroes Return programme
- 32,121 veterans have visited Northern and Western Europe (including the UK)
- 13,177 veterans have visited the Mediterranean and North Africa
- 1,997 veterans have visited Egypt, Libya and the Middle East
- 7,706 veterans have visited the Far East and the rest of the world
The Heroes Return programme has recently been extended to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips to the places they served across the world. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.
If you know a WW2 veteran who may be eligible for a commemorative trip please contact the Heroes Return helpline on: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Have you been on a Heroes Return trip to where you served or do you know of someone who has? We’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments below or join the conversation on Twitter using #HeroesReturn.
Filed under: France, Remembrance Day | Tags: Eddie Linton, funding, Heroes Return, History, HMS Adventure, HMS Mourne, Newport, Normandy, Remembrance, Royal Navy, Second World War, Wales, War, Welsh, World War Two, WW2, WWII
As we prepare to remember those who died in the line of duty on 11 November, a Welsh D-Day veteran whose ship was sunk by a German U-Boat with the loss of 110 lives recalls how he was lucky to have survived.
Thanks to an award from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, 87 year old Eddie Linton from Newport recently visited the beaches of Normandy for the first time to lay a wreath in memory of the 110 fellow crew-members that lost their lives on the frigate, HMS Mourne – the ship he served on during WW2.
Eddie recalls with sadness the first time the War hit home for him: “I remember walking to school and my friend looked a bit down so I asked him what was wrong,” recalls Eddie.
“‘My brother has been killed, he got blown up on HMS Adventure’ (1939) he said. I think she was the first ship blown up in the War and it brought it all home for me and I knew then what it was all about and how sad it was.”
To read Eddie’s story in full, visit the Big Lottery Fund 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: Far East, Heroes Return, Remembrance Day | Tags: Death Railway, Far East, Heroes Return, History, National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association, PoWs, Prisoner of War, RAF, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Second World War, Thai-Burma, veterans, War, World War Two, WW2
As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 10th), veterans across the country will be embarking on emotional journeys both in the UK and across the world to pay their respects to those who lost their lives over 70 years ago.
The Big Lottery Fund has to date awarded over £26.6 million to more than 54,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK under its Heroes Return 2 programme.
Among those who have received an award is the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association for a journey to Singapore and Thailand. The group, nearly all in their 90s, will be attending remembrance ceremonies in Singapore, and will travel to the infamous ‘Death Railway’ camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, scene of the Bridge over the River Kwai, to mark 11 November Remembrance Day commemorations.
Travelling with the group is 93-year old veteran POW William Mundy from Dartford, Kent. An RAF Aircraftman, William was 20 years old when he sailed from Gourock in Scotland on 3rd December 1941, on the City of Canterbury, bound for Kuala Lumpur. But as the Japanese made rapid advances through Malaya, William was re-routed to Batavia, (now Jakarta).
However, RAF operational life on the island of Java would prove to be short lived as William and his comrades were taken prisoner by the Japanese in Garoet, after the Dutch forces capitulated. Sent to Boei Glodok prison in February 1942, William then spent 1943-1944 incarcerated on Java, after which he was taken to Ambon, and then back to Java for another six weeks.
The Java POWs were set to work building airfields with ‘chunkels’ (wide hoes) used to chip away at the coral which was then hauled in baskets slung on poles. Only a third returned from these camps, as the death rate was one of the highest with the prisoners suffering constant maltreatment, beatings, starvation and illnesses.
He recalls; “We had to make a two days march from Ambon harbour to Liang, where we built an airstrip.
“On route to Liang is a Christian village, Waai. The villagers there took great risks, when we were working on the road through the village, to pass titbits under the walls of the hut to us.”
“No matter where I was in prison, the diet was the same; breakfast pint of steamed rice and spoonful of sugar, mid day three quarters of a pint steamed rice and “green” water and in the evening one pint of steamed rice and the “greens” that had been cooked in the mid-day water.
“Only those who were working were allocated food, so we needed to share ours with those in hospital or otherwise sick.”
“In Ambon it was breakfast before 8am and then a march of about three quarters of a mile to the airstrip, dressed only with a strip of material between the legs and so far as we could some sort of foot wear. Walking on the coral was soul destroying. There was a brief break between when we got there and started “work” and the arrival of the mid-day meal and another in the afternoon before returning to camp about six or six–thirty for the evening meal. Treatment, as experienced by all the prisoners was harsh as the ‘powers that be’ wanted the work finished yesterday.”
In June 1944 William was put on a transport ship destined for the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ but was taken off the boat at Singapore and hospitalised at Changi suffering from Beriberi disease. After six months in hospital he was transferred to the local Kranji prison as part of a forced labour group digging into the granite hillside to form bomb proof storage chambers.
