Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips


Saluting the fallen, Remembrance 2014

Never forgotten Remembrance Day veterans salute the fallen

As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism and fortitude of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 9) veterans across the country are 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.

Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth HighlanderTo reflect the nation’s debt to our Armed Forces veterans of WW2 the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over  £28 million to more than 57,000 WW2 veterans, spouses, widows and carers since 2004 to make journeys of remembrance.

Peter Ainsworth chair of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “As we approach this important day of commemorations it is with gratitude and pride that the country remembers and honours our veterans who endured the horrors of war and whose courage and sacrifice finally brought an end to a conflict that cost over 60 million lives across the world.”

Among those benefiting from the Heroes Return programme today is Colonel Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth Highlander.

On Sept 1939 Edward was an 18 year-old third year Electrical Engineering apprentice in HM Naval Dockyard, Devonport and a student at HM Dockyard School.

He remembers: “Third year apprentices were required to spend that year ‘afloat’, that is working on ships that were already in service with a naval crew. All those working in naval dockyards were exempt from call up and like many young men at the time we couldn’t wait to be called up and immediately wanted to volunteer to join the Forces in a unit of our choice. We were told we could not and should not.

“By nature I am a loner and inclined to find my own solutions so I wrote to the Admiral Superintendant, HM Dockyard, Devonport and he gave me permission to volunteer, adding that my training would be particularly valuable in the Royal Navy. But, I failed the RN Medical Board because I did not have perfect 20/20 vision and spectacles were unacceptable.” 

Consequently, he volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment joining them in early 1941 at Bovington camp in Dorset. Training as a tank radio operator/driver he was then sent to active service in the Middle East in early 1942, serving as tank Trooper in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) with the 7th Hussars part of the 7th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats.

He recalls: “When we eventually reached Egypt I went down with the awful Sand Fly Fever and ended up in the British military hospital in Helwan, a leafy suburb of Cairo. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire 7th Armoured Brigade were rushed to Rangoon with their light tanks to attempt to defend Burma against the Japanese. It was a terrible battle with much sickness.

“The Brigade was driven back into India, with practically everyone suffering from malaria and dysentery and it took many months and much reinforcement before the brigade eventually returned to Egypt. We missed the first Battle of El Alamein. Those like me, when we left hospital went to our depots in the Canal Zone and were formed and trained as complete tank crews with firstly Grant tanks and later with Sherman tanks.” 

Edward’s crew was reallocated as part replacement crews to the many other RTR units in time for the second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and formed up beyond Alexandria as part of a replacement troop of 5th RTR.

“My tank was hit early on and caught fire,” he recalls.” My back was burnt getting out of the turret and I ended up again in the British military hospital at Helwan, in Cairo. When I was fully fit again I was chosen for a commission in the Infantry as a Seaforth Highlander, 2nd Lieutenant, in late 1943 but by then there were no Seaforth units in the Middle East, so I volunteered and passed the selection process for the SAS, including the essential parachute training.”

Edward now a Captain in the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR) went on to take part in raids and longer operations working with the working with the Special  Boating Services (SBS) in Italy the Aegean Islands, Albania, and Yugoslavia, including  two raids on the Albanian coast and the occupation of the Island of Vis, off the German held Yugoslavian coast.

He said: “It was very difficult for the Germans to defend the Adriatic and Italian coast. There was a main road that ran up from Brindisi to Venice where we could land agents. In the Aegeans we worked with the Special Boating Services (SBS) on short sharp raids. There were thousands of Greek Islands and we could mingle in with the local fishing boats.”

In January 1945 after returning to Special Forces HQ in Bari, Italy, Edward was then summoned to form part of Monty’s final push into Germany.

He recalls: “We used to love going back to base in Bari. It was always full of nice British girls. We’d try and stay at the Hotel Imperiali, built by Mussolini and taken over by the NAAFI.  The Commanding Officer came all the way to Bari to claim me as his battalion was about to go into the front line short of officers, whereas, as far as he could see I was “only dancing with FANY’s.”

As part of the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Edward moved up through France direct from Italy to join the 5th Division for the Rhine Crossings and advance into Germany where after a few battles the Battalion reached Lubeck and Wismar on the Baltic.

The European War now over, in July 1945 Edward flew to Ceylon in a Sunderland Flying Boat to join Force 136 Special Operations Executive (SOE). 

He said: “Luckily for me, before I was parachuted into Japanese – held lands, the A bombs were dropped in August and my war service ended with a fiancée, Veronica who was serving in the ATS in Mountbatten’s HQ in Kandy where Force 136 also had its HQ.

“We married in July 1946, and lived very happily for 57 years till sadly Veronica died in 2003, having given me four marvellous children.”

Edward reflects: “Remembrance Day means a lot to me. I was born just after World War One ended. I lost two uncles only 20 at the time so there was grief in the family. But as you grow older it becomes more important and given the opportunity to go back and visit battle sites, remembrance becomes much much more important, and you begin to have regrets  that you didn’t do more  about remembering. It does become terribly important.” 

“I think Heroes Return is a marvellous idea and I’m very grateful to have been able to make these important trips with the support of the lottery. I think Heroes Return has got it right, just in time to allow thousands of veterans to go back, many who might not have otherwise been able to. What I like about it too is that the funding is not means tested. It helps every veteran, like we were in the war, all equal, all one.”

The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has awarded over £28 million to over 57,000 WW2 veterans, widows and carers since 2004.

The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.

This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have already been funded since the programme relaunched in 2009 will have a second opportunity to apply for a grant towards travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served, or make a commemorative visit in the UK.

For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Journey to Singapore memorial to find brother’s name
August 18, 2014, 10:26 am
Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return, memorial, Singapore

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.

Charles Medhurst

Charles Medhurst photograph by Sandra Rowse

“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.”



Jim to return to Monte Cassino for 70th anniversary

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.

Jim Knox

Jim Knox with a painting presented to him by the Ilford Branch of the Parachute Regimental Association.

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.

Jim in his teens

Jim in his teens

“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.

Jim (far left) with fellow Paras, Italy

Jim (far left) with fellow Paras, Italy

“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.

 



Film: Heroes hitchhike to Normandy

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



Xmas award for Heroes Return to scene of dramatic escape

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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.

Abandon ship!

“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.”

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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

hrblog-xmas3He 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



Ron Rowson returns to Normandy

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



Infographic: Heroes Return journeys to date

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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.




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