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.
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, D-Day, France | Tags: 5th Batallion, Caen, D-Day, East Lancashire Regiment, France, Normandy, Operation Charnwood, Robert Coupe, Sword Beach, VE-Day
Robert Coupe is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme. Since 2009 it has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
Shortly after his 18th birthday, Blackpool lad Robert was called up for Army Service. He underwent basic training before being posted to the 5th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment.
Landing on Sword Beach on the morning of D-day under a hail of enemy fire, he recalls: “We were all so seasick. I didn’t care whether I got shot or not. I just wanted to get off that landing craft and get my feet on the ground.”
Once a beachhead had been established Robert and comrades were given the order to march on Caen as part of Operation Charnwood, an Anglo-Canadian offensive to capture the German-occupied French city an important Allied objective during the opening stages of the Normandy Invasion.
He recalls; “Caen was the key to Normandy. If the Germans broke through at Caen they would have been on the beaches in no time. And they knew that if we punched through them at Caen that would be their lot in France.”
Soon to travel to Normandy on a Heroes Return 2 grant Robert will visit cemeteries and attend 69th anniversary D-Day commemoration events to pay his respects to fallen comrades. To read his moving story in full, visit our newsroom.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: D-Day, Normandy | Tags: Belsen, Caen, D-Day, Faroe Islands, John Murtagh, Messing Officer, Normandy, Northern Ireland, Prisoners of War, Royal Army Service Corps, Russia, Sword Beach
When Northern Irish veteran John Murtagh, 91, joined up to help the war effort in 1943 he could never have imagined the adventure and experiences that lay ahead.
John was part of the Royal Army Service Corps that supported the allied offensive as it made its way across Europe during 1944 and 1945.
He landed on Normandy’s Sword Beach shortly after D-Day, advancing through Europe and into Germany, before eventually reaching Belsen concentration camp where he witnessed some of the war’s most harrowing images.
He received a grant from the Heroes Return 2 programme to return to Normandy last year, and it proved an emotional experience.
“I could see it all,” said John. “I could see the faces of our friends. It was upsetting, but I am glad I went back,” says John, a quiet man who denies he is a hero.
“It was important for me to remember what happened there when we landed on the beach on D-Day, the brave men who fell and the sacrifices they made and the heroes they truly were. It was the first time I’ve ever been back and it really meant a lot to me.”
John’s war began in the Faroe Islands where he was a Messing Officer, buying in the food and helping load and unload boats and warehouses for forces fighting in Russia.
Then in May 1944 he was called back to London to join the allied offensive in Europe. He landed on Sword Beach on June 9, shortly after D-Day.
John explained: “There was so much noise, but the infantry and tanks were between us and the Germans. I was a supporter at the back, but we still took a lot of enemy fire. We brought the supplies in and looked after the soldiers who had suffered injuries.”
After tending the wounded, John moved to Caen which had been devastated in an Allied bombing. “We were not welcomed with open arms. The people were very resentful of what had happened,” he recalls. “The town was completely flat and the stench was awful. The troops had to get the corpses out of the rubble. There were dark patches where the blood had flowed.”
“We moved on to Belgium after that and I helped organise Prisoners of War to send to the UK. They were mostly young fellows of 15 or 16, just like us really. We had been given such a bad name by the Germans as to what we would do to them, so they were very, very frightened.”
“I continued to provide support for the forces as we moved down through Europe and I was in Holland when I found out the war was over. It was a great time and we celebrated in style.”
But the celebrations ended abruptly when John arrived in north western Germany in 1945 to help with the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. “I could not describe the smell or the people when we arrived there,” he said. “It was one of the most harrowing things I have ever seen. They had been so badly treated, some were just skin and bone, I don’t know how they survived. The faces were tortured – that’s the best description I can give of it.
“We fed them and gave them clothes and tried to clean up. It was shocking to see how people could be degraded in such a way. There was one man I thought was dead, and it was only when his tongue moved in his mouth I realised he was still alive. He died soon after.”
