Filed under: Italy | Tags: Cambridge, John Field, Operation Husky, Operation Mincemeat, Operation Zipper, RMS Maloja, Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, Royal Navy, Sicily, SS Bergensfjord, Stuka, U-Boat
John Field crouched in the packed hold of the converted allied troop ship RMS Maloja as it slipped through the deadly U-Boat killing grounds of the North Atlantic. Billeted deep below the water line John knew that he and his comrades would never survive a dreaded torpedo attack. Terrified to sleep he began to pray, a desperate act that would bring a calm and lasting spiritual courage to the 20-year old Royal Marine armourer in the dark days to come.
John, now 92, is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million 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.
In 1941, as Britain waited under the threat of a German invasion, 19 year-old Cambridge lad John Field was earning his stripes as an apprentice locksmith.
Upon reaching his 20th birthday John joined up with the Royal Navy, and underwent training as an Armourer, gun fitter. A year later John set sail on troop ship RMS Maloja bound for the Middle East via the Cape Route, stopping at Sierra Leone, Durban and arriving in Suez.
He recalls: “We went the long way round to try and avoid the U- Boats but got chased by some on our route towards Iceland. Troop quarters were well below the ship’s waterline and I was absolutely terrified as we wouldn’t be able to get out if a torpedo hit us. I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t even get into my hammock or take my shoes off.
“I wanted to be able to get onto the rope ladder and climb up as quickly as possible if something happened. This fear gripped me for some time until one night I just started to say the Lord’s Prayer and kept saying it till it gradually calmed me down. After a while, I took off my boots, got into the hammock and went to sleep. It was a spiritual experience which helped me keep calm. I was never afraid like that again.”
Arriving safely in Suez John was sent to an allied base at Quassassin where he was put to work maintaining and repairing tank guns. He said: “We were given a square block of steel from which we had to make replacement bits for guns. Everything had to be absolutely accurate. That’s where my training as a locksmith came in. We were glad to have this job to protect our mates, but glad not to be doing the shooting.”
In early July 1943 John set sail from Port Said to Sicily on SS Bergensfjord in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, codenamed ‘Operation Husky’. The mission was to launch a large scale amphibious and airborne attack that would drive the Axis air, land and naval forces from the island; a move that would open up the Mediterranean sea lanes and pave the way for the invasion of the Italian mainland.
John was assigned to the Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, (RM NBDO) responsible for the capture and maintenance of enemy gun defences.
He remembers, “As we approached Sicily we had to transfer into a Landing Craft to get in close. Aircraft were bombing and machine gunning us. The Landing
Craft in front was hit and destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. I was quite calm. I had a job to do. We were very young. We thought we were immortal.”
“There were three beaches, ‘George’, ‘Item’, and ‘Hal’, which was our beach. There was very little troop resistance as the Germans had transferred their army to Crete thanks to Operation Mincemeat. Once we were near the shore we jumped into the water and waded the rest of the way. Then we ran up the beach and managed to take cover in a farmhouse. We were very thankful for this.”
The next day John and his comrades set off marching towards the port of Syracuse. He recalls; “Our rations were biscuits and dry foods, anything that was light to carry. There was an incident about water and an officer told us not to drink from the springs. When we arrived just south of Syracuse we went up onto a headland. There was a lighthouse and a scattering of guns.
“We took over ten guns that weren’t damaged. Two of the guns looked very peculiar. They were four inch anti-aircraft guns which we used for barrage against attacking planes. One night, one of them exploded and the barrel fell off. Luckily no one was hurt. We couldn’t understand why this had happened till we found an Italian handbook with bits marked in red ink which translated read, ‘On no account use more than seven shells when firing.’
We later saw a whole group of Italian soldiers going home to their wives and families. They walked off and left their billets. There was just one group of German infantry defending Syracuse and after three days they retreated.”
The RM NBDO was then deployed to repair guns across the island. On one occasion John found himself in the middle of a ferocious battle for the capture of the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River, a move that would give the Eighth Army vital access for an allied advance across the Catania plain, driving enemy forces back toward the Italian mainland.
He recalls: “We had to go out to an 88 millimetre German gun stuck on the other side of the river. The Germans were up in the hills beyond the river and as we crossed from the British side the shells were exchanging over our heads. When we eventually reached the gun we marvelled at its engineering.”
After Sicily, John came down with jaundice and was sent to Scotland on sick leave.
Once recovered, he was involved in the testing of Landing Ship Docks in the Mediterranean, before being posted back to Suez. In 1945 he was sent out to India and the Far East as part of Operation Zipper.
