Filed under: Italy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, ceremony, Heroes Return, Heroes Return 2, Monte Cassino, veterans, World War Two, WW2
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, is Jim Knox, 89, from Upminster, Havering. Jim is returning to the battlefields in May 2014 with the Monte Cassino Society.
The battle (January – May 1944) was fought to capture a vital German stronghold and open up the way for the main allied advance into Rome and claimed over 50,000 lives.
Jim joined the Army in 1941 aged 16 after persuading the sergeant at Romford Army recruitment office that he was 18. In August 1942 he volunteered for the Paras and joined 4th Parachute Battalion, part of the 2nd Parachute Brigade. Jim first served in North Africa, landing at Oran in early 1943. The 2nd Brigade landed in Italy at Taranto in September and moved up the west coast to the Sangro river where the brigade became the Independent Parachute Brigade, joining forces with a New Zealand Division patrolling the Gustav Line.
He recalled: “Once on night patrol the two lads in front heard some talking – our officer who could understand German crept up to listen and could hear what their plans were. It was a German fighting patrol – about eight or nine of them – armed with rapid fire Schmeiser machine guns which had a terrific firepower. We wouldn’t have stood a chance against them so we crept inside a mausoleum. They stopped right outside and we could hear them talking. Luckily they didn’t come in.
“The most frightening time of the war for me was going into Monte Cassino for the first time. There was a tremendous noise from the mortars and this hideous yellow smog. The sky was lit up red and yellow and we could see flames. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realised that was Vesuvius erupting. It was like walking into hell. The stench was horrible from dead mules and dead soldiers. It was terrifying.
“We were with a New Zealand division at the railway station and Germans were dug in just a few yards away at the Continental Hotel. We were so close that we shouted abuse at each other.
“You could hardly move – and you only moved at night. And we constantly worried about treading on a mine. The mortaring was constant from both sides. It was a bit like trench warfare at the First World War – a stalemate – no one could move. You did get the odd glimpse of a German but very rarely. If there was any movement from either side everyone would open fire.
“I was on a two inch mortar – when you saw a flash you had to send some back in that direction. We were there for 13 days until the Poles advanced to the monastery.”
Following the battle for Monte Cassino, Jim was parachuted into France, behind enemy lines. The daring operation to surround and contain a German garrison at Le Muy took place a few days before the invasion of the Southern France in August 1944. Jim was awarded the Legion d’honneur – the highest decoration in France – following his work with French Resistance guerrillas, the Maquis, during the operation.
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.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Heroes Return, Navy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Caradog Jones, Heroes Return, Royal Navy
A veteran from Anglesey has recalled the role he played in the Battle of the Pacific, known as the ‘Typhoon of Steel’, and how he survived desperate Kamikaze suicide attacks and cheated death in major naval battles stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
Thanks to a grant from BIG’s Heroes Return programme, 88 year old Caradog Jones from Holyhead, Anglesey, will be returning to Australia this year to recall where his War ended 67 years ago and to pay his respects to those who lost their lives in the bitter and bloody conflict between 1939 and 1945.
In November 1942 and only 18 years of age, Caradog Jones was called up by the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman. He joined the Torpedo Branch and was responsible for firing torpedoes from Destroyers on enemy ships and dropping depth charges to sink incoming enemy submarines. His War ended with the eventual surrender of the Japanese when the Americans dropped Atom Bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I went to war completely innocent, not knowing what to expect,” explains Caradog. “The funny thing is that I joined the Royal Navy and I couldn’t even swim a stroke, despite being surrounded by the sea growing up on Anglesey. I still can’t swim to this day.”
After successfully completing his training in Plymouth, in 1943 Caradog was acquainted for the first time with his ship, HMS Queenborough in Gourock, Scotland.
The Queenborough was dubbed ‘The Lucky Ship’ after the War in reference to all the near deadly scrapes she and the crew emerged out of unscathed despite fighting in some of the deadliest theatres of war around the world.
“I can’t really describe what I felt when I was on my way to join the ship,” says Caradog. “I knew nothing about her or what I had to do, didn’t know any of the crew, everything was strange and I was quite worried. The only thing I knew is that I had to go.”
Visit our newsroom to read more of Caradog’s story.
More information and details of how to apply for a Heroes Return 2 grant are available by calling 0845 00 00 121 or visiting www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Burma, Far East, Heroes Return, Japan | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Burma, Far East, Heroes Return, Jack Hough, Taukkyan War Cemetery, West Yorkshire Regiment
Jack Hough crept stealthily through the dense foliage of the Indo-Burma jungle knowing that every step took him closer to a lethal enemy hiding in the trees. Suffocating in the stifling heat and pitifully inexperienced in the deathly art of jungle warfare, Jack heard the Japanese catcalls of ‘come on Johnny!’ followed by a rain of bullets tearing through the undergrowth cutting down those around him.
A Lance Corporal, Jack was just 20 years old and a long way from home in the 14th British Army, ‘The Forgotten Army’.
As we approach the historic anniversary of VJ day (15th August 2012) 67 years after the Japanese surrender that finally brought an end to the Second World War, Leeds veteran Jack Hough is just one of over 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers to date awarded more than £25 million under the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme to make important commemorative trips across the world.
Now aged 87, he plans to travel to Burma, where he will visit Taukkyan War Cemetery in Rangoon to pay his final respects at the grave of his old friend Willis Wray.
Jack left school and joined up with the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1943. He underwent infantry training in Durham and Norfolk before being posted to Liverpool where he embarked upon the long voyage to Bombay aboard the converted troop ship SS Orontes.
He recalls, “Going through the North Atlantic was a bit rough. I remember making the terrible mistake of eating kippers. Though once we got into the Mediterranean it was much more peaceful. We went from Gibraltar into the Suez Canal. The ship was so large that there was barely room on either side of the canal. You could even see the draught from the propellers along the banks.”
Arriving in Bombay the troops then endured the 150 mile week-long train journey to Deolali transit camp, nicknamed ‘Doolally’: notorious for its unpleasant environment and its psychological effect, known as the ‘Doolally tap’, suffered by the soldiers who passed through it.
He remembers: “On the journey the only water we had to drink was from the train engine. When we arrived at the camp the heat was so oppressive, we’d never felt anything like it. It was an awful place.”
As the Japanese were preparing to advance into India, the West Yorkshires were once again on the move. Journeying through raging monsoons and bedding down in damp Bivouacs they crossed country to Dimapur then on to set up key defences in the jungle terrain of the Assam Border as part of the combined forces of the 14th British Army under the renowned Commander, General Slim.
Jack recalls: “The Japanese were very well trained for jungle fighting, but we really didn’t have any experience. It was dreadful, knowing that the enemy were somewhere in the trees. You never knew when or where they would come from, they were perfect at hiding. They would call out to you. Then suddenly the ping of bullets would come whizzing past and you had to get out of it quick.”
Surviving the horrors of jungle warfare, Jack’s regiment joined with colonial forces as part of the Battles of Imphal and Kohima, