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.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: France, Heroes Return | Tags: Arromanches, D-Day, film, France, Invasion, Normandy, Ray Wilton
World War Two veteran Ray Wilton, 88, speaks of his return to the beaches of Normandy where he took part in the first wave of landings on D-Day, 6 June 1944.
His journey back to the French coast was funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, which gives grants to veterans and their families for commemorative trips back to where they served.
This emotional film, one of two on the subject, featured on National Lottery Saturday draw shows during March 2013.
It was also part of a wider series on Lottery funding and the good causes which are benefiting. Lottery players should feel proud that they are helping veterans like Ray to make incredible journeys to revisit their past.
Read Ray’s story in full in another post on the Heroes Return blog.
For more information on Heroes Return funding, visit the programme page.
Filed under: Heroes Return | Tags: Bill Frankland, Black Friday, Cenotaph, Death Railway, Far East, funding, Heroes Return, Iwo Jima, Japanese, Okinawa, Pearl Harbour, Peter Ainsworth, Rangoon, Remembrance Day, Singapore, Sir Alexander Fleming, Thai-Burma
World War II veterans will be able to apply for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Heroes Return 2 programme, the Big Lottery Fund announced today.
Over £25 million has been awarded since 2004 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. From today, veterans will be able to apply for funding to go a second time.
Peter Ainsworth, Big Lottery Fund UK Chair, said: “It is for me a very real honour and pleasure to announce that our Second World War veterans who have already been on a Heroes Return commemorative visit can now be supported to make another journey to a place where they fought or served. They let us know how important these visits are to them – whether it be a trip to London’s Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, a visit to the beaches of Normandy, or journeys to war cemeteries in the Far East. The experiences they revisit remind us that we must never take for granted the peace this generation secured for all of us and the debt we owe for the freedoms we enjoy and value today.”
London Second World War veteran Bill Frankland, a renowned allergist and registrar to Sir Alexander Fleming in the development of penicillin was studying medicine at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School when war broke out. Bill accepted a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps and in late 1941 with the rank of Captain he joined a team of 30 doctors as they embarked on a two-month long voyage to Singapore.
Bill, who is approaching his 101st birthday in March recalls: “We were on our way to form a new general hospital in Johor Bahru. But when we arrived it was decided that there would be no new hospital and we would be split into two groups.
“I spun a coin and went to Tanglin Military Hospital and my friend went to Alexandra Military Hospital. It was three days before Pearl Harbour.”
Two months later on Friday 13th February 1942, known as Black Friday, allied forces were in full retreat as the Japanese seized most of the reservoirs leaving the city with only seven days water supply.
Caught under constant heavy mortar fire Bill transferred his patients from Tanglin to a makeshift hospital in the Fullerton Theatre in the centre of Singapore.
When the Japanese invaded Singapore Bill’s friend and colleague was murdered along with nursing staff and patients, one in the middle of surgery, as the marauding soldiers, armed with bayonets, and ignoring a white flag of truce stormed the Alexandra Hospital on a killing spree.
Bill recalls: “The Japanese had no plans on how they would deal with prisoners. We were sent to Changi. It was an 18 mile march, but I went by lorry with my patients. There was a lot of dysentery and after six months we were all starving. I was looking after one of the dysentery wards and saw little of the Japanese. Our guards were mostly Koreans and later Indians.”
But soon the PoWs were being sent to work on the notorious Thai-Burma death railway. Bill was transferred to a working camp, formerly a British Artillery barracks on Blakang Mati Island, known then as Hell Island, now Sentosa.
He remembers: “I never saw the sea, even on the island. In the camp there were 75 per cent Australians and men from the British 18th Division. In my working group I knew every man personally. We lived off meagre rations of rice and everyone suffered from gross starvation. All we could think of was food. When we could we ate rats, mice and dogs.”
Apart from chronic dysentery other tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and starvation beriberi were rife amongst the prisoners. However, even this didn’t save them from the relentless forced labour instigated by their captors.
Bill recalls: “The Japanese kept us all busy. If my sick parade got too large a Japanese private, non medical would take my sick parade and put them to work if they were strong enough to stand.
“If the men’s behaviour was bad the Japanese would bash the officers. They would line us up and just punch us in the face.
“The best bashing I ever had was when I was knocked unconscious. I didn’t feel much but when I got up I realised I had lost a tooth.
“Once a soldier came up to me and said he was going to kill me and he tried but I survived it. I think at the time it may have been in revenge for some allied victory abroad.”
Those who attempted to get away ran a hazardous course with the Japanese paying local people 100 dollars to give up escapees.
He said: “I looked after a marvellous man who had tried to escape. He had ulcerated legs, dysentery, malaria and starvation beriberi. After two months he was getting better and I was about to return him to his unit when a police officer from the much feared KEMPI Military Police came round with an armoured guard of Sikhs.
“They ordered him to dig his own grave but he was much too weak to do it so the Sikhs had to dig the grave. They were then ordered to shoot him but only one hit him so the police officer finished him off with a pistol.”
In May 1945, Australian troops landed in Borneo and British, American and Chinese forces defeated the Japanese in Burma, while American forces also moved towards Japan, capturing the islands of Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa.
Bill recalls: “Each corner of the prison parade ground was covered by machine gun posts. There was a Japanese order that if the Americans set foot in Japan all PoWs were to be killed. This would include 120,000 in all.”
“When the atom bomb was dropped we thought the war was finished but the local Japanese command said it wasn’t and fired on the VJ planes coming over Singapore. Five or six days after VJ day we asked to see a Japanese officer. It was a very risky thing to ask anything from a Japanese officer but we wanted to be released.”
