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


Remembering Market Garden by Big Lottery Fund

World War Two veteran holding medals

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.

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Scottish veterans return to where they served by Big Lottery Fund

Veteran holds medals

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.

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



BIG salute on VE-Day anniversary by Big Lottery Fund

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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



The Troop Surrenders by Big Lottery Fund
June 24, 2011, 11:23 am
Filed under: Army, D-Day, France, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

One Normandy veteran, Eric Goldrein from Liverpool, recalls taking singlehandedly the surrender of a German troop, part of a fierce enemy resistance force against the allied invasion.     

Eric volunteered for service in 1939 aged 18 years old. However, he was due to take his place at Cambridge University so the Recruitment Board advised him to go off to University for two years and then join up later. But after 1940 when things started going badly, Eric decided to join the OCTU – Officer Cadet Training Unit.

Joining the 11th Armoured Division Anti-Tank Regiment, Eric spent months in landing practices and manoeuvres across the Yorkshire moors.

Eric recalls:

“We had been training for so long, I certainly had a sense this was a momentous historical event in the making. The main body of my Division went on the first day, although I didn’t get there until D-Day + 4, landing on Gold Beach in King Sector. I walked down the ramp of the LTC. The immediate danger on the beach itself had passed, but all around were the sounds of shellfire and mortars.

 Eric was a lieutenant in command of a troop of four artillery pieces which comprised 17 pounder Anti-Tank Guns, each with a 12 ft long barrel. Formidable in the field, each gun could fire an armour piercing shell with a muzzle velocity of 3,000 feet per second and knock out a Tiger Tank at a range of 800 yards.

Image by D-Day Revisited

He continues:

“We were of course constantly on the front line and were taking casualties from mortar fire all the time as the enemy naturally targeted the guns and supporting infantry. I think we were too busy to be frightened, but we didn’t dwell on the danger and just concentrated on the job we had to do.”

Having been on the ground in France for over seven weeks, Eric and his gunners had experienced tough fighting all the way from the beaches. In the aftermath of D-Day the German High Command recovered from their initial confusion, and resistance became resourced, disciplined and fierce with the Germans taking natural advantage of the high hedgerows, earth embankments and woodland of the Normandy countryside to defend their positions. It was during this period on 1st August that Eric fell into enemy hands after he and his driver went out in a Jeep across German lines on a reconnoitre to find new gun positions.

He remembers;

“It was early evening when I was caught. We’d just turned down a narrow lane and there was a burst of machine gun fire. I was hit from behind in my right shoulder. I could still walk and we were both marched off to a nearby farm building where I was presented to the Commanding Officer of this group. He was a Colonel, probably in his late thirties. He didn’t speak any English at all and I made it clear that I couldn’t speak German. Oddly enough we conversed in French, a language at which we were both quite fluent.”

Eric recalls;

“My driver was taken outside but I was seated in a corner of the room whilst a Medical Orderly was brought in to tend my shoulder wound. I could understand German well enough to realise the Colonel and his Adjutant were dealing with a constant flow of grave news all through the night. I didn’t let on to my understanding of German but it was clear that every message coming in to this local centre carried with it another military setback. As an officer myself I was held there awaiting an escort to take me off to their HQ for closer interrogation. By early morning the Colonel was in a quandary and we had by then established something of a relationship.”

As the Colonel was taking serious casualties and his defences were steadily weakening with British and Allied troops pouring into Normandy, Eric eventually managed to persuade him to surrender. “Then of course there was the practicality of who would take the surrender. I heard myself saying: ‘Don’t worry about that; surrender to me’.  When I think back, it’s such a surreal scene. I had my right arm in a sling so couldn’t salute. I had no experience of taking surrender, at the ripe old age of twenty-three!

“We set out at first light with me at the front, the Colonel and his Adjutant alongside, followed by 35 other ranks. In proper military order we marched along the narrow road, heading north towards the coast. Quite soon I heard tracked vehicles and we came upon a forward carrier patrol of the 1st Worcester Regiment.