For John, getting the chance to pay his final respects was hugely important. “This was the first time I have ever been back,” he said. “I wanted to do it now as I’m not getting any younger. I read about the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme in the local paper and I applied straight away. It meant so much to be able to pay my final respects. I’m so grateful.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: D-Day, Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: Anzio, Atlantic, Birkenhead, D-Day, Husky, Italy, Landing Ship Tank, Navy, Normandy, Operation Avalanche, Operation Overlord
As the Royal Navy Landing Ship Tank made a desperate race for the Anzio beachhead, 18-year old Ordinary seaman Matthew Toner once again braced himself under the horrific barrage of ‘Anzio Annie’ – a pair of death dealing German long range guns. It was just one of many hazardous trips he would make to supply vital reinforcements in support of the allied invasion of Southern Italy.
Now aged 87, Matthew from the Wirral on Merseyside will be returning for the first time to the shores of Anzio, 69 years on.
Matthew will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers.
Birkenhead lad Matthew joined up with the Royal Navy in 1941 aged just 16. Not long after, he was making his first voyage across the treacherous Atlantic to America to pick up a newly built Landing Ship Tank (LST) 410 designed for carrying troops and heavy vehicles from sea to shore.
Matthew recalls: “The LSTs were known as ‘the ships with no names’ because Churchill thought that they would have an 80% casualty rate. My job was to maintain the general upkeep of the ship, mostly, cleaning, loading cargo and repairing equipment.”
After spending three months in America, LST 410 set sail for the Mediterranean loaded up with ammunition for the allied troops in French North Africa before taking part in Operation Husky the allied invasion of Sicily.
He remembers: “The Sicily landing was marvellous. We did the job. But the LSTs had a very shallow draught for sailing in shallow water. They were top heavy and they rocked and bounced about. I was very lucky, I was never sea sick. But the troops were being sick all the time. My job was to look after them and make sure they got off the ship ok.”
With the success of Husky and the Italian campaign launched and underway, Matthew was deployed as part of Operation Avalanche, the main invasion of Italy at Salerno in September of 1943. He remembers: “At Salerno we were landing the original 7th Armoured Division Desert Rats. We felt sorry for them as they had been in the desert for four years and were promised leave to go home. But they had to do it because Churchill had wanted it.
“We were praying for them. We shared our rum and cigs and we looked after them on the ship. We heard the Italians had surrendered so we all rejoiced with a double tot of rum. Nelson’s Blood we called it and it was very strong.
“But the Germans had quickly replaced the Italians and when we landed and opened our bow doors the Germans were waiting for us. They were coming toward the beach and there was a lot of hand to hand fighting.
“It was terrible. The coast was being bombarded and it was there that I first saw remote control bombs. One hit HMS Warspite and put her out of action.”
Despite the heavy German counter attack the combined British and American forces finally secured bridgeheads at Salerno and Taranto and from there pushed up toward Naples where an allied offensive was launched to break the German Gustav line at Monte Cassino. However, hampered by the difficult mountain terrain the allies struggled to capture the German stronghold and Operation Shingle was launched in an attempt to support the offensive by landing troops along the Italian coast below Rome to establish a beachhead at Anzio far behind the enemy lines.
Matthew recalls: “There was horrific shelling at Anzio. Wherever we were sent we knew there was trouble but you always tried to be a little bit macho as if you weren’t scared. But sometimes I was scared. We must have made about 30 trips running back and forth between Anzio and Naples and the Germans were shelling us with Anzio Annie, huge guns lobbing shells right into the harbour. We landed the American Rangers and some of the Black Cat Division and the Welsh Guards. We took a lot of wounded back to the hospital ship in the bay and others back to Naples.
“We also took German Afrika Korps PoWs to prison camps. They were quite amiable. We had them doing little jobs around the ship, scraping off paint. We gave them cigs. One of them made me a little lamp in the shape of a Stuka dive bomber. But later it got smashed when we went through rough seas in the Bay of Biscay.”
D-Day followed and after picking up troops and heavy transport vehicles in Southampton, Matthew set sail as part of Operation Overlord in a flotilla of over 5,000 ships heading for the beaches of Normandy.
He said: “We were anchored off the Isle of Wight. When we picked up the troops they were bored stiff. They didn’t know what was going on. At about 7am we saw the Paratroops in planes going over to France. We were part of a huge armada with over 150,000 men.
“As we got close to Juno beach there were lots of shells exploding round us and there were many dead bodies in the water. It was pandemonium getting the men off. The sea had been rough and many of them were violently sick. They were sick and they had to go and fight.”