After the Japanese surrender, William returned to the UK via Colombo, Suez and Liverpool on a Dutch boat in October 1945.
William said: “I think most people would ask why on earth I would want to go back to where I had such a traumatic experience. There are the war graves, where some of the 775 out of the 1,000 who didn’t survive are buried, and I would appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their sacrifice. ”
He continued: “Visiting the graves would also provide an opportunity to thank Almighty God for his grace, mercy, love and preservation which brought me safely back to the UK. I know I can continually do this but on the site would be very appropriate.”
William, who plans to take plenty of photographs to record his experience of the trip said: “I would like these to be able to give my children and grandchildren the knowledge of what happened.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Army, Heroes Return | Tags: Arnhem, Glider, Glider Pilot Regiment, Heroes Return, Holland, Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, netherlands, Operation Market Garden, Rhine, South Staffordshire Regiment
Commemorating the 69th anniversary of Operation Market Garden (Arnhem, Holland, 17–25 September 1944) is WW2 veteran Arthur Shackleton, 94, from Dorchester. He will be making an historic journey to the battlefields of Holland 69 years on to attend key commemorations and pay respects to old comrades. Arthur will be supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
Arthur was part of a force of over 86,000 men who were involved in a daring operation to seize control of bridges and river crossings in Germany and the Netherlands. The Allied assault (September 17-25 1944) was initially successful, but ultimately ended in defeat with thousands killed and many more injured or taken prisoner.
Aged 25, Arthur was a Staff Sergeant, First Pilot in the Glider Pilot Regiment. Piloting a Horsa Glider, he transported troops from the South Staffordshire Regiment to a designated landing strip at Wolfheze, 8 kilometers from Arnhem, as part of the first wave of landings on Sunday 17th September 1944.
Arthur recalls: “We had quite a few skirmishes on the way to Arnhem. When we reached the Arnhem road just outside of the town we saw a German staff car with four bodies hanging out of it. I remembers seeing blood in the road which trickled down the side of the road into a little stream. We later found out that one of the dead was a German General Kusseins, commander of the town who against explicit advice had come out to see what was happening.”
Arthur and comrades then came under intense air bombardment from Messcherschmidt fighters.
He said: “We realised after a while that they weren’t shooting at us. They were attacking the gliders at the nearby landing zone. We heard that they had captured the allied battle orders from one of the crashed gliders. But the Germans weren’t sure whether to believe the plans so they waited for the next landing. But the fog in England was so bad that the next wave of gliders didn’t come so the Germans thought it wasn’t going ahead, and dismissed it.”
“We reached the outskirts of Arnhem and were in the middle of a battle when suddenly a man came running out of a hospital shouting that his wife was having a baby. He rushed up to me and grabbed my tunic begging me to help him. I pointed him over to a soldier with a red cross armband. That was the last I saw of him and I’ve often wondered what happened to him and his wife, and if the baby was born.”
The Parachute regiment decided to put in an attack on Arnhem, and the troops positioned themselves outside of the town. Arthur and comrades took possession of a derelict house .
He recalls, “It was very dark, very eery, the windows were all blown out and the wind was whistling through. At dawn we started the attack. But they were waiting for us with Panzer tanks. Three hundred and fifty of us were killed in just one hour. It was over three quarters of our number. We were finally given the order to retreat and went back to Oosterbeek where they positioned themselves in and around the Hartenstein Hotel.
He said” I was looking forward to having four walls around me but we were never in the hotel. We were always patrolling outside around trenches looking to see who had been killed or injured. They were shells screaming over all the time. I was frightened to death. I thought we were all going to get killed.”
It was 10 days after their initial landing that the troops finally got the order to pull out.
“Major Urqhuart came to tell us what was happening and asked the glider pilots to act as guides down to the River Rhine. At three in the morning we went down toward the river. As we came out of some woods we saw six troops. They were lost and making a lot of noise. Our Major told them to keep quiet. Then they were told to follow me. When we got down to the bank of the river I asked them to lay down and keep quiet. Suddenly I heard this burst of machine gun fire and I felt like someone had hit my arm with a sledgehammer. When I turned I saw that the others were dead. Then I felt my hand was sticky and blood running down my sleeve.”
“At first it was numb then it started to hurt really badly as I got down to the river bank. I was put in a boat with other wounded.
We were crossing over when I heard this muffled bang and suddenly I was in the river on my back. All I could see were light flashes. I thought I was going to drown. Suddenly I felt my leg bump down into some mud and I heard someone say ‘here’s a body washed up’ and I shouted, ‘I’m not a body, I’m alive!’