“The patrol consisted of three Bren carriers and I put one at the front and one bringing up the rear of our small column. I travelled in the third vehicle along with my two captive officers. Before long we reached a main HQ assembly area where I was able to leave my group and report to the MO in a tented area. Once there, and in good hands, I promptly passed out.

“I later awakened in the British Military Hospital which was well established in a group of large tents pitched not far from the landing grounds. I was operated on and the bullet was removed. I still have it to this day – as a memento. That brought to an end my own modest contribution to the Normandy Campaign!”



A Desert Rat Returns by Big Lottery Fund
June 16, 2011, 12:47 pm
Filed under: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

Len Burritt, 92, will journey to Egypt later this year to visit some of the places that he served in with the 7th Armoured Division – known historically as the ‘Desert Rats’.

This legendary division fought in every major battle during the North African Campaign and helped swing the war, at a pivotal point, in the Allies favour.

After joining the army at the age of 18 in 1936, he formed part of a Wireless troop controlling communications for a new formation to be known as The Mobile Desert Division (Egypt) – later renamed the 7th Armoured Division.

He recalls: “I joined the army at a young age but I wasn’t particularly nervous about the prospect of doing so. I’d worked all my life on farms and wanted a change of scenery, so at that age, when you felt as though you’re ready to take on the world, worry didn’t really come into it.

“I served as a wireless operator with the 7th Armoured Division, using Morse Code to pass on key communications from north Africa to places as far afield as Hong Kong, Palestine and India. Eight different generals were in command during the campaign and I was the personal wireless operator for the first five of them. As a result, I became one of the most informed chaps out there and would often be briefing our commanders on troop positions in the middle of the desert.”

Len worked from Armoured Command Vehicles (ACVs) – the nerve centres for the Division, positioned just behind the forward troops. As he mentions, in many of the battles that he saw action, there was no ‘front line’ as such and elaborate camouflage was often needed to divert enemy attention away from their vital radio equipment.
On many occasions he accompanied his commanding officers deep into raging battles, travelling in the relative ‘safety’ of their personal armoured cars. They would do battle with the elements as well as the enemy, and after one ferocious sandstorm Len found he had sand trapped behind his eyes which meant a lengthy operation and two weeks in cumbersome bandages.

“Operating long shifts as a wireless operator was both mentally and physically taxing,” he continues. “You had to have your mind completely focused on the task at hand while being aware of your surroundings and position. During the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941, I was in our ACV for four days and nights with almost no rest at all. One shift was often quickly followed by another so you just had to get used to it. The ‘crack, crack, crack’ of bullets bouncing off the armour plating became commonplace.”

As well as being an expert in communications, relaying accurate Morse Code messages in cramped, sweltering conditions, Len was also trained in the use of the Bren guns and anti-tank weapons mounted on his armoured vehicles – his teacher being Major Gott, who later became a renowned lieutenant general. In close combat with both German and Italian forces, Len recalls a particularly bizarre attack by a low-flying plane.

“I remember quite clearly an attack on our convoy by the Italian Air Force. As the pilot swooped down low there was no burst of gunfire as there had been many times before – we were used to the threat of flak. On this occasion he simply opened the cockpit window and threw a mechanic’s wrench at us instead. The pilot’s action was his undoing, as Corporal Burgon of the BEM shot him down using an anti-tank rifle, firing from the hip. I’m not sure how he managed it, but he was as strong as a horse. The memory of it sticks with me to this very day.”

Surviving the desert’s inhospitable conditions, Len landed on the Salerno beaches during the invasion of Italy and the Normandy beaches during the D-Day Landings (6 June 1944). During the war he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major and was involved in over 100 front line battles in 15 different countries before being demobbed in May 1946.

During his journey back to Egypt, Len will visit memorials and cemeteries marking the sacrifice made by those who fought and did not return from battle. He will also visit some of the places in which he was stationed.

“I’m looking forward to going back and seeing some of the places in which I served,” Len concludes. “They have changed immeasurably since I was there with the Desert Rats but the memories of that time still remain strong.”