As the Normandy offensive got underway Matthew’s ship continued to operate as part of a vital supply line before finally returning to Liverpool for repairs before being re deployed to Kochi on the West coast of India.
He said: “We knew we were taking part in practice exercises for landing in India but then we were told to hold troops in Malaya. We then went down the Malacca straits to Penang but the Japanese had gone two weeks before. We went on to Calcutta and then we heard the bomb had been dropped.
“We all got sandfly fever, a form of malaria with headaches and shaking. We looked like horrible skinny runts. We had to take Mepacrine tablets every day which made your skin turn yellow.”
Matthew and crew were sent to a camp in Darjeeling where they rested up before sailing to Bangkok to pick up supplies of rice which they took on to Singapore following the Japanese surrender. Matthew came back to England in 1946, though stayed in the Navy where he served in mine clearing operations round the British Coast, and later as part of the Atom bomb testing in the Pacific Atolls. He finally came out of the service in 1951 with the rank of Seaman Petty Officer.
Looking back he said: “I just liked being in the Navy. I had some smashing mates. But many got killed. That’s the way it went. My mother made me wear a St Christopher medal to keep me safe. ”
Matthew will be making his first trip back to Anzio since the landings 69 years ago. He said: “I think Heroes Return is absolutely wonderful.”
Filed under: D-Day, France, Heroes Return, Navy | Tags: Arromanches, D-Day, France, Landings, Merseyside, Morse Code, Normandy, Ray Wilton, Royal Navy, Telegraphist
All around the sea was turning red with blood as Ray Wilton’s Motor Torpedo Boat guided the first wave of Normandy landing crafts through the deadly German sea mines. Many struggled desperately in the high tide as their crafts foundered under heavy shell fire or were wrecked by enemy defences lurking under the water. Those that did not die of their wounds sank like stones under the weight of heavy kitbags. Twenty-year-old Ray looked on helplessly as his boat ploughed on towards Gold Beach.
Now aged 88, Ray from the Wirral on Merseyside will be making a poignant trip 68 years on back to the Normandy beach at Arromanches.
Ray will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country.
A Prescot lad, 18 year old Ray was originally in a reserved occupation as a technical engineer but in 1942 decided to register as a reserve in the Royal Navy.
He recalls: “I was raring to go. Two of my mates had already joined, so in 1943 when I hadn’t received my call up I just went down and volunteered. I was eager to get on and do my bit.”
Ray was sent to Skegness to do his basic training. After eight weeks he trained as a telegraphist, learning Morse code and passing out with 22 words a minute. Promoted to the rank of Ordinary Telegraphist, Ray was transferred to Southampton-based stone frigate HMS Squid as part of Combined Operations.
He said: “We were the central communication base for everyone involved in the invasion. I was manning a radio set when one day the phone rang and I was told that I was to be a replacement out at sea for a telegraphist with appendicitis serving on Motor Torpedo Boat patrols in the Channel. Our job was to look for German convoys and submarines hugging the French coast.
“We were more like a pirate ship really. It was a little boat and we all lived together, very informal. We used to wear boiler suits and plimsolls and put on oilskins if it got too wet.
He continued: “We were all ready for D-day which was originally planned for the 5th of June, but the weather turned awful so we were sent out to make sure that everyone knew that the operation would be delayed. We caught an American ship quite near the French coast and called out to them ‘Get back. We’ve been delayed!’ then after that we saw another boat full of tanks and we sent them back too.
“We also found the body of an American airman floating in a life jacket. He was very badly decomposed so we took his dog tag and then slipped off his jacket to let him sink. I later took the tag to the American depot so at least someone would know what had happened and could tell his family.”
Sailing overnight on the 5th June, Ray and crew were deployed to assist the landings scheduled for 7.30 am on Gold Beach.
He recalls: “The troops were put onto landing crafts about six miles out. Our job was to escort the landing crafts through the German mines. It was an exceptionally high tide and it covered all the beach obstacles, iron fences with explosives.
We were under heavy shell and mortar fire. Quite a number of the crafts came to grief and there were lots of men struggling in the sea. You couldn’t help them. We were constantly being pushed from behind and we just had to go on. I can still see those lads in the water. It was very sad, very sad.
