At the age of 17, a year before he was called up to serve in the war, Charles Medhurst opened the telegram which told him that his 19-year-old brother had been killed in Burma.
Now at the age of 89, Charles is embarking on an emotional journey to the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore to find his brother’s name.
“I had a terrible feeling as I opened the telegram,” said Charles, from Greenwich. “I had to go and tell my mother, who collapsed. She never got over it. She never said anything when I was called up a year later but she must have been upset.
“I was called up in July 1943 and became a wireless operator in the RAF but they needed men for the Royal Navy so I was detailed. I’d never been on water before!”
As a telegraphist in the Navy, Charles had to take down Morse code messages at a speed of 26 words a minute. Charles found himself on HMS Malaya – a battleship that took part in the bombardment of German fortifications on the French island of Cezembre.
He recalled: “It was shattering. I was able to watch because I was off duty and we had to wear anti-flash hoods. When you have eight 15-inch guns firing broadsides it has quite an impact on you. It’s frightening. At the same time the RAF was bombing the island as well. It was quite a long distance away but the shape of the island appeared to change from the bombardment.”
Charles was due to take part in D Day but Malaya was replaced shortly beforehand by HMS Warspite. Malaya sailed to Scotland and took part in trials of updated versions of the bouncing bomb famously used in the Dambusters raid. Malaya moored in Loch Striven and while a crew including Charles was on board, inert prototypes were aimed at the ship, successfully striking Malaya. One was reported to have punched a hole in the ship’s side.
“I do remember a dummy bomb actually hitting our ship while I was on board!”, said Charles.
Charles sailed by liner from Liverpool to Halifax in Canada where he took a five day train ride through the Rockies to board HMS Beachy Head in Vancouver. From there the ship sailed via San Francisco to the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific.
He recalled fondly: “We had a day’s leave ashore and played football with the locals who gave me a gift of a necklace made of shells. I’ve still got the necklace to this day. They were such friendly people.”
If Tuvalu represented a South Pacific paradise, the next destination was a stark reminder of the war that still raged elsewhere in the Pacific.
He said: “From there we went to Hawaii where we went to Pearl Harbour and could still see the tops of the ships that were sunk in the Japanese attack. When we got to Darwin in Australia, which had been bombed by the Japanese, it was like a ghost town. They were afraid of a Japanese invasion and many people had deserted the city. Parts of it looked like the set of a Wild West film with shutter doors swinging in the breeze.”
After refuelling in New Guinea, Beachy Head sailed to the Solomon Islands and towards Singapore.
“We were only going at a rate of ten knots which was a little unnerving,” said Charles. “However we had a skeleton crew of three telephonists so we were constantly on duty so didn’t really have time to think about the dangers. We went from Singapore to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now, and from there our ship commanded mine sweeping operations around the Indian Ocean. I spent a week’s leave in the hills which were so green and peaceful. By the time we got to Penang in Malaysia the Japanese had surrendered.”
Charles returned home on an aircraft carrier via the Suez Canal and was demobbed in October 1946.
Charles said: “When I joined the forces I’d never been away from home. We were a poor family. I was lucky during the war – I didn’t fight in the front line and didn’t face the dangers that others did.
“When my brother was killed, all that my mother got was a telegram saying he had been killed on March 24 1942 and that there were no remains or personal effects.
“It wasn’t until last year that I decided to try and find out more. I contacted the War Graves Commission and they put me in touch with the Royal Air Force. I received a very helpful letter about what happened. Henry was ground staff with the air force in Burma. They were being evacuated as the Japanese advanced but didn’t get out in time. The Japanese launched an attack on the airfield in Toungoo with grenades and mortars.
“My brother Henry died aged just 19. He would have been 92 if he were alive today. When I think about how young he was when he died, it’s tragic. He was just one of thousands.”
Charles is currently preparing for his visit to Sri Lanka and Singapore where he will make an emotional visit to the Kranji War Memorial to find his brother’s name.
Charles said: “It’s important to visit the memorial and see his name – to see that he has been recognised for giving his life at such a young age.”
Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return, Remembrance Day | Tags: Death Railway, Far East, Heroes Return, History, National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association, PoWs, Prisoner of War, RAF, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Second World War, Thai-Burma, veterans, War, World War Two, WW2
As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 10th), veterans across the country will be embarking on emotional journeys both in the UK and across the world to pay their respects to those who lost their lives over 70 years ago.
The Big Lottery Fund has to date awarded over £26.6 million to more than 54,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK under its Heroes Return 2 programme.
Among those who have received an award is the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association for a journey to Singapore and Thailand. The group, nearly all in their 90s, will be attending remembrance ceremonies in Singapore, and will travel to the infamous ‘Death Railway’ camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, scene of the Bridge over the River Kwai, to mark 11 November Remembrance Day commemorations.
Travelling with the group is 93-year old veteran POW William Mundy from Dartford, Kent. An RAF Aircraftman, William was 20 years old when he sailed from Gourock in Scotland on 3rd December 1941, on the City of Canterbury, bound for Kuala Lumpur. But as the Japanese made rapid advances through Malaya, William was re-routed to Batavia, (now Jakarta).
However, RAF operational life on the island of Java would prove to be short lived as William and his comrades were taken prisoner by the Japanese in Garoet, after the Dutch forces capitulated. Sent to Boei Glodok prison in February 1942, William then spent 1943-1944 incarcerated on Java, after which he was taken to Ambon, and then back to Java for another six weeks.
The Java POWs were set to work building airfields with ‘chunkels’ (wide hoes) used to chip away at the coral which was then hauled in baskets slung on poles. Only a third returned from these camps, as the death rate was one of the highest with the prisoners suffering constant maltreatment, beatings, starvation and illnesses.
He recalls; “We had to make a two days march from Ambon harbour to Liang, where we built an airstrip.
“On route to Liang is a Christian village, Waai. The villagers there took great risks, when we were working on the road through the village, to pass titbits under the walls of the hut to us.”
“No matter where I was in prison, the diet was the same; breakfast pint of steamed rice and spoonful of sugar, mid day three quarters of a pint steamed rice and “green” water and in the evening one pint of steamed rice and the “greens” that had been cooked in the mid-day water.
“Only those who were working were allocated food, so we needed to share ours with those in hospital or otherwise sick.”
“In Ambon it was breakfast before 8am and then a march of about three quarters of a mile to the airstrip, dressed only with a strip of material between the legs and so far as we could some sort of foot wear. Walking on the coral was soul destroying. There was a brief break between when we got there and started “work” and the arrival of the mid-day meal and another in the afternoon before returning to camp about six or six–thirty for the evening meal. Treatment, as experienced by all the prisoners was harsh as the ‘powers that be’ wanted the work finished yesterday.”
In June 1944 William was put on a transport ship destined for the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ but was taken off the boat at Singapore and hospitalised at Changi suffering from Beriberi disease. After six months in hospital he was transferred to the local Kranji prison as part of a forced labour group digging into the granite hillside to form bomb proof storage chambers.
After the Japanese surrender, William returned to the UK via Colombo, Suez and Liverpool on a Dutch boat in October 1945.
William said: “I think most people would ask why on earth I would want to go back to where I had such a traumatic experience. There are the war graves, where some of the 775 out of the 1,000 who didn’t survive are buried, and I would appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their sacrifice. ”
He continued: “Visiting the graves would also provide an opportunity to thank Almighty God for his grace, mercy, love and preservation which brought me safely back to the UK. I know I can continually do this but on the site would be very appropriate.”
William, who plans to take plenty of photographs to record his experience of the trip said: “I would like these to be able to give my children and grandchildren the knowledge of what happened.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Far East, RAF | Tags: Bob Simmons, Malaysia, Morse Code, Penang, Penang Veterans Association, RAF, Royal Australian Air Force
Bob Simmons, 86, recently travelled to Malaysia to pay his respects to comrades lost during the liberation of Penang in the Second World War. His journey was funded by the Heroes Return programme.
In Burma he served in Chittagong, Ramree Island and Rangoon. As part of the liberation of Penang he set up a radar beacon at Bayan Lepas airport, helping the planes which were evacuating POWs back to the UK.
He spent Christmas in Singapore and was sent to Borneo in 1946 for two years before being demobbed. One of his lasting memories from his service is the haunting sight of Allied POWs, who had been freed from the notorious Changi jail in Singapore. For more about his war experiences, read Bob’s earlier blog entry.
The Remembrance Day commemoration ceremony in Malaysia on Sunday 18 November was organised by the Penang Veterans Association in Georgetown, the capital of Penang.
Bob sat next to the First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy and was also in the company of the Chief Minister of Penang, the British High Commissioner and the Chief Defence Adviser.
Bob got a special mention in the President’s address and also a whole page of his story in the souvenir programme. After the reading of The Ode, The Last Post performed by the 2nd Royal Malay Regiment, the one minute silence and Reveille, Bob laid a wreath on the steps of the Penang Cenotaph in memory of all WW2 veterans.
Bob was also very thrilled to have a chat with Royal Australian Air Force Air Vice Marshal Warren Ludwig who is based at Butterworth, one of Bob’s old postings.
Accompanying Bob on his commemorative trip was his wife Sheryl. She said: “Bob made the local press with articles in The Star newspaper and The New Straits Times, where he is shown laying his wreath, so he became quite famous locally! It was a really exciting time for us both and we are very grateful to the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme for making it all possible.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Far East, memorial, RAF, Remembrance Day | Tags: Heroes Return, Malaysia, Mechanic, Penang, RAF, Remembrance Day, Royal Air Force
A WWII veteran will travel to Malaysia to lay a wreath at a Remembrance Day ceremony to mark the sacrifice of soldiers in liberating the region from the Japanese.
Bob Simmons, 86, will be making the 8,000 mile commemorative trip to Penang as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme. Bob, a corporal and radar mechanic with the RAF, will be laying the wreath at the state cenotaph alongside the British High Commissioner and the Chief Minister of Penang.
Bob was born in Belgium, the son of a British soldier who had fought in the First World War, and lived in Ypres where an expatriate outpost grew around the British ex-servicemen who cared for the war memorials and cemeteries of ‘Flanders Fields’. Bob went to the British Memorial School in Ypres, the subject of a recent BBC Four documentary.
He said: “I learnt history, some Shakespeare and was taught Morse Code and semaphore. We all realised war was coming. There is a book about the school called The Children Who Fought Hitler and you can see me on the cover.”
His family fled Belgium for England in 1940, just before the Dunkirk rescue, and lived in Selsey Bill, on the West Sussex coast during the Battle of Britain.
He recalled: “One day a Junkers 87 came over our home and crashed. I scrambled on my bike with a hammer, pliers and a saw. By the time I got there two of the crew who survived were being marched away by the Home Guard. I managed to take out the radio transmitter because my father once owned a radio shop in Belgium and was an amateur radio enthusiast. I gave it to him and he used it to build an amateur radio transmitter. He also had a receiver and we used to tune into the fighter pilots talking to ground staff which was incredibly exciting.
“On another occasion a Heinkel dropped a stick of bombs over the village. I rushed home to make sure our house wasn’t hit. My father and sister walked out the house and we stared at the huge crater in someone’s garden. Then an unexploded bomb suddenly went off just ten yards away – I remember a huge bang and saw thousands of fragments fly up into the air. They then stopped for what seemed like ages and then poured down on us.”
Bob managed to get a job with the BBC by pretending he was older than he was and was sent on courses on oversees radio signals and frequencies.
Aged just 16 he even had experience of swapping local transmitters to confuse enemy bombers. At 17 he volunteered for the RAF.
He said: “I couldn’t fly because of my eyesight so I became a radar mechanic. I said I wanted to go to France – I spoke the language and knew the country like the back of my hand. So they sent me to Burma!”
Bob sailed from Liverpool in January 1945, zig-zagging to avoid U-boats, towards the US before sailing around Ireland down to Gibraltar, through Suez to Bombay, across by train to Calcutta and eventually to Burma where his overloaded ferry nearly capsized in a river on the way to Chittagong during a storm.
In Burma he served in Chittagong, Ramree Island and Rangoon. He was then sent to be part of the liberation of Penang. Bob experienced two brushes with death while serving in Southeast Asia.
He recalled: “I remember a Japanese bombing raid at a US base. We dived into some trenches with some US servicemen and I remember one American saying ‘Gee this is just like Pearl Harbour’. It was funny because I’d experienced more danger back in England.
“On arrival in Penang we had to transfer from our ship to a destroyer to be taken to landing craft to get to shore. We had to climb down a net to the destroyer – one man slipped and landed on a Lewis machine gun which started shooting all over us. One chap was badly hit.”
At Penang he set up a radar beacon at Bayan Lepas airport, helping the planes which were evacuating all the POWs back to the UK.
He spent Christmas in Singapore and then served was sent to Borneo in 1946 for two years before being demobbed. One of his lasting memories from his service is the haunting sight of Allied POWs, some who had been freed from the notorious Changi jail in Singapore.
He recalled; “We were evacuating those who were fit enough to travel. They had washed and been given clean uniforms but they were very emaciated and stooped. Many looked broken mentally. And these POWs were the fitter ones.
“I think the remembrance service in Penang will be particularly moving. As I get older I seem to become more emotional about the war than I used to be. It will be a tremendous experience returning to the region – to where I played a small part in the liberation of a country.”
Bob lived in Camberley, Surrey, for many years and Teddington, London, before moving to Toulouse in France in recent years. He now splits his time between there and family in Tonbridge, Kent.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Burma, Far East, Heroes Return, Japan | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Burma, Far East, Heroes Return, Jack Hough, Taukkyan War Cemetery, West Yorkshire Regiment
Jack Hough crept stealthily through the dense foliage of the Indo-Burma jungle knowing that every step took him closer to a lethal enemy hiding in the trees. Suffocating in the stifling heat and pitifully inexperienced in the deathly art of jungle warfare, Jack heard the Japanese catcalls of ‘come on Johnny!’ followed by a rain of bullets tearing through the undergrowth cutting down those around him.
A Lance Corporal, Jack was just 20 years old and a long way from home in the 14th British Army, ‘The Forgotten Army’.
As we approach the historic anniversary of VJ day (15th August 2012) 67 years after the Japanese surrender that finally brought an end to the Second World War, Leeds veteran Jack Hough is just one of over 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers to date awarded more than £25 million under the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme to make important commemorative trips across the world.
Now aged 87, he plans to travel to Burma, where he will visit Taukkyan War Cemetery in Rangoon to pay his final respects at the grave of his old friend Willis Wray.
Jack left school and joined up with the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1943. He underwent infantry training in Durham and Norfolk before being posted to Liverpool where he embarked upon the long voyage to Bombay aboard the converted troop ship SS Orontes.
He recalls, “Going through the North Atlantic was a bit rough. I remember making the terrible mistake of eating kippers. Though once we got into the Mediterranean it was much more peaceful. We went from Gibraltar into the Suez Canal. The ship was so large that there was barely room on either side of the canal. You could even see the draught from the propellers along the banks.”
Arriving in Bombay the troops then endured the 150 mile week-long train journey to Deolali transit camp, nicknamed ‘Doolally’: notorious for its unpleasant environment and its psychological effect, known as the ‘Doolally tap’, suffered by the soldiers who passed through it.
He remembers: “On the journey the only water we had to drink was from the train engine. When we arrived at the camp the heat was so oppressive, we’d never felt anything like it. It was an awful place.”
As the Japanese were preparing to advance into India, the West Yorkshires were once again on the move. Journeying through raging monsoons and bedding down in damp Bivouacs they crossed country to Dimapur then on to set up key defences in the jungle terrain of the Assam Border as part of the combined forces of the 14th British Army under the renowned Commander, General Slim.
Jack recalls: “The Japanese were very well trained for jungle fighting, but we really didn’t have any experience. It was dreadful, knowing that the enemy were somewhere in the trees. You never knew when or where they would come from, they were perfect at hiding. They would call out to you. Then suddenly the ping of bullets would come whizzing past and you had to get out of it quick.”
Surviving the horrors of jungle warfare, Jack’s regiment joined with colonial forces as part of the Battles of Imphal and Kohima, a major allied offensive which would repel the Japanese advance on Delhi and prove a decisive turning point in the Far East war.
Jack remembers: “We were sent to reinforce a major road block on the Imphal Road. The Japanese had been battling around Garrison Hill at Kohima and were now coming down the road towards us. My friend Willis Wray was shot dead. He was right next to me, and I got hit at the same time. I found out later that the same bullet that killed him went into me. I was very lucky.”
Out of action for three months Jack learned that his mother had been sent a war telegram. He recalls: “It just said that her son was injured in action and more information would follow. But she heard nothing else as it took ages for any communications to get through. Though I finally managed to get a message to her as I knew she would be very worried.”
However, by the time Jack had recovered and rejoined his comrades in Meiktila, the allies had recaptured Rangoon, and reoccupied most of Burma as the Japanese army was forced to retreat having suffered 85,000 casualties, due to fierce allied resistance, sickness and disease after their supplies lines were cut off.
The troop moved to Penang and it was there that Jack learnt about the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the ensuing Japanese surrender. He recalls: “At the time we all said three cheers that the war was finally over and our duty had been completed. If those bombs hadn’t been dropped we would never have seen the end of war.
Finally arriving in Singapore Jack celebrated his 21st birthday with a homemade cake and ham sandwich which his mother had posted to him in a tin, and which he duly shared out amongst his pals. But while in Singapore Jack was stunned when he saw groups of allied PoW’s from the local Changi Jail, he said: “They were like skeletons. I didn’t get a chance to speak to them. I could see that they were not interested in talking, they just wanted to get home.”
For more information about the Heroes Return programme, visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121
Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Heroes Return, Singapore, Thailand
The story of World War Two veteran Jack Jennings, 93, inspired a recent National Lottery good causes TV advert campaign.
Having trouble viewing this video? Watch it on our YouTube channel.
In this video, Jack speaks of his return to the Far East with funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme. He also gives his thoughts on how Lottery money benefits good causes across the UK.
For more information on Heroes Return visit our website or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121.
Take a look at the National Lottery’s good causes directory for a snapshot of all of those supported right on your doorstep.
Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return, Japan, Navy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Flight Commander, Heroes Return, Japan, Kamikaze, plane, Royal Navy
Flight commander Keith Quilter hurtled along in his fighter bomber towards the Japanese aerodrome. Flying right beside him was his best friend Walter Stradwick and two other fighters.
At just 50 feet from the ground they closed in on Japanese aircraft. As they prepared to let loose a burst of gunfire, Keith saw Walter’s fighter at his side suddenly plunge into the ground and explode into a ball of flames.
Keith was aged 23 at the time. Today (Tuesday, 6 March) is his 90th birthday and he is also celebrating being awarded funding to make an emotional visit to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate from aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, killed on 18 July 1945 aged 22.
Keith, from Tenterden, Kent, recently learnt he will receive £3,700 from BIG’s Heroes Return programme to make a commemorative visit in May 2012. His is the 50th successful application for funding for a veteran to visit Japan.