BIG extends veteran’s funding by Big Lottery Fund
December 9, 2010, 4:17 pm
Filed under: Army, Heroes Return | Tags: , , , ,

The Big Lottery Fund is committing over £1 million in extra good cause funding in the year ahead for the country’s WWII veterans so they can make battlefront commemorative journeys to the places they saw action.

The additional funding comes on the day BIG named the 50,000th individual to benefit from the Heroes Return grant scheme - 91-year old Gordon Mellor, a former RAF bomber command navigator.

Gordon Mellor is awarded a grant to fund the visit he made to pay his respects to those of the fabled Comete resistance group who helped him escape across Nazi-occupied Belgium and France and over the Pyrenees into Spain.

Serving with Bomber Command 103 Squadron, Gordon aged 22 was shot down in November 1942 while his Halifax bomber was returning from a raid over Germany.

He recalls: “Returning from a short night raid over Aachen we were chased by a Messerschmitt 109. I managed to bail out and crashed into a tree. The Flight engineer came out behind me but his parachute failed and he hit a roof on the side of a house and was killed. I saw the plane burning in a field about 2km away. I managed to get out of the tree, stuffing my parachute between the branches. As I stood in the darkness looking at the flames I had the loneliest feeling of all my life. I decided I had to get away as quick as I could so started heading South West across the blackness toward Spain.” 

Gordon’s long journey took him through Belgium, France, over the Pyrenees and then took him to Bilbao, Madrid and finally Gibraltar where he was flown back to Britain in a Dakota.

Recently returning to France to pay his respects to those who helped him escape to freedom, Gordon now 91 said; “It was like going back to meet old friends. The efforts of those people were amazing. They were just ordinary people yet so extraordinary. We can never pay back the debt we owe them.”

Here is a short film from the day…

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WW2 Veteran Returns to Monte Cassino by Big Lottery Fund
August 31, 2010, 9:37 am
Filed under: Army, Italy | Tags: , ,

Fred Burton returns to Monte Cassino with his family, read the article in Wales Online to find out more.



Len Andrews Returns to Singapore by Big Lottery Fund
August 23, 2010, 11:23 am
Filed under: Army, Singapore | Tags:

Remembering his wartime service in the Far East, Len Andrews, from Southend-on-Sea will make a Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore for the first time in 65 years.

Joining up with the Royal Army Service Corp aged 18 Len became part of a demonstration platoon, training soldiers in fire arm drill and assault courses, before moving on, somewhat reluctantly, to a posting as an instructor training troops who had returned from Dunkirk.

He recalls, “I didn’t want to do that, as I hadn’t done anything, and after all those chaps had been through at Dunkirk, what could I teach them? So I volunteered for Burma.”

Consequently, Len was posted to a petrol unit in Rangoon, responsible for the setting up of forward fuel points for the advancing allies. He remembers, “As part of the planned invasion of Singapore we boarded our petrol trucks onto a landing craft, but when got about halfway there we were suddenly ordered to turn back. The second time we set off the same thing happened again only this time we heard that the Japanese had surrendered.”

“I don’t remember being told about the bomb until a bit later. We didn’t know then what sort of destruction it would cause, I don’t even think the governments knew, and we were all quite shocked by the devastation.”

Eventually Len’s unit pressed on to Singapore, even though the Japanese had still not formally surrendered. As they sailed into Singapore the landing craft had to manoeuvre down a channel between two tapes to avoid the many mines which had been laid by the Japanese. Len recalls: “Suddenly the steering went wonky and the craft drifted off and broke through the tape heading straight through the minefield. We all just leaned over the sides looking for mines, and I don’t think we fully realised the situation. We were young.”

However, after sending out a distress signal, the craft was brought back under control and came safely into Singapore. He said, “There was quite a lot of destruction and very few British troops around. At the formal Japanese surrender taken by Lord Mountbatten a number of Japanese officers handed their swords to our commanding officer, one of which was given to me, and which I still have.”