“But we got the first wave through and then we pulled back and marshalled the crafts behind. You could hardly see the sea for ships. There were 138 warships spread along all the beaches. The Germans were positioned behind French holiday homes along the front. They put up a very strong resistance with mortars and machine guns. We were unscathed, not a bullet. But the poor bloody infantry couldn’t pull back.”
With 25,000 troops landed on Gold Beach and the invasion well underway, Ray continued patrol duties on the Normandy coast, before being sent back to Plymouth Naval Hospital after a foot injury caused his leg to turn septic. He recalls, “At this time the Germans were targeting Plymouth with doodlebugs so I was sent up north to Rainhill Hospital near home and managed to get seven days leave.”
Once recovered, Ray sailed in the Jamaica up to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle on a mission to rescue Norwegian meteorologists stranded at a Royal Navy weather station bombed by the German Battleship, Tirpitz. He then transferred to frigate HMS Dart at Londonderry carrying out offshore sweeps looking for German U boats and then as convoy escort out to Gibraltar.
He recalls: “We attacked a number of ‘U’ boats and sunk two. We had hedgehog anti sub bombs we fired in front of us and which formed a huge circle of bombs exploding all around the sub. We knew we had destroyed them when we saw oil and wreckage come up to the surface.”
“When VE-day came we were sent to marshal the surrendering ‘U’ Boats directing them to various places. It was quite a strange feeling. We had spent so much time trying to blow each other out of the water.”
With the European conflict at an end, Dart was deployed as part of the far eastern fleet and sailed out to join allied forces massing at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka as part of Operation Zipper, the main invasion of Malaya.
Ray recalls, “Now we had a chance to deploy a huge number of ships, aircraft and troops. We got halfway across the Indian Ocean when we got the message that the Atomic Bomb had been dropped. We all said ‘what’s an atomic bomb?’ nobody had ever heard of it.
“We slowed up and waited for a while. We were given further orders to proceed then the Nagasaki bomb was dropped and we were told to proceed to Singapore to take the Japanese surrender.”
Ray stayed on in Singapore helping with the release of PoWs and the many foreign nationals incarcerated by the Japanese before transferring to duties at the Ceylon West Receiving Station, a huge underground global communications centre built under a coconut grove.
He confesses: “I didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful place now the war was over.” However, Ray was duly demobbed and arrived back in England just in time for Christmas 1945.
“My dad had died in 1943 but it was wonderful to see my mother and my two sisters. We had a lovely reunion. Sadly I lost my best pal in the air force. He was in Bomber Command and was killed over Berlin. But there were still a few good mates around.”
Ray plans to travel out to Normandy with his daughter Deborah in the New Year. He said; “Over the years I thought I’d like to go back to pay my respects. I was lucky, a lot of young lads didn’t come back.”
Filed under: France, Heroes Return, memorial, monument, Normandy, RAF | Tags: 9 Squadron, Big Lottery Fund, Blitz, Bomber Command, France, Halifax, Heroes Return, interview, Lancaster, Podcast, RAF, Royal Air Force, World War Two
The historic unveiling of the first national memorial to RAF Bomber Command takes place today at Green Park, London. We were lucky enough to talk to veteran Harry Irons, who flew 60 missions during World War Two.
Now aged 88, Harry talks about some of his wartime memories, his Heroes Return trip to France and what it means to finally see a memorial for Bomber Command.
In 1941 Harry Irons volunteered for air crew duty with Bomber Command. He was only 16 but added a year to his age and was accepted for gunnery training.
Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1944, Harry was promoted to Warrant Officer and went on to survive 60 raids over the Ruhr, Munich, Nuremberg, and Northern France, flying as a rear gunner in Lancaster and Halifax bombers.
Harry was living in London when war broke out. After witnessing the devastation of the Blitz he decided to volunteer as aircrew, and was assigned to 9 Squadron based at Waddington in Lincolnshire from where he flew 37 missions in Lancaster X for X-ray.
Harry, who has worked tirelessly to help raise funds for the memorial, will be attending the official unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, and members of the Royal family.