Arthur was pulled to safety and after receiving medical treatment he was taken to Brussels and from there brought back to Birmingham where he recovered in hospital and finally discharged in late October 1944. However, Arthur was soon back in service and later took part in the Rhine Crossing of 1945, which eventually led to the defeat of the Germans.
Filed under: Army, D-Day, Heroes Return, RAF | Tags: Bonnybridge, D-Day, France, History, John Wotherspoon, Maureen McGinn, Normandy, Rose Gallagher, Royal Air Force, Scotland, Scottish, Second World War, Socttish Royal Engineers, South Africa, Stirlingshire, veterans, World War Two
The Big Lottery Fund today announces its latest round of funding made through Heroes Return 2, which enables veterans to embark on poignant visits back to the places where they saw action almost 70 years ago.
John Wotherspoon, 88, from Bonnybridge in Stirlingshire, made a special trip back to the beaches of Normandy in June this year. Thomas served in the 15th Division of the Scottish Royal Engineers and landed in France two weeks after the D Day Landings on June, 20 1944.
John said, “A lot of people don’t know but there was still a lot of fighting going on. We were a mile or so behind the infantry guys; the Germans were really organised and we were being attacked from all sides. I was only 18 at the time and had never really experienced anything like that before. I have been back to Normandy before but on this trip I got to do things that I didn’t get a chance to do the first time. It meant a lot for me to go back again. It’s really hard to explain to people but it still makes me emotional after all those years.”
Rose Gallagher, from Troon is going to South Africa in January next year. Rose said, “My husband, Thomas, was in the Royal Air Force and spent over three years of the war there training pilots. He died in 1992 but he used to talk about the place a lot. He loved the country but unfortunately he never got the chance to go back.
“He applied for a job there shortly after the War ended and even had an interview lined up but he met me and that was that. I’m going back with our daughter and we would like to try and go to some of the places he spoke about. It’s lovely to get this experience and also have the chance to feel close to him again.”
John and Rose are amongst six Scottish Second World War veterans who will be making poignant commemorative visits as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
Big Lottery Fund Scotland Chair, Maureen McGinn, said, “We are extremely proud to support veterans and their families to reflect on their experiences of the Second World War. The heroism of that time should never be forgotten and the stories we hear from those who served with such distinction are testament to that.
“Earlier this year the Big Lottery Fund extended the programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. In this way, Lottery funding continues to assist these modest heroes and their families join up with their comrades and revisit the places where they demonstrated such dedication and bravery.
Filed under: Burma | Tags: Burma, Chindits, Euston, Heroes Return, Japanese, Jim Clark, Kettering, Kings Liverpool Regiment, National Memorial Arboretum, Royal Norfolk Regiment, Royal Suffolk Home Guards, Second World War, Suffolk, The Forgotten Army, veteran, VJ Day, World War Two
As we approach the historic anniversary of VJ Day (Thursday 15 August), 68 years after the Japanese surrender that finally brought an end to the Second World War, many World War II veterans are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme.
89-year-old Jim Clark from Kettering in Northants was working as an apprentice grocer when he received his call up papers in December 1942. Aged 18, he joined the Royal Suffolk Home Guards, and underwent a six week motor training course on driving and maintenance before joining the Royal Norfolk Regiment at rank of Private.
After a short spell of embarkation leave, Jim’s regiment was sent to Liverpool where they boarded a Dutch cargo boat destined for Bombay via the Mediterranean and Suez.
Landing in Bombay the regiment then endured the 150 mile week-long train journey to Deolali transit camp, nicknamed ‘Doolally’: notorious for its unpleasant environment and its psychological effect, known as the ‘Doolally tap’, suffered by the soldiers who passed through it.
Moved on to a training camp in Jhansi, Jim was transferred to the Kings Regiment, (Liverpool) to become part of the Chindits, a special force of British, Gurkha and Burma regiments assembled by renowned British Army Officer Orde Wingate to develop and carry out guerilla warfare and long range penetration deep behind Japanese lines.
Jim will be travelling on a Heroes Return 2 grant to the National Memorial Arboretum where along with old comrades he will visit the Chindit memorial as part of a special 68th anniversary commemoration. Jim who also hopes to return to Burma next year said, “The Lottery funding has made such a difference.”
“Looking back I was very lucky. I made a lot of friends but a lot of them didn’t make it.”
Visit the newsroom to read Jim’s moving story in full.
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Cambridge, John Field, Operation Husky, Operation Mincemeat, Operation Zipper, RMS Maloja, Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, Royal Navy, Sicily, SS Bergensfjord, Stuka, U-Boat
John Field crouched in the packed hold of the converted allied troop ship RMS Maloja as it slipped through the deadly U-Boat killing grounds of the North Atlantic. Billeted deep below the water line John knew that he and his comrades would never survive a dreaded torpedo attack. Terrified to sleep he began to pray, a desperate act that would bring a calm and lasting spiritual courage to the 20-year old Royal Marine armourer in the dark days to come.
