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


Scottish veterans return to where they served by Big Lottery Fund

Veteran holds medals

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



“There were hundreds of planes in the sky” by Big Lottery Fund

RAF veteran Norman Shepherd, 88, from Nottingham, who visited Norway on a Heroes Return visit, is urging other veterans to apply for funding for a first or second trip.

Norman Shepherd

Norman Shepherd (photo credit – Alan Fletcher)

Norman joined the RAF in 1943 and after training joined 196 Squadron 38 Group. The Flight Sergeant was a flight engineer in Short Stirlings in operations over occupied Europe.

The squadron carried out various transport, glider-towing and supply-dropping flights as well as Special Air Service parachuting missions over occupied territories.

He said: “I flew something between 20 to 30 wartime operations. Most of them were dropping supplies or soldiers parachuting from our aircraft. My job as flight engineer was checking the engines and fuel.

“One of the most memorable operations was when we had to tow gliders over the Rhine. We flew from Suffolk to Essex to pick up the gliders. Some were full of troops, others had jeeps and weapons.

“There were hundreds of planes in the sky. A lot got hit by flack and we saw a few go down. We were also hit but we weren’t badly damaged. It was really terrifying when we got hit. We were flying so low towing the gliders that we wouldn’t have survived bailing out.

“After the gliders detached themselves we headed back. The rope used to tow the gliders was extremely thick and heavy and we were trained to drop it on targets. On the way back we dropped it over an anti aircraft position and the rear gunner called out from the back saying we hit it. We all gave out a big cheer.

“On another operation I remember we had to transport fuel for Spitfires and Hurricanes in jerry cans. We were like a flying bomb. One tracer bullet and we would have exploded. That was a bit hairy.

“There was a high loss rate of crews. When I was first started on operations I remember looking at a seasoned aircrew and thinking ‘what a scruffy lot’. Two months later they never returned from an operation and so we then became the scruffy lot. You got used to people not coming back.”

Norman Shepherd at memorial

Norman returned to Oslo to commemorate those lost during Operation Doomsday

One cargo Norman wasn’t expecting was at the end of the war. His crew were delivered a dozen Jewish children who had been freed from a concentration camp and were to be flown to England.

He said: “They were aged between eight and 12 and I was put in charge of them. I gave them a chocolate bar each and they gobbled them all down. But they weren’t used to it and it made them sick in the aircraft.

“They got all tearful when I went over. They were cowering in fear – I think they thought I was going to hit them, the poor little things.”

Norman visited Oslo, Norway, last year for his Heroes Return 2 visit. He had been invited to take part in a ceremony to commemorate crewmen lost during Operation Doomsday – the supervision of the surrender of German forces in occupied Norway following the Allied victory in Europe on May 8 1945.

More than 360,000 German troops still occupied Norway and the Allies launched a massive operation to take 30,000 soldiers to Norway.

On May 10 1945 three Short Stirlings crashed enroute to Gardermoen Airfield. Norman joined relatives of the lost men at Gardermoen and also visited the crash site and cemetery where the men now rest.

He remembered: “We took off but the weather became dreadful about two-thirds of the way. We were recalled but three aircraft carried on. All three crashed, including one carrying the Commander of 38 Group Air Vice-Marshall James Scarlet –Streatfield.

“It was tragic – that could have happened to us. It wasn’t down to a particular person or crew – it was luck or fate what happened. They actually went to their death on Ascension Day so they went up like Jesus to the right place as far as I’m concerned. I really enjoyed the trip to reminisce. Sixty-seven years is a long time to think about these things. The visit brought to all to the surface.”

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



“I showed my daughter places I knew” by Big Lottery Fund

A Royal Airforce (RAF) veteran from Wythenshaw, Manchester, recently embarked upon a Lottery-funded journey to where he served in Singapore. Having enjoyed his emotional return, through the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, he now wants others like him to apply for funding.

Jim Colecliffe

Jim Colecliffe returned to Singapore (photo credit – Dominic Holden)

Jim Colecliffe, 87, joined the RAF in 1944 aged 18. Sent to Cardington for basic training he went on to Cosford where he completed a Flight Mechanic Engine Course.

He recalls: “I had been in the ATC a couple of years before I joined up. I was always very interested in planes. I had a model aircraft flying on wires in my house.”

