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


Saluting the fallen, Remembrance 2014 by Big Lottery Fund

Never forgotten Remembrance Day veterans salute the fallen

As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism and fortitude of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 9) veterans across the country are 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.

Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth HighlanderTo reflect the nation’s debt to our Armed Forces veterans of WW2 the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over  £28 million to more than 57,000 WW2 veterans, spouses, widows and carers since 2004 to make journeys of remembrance.

Peter Ainsworth chair of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “As we approach this important day of commemorations it is with gratitude and pride that the country remembers and honours our veterans who endured the horrors of war and whose courage and sacrifice finally brought an end to a conflict that cost over 60 million lives across the world.”

Among those benefiting from the Heroes Return programme today is Colonel Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth Highlander.

On Sept 1939 Edward was an 18 year-old third year Electrical Engineering apprentice in HM Naval Dockyard, Devonport and a student at HM Dockyard School.

He remembers: “Third year apprentices were required to spend that year ‘afloat’, that is working on ships that were already in service with a naval crew. All those working in naval dockyards were exempt from call up and like many young men at the time we couldn’t wait to be called up and immediately wanted to volunteer to join the Forces in a unit of our choice. We were told we could not and should not.

“By nature I am a loner and inclined to find my own solutions so I wrote to the Admiral Superintendant, HM Dockyard, Devonport and he gave me permission to volunteer, adding that my training would be particularly valuable in the Royal Navy. But, I failed the RN Medical Board because I did not have perfect 20/20 vision and spectacles were unacceptable.” 

Consequently, he volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment joining them in early 1941 at Bovington camp in Dorset. Training as a tank radio operator/driver he was then sent to active service in the Middle East in early 1942, serving as tank Trooper in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) with the 7th Hussars part of the 7th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats.

He recalls: “When we eventually reached Egypt I went down with the awful Sand Fly Fever and ended up in the British military hospital in Helwan, a leafy suburb of Cairo. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire 7th Armoured Brigade were rushed to Rangoon with their light tanks to attempt to defend Burma against the Japanese. It was a terrible battle with much sickness.

“The Brigade was driven back into India, with practically everyone suffering from malaria and dysentery and it took many months and much reinforcement before the brigade eventually returned to Egypt. We missed the first Battle of El Alamein. Those like me, when we left hospital went to our depots in the Canal Zone and were formed and trained as complete tank crews with firstly Grant tanks and later with Sherman tanks.” 

Edward’s crew was reallocated as part replacement crews to the many other RTR units in time for the second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and formed up beyond Alexandria as part of a replacement troop of 5th RTR.

“My tank was hit early on and caught fire,” he recalls.” My back was burnt getting out of the turret and I ended up again in the British military hospital at Helwan, in Cairo. When I was fully fit again I was chosen for a commission in the Infantry as a Seaforth Highlander, 2nd Lieutenant, in late 1943 but by then there were no Seaforth units in the Middle East, so I volunteered and passed the selection process for the SAS, including the essential parachute training.”

Edward now a Captain in the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR) went on to take part in raids and longer operations working with the working with the Special  Boating Services (SBS) in Italy the Aegean Islands, Albania, and Yugoslavia, including  two raids on the Albanian coast and the occupation of the Island of Vis, off the German held Yugoslavian coast.

He said: “It was very difficult for the Germans to defend the Adriatic and Italian coast. There was a main road that ran up from Brindisi to Venice where we could land agents. In the Aegeans we worked with the Special Boating Services (SBS) on short sharp raids. There were thousands of Greek Islands and we could mingle in with the local fishing boats.”

In January 1945 after returning to Special Forces HQ in Bari, Italy, Edward was then summoned to form part of Monty’s final push into Germany.

He recalls: “We used to love going back to base in Bari. It was always full of nice British girls. We’d try and stay at the Hotel Imperiali, built by Mussolini and taken over by the NAAFI.  The Commanding Officer came all the way to Bari to claim me as his battalion was about to go into the front line short of officers, whereas, as far as he could see I was “only dancing with FANY’s.”

As part of the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Edward moved up through France direct from Italy to join the 5th Division for the Rhine Crossings and advance into Germany where after a few battles the Battalion reached Lubeck and Wismar on the Baltic.

The European War now over, in July 1945 Edward flew to Ceylon in a Sunderland Flying Boat to join Force 136 Special Operations Executive (SOE). 

He said: “Luckily for me, before I was parachuted into Japanese – held lands, the A bombs were dropped in August and my war service ended with a fiancée, Veronica who was serving in the ATS in Mountbatten’s HQ in Kandy where Force 136 also had its HQ.

“We married in July 1946, and lived very happily for 57 years till sadly Veronica died in 2003, having given me four marvellous children.”

Edward reflects: “Remembrance Day means a lot to me. I was born just after World War One ended. I lost two uncles only 20 at the time so there was grief in the family. But as you grow older it becomes more important and given the opportunity to go back and visit battle sites, remembrance becomes much much more important, and you begin to have regrets  that you didn’t do more  about remembering. It does become terribly important.” 

“I think Heroes Return is a marvellous idea and I’m very grateful to have been able to make these important trips with the support of the lottery. I think Heroes Return has got it right, just in time to allow thousands of veterans to go back, many who might not have otherwise been able to. What I like about it too is that the funding is not means tested. It helps every veteran, like we were in the war, all equal, all one.”

The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has awarded over £28 million to over 57,000 WW2 veterans, widows and carers since 2004.

The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.

This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have already been funded since the programme relaunched in 2009 will have a second opportunity to apply for a grant towards travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served, or make a commemorative visit in the UK.

For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Infographic: Heroes Return journeys to date by Big Lottery Fund

hrfactsforweb

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.



Welsh veteran recalls D-Day torpedo attack by Big Lottery Fund

As we prepare to remember those who died in the line of duty on 11 November, a Welsh D-Day veteran whose ship was sunk by a German U-Boat with the loss of 110 lives recalls how he was lucky to have survived.

Thanks to an award from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, 87 year old Eddie Linton from Newport recently visited the beaches of Normandy for the first time to lay a wreath in memory of the 110 fellow crew-members that lost their lives on the frigate, HMS Mourne – the ship he served on during WW2.

Eddie recalls with sadness the first time the War hit home for him: “I remember walking to school and my friend looked a bit down so I asked him what was wrong,” recalls Eddie.

“‘My brother has been killed, he got blown up on HMS Adventure’ (1939) he said. I think she was the first ship blown up in the War and it brought it all home for me and I knew then what it was all about and how sad it was.”

To read Eddie’s story in full, visit the Big Lottery Fund newsroom.

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



Remembrance Day trips for Far East POWs by Big Lottery Fund

Hands holding medals

More than 54,000 WW2 veterans, widows, spouses and carers have embarked on commemorative trips

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.

Veteran holds medals

More than £26.6 million has been distributed in grants by Heroes Return

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



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



Heroes Return podcast by Big Lottery Fund

World War II veterans throw a poppy wreath for Remembrance Sunday

To mark Remembrance Sunday, we have produced a podcast featuring the moving stories of two veterans who have received funding through our Heroes Return scheme to visit the places they fought.

Doug Mayman is travelling back to Lucheux, Normandy in April with his daughter to retrace his steps using World War II diaries that he kept, and Ted Hedges, who served in RAF Coastal Command, hunting for the U-Boats targeting allied convoys, talks to us about his trip back to the Azores.

Big Lottery Fund Chief Executive Peter Wanless talks about what Heroes Return means to him and the Big Lottery Fund.

Listen to it here:

Why not subscribe to our iTunes channel to hear future podcasts




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