The next day they were allowed to leave Blakang Mati and went back to Singapore Island. It would be Bill’s first taste of freedom for three and a half years. Bill remembers: “I was flown from Singapore to Rangoon 12 days after VJ day. There was this marvellous Red Cross woman at the airport who gave me sandwiches. It was the first time I’d had bread in over three years.
“Shortly after I was examined by a doctor who pressed my stomach and said I had an enlarged spleen. But I said ‘no ‘it’s bread!’ But he still had me admitted to hospital.”
Arriving back in England in November he recalls: “The first thing I was asked was whether I wanted to see a psychiatrist. I said ‘no, I want to see my wife’.”
Less than two months later Bill was back at work at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. A renowned allergist, whose achievements include the popularisation of the pollen count as a vital piece of weather-related information and the prediction of increased levels of allergy to penicillin, Bill is also a key expert witness in matters of allergy.
Recently making a Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore with his daughter, he said: “I don’t think I would have gone without the grant. I went up to the Kranji Memorial to pay my respects to those who lost their lives. It was very quiet in November and I was all on my own. It was quite emotional.”
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: Heroes Return | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Germany, Heroes Return, Market Garden, Parachute Regiment, The Netherlands
Young paratrooper Harold Herbert waited to jump. Below, a mass of blazing fields, crippling shell fire, and the sight of comrades being cut down as they fell from the sky. As bullets ripped through the fuselage of the Horsa glider the plucky 20-year old summoned his courage and leapt into the abyss.
Now 68 years on veteran Harold will return to the scene of Operation Market Garden, one of the most audacious, though ultimately ill-fated allied offensives of the Second World War, and the largest airborne operation in history.
Harold, 88, was part of a force of over 86,000 men comprising paratroopers, air and ground units involved in the daring operation to seize control of bridges and river crossings in Germany and the Netherlands.
The Allied assault (17-25 September 1944) was initially successful, but ultimately ended in defeat with thousands killed and many more injured or taken prisoner.
Had the operation succeeded it is possible that the war would have ended in 1944 and the map of post-war Europe would have been very different.
He recalls: “I worked at the Chatham dockyard building torpedo tubes. I wanted to join up but they wouldn’t let me. I wanted to see some action. I wanted to prove myself. Anyway in the end they had to let me go.”
Joining the army, 18 year old Harold trained as a gunner and in 1944 volunteered for the 10th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. A crack regiment destined for the Normandy Landings, the Paras were held back in reserve for Market Garden and on September 18th as part of the second lift 20-year old Harold undertook the hazardous drop into heavily defended countryside near Oosterbeek, a village west of Arnhem.
He remembers: “The Germans were waiting for us. We were all scared but we still jumped. We wanted to get out as tracer bullets were tearing through the plane. As I jumped my main thought was to land and then get away as quickly as possible. But as I looked down I saw all the fields below were on fire and I was going to have land in the middle of it.”
He continued: “I hit the ground and ran for my life into some woods. It was then I found out that out of the 120 of us that jumped just 60 had survived.”
With the battalion depleted, Harold and his comrades came under severe attack from crack German troops supported by heavy artillery, Panzer tanks and flame-throwers. But despite fierce fighting, Harold’s troop managed to reach Oosterbeek in the early afternoon only to find that they were being surrounded by superior German forces.
He remembers: “For three days we held our position. We launched mortar attacks on the German 88 gun emplacements until we ran out of ammo, so I volunteered to slip back and get some. But by the time I returned with a trolley of ammo the troop had taken a direct hit, and I was on my own. The Germans were all around me and I had nowhere to go so I just kept firing shells at them until I ran out. In the end I was so exhausted I fell asleep.
“I must have been talking in my sleep when I was awakened by a sharp prodding in the back. There were German soldiers standing round me. One of them wanted to shoot me but an officer appeared and stopped him. They had respect for British soldiers.”
Harold was duly marched off with a gun in his back. On the way the Germans picked up a badly wounded British soldier and Harold pushed him along on the empty bomb trolley as they headed for a German Field hospital.
He recalls: “The two guards kept butting me in the back with their rifles making me take the lead. I knew what they were up to. They wanted us at the front line in case we came across any allied troops.
“In the end I got fed up and refused to go on. So one of the guards took the lead and as were coming out of some woods he got shot in the leg. He was very angry.
“I quickly took out my field dressing and bandaged his leg. I knew not to panic. If you panicked you were finished. You were scared but you stayed scared.”
Once they reached the Field hospital Harold was herded into a box car crammed with other PoW’s, and shunted off to a railway yard and placed right next to an anti aircraft battery.
He remembers: “We were left there so that if the RAF or Americans bombed we would get it. We were there for ten days. You can imagine what it was like, all those people and no toilets, just buckets.”
While Harold was in captivity, his widowed mother received a telegram saying her son was missing in action. For many months she had thought he was dead but a relative who worked for the Red Cross managed to trace him and to her great relief she discovered that he was a PoW.
Finally sent to a PoW camp in Harra, Germany, he recalls: “We were very heavily guarded. I thought about escape. But you couldn’t just escape. Every camp had an escape committee and I had to hand in my silk map. You couldn’t get far without that, and anyway we knew we would soon be liberated.
Harold was finally liberated in May 1945. Since then he has returned to Arnhem and has even made three commemorative parachute jumps over Oosterbeck in honour of his fallen comrades.
He recalls: “My last jump was at the 60th anniversary when I was 80. I wanted to keep jumping but my doctor refused to sign me off.”
Harold will travel to Arnhem on a Heroes Return grant with his daughter and granddaughter.