Jim was sent to a squadron in Towyn, North Wales from where he received his posting to the Far East.

Boarding a converted troop ship, HMS Ranchi, Jim sailed for Bombay arriving in January 1945, and from there was transferred to Akyab Island in Burma where he served at rank of Aircraftman 1st class with 62 Squadron RAF a Dakota supply unit.

He said: “Once we knew we were being posted overseas we were sent to Morecambe to get kitted out with pith helmets and all the jungle gear. Once we got to Bombay we had four or five days travelling across India by train.

“It was terrible to see the poverty. People with badly maimed limbs even women and children. I couldn’t believe that people could live like that in this day and age.               

“We then flew to 62 Squadron base on Akyab Island just off the coast of Burma. Once we got there we had to deal with the monsoons, putting up tents and then digging trenches around them. We were what you might call slightly damp. I was only 18 and it was a different world to me all this.”

Carrying out four to five sorties a day to drop vital supplies to front line troops fighting the Japanese, Jim’s was assigned to keep Dakota ‘U’ for Uncle serviced and flying safely.

Jim recalls: “As soon as they landed I would check the cowlings and the engines and then climb into the cockpit, check over all the instruments and run the engines to make sure everything was working properly.

Jim Colecliffe

Jim pictured during his wartime service (credit – Dominic Holden)

“It was all quite an experience really. We tolerated the heat somehow, no shirts, just bush hats. We got a cooked breakfast every morning from the RAF cooks and then after that we lived on typical American K rations.

“These were the same as were supplied to all aircrew in case they got ditched. There were packets of biscuits, cigarettes, chocolate, even toilet paper, typical Yank stuff. It was a little bit sparse, but we didn’t starve.

“When I heard the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I felt a bit upset that they’d had to do it. But then we hadn’t had it tough like others.

“We only had one fatality when a Canadian pilot got caught in a cumulonimbus weather cloud and his plane was destroyed.”

Following the Japanese surrender, 62 Squadron was disbanded and Jim was posted to Singapore for three months where he was assigned to looking after VIP aircraft used by generals and admirals.

He was later transferred to Indonesia where he serviced planes flying Japanese PoWs back home. Jim then received his last posting to Saigon at that time a staging post for aircraft between Singapore and Indonesia.

He remembers: “One night I was on guard duty when we had to look after two very high ranking Japanese officers stopping with us in our guard house. They were extremely polite. But I could never work out if they were being very polite because they had lost the war, or if it was just their nature.”

Jim, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, recalls his Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore in June last year where he was accompanied by his daughter Brenda.

“We went round the airfield at Changi where I was stationed. We also visited the Changi Museum and were shocked by the atrocity of some of the stories we read. One was about an Australian lady who had two sons aged 11 and 12 who were both seriously ill.

“In desperation she approached a Japanese guard for help but he smashed her face in with a rifle butt. There was also the story of a Malaysian woman who came to the fence of a PoW camp to pass food through to the prisoners. She was caught by a guard who smashed her with a rifle butt, but she still came back the next day.                  

“I think the chance to have a second trip with Heroes Return 2 is absolutely fantastic news. I couldn’t believe it. I am over the moon. I wouldn’t have been able to go back without the funding. It was a great experience for both me and my daughter Brenda, and for me to be able to show her the places I knew. The whole thing has made such a big impression on both of us. She has never stopped talking about it.”

Jim Colecliffe

Jim studies wartime photos with his daughter Brenda (photo credit – Dominic Holden)

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



“Being a Wren sounded glamorous” by Big Lottery Fund

Former Wren Wendy Hogarth, 89, from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, is about to take her first trip through the Heroes Return programme and is urging other veterans to apply for funding for a first or second visit.

Wendy Hogarth (photo credit - Dan James)

Wendy Hogarth (photo credit – Dan James)

Wendy joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and was trained as a radar mechanic, testing equipment for aircraft. She met her husband George, a Scottish RAF night fighter pilot, at RAF Defford and they married four months later in September 1944.

However they were soon separated when Wendy was posted to Arbroath, Scotland. While on leave, George visited her in Arbroath and the couple enjoyed New Year’s Eve together.

Those few days together meant so much to them that Wendy is making a Heroes Return visit to Arbroath, and the Victorian mansion Letham Grange where she was stationed.

She said: “Worcestershire is about as far as from the sea as it is possible to be, but I thought being a Wren sounded glamorous and I had visions of being a member of a boat crew. I was told I would be a radio mechanic as I had studied Maths and Physics.”

After learning some basics like soldering joints at Chelsea Polytechnic she was sent to HMS Ariel in Lancashire for three months of practical training.

She recalled: “I was then sent back to Worcestershire to RAF Defford and a top secret experimental radar establishment at nearby Malvern. I didn’t really know how important radar was going to be but we knew how serious it was when we had to sign secrecy documents.

“It was at Defford where my life changed for I met a handsome RAF pilot who was resting there and we got married. He flew as a night fighter in Mosquitoes. Later on his role shifted to intruder patrols – he used to fly out looking for targets to bomb such as trains and ammunition depots.

“Shortly after we married I was posted to Arbroath. Being apart was nothing unusual during the war. I never worried too much about him – I guess we were young and very positive and never thought anything would happen to us. We wrote to each other a lot – loved ones writing to each other every day was not unusual during the war.

“After we married I spent New Year in Scotland for the first time. George came up on leave and we stayed in a hotel on the main square. What a difference New Year’s Eve was – the town went mad – dancing in the streets and bands playing.”

George passed away in August 2011 just before his 90th birthday. Now Wendy is planning to return to Arbroath and Letham Grange, to revisit the places the couple spent during that New Year period.

She said: “Those days were very important to us – when we bought our first house we called it ‘Letham’ and our second ‘Letham House’. This is why I want to return to Arbroath. Those few days together that New Year were very special.”

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



A hero’s return to Penang by Big Lottery Fund

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.

Bob pictured with his wife Sheryl during their commemorative trip

Bob pictured with his wife Sheryl during their commemorative trip

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



War veteran travels to Malaysia by Big Lottery Fund

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

Bob Simmons pictured with a Japanese plane in 1945

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.

Bob Simmons

Bob (centre) in Bombay, 1947

“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.”

Bob Simmons

Bob pictured with his wife, Sheryl

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



Paying respects to lost navigator by Big Lottery Fund
June 29, 2012, 2:20 pm
Filed under: memorial, monument, RAF | Tags: , , , , ,

Of all the men who served in Bomber Command, Flight Lt John Hall may well be one of the luckiest. Crews had to complete at least 30 missions, despite odds of being shot down at one in 25 per mission. Yet John Hall survived 60 missions – including being shot down twice over the Channel. On the first occasion he and his crew spent four days in a dinghy and were picked up off the Isles of Scilly.

John Hall visited the Bomber Command memorial

John Hall visited the Bomber Command memorial

For his courage, John Hall, a rear gunner, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1943.

Of the 60 missions he flew, John said the worst was the March 1944 raid on Nuremberg when 795 bombers were sent to the industrial town and 95 failed to return. More airmen were killed that night than in the entire Battle of Britain.

He recalled: “It was a full moon and you could see anti-aircraft fire, searchlights, German fighters, flak all around and bombers in flames going down left right and centre. It was hell on earth.”

The 91-year-old veteran travelled down from Sunderland to take part in the unveiling of the memorial to Bomber Command in Green Park by Her Majesty The Queen on Thursday 28 June. And next month, John will be making an emotional Heroes Return trip to Netherlands to pay his respects to his friend James ‘Hank’ Hancock, the navigator on his Lancaster bomber.

John explained: “We had to do 30 trips on the first tour. When we were coming back from our 28th raid our navigator Hank said that he had an awfully sore throat. We went to the doctor first thing in the morning. The doc took one look at it and said ‘it’s not just a sore throat – you have quinsy. I’m afraid you are grounded’.  

“This meant that Hank missed our 29th and 30th raids. When he recovered, Hank was then put with a different crew to complete his last two missions. I approached Wing Commander Guy Gibson and asked if we could fly another two raids with Hank so that he’d be with us for his last two missions. We were like a family. He said that he couldn’t allow it as we had completed 30 and had to rest.

“I watched Hank fly out on his 29th trip and saw him back. But he never returned from his 30th.

“He was a good lad. I’ve got a photo of him on my wall. We were all like brothers.”

For more information about the Heroes Return programme, call BIG’s advice line on 0845 0000 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn




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