Billeted in the basement of a Post office and bedded down on huge bales of silk, Len had his 21st birthday. He said: “We did think about celebrating with a drink but thought better of it as the local alcohol was lethal and we had heard that some blokes had been blinded by it. How the locals managed to drink it I have no idea.”

Set to work building a fuel supply line from Singapore up through Malaya and into Kuala Lumpur, Len recalls: “We had Japanese PoW’s unloading the oil drums. I was only a Lance Corporal, a lowly petrol driver, but the Japanese prisoners, many of them officers who were well above my rank would salute and bow to me. They were very subdued. It took a while for me to get used to it, but I did.”

Also while in Singapore Len remembers the release of allied PoW’s from the infamous Changi prison. He said: “It was pretty horrendous the condition they were in. The only thing they could take was small amounts of milk to gradually help them rehabilitate. Later they did executions at Changi and hung many Japanese. We were invited to view the hangings but I declined, though some people did go.”

Len’s war service finally came to an end in 1947, he recalls, “I couldn’t wait to get home.”

Now aged 86, Len will soon re trace his steps to Singapore for the first time in 65 years. He said, “I don’t think I could have made this trip without the funding and I am very grateful to the Big Lottery Fund.”

The Big Lottery Fund is continuing to ensure the efforts of Second World War veterans from across the UK and Ireland are not forgotten through its Heroes Return 2 scheme, awarding grants for ex-servicemen and women to return on commemorative trips back to places across the world where they saw action. Veterans or their widows/widowers are still being urged to apply to the initiative, which remains open for applications until January 2011. If you would further information please visit



Mrs J M Wainwright visits the Far East by Big Lottery Fund
July 23, 2010, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Army, Singapore | Tags: ,

My husband served with the 125th Anti-Tank Regiment, or “Sunderland’s Own”, and was sent to Singapore after the Japanese entered the war. His ship, Empress of Asia, was sunk in Singapore harbour and the men had to swim ashore. They had no equipment and were split up to join other regiments wherever there was a spare gun. My husband was sent to Bukit Timah Ridge where he found himself pinned down and unable to move because of sniper fire. He was rescued by the swift and brave actions of a Gurkha soldier and was able to return to his comrades. When Singapore was taken over my husband was captured by the Japanese and set to work building the Burma-Siam railway. This railway is sometimes referred to as the Railway of Death as conditions were so harsh. Many men died, and are buried at Chung Kai cemetery. In 1984 my husband and I joined a trip to Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong – this also included a visit to Chung Kai cemetery and a trip down the River Kwai on the River Boat Hotel. We celebrated my husband’s 64th birthday on that trip and he died a few weeks later. His ashes were interred at Chung Kai and what was to have been a “once in a lifetime trip” for me has become an almost yearly visit to say hello and leave some flowers.



Ron Goldstein Returns to Sicily by Big Lottery Fund
December 9, 2009, 11:08 am
Filed under: Army, Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In 1942 he was called up and by April 1943 found himself in North Africa as a Wireless Operator reinforcement to the 1st Army. Ron’s unit, the 49th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, R.A. was involved in the whole of the Sicilian campaign before moving on to the Italian mainland. His Regiment was disbanded in late 1944 and he was retrained as a Wireless op in tanks.

Ron’s unit, the 49th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, R.A. was involved in the whole of the Sicilian campaign before moving on to Italy where he remained until early 1947.

In September 1943, Ron crossed the Messina straits in a Tank Landing Craft. It was this memory that stayed with Ron and despite visiting Italy many times after the war, he had never returned to Sicily. Ron felt that to make this journey once again would lay matters to rest.

Thanks to the Heroes Return scheme, Ron was able to travel to Sicily and make that same trip across the straits, this time accompanied by his wife, Nita. (picture here)

“As the sharp breeze hit my face I confess to feeling a distinct feeling of pride that I had made my original trip almost exactly sixty-six years before and that I had lived to return to the very same spot with my partner of sixty odd years.”




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