Keith served as a pilot in the navy from 1942 to 1946 and rejoined in 1947, leaving in 1952. During the war he flew many death-defying missions in his F4U Corsair fighter bomber, at first in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, in Norway in August 1944.
HMS Formidable then joined the British Pacific Fleet. They attacked Japanese aerodromes in islands between Okinawa and Taiwan to prevent Kamikaze suicide missions against Allied ships and to prepare for a possible ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Keith said: “I want to go and pay my respects to my cabin mate Walter Stradwick. I found out where his grave is and I’m going to leave a wreath there. I’m also hoping to somehow trace his family. I’m going to take a photograph of his grave and would like them to be able to see it.
“He went into the ground and I saw a horrible great mass of flames alongside me. Then my wing man said his oil pressure was dropping and so the fourth pilot had to escort him back to the carrier. This meant I was on my own so I joined the tail end of my CO’s group to attack a different aerodrome.
“I got hit as I went into a 45 degree dive to strafe the aerodrome. I heard this huge bang. A 20mm shell hit the side. When I eventually got back to the carrier all the chaps on deck were pointing up at my aircraft. When I got out I saw a hole in the fuselage so big you could put your head inside.
“That mission was the one that caused me the most personal loss. When your close friend and cabin mate is shot down and you get back to the ship and walk back into an empty cabin room, that is….quite something.”
Keith survived two Kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable. The first strike killed several men on the flight deck who didn’t hear the alarm because of the sound of the engines of aircraft taxiing towards one end. As a result of that attack, it was decided that someone would also wave a red flag to warn pilots of a Kamikaze approaching. This new procedure saved Keith’s life.
Keith said: “I was strapped into my aircraft with the engine running. Suddenly I saw someone frantically waving a red flag in front of me. I switched the engine off, unstrapped myself as quick as I could and me and three other pilots leapt out of our fighters and jumped down two of three decks before it hit the ship. The ship lurched as the kamikaze hit us. My aircraft was completely destroyed.”
Less than a week after Walter died, Keith was shot down attacking a Japanese destroyer inside a harbour at Owaze.
Keith recalled: “Twelve of us were flying towards a target on the mainland when we spotted a destroyer. I was told to attack it so me and three others peeled away from the main group. Because it was on the inside of the harbour wall we had to approach from the land which had high hills. We attacked by coming in really low over the water and released the bombs just before we passed over the ship so that they hit its side.
“One of our chaps got hit and had to ditch in the water. I wanted to come around again to see if he was okay in his dingy and saw a side creek with hills that would have hidden me from view of the town as I came around for a look. But there was a gun position there and I got hit. My engine suddenly stopped so I had no choice but to ditch.
“I had to open the hood quickly before the plane sank, got into my dingy and paddled away to the open sea. The other pilot was doing the same while Japanese were taking pot shots at him from the shore.
“Then I saw this sinister looking black submarine sail towards us. At first I feared it was a Japanese submarine but men got out and I recognised the US Navy uniform. They were on standby to save Allied pilots like myself. I couldn’t believe a US sub would come in that close.
“I was aboard for three weeks, by which time the atom bombs had been dropped. As we sailed into Saipan we heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.”
As well as visiting Walter’s grave at Yokohama War Cemetery, Keith also wanted to visit the memorial dedicated to Robert Hampton Gray, a Corsair fighter pilot also on board HMS Formidable. “Hammy” Gray was one of the last Canadians to die in the war and was awarded a Victoria Cross for an attack on a destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite coming under heavy fire and his plane ablaze, he remained on course to bomb and sink the ship before crashing into the water. The memorial is the only one dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.
Keith said: “We were all such young and cocky fighter pilots. But by the time VJ day came I think half the squadron had been lost. Walter was a lovely guy and Hammy was also full of fun in the mess.”
The Heroes Return 2 programme is still open for applications. For more information, please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121