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: France, Heroes Return, memorial | Tags: film, France, funding, Heroes Return, History, Just imagine, Lottery Good Causes, Normandy, Robert Coupe, Second World War, veteran, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Just imagine if the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme wasn’t there to support World War Two veterans wanting to make a return journey to where they served. This National Lottery Good Causes film tells the story of Robert Coupe who applied for funding for a commemorative trip and has since successfully applied for a second trip.
Since 2009, over £25 million has been awarded to more than 52,000 World War II veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK for journeys in the UK and to countries including France, Germany, the Middle East, the Far East.
To use the new ‘Good Cause Finder’ to see projects in your area, or to find out more about Just Imagine January, visit www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and follow Lottery Good Causes on Twitter: @lottogoodcauses
Filed under: France, Heroes Return | Tags: Commemorative, D-Day, D-Day landings, France, funding, Heroes Return, History, Normandy, Older people, Remembrance, Ron Rowson, Second World War, veteran, World War Two, WW2, WWII
In June 2012 Ron took part in the annual pilgrimage to Normandy with D-Day Revisited, his first trip back since 1944, which proved a very moving trip for him. His commemorative journey was funded by the Heroes Return 2 programme.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit http://www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Heroes Return, Remembrance Day | Tags: £27 million, Commemorations, Europe, Far East, funding, Heroes Return, History, Infographic, Journeys, Middle East, Remembrance, Remembrance Sunday, Second World War, veterans, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Since launching in 2009 the Heroes Return programme has funded more than 50,000 veterans to make commemorative trips to where they served in World War Two.
These journeys have included emotional reunions on the beaches of Normandy, meeting old comrades across the battlefields of Arnhem, pilgrimages to remembrance sites across the Far East, and attending events and commemorative trips across the UK.
- The Big Lottery Fund has paid for 55,001 veterans and their companions to visit places where they saw action
- £27m has been awarded under the Heroes Return programme
- 32,121 veterans have visited Northern and Western Europe (including the UK)
- 13,177 veterans have visited the Mediterranean and North Africa
- 1,997 veterans have visited Egypt, Libya and the Middle East
- 7,706 veterans have visited the Far East and the rest of the world
The Heroes Return programme has recently been extended to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips to the places they served across the world. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.
If you know a WW2 veteran who may be eligible for a commemorative trip please contact the Heroes Return helpline on: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Have you been on a Heroes Return trip to where you served or do you know of someone who has? We’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments below or join the conversation on Twitter using #HeroesReturn.
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: Army, Heroes Return | Tags: Arnhem, Glider, Glider Pilot Regiment, Heroes Return, Holland, Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, netherlands, Operation Market Garden, Rhine, South Staffordshire Regiment
Commemorating the 69th anniversary of Operation Market Garden (Arnhem, Holland, 17–25 September 1944) is WW2 veteran Arthur Shackleton, 94, from Dorchester. He will be making an historic journey to the battlefields of Holland 69 years on to attend key commemorations and pay respects to old comrades. Arthur will be supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
Arthur was part of a force of over 86,000 men who were involved in a daring operation to seize control of bridges and river crossings in Germany and the Netherlands. The Allied assault (September 17-25 1944) was initially successful, but ultimately ended in defeat with thousands killed and many more injured or taken prisoner.
Aged 25, Arthur was a Staff Sergeant, First Pilot in the Glider Pilot Regiment. Piloting a Horsa Glider, he transported troops from the South Staffordshire Regiment to a designated landing strip at Wolfheze, 8 kilometers from Arnhem, as part of the first wave of landings on Sunday 17th September 1944.
Arthur recalls: “We had quite a few skirmishes on the way to Arnhem. When we reached the Arnhem road just outside of the town we saw a German staff car with four bodies hanging out of it. I remembers seeing blood in the road which trickled down the side of the road into a little stream. We later found out that one of the dead was a German General Kusseins, commander of the town who against explicit advice had come out to see what was happening.”
Arthur and comrades then came under intense air bombardment from Messcherschmidt fighters.
He said: “We realised after a while that they weren’t shooting at us. They were attacking the gliders at the nearby landing zone. We heard that they had captured the allied battle orders from one of the crashed gliders. But the Germans weren’t sure whether to believe the plans so they waited for the next landing. But the fog in England was so bad that the next wave of gliders didn’t come so the Germans thought it wasn’t going ahead, and dismissed it.”
“We reached the outskirts of Arnhem and were in the middle of a battle when suddenly a man came running out of a hospital shouting that his wife was having a baby. He rushed up to me and grabbed my tunic begging me to help him. I pointed him over to a soldier with a red cross armband. That was the last I saw of him and I’ve often wondered what happened to him and his wife, and if the baby was born.”
The Parachute regiment decided to put in an attack on Arnhem, and the troops positioned themselves outside of the town. Arthur and comrades took possession of a derelict house .
He recalls, “It was very dark, very eery, the windows were all blown out and the wind was whistling through. At dawn we started the attack. But they were waiting for us with Panzer tanks. Three hundred and fifty of us were killed in just one hour. It was over three quarters of our number. We were finally given the order to retreat and went back to Oosterbeek where they positioned themselves in and around the Hartenstein Hotel.
He said” I was looking forward to having four walls around me but we were never in the hotel. We were always patrolling outside around trenches looking to see who had been killed or injured. They were shells screaming over all the time. I was frightened to death. I thought we were all going to get killed.”
It was 10 days after their initial landing that the troops finally got the order to pull out.
“Major Urqhuart came to tell us what was happening and asked the glider pilots to act as guides down to the River Rhine. At three in the morning we went down toward the river. As we came out of some woods we saw six troops. They were lost and making a lot of noise. Our Major told them to keep quiet. Then they were told to follow me. When we got down to the bank of the river I asked them to lay down and keep quiet. Suddenly I heard this burst of machine gun fire and I felt like someone had hit my arm with a sledgehammer. When I turned I saw that the others were dead. Then I felt my hand was sticky and blood running down my sleeve.”
“At first it was numb then it started to hurt really badly as I got down to the river bank. I was put in a boat with other wounded.
We were crossing over when I heard this muffled bang and suddenly I was in the river on my back. All I could see were light flashes. I thought I was going to drown. Suddenly I felt my leg bump down into some mud and I heard someone say ‘here’s a body washed up’ and I shouted, ‘I’m not a body, I’m alive!’
Arthur was pulled to safety and after receiving medical treatment he was taken to Brussels and from there brought back to Birmingham where he recovered in hospital and finally discharged in late October 1944. However, Arthur was soon back in service and later took part in the Rhine Crossing of 1945, which eventually led to the defeat of the Germans.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
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.