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


“It meant so much to pay my final respects” by Big Lottery Fund

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.

John Murtagh

John Murtagh landed on Sword Beach shortly after D-Day (photo credit – Brian Morrison)

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



Podcast – “My time in Bomber Command” by Big Lottery Fund

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.

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

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



Chance meeting 67 years on for lottery-funded D-day duo by Big Lottery Fund
October 17, 2011, 10:43 am
Filed under: D-Day, France, Normandy | Tags: , , , , ,

Clifford Baker (left) and Bill Betts (right)

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.



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.”



Normandy 65 Years On by Big Lottery Fund
March 4, 2010, 12:18 pm
Filed under: D-Day, Normandy | Tags:

A party of 31 including seven veteran Skins, accompanied by the Colonel of the RDG, the previous and present Regimental Secretaries, the ‘Courier’ Captain Alan Henshall and some widows and family members set off from Ouistreham on Monday 24 August 2009. It was ‘beau temps’ all the way to Bourneville and back for the 65th anniversary of the Liberation.

The visit began with Arromanches and the extremely powerful video where the thunderous sound track made even hardened veterans jump, you could hear the tiles cascading off a roof, and it closed with a reminder of the terrible losses the Americans endured on Omaha Beach. The museum paid tribute to all who took part in the D Day landing, who included our brother regiment the 4th/7th DG. We drove past the turning to Port en Bessin on Juno Beach where the Skins had landed in July ’44. South of Bayeux we passed Jerusalem Cross roads where Patrick Leavey was killed talking to his 4th/7th friends.

The topography of France has changed in 65 years, with motor ways galore. Even with Jim Boardman’s running commentary, as a Normandy troop leader I hardly recognised any of the ground. We began with ceremonies at Caumont and Cahagnes where speeches were needed. Then to Courvaudon and a meeting again with Oliver McTiernan from Lisbellaw. We laid a wreath on the grave of Lieut Cornwall, an Irish Guards subaltern whose father had asked for him to be buried there. Driving south of Villers-Bocage where the Sharpshooters, our predecessors in 7th Armored Div had a damaging time, we passed Aunay sur Odon, last seen totally flattened, now rebuilt. I remembered well the scorching hot August day when we took on Mt.Pincon with the 13th/18th and won a battle honour.

We spent a very comfortable night at the Chateau de Baffy Colombiers and dined well.

A wreath was laid on the 4th/7th memorial at Creully.

Tuesday saw us at Pegasus Bridge captured in the night by a glider ‘coup de main’ led by Major Howard. Knox Chapman of the Skins, serving with the glider regiment was a member of the team. The old bridge dwarfed by the new, is in the excellent Museum grounds, and we saw the bust of Major Howard and the new bridge rose for a passing vessel.

On our route to Lisieux we were able to visit the St.Desir Cemetery where Grieves, Elson and Turner are buried. A wreath was laid, and then we drove on to Lisieux. The Basilica is world famous, and St.Therese has been in the news lately. Recce veterans will remember the many steps to the viewing platform, where Jim Boardman took a close view of the enemy. We were royally received by the Mayor Monsieur Bernard Aubril and treated to a vin d’honneur. ‘Your struggle was not in vain, thank you for giving us the happiness of living in peace’. (if the photograph is printed it can name the veterans). We spent the night at the Novotel in Rouen.

It is a matter of fact that the narrow hidden bridge over the river Risle, found by Sgt Archie Carr of A Squadron was used by the entire 7th Armoured Division. We all walked down and were surprised by the width of the river at that point where a new bridge has been built.

After St Georges du Vievre Jim took us for a walk through the woods on a route that only he remembered to Boissy le Chatel. They had organised a treat for us by holding the ‘vin d’honneur’ in the Chateau de Tilly a superb restored Renaisance turreted chateau, with the remains of fortified towers in the park and some stunning brickwork on the frontage.

Bourneville on Thursday was the ‘piece de resistance’. We had scarcely finished laying a wreath in the cemetery, when we assembled in church for a Memorial Mass taken by Father Eric Ladon. Ushers in mediaeval tabards led us to our seats and the Regimental collect was read in English and French by veterans. At the war memorial Gerard Reine asked me to repeat ‘Mort pour la France’ some 50 times after the French and English names thereon. Thierry Chion, our man in France, had laid on an exhibition of photographs of characters in the regiment. We were reminded of Bill Bradfield who was decorated for his part in the liberation. At a ceremony a square was named ‘Place 27 Aout’. The Senator for the district, Marc Vampa was present and spoke. The day finished with a memorable meal and a gourmet’s delight of an iced pudding.

On behalf of the Regimental Association of the Royal Dragoon Guards we would like to thank the Big Lottery Fund for their generous donation to our trip, fore without the fund many of our veterans would not have been able to attend this last memorial visit on the 65th Anniversary of operations.




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