He recalls, “The Japanese were still resisting. They didn’t know the bomb had been dropped. Communication lines were not good at this time.”
However, after the final surrender John was posted to Singapore where he spent his final months of the war as a dockyard policeman before finally arriving back home in England in early 1946. Five years after the war John travelled back to India to live and work as a missionary for over 20 years.
John is now looking forward to travelling back to Sicily with his family, where he will retrace his steps across the island. He said: “I wouldn’t have dreamt of going back if it wasn’t for Heroes Return. It will be marvellous after 70 years.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Italy, Navy | Tags: Anzio, Cagliari, Derek Vickers, France, Heroes Return, Merchant Navy, Monte Cassino, Salerno, Sardinia, SS Cape Wrath, Yorkshire
A Merchant Navy veteran is urging others to apply for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
Derek Vickers, 85 from Leeds, went on a Heroes Return visit to Italy last September, to revisit the country he first saw during his time with the Merchant Navy. He joined up in 1943 when he was aged just 16.
He said: “I was in the sea cadets and the Merchant Navy had lost a lot of men and were asking for volunteers. My first ship was a cargo ship, SS Cape Wrath – a commandeered Tate and Lyle ship.
“We sailed north to Scotland and joined a convoy off Oban and from there sailed out into the north Atlantic and down towards Italy. We had a large aircraft carrier with us and carrier escorts. It was huge – I don’t remember the number but it was around 40 ships.
“We had vehicles on the deck which made the ship top heavy. It was January 1944 and the weather was really rough and she rolled around a lot – it was a tough journey.
“As we got near to France we were attacked by air and had a couple of submarine warnings. I remember hearing explosions during the night and I think we lost a couple of ships. We were called to action stations and it was my job to back the gunners up as an ammunition carrier.
“They opened fire all over the place – it was very noisy with all ships firing. The planes took off from the carrier and helped to drive the enemy aircraft away.
“At Gibraltar the convoy split – we went to Tunis. On the way out of Tunis the ship in front of us hit a mine and had to turn back. We went on to Cagliari, Sardinia where there had been heavy bombing.
“We dropped off the cargo and I can remember the smell – there were a lot of bodies under the rubble. It was really traumatic and that memory lingered with me for years.
“Then we went to Naples to deliver armoured vehicles for the troop at Anzio and Monte Cassino. Vesuvius erupted after the Allied troops arrived and we could see larva flowing down and we were all covered in dust. We could hear guns and bombs dropping at the battlefield at Monte Cassino and see the flashes at night.”
Derek visited Monte Cassino, Salerno and Anzio on a Heroes Return visit last September.
He said: “I wanted to go and see what it was like now. Also, during the war I was offshore and so my perspective was different. Although the war was so long ago it all came back to me. On my visit there were two other veterans in my group. It was really wonderful and very emotional.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Navy | Tags: Australia, Changi Jail, Chichester, Dennis Tracey, HMS Fencer, HMS Victorious, Landing Craft Tank, Malta, PoWs, Prisoners of War, Royal Navy, Singapore, Sri Lanka, windmill
85-year-old Dennis Tracey has welcomed news of Heroes Return funding for World War Two veterans making second trips back to where they served.
Aged 17, Dennis volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1944 as a boy sailor. Dennis joined aircraft carrier HMS Fencer bound for Australia but the ship developed serious rudder problems whilst crossing the Mediterranean and had to put in to Malta for major repairs.
Once underway again the Fencer re routed to what was then Ceylon where Dennis was assigned to salvage duties in Colombo.
He recalls: “When we boarded HMS Fencer we didn’t even know where we were going.
“I originally joined up as a ships’ accountant in supplies but never did that job. When we got to Colombo I got shipped out to Fleet Salvage. We did all sorts of crazy things.
“We travelled everywhere, raising ships that had sunk, blowing up oil tanks. We were a mixed bunch. We had explosive experts, divers and electrical experts. I was the youngest of the lot.”
It was during this time that Dennis met the love of his life, Noreen.
He recalls: “We were based in a house in Colombo. Noreen, then Trixie Vandersay, lived in a house nearby with her family. There were four sisters and we use to watch them go by. They were all very beautiful. We used to connive to knock at their gate and offer them bottles of whisky and butter which our divers had brought up from a sunken NAAFI ship.
“One day we got invited in and sat on the verandah. The family were Dutch Burghers, and very strict, so the mother and father kept a close eye on us. I didn’t realise that Noreen and her sisters worked in the Royal Navy Cypher office. After that I would take cables over to be sent to our ships and she would take them from me. I said to my friends, ‘I’m going to marry that girl’.