John, now 92, 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.
In 1941, as Britain waited under the threat of a German invasion, 19 year-old Cambridge lad John Field was earning his stripes as an apprentice locksmith.
Upon reaching his 20th birthday John joined up with the Royal Navy, and underwent training as an Armourer, gun fitter. A year later John set sail on troop ship RMS Maloja bound for the Middle East via the Cape Route, stopping at Sierra Leone, Durban and arriving in Suez.
He recalls: “We went the long way round to try and avoid the U- Boats but got chased by some on our route towards Iceland. Troop quarters were well below the ship’s waterline and I was absolutely terrified as we wouldn’t be able to get out if a torpedo hit us. I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t even get into my hammock or take my shoes off.
“I wanted to be able to get onto the rope ladder and climb up as quickly as possible if something happened. This fear gripped me for some time until one night I just started to say the Lord’s Prayer and kept saying it till it gradually calmed me down. After a while, I took off my boots, got into the hammock and went to sleep. It was a spiritual experience which helped me keep calm. I was never afraid like that again.”
Arriving safely in Suez John was sent to an allied base at Quassassin where he was put to work maintaining and repairing tank guns. He said: “We were given a square block of steel from which we had to make replacement bits for guns. Everything had to be absolutely accurate. That’s where my training as a locksmith came in. We were glad to have this job to protect our mates, but glad not to be doing the shooting.”
In early July 1943 John set sail from Port Said to Sicily on SS Bergensfjord in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, codenamed ‘Operation Husky’. The mission was to launch a large scale amphibious and airborne attack that would drive the Axis air, land and naval forces from the island; a move that would open up the Mediterranean sea lanes and pave the way for the invasion of the Italian mainland.
John was assigned to the Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, (RM NBDO) responsible for the capture and maintenance of enemy gun defences.
He remembers, “As we approached Sicily we had to transfer into a Landing Craft to get in close. Aircraft were bombing and machine gunning us. The Landing
Craft in front was hit and destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. I was quite calm. I had a job to do. We were very young. We thought we were immortal.”
“There were three beaches, ‘George’, ‘Item’, and ‘Hal’, which was our beach. There was very little troop resistance as the Germans had transferred their army to Crete thanks to Operation Mincemeat. Once we were near the shore we jumped into the water and waded the rest of the way. Then we ran up the beach and managed to take cover in a farmhouse. We were very thankful for this.”
The next day John and his comrades set off marching towards the port of Syracuse. He recalls; “Our rations were biscuits and dry foods, anything that was light to carry. There was an incident about water and an officer told us not to drink from the springs. When we arrived just south of Syracuse we went up onto a headland. There was a lighthouse and a scattering of guns.
“We took over ten guns that weren’t damaged. Two of the guns looked very peculiar. They were four inch anti-aircraft guns which we used for barrage against attacking planes. One night, one of them exploded and the barrel fell off. Luckily no one was hurt. We couldn’t understand why this had happened till we found an Italian handbook with bits marked in red ink which translated read, ‘On no account use more than seven shells when firing.’
We later saw a whole group of Italian soldiers going home to their wives and families. They walked off and left their billets. There was just one group of German infantry defending Syracuse and after three days they retreated.”
The RM NBDO was then deployed to repair guns across the island. On one occasion John found himself in the middle of a ferocious battle for the capture of the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River, a move that would give the Eighth Army vital access for an allied advance across the Catania plain, driving enemy forces back toward the Italian mainland.
He recalls: “We had to go out to an 88 millimetre German gun stuck on the other side of the river. The Germans were up in the hills beyond the river and as we crossed from the British side the shells were exchanging over our heads. When we eventually reached the gun we marvelled at its engineering.”
After Sicily, John came down with jaundice and was sent to Scotland on sick leave.
Once recovered, he was involved in the testing of Landing Ship Docks in the Mediterranean, before being posted back to Suez. In 1945 he was sent out to India and the Far East as part of Operation Zipper.
He recalls, “The Japanese were still resisting. They didn’t know the bomb had been dropped. Communication lines were not good at this time.”
However, after the final surrender John was posted to Singapore where he spent his final months of the war as a dockyard policeman before finally arriving back home in England in early 1946. Five years after the war John travelled back to India to live and work as a missionary for over 20 years.
John is now looking forward to travelling back to Sicily with his family, where he will retrace his steps across the island. He said: “I wouldn’t have dreamt of going back if it wasn’t for Heroes Return. It will be marvellous after 70 years.”