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


“Returning to Italy was emotional” by Big Lottery Fund

A Merchant Navy veteran is urging others to apply for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers

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.

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers

“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



Return to the shores of Anzio by Big Lottery Fund

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.

World War Two veteran

World War Two veteran Matthew Toner, 87 (Credit: Dominic Holden)

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.

World War Two veteran with medals and photo

Matthew with his WW2 medals and a picture of himself in Naval uniform (Credit: Dominic Holden)

“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.

Picture of World War Two naval veteran

Matthew pictured during his wartime service (Credit: Dominic Holden)

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.”

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




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