However, when Dennis and Noreen got secretly engaged Noreen’s father wrote to the Admiral of the East Indies Fleet in an effort to get Dennis shipped off to Hong Kong. Fortunately that didn’t happen and true love was allowed to run its course with Noreen later able to join Dennis in England after the war.
After the Japanese surrender Dennis was transferred to a Landing Craft Tank crew and sent to Singapore to support clearing out operations and evacuation of PoWs from the notorious Changi Jail.
He said: “Some were only five stone. They had to be careful not to feed them too much or it would have killed them. It took many up to six months to get well again, and they couldn’t come home for some time. There was one guy I was trying to pick up to carry him to a bus that was waiting.
“He was clutching a great big paper package and I couldn’t get him to put it down. He was swearing at me, calling me all the names under the sun, so in the end I managed to get him and the package on the bus.
“It was 43 years later when I was selling my house in South Wales when a chap came to buy it. We got talking about the war and I was telling him about my experience with the man at Changi when he started to cry. He said, ‘that was me’ and came back a few days later with the package still wrapped in the same old paper, Straits Times newspaper, falling to pieces.
“He unwrapped it and inside was a windmill made out of bamboo sticks stuck together with crushed insects. He told me that it was the only thing that had kept him alive in Changi. I said, ‘you should hang on to that’ He said ‘I’m giving it to you.’ I still have it, although sadly, he has since died.”
Dennis finally returned home on HMS Victorious in January 1946. Looking forward to their trip to Sri Lanka in May, Dennis and Noreen will visit Colombo to re unite with family and friends from the past, Dennis said: “We have kept in touch with them all these years and would like a chance to see them one final time. I think Heroes Return is a great idea, and I am delighted to hear that veterans will now get a second opportunity to travel.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Navy | Tags: Corsica, Genoa, Gunner, Italy, La Spezia, Minesweeper, minesweeping, Royal Navy Coastal Services, Santa Margarita, Sardinia, US Liberator
George Harris, 87, from Sidmouth, Devon, is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for Heroes Return funding to make a first or second visit to where they served.
He visited the Bay of Genoa area in Italy in October 2012, returning to one of the many places in the west Mediterranean he stopped at while on board a minesweeper.
George joined the Royal Navy Coastal Services aged 17 in April 1943. Following training on lochs in Scotland, he joined a troop ship in a convoy to Malta.
He then joined ML134 – a motor launch adapted to be a minesweeper. The Able Seaman was a gunner on board the craft which swept mines from the sea to make way for larger Allied shipping.
He said: “We would tow metal cables behind us that would sweep just under the surface. The cables would slice through a mine’s mooring cables and it would float to the surface.
“I was a gunner on the bow and when it came to the surface I would shoot at it from a safe distance. If you hit one of the horns that stuck out it would explode. If I didn’t hit a horn then eventually the mine would get so pumped full of shells and water that it would sink to the bottom.
“One time we were sweeping somewhere off La Spezia and Genoa in Italy and a German Tiger tank began from the shore at our flotilla. Luckily we were too far away for him to hit us. Sometimes US bombers dropped bombs into the bay – perhaps they thought we were Germans.
“One day we heard that a US Liberator had gone down and we were asked to look for it. We spotted a huge inflatable life-raft and thought we’d found them – but it was empty.
“I wasn’t in any real danger during the war and it was actually a wonderful part of my life. There were 18 of us on board the motor launch – that was it. We went all around the West Mediterranean – Corsica, Sardinia, Santa Margarita and off the south of France. We were together for a whole year. They were such lovely blokes. I was the youngest on board – most of the others were in the late 20 or maybe early 30s. I expect they will have passed away by now.
“The most vivid war memories that I have are those of the chaps on board. Their faces came back to me while I was on my Heroes Return visit. I’ve often thought of them over the years.”
Filed under: RAF | Tags: Flight Sergeant, Gardermoen Airfield, Gliders, Hurricanes, Norman Shepherd, Norway, Nottingham, Operation Doomsday, Oslo, RAF, Rhine, Royal Airforce, Short Stirlings, Special Air Service, Spitfires
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 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.”
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.”
Filed under: Army, D-Day, France | Tags: 5th Batallion, Caen, D-Day, East Lancashire Regiment, France, Normandy, Operation Charnwood, Robert Coupe, Sword Beach, VE-Day
Robert Coupe is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme. Since 2009 it has awarded over £25 million 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.