Looking forward to the historic day, he said: “As part of a crew you got to know each other, you were like family. We lost so many brave men. But we are over the moon. We are so grateful at last to be able to do something for the boys. At last we have got some recognition”.
For more information on the Heroes Return programme and the funding that is available for World War Two veterans, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121
Filed under: D-Day, France, Heroes Return | Tags: Arromanches, Big Lottery Fund, France, Heroes Return
Hugh Beach crept closer to the bridge, armed with a sten-gun. He had been sent forward alone to check that the bridge was safe for tanks and other vehicles to cross. As he silently approached, two figures came into view and he recognised the grey uniform – German. Instead of retreating to safety and reporting the danger, he crept ever closer, raised his weapon and opened fire.
The courageous solo assault left the lieutenant severely wounded from enemy fire, temporarily paralysed from the waist down. At the age of just 21 he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. Now, aged 89, after 40 years in the Armed Forces and having been knighted twice by the Queen, General Sir Hugh Beach GBE KCB MC, has made a Lottery-funded trip coinciding with D-Day to visit the areas he served during the war, including the spot he made his single-handed attack.
Sir Hugh, from Earl’s Court, London, is just one of a number of Second World War veterans who have made poignant commemorative visits as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme.
Sir Hugh Beach, who joined the Army in 1941 as a sapper, landed in France six days after D-Day. A lieutenant in 621 Field Squadron 7th Armoured Division, he was first tasked with finding his unit to deliver a three-tonne lorry full of supplies. After finding his unit, Sir Hugh was billeted at a farm at St Paul du Vernay for six weeks.
It was at the village of La Vallee on 8 August 1944 when Sir Hugh first demonstrated the kind of courage that later earned him a Military Cross. He was attached to an infantry division which had fought and driven away German soldiers.
He recalled: “We suspected the Germans would have left landmines behind. We needed to get some anti-tank guns into position in case the Germans counter-attacked, which they did later. So we had to clear the road of landmines from the village to some crossroads.
“About six of us using mine detectors then cleared the road. But the first vehicle to leave the village was blown up – we missed that mine. This threw the plans up into the air – no-one wanted to move, understandably. I then decided to do something that was, in hindsight, absolutely crazy.
“I thought the only way to get everyone moving again was to sit on the mudguard of the first vehicle. Demonstrating confidence that I certainly didn’t have inside, I said ‘let’s go’. I was full of a mixture of emotions – I didn’t want to be seen as having failed and was also displaying the bravado of someone who hadn’t yet been directly involved in action. Secretly I was hoping that we hadn’t missed any more mines and luckily there weren’t otherwise I’d have been a gonner. We drove forward and everyone got though safely. Afterwards I fell asleep standing up leaning against a tree.”
Sir Hugh then remembers the Allied breakthrough and the sudden rush across France with a small group of men in a car. He said:“It was very exhilarating. We were moving so fast we ran out of maps and had to use our AA book. Young ladies were coming out to the road to hand us tomatoes. We felt like heroes.”
It was at La Bassee in northern France near the Belgian border, while Sir Hugh was attached to the 11th Hussars, that he came within millimetres of being paralysed from the waist down.
“We approached a bridge and knew that the Germans had tried to demolish it,” he said. “I was asked to take a look at it and see if it was safe to take tanks and vehicles across. I drove towards it and about 200 yards to the side of the bridge and parked my scout-car behind a hut. I approached, carrying a sten-gun.
“The railways line was about 100 yards away and the bridge seemed okay – although really I wasn’t close enough to make a proper assessment. Then I saw grey figures across the bank and realised they were German soldiers. This was my first chance to engage the enemy. I opened fire and after two rounds the gun jammed. I dropped down and they returned fire.
“I tried to crawl back behind the railway line which ran alongside a canal but my backside was too high – a bullet grazed my spine and took a bit of bone away. I was paralysed from the waist down. A staff sergeant got to me and dragged me back, very bravely I might add.”
His comrades tried to find a field ambulance but as it was getting dark they saw a building which had a door and a red cross painted on it.
He said: “It turns out it was an order of nuns. They were very calm and dressed my wound. The next day a vehicle then took me to a field dressing station. I went from feeling nothing from the waist down to then getting my feeling back and the pain as if I had suffered a heavy blow on the head. As life came back to my nerves I couldn’t stand anything touching me. It was ghastly.”
