At the age of 17, a year before he was called up to serve in the war, Charles Medhurst opened the telegram which told him that his 19-year-old brother had been killed in Burma.
Now at the age of 89, Charles is embarking on an emotional journey to the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore to find his brother’s name.
“I had a terrible feeling as I opened the telegram,” said Charles, from Greenwich. “I had to go and tell my mother, who collapsed. She never got over it. She never said anything when I was called up a year later but she must have been upset.
“I was called up in July 1943 and became a wireless operator in the RAF but they needed men for the Royal Navy so I was detailed. I’d never been on water before!”
As a telegraphist in the Navy, Charles had to take down Morse code messages at a speed of 26 words a minute. Charles found himself on HMS Malaya – a battleship that took part in the bombardment of German fortifications on the French island of Cezembre.
He recalled: “It was shattering. I was able to watch because I was off duty and we had to wear anti-flash hoods. When you have eight 15-inch guns firing broadsides it has quite an impact on you. It’s frightening. At the same time the RAF was bombing the island as well. It was quite a long distance away but the shape of the island appeared to change from the bombardment.”
Charles was due to take part in D Day but Malaya was replaced shortly beforehand by HMS Warspite. Malaya sailed to Scotland and took part in trials of updated versions of the bouncing bomb famously used in the Dambusters raid. Malaya moored in Loch Striven and while a crew including Charles was on board, inert prototypes were aimed at the ship, successfully striking Malaya. One was reported to have punched a hole in the ship’s side.
“I do remember a dummy bomb actually hitting our ship while I was on board!”, said Charles.
Charles sailed by liner from Liverpool to Halifax in Canada where he took a five day train ride through the Rockies to board HMS Beachy Head in Vancouver. From there the ship sailed via San Francisco to the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific.
He recalled fondly: “We had a day’s leave ashore and played football with the locals who gave me a gift of a necklace made of shells. I’ve still got the necklace to this day. They were such friendly people.”
If Tuvalu represented a South Pacific paradise, the next destination was a stark reminder of the war that still raged elsewhere in the Pacific.
He said: “From there we went to Hawaii where we went to Pearl Harbour and could still see the tops of the ships that were sunk in the Japanese attack. When we got to Darwin in Australia, which had been bombed by the Japanese, it was like a ghost town. They were afraid of a Japanese invasion and many people had deserted the city. Parts of it looked like the set of a Wild West film with shutter doors swinging in the breeze.”
After refuelling in New Guinea, Beachy Head sailed to the Solomon Islands and towards Singapore.
“We were only going at a rate of ten knots which was a little unnerving,” said Charles. “However we had a skeleton crew of three telephonists so we were constantly on duty so didn’t really have time to think about the dangers. We went from Singapore to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now, and from there our ship commanded mine sweeping operations around the Indian Ocean. I spent a week’s leave in the hills which were so green and peaceful. By the time we got to Penang in Malaysia the Japanese had surrendered.”
Charles returned home on an aircraft carrier via the Suez Canal and was demobbed in October 1946.
Charles said: “When I joined the forces I’d never been away from home. We were a poor family. I was lucky during the war – I didn’t fight in the front line and didn’t face the dangers that others did.
“When my brother was killed, all that my mother got was a telegram saying he had been killed on March 24 1942 and that there were no remains or personal effects.
“It wasn’t until last year that I decided to try and find out more. I contacted the War Graves Commission and they put me in touch with the Royal Air Force. I received a very helpful letter about what happened. Henry was ground staff with the air force in Burma. They were being evacuated as the Japanese advanced but didn’t get out in time. The Japanese launched an attack on the airfield in Toungoo with grenades and mortars.
“My brother Henry died aged just 19. He would have been 92 if he were alive today. When I think about how young he was when he died, it’s tragic. He was just one of thousands.”
Charles is currently preparing for his visit to Sri Lanka and Singapore where he will make an emotional visit to the Kranji War Memorial to find his brother’s name.
Charles said: “It’s important to visit the memorial and see his name – to see that he has been recognised for giving his life at such a young age.”
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, ceremony, Heroes Return, Heroes Return 2, Monte Cassino, veterans, World War Two, WW2
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, is Jim Knox, 89, from Upminster, Havering. Jim is returning to the battlefields in May 2014 with the Monte Cassino Society.
The battle (January – May 1944) was fought to capture a vital German stronghold and open up the way for the main allied advance into Rome and claimed over 50,000 lives.
Jim joined the Army in 1941 aged 16 after persuading the sergeant at Romford Army recruitment office that he was 18. In August 1942 he volunteered for the Paras and joined 4th Parachute Battalion, part of the 2nd Parachute Brigade. Jim first served in North Africa, landing at Oran in early 1943. The 2nd Brigade landed in Italy at Taranto in September and moved up the west coast to the Sangro river where the brigade became the Independent Parachute Brigade, joining forces with a New Zealand Division patrolling the Gustav Line.
He recalled: “Once on night patrol the two lads in front heard some talking – our officer who could understand German crept up to listen and could hear what their plans were. It was a German fighting patrol – about eight or nine of them – armed with rapid fire Schmeiser machine guns which had a terrific firepower. We wouldn’t have stood a chance against them so we crept inside a mausoleum. They stopped right outside and we could hear them talking. Luckily they didn’t come in.
“The most frightening time of the war for me was going into Monte Cassino for the first time. There was a tremendous noise from the mortars and this hideous yellow smog. The sky was lit up red and yellow and we could see flames. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realised that was Vesuvius erupting. It was like walking into hell. The stench was horrible from dead mules and dead soldiers. It was terrifying.
“We were with a New Zealand division at the railway station and Germans were dug in just a few yards away at the Continental Hotel. We were so close that we shouted abuse at each other.
“You could hardly move – and you only moved at night. And we constantly worried about treading on a mine. The mortaring was constant from both sides. It was a bit like trench warfare at the First World War – a stalemate – no one could move. You did get the odd glimpse of a German but very rarely. If there was any movement from either side everyone would open fire.
“I was on a two inch mortar – when you saw a flash you had to send some back in that direction. We were there for 13 days until the Poles advanced to the monastery.”
Following the battle for Monte Cassino, Jim was parachuted into France, behind enemy lines. The daring operation to surround and contain a German garrison at Le Muy took place a few days before the invasion of the Southern France in August 1944. Jim was awarded the Legion d’honneur – the highest decoration in France – following his work with French Resistance guerrillas, the Maquis, during the operation.
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.