Shortly after his 18th birthday, Blackpool lad Robert was called up for Army Service. He underwent basic training before being posted to the 5th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment.
Landing on Sword Beach on the morning of D-day under a hail of enemy fire, he recalls: “We were all so seasick. I didn’t care whether I got shot or not. I just wanted to get off that landing craft and get my feet on the ground.”
Once a beachhead had been established Robert and comrades were given the order to march on Caen as part of Operation Charnwood, an Anglo-Canadian offensive to capture the German-occupied French city an important Allied objective during the opening stages of the Normandy Invasion.
He recalls; “Caen was the key to Normandy. If the Germans broke through at Caen they would have been on the beaches in no time. And they knew that if we punched through them at Caen that would be their lot in France.”
Soon to travel to Normandy on a Heroes Return 2 grant Robert will visit cemeteries and attend 69th anniversary D-Day commemoration events to pay his respects to fallen comrades. To read his moving story in full, visit our newsroom.
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Army Commandos, Hertfordshire, Hoddesdon, Italy, La Molina, Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, Middlesex Regiment, Reg Downes, Royal Marine Commandos, Salerno, Sicily, Territorial Army, Tito, Vietri, Vis, Winston Churchill, Yugoslavia
World War Two veteran Reg Downes, 91, from Hoddesden in Hertfordshire, recently made a commemorative visit to Salerno, Italy, thanks to funding from the Heroes Return programme.
Reg joined the Territorial Army in 1938. Called up at the outbreak of war he joined the Middlesex Regiment, aged just 17 before volunteering in the Army Commandos. In 1941 he was posted up to Achnacarry near Fort William where he underwent a tough six-week intensive training course on fitness, weapons training, map reading, climbing, and demolitions operations.
He remembers: “I was always a bit of a daredevil, humdrum life didn’t suit me. The training was hard but I was never fitter in my life than I was then.”
Training completed and at rank of Private, Reg was assigned to the Motor Transport section No2 Army Commando under the command of Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, distant relative of Winston Churchill.
Reg was posted out to North Africa and from there to Sicily where he saw his first action as the troop landed near the town of Scaletta in advance of Monty’s Eighth Army. Here they engaged the German rearguard.
He remembers: “It was a bit hairy being our first action. I was the section driver and we were loaded up with bombs. We got involved in house- to-house fighting in Scaletta, but by then most of the Germans had retreated to Messina and then back to mainland Italy.”
After success in Sicily the invasion of Italy followed on 3rd September 1943 when No. 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mare, in Salerno in the early hours of the morning. The troop’s first task was to take a German gun battery but after finding it undefended they moved on to secure the town of Vietri where they set up a headquarters and opened up the beach for allied landings.
Supported by the Royal Marine Commandos, Reg and comrades moved on to take a German observation post outside the town of La Molina which controlled a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. Despite heavy German opposition they eventually captured the post taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad.
Reg said: “This was a heavy battle. We held the beachhead but they really came after us. We were a thorn in their sides and they were trying to wipe us out. We were only supposed to hold it for eight hours but we were stuck there for over two weeks. People had fear. You wouldn’t be telling the truth if you said you hadn’t. But comradeship was very good. You had to rely on your comrades. At first it was very hard to kill people but after a while you got a bit cynical about it. There weren’t many prisoners taken on either side. It was live or die.”
The commando units went on to face fierce resistance from crack German troops in Salerno with 367 killed, wounded or missing out of the 738 who had taken part in the landings.
In January 1944 Reg was posted to the Yugoslavian island of Vis. With half the unit depleted they carried out assaults on German garrisons, and raids on shipping.
He recalls: “We used to pick up and destroy boats carrying German ammunition to the Island. Yugoslavia was full of partisans. Tito had insisted that they were included in our raids on the Germans. They were mostly youngsters very wild and silly, waving machine guns around. It was all a bit risky.”
The troop saw further action in Albania in raids at Himare and at Sarande where they were heavily outnumbered and pinned down by superior German forces until support units arrived, and the town was captured cutting off the German garrison in Corfu which later . surrendered to the Commandos in November 1944.
Reg recently returned to Salerno with his sons, he said: “I thought the grant was wonderful. I couldn’t have afforded to go without it. I looked for the place we landed at Vietri sul Mare, but I couldn’t find it. Then I asked a local and he pointed it out. I also went to Salerno War Cemetery to see the graves of the chaps I fought with. We lost quite a lot there. The graves were beautifully kept. It put a lump in my throat.”