Sir Hugh was awarded the Military Cross but the wound marked the end of the war for him and he was flown back to Britain to undergo further treatment on his spine. Following his recovery, the next year he served in India, Ceylon and then saw active service in Java during the Allied mission to liberate the Dutch held by the Japanese in jungle internment camps. The Indonesians believed the real goal was the restoration of Dutch rule and a bloody insurgency was sparked.
Sir Hugh was accompanied on his Heroes Return trip to France by his son Michael, who served with the Royal Green Jackets between 1977 and 1980, and grandson William.
Speaking before his visit, Sir Hugh said: “I think the Heroes Return programme is fantastic – allowing people like me to return to the sites of our most exciting days. To remember and explain to those with us what it was like is very important.”
To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.
Filed under: D-Day, France, Normandy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, D-Day, Heroes Return 2, HR2, Normandy, veterans
Two veterans of the Normandy landings have been reunited for the first time in 67 years following a chance meeting on return journey to France funded by the Heroes Return 2 programme.
Bill Betts, 88, and Clifford Baker, 98, landed on Gold Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944, but would not see each other again until their paths crossed at Arromanches war museum earlier this year.
The pair received separate grants for their poignant trips and had never expected to meet each other after all these years. The last time they’d been together was in the relative safety of sand dunes as German mortars screamed overhead. Mr Betts had been injured by enemy fire and was told by his captain to stay put while Mr Baker and the rest of the Essex Yeomanry continued their assault further up the beach.
Warwick-based veteran, Bill Betts, 88, joined the Essex Yeomanry at the age of 19 in December 1941 – training for over two years as a radio operator in preparation for the D-Day Landings. When the day of invasion arrived, Bill and his comrades boarded landing craft in Poole, Dorset, before linking up with other regiments further down the coast in Southampton. From there they began the perilous push across the Channel towards the Normandy beaches where many men would sadly lose their lives.
He recalls: “I suffered terrible sea-sickness on that rough crossing which luckily took my mind off what was lay in store for us. As a radio operator on one of the craft, I was responsible for checking map references so the shells we fired on the beaches from three to four miles out at sea hit their intended targets and not our own boys. It was quite a responsibility for a lad my age.
“When we made it to Gold Beach and left the landing craft with bullets and bombs exploding around us, we followed a tape marking a safe route past land mines buried beneath the sand. I made it as far as some dunes a bit further up but then felt a searing pain in my right leg – I’d been shot and could go no further.
“I was told by my captain that I’d have to stay behind for the time-being while everyone moved on ahead. I agreed with him that it was the right thing to do but I was angry with myself for getting wounded so early – I’d trained for such a long time in preparation for D-Day and here I was immobilised. That was the last time I saw Clifford until I returned to France this year to remember those who weren’t as fortunate as I was.”
Bill had been signing the leather-bound book of remembrance at Arromanches D-Day Museum when he spotted Clifford’s handwritten entry directly above his.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw his name and a mention of the Essex Yeomanry in the book, but there it was in black and white. I’d been given a commemorative medal by the Mayor of Arromanches so asked her just when Mr. Baker had been into the museum that day. When she said only twenty minutes before and that his coach to Port Talbot was now boarding in the car park, I decided that I had to take the chance to catch him.
“The lady mayor ran off and thankfully managed to halt his coach before it left,” he continues. “After 67 years we were face to face again so you can imagine just how emotional that was. We had a chat about D-Day and the events that happened such a long time ago. The memories of it all are still very clear in my mind.
“I never imagined that we’d see each other after all that time, let alone in a place so close to where we were last together. After I’d said my goodbyes and boarded the coach again everyone onboard broke into a roar of cheers and applause. It made my trip that bit more special.”
After recovering from his war wounds back on home soil, Bill rejoined the Essex Yeomanry in France. He fought on with them through Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany.
Surviving countless skirmishes with the enemy and some of the coldest winter weather on record, Bill was finally demobbed in December 1946 and in later years enjoyed a successful career in the motor industry which allowed him to travel across the world once again.
Filed under: Army, D-Day, France, Normandy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, D-Day, Heroes Return 2, Normandy
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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!”
Filed under: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Desert Rats, Heroes Return 2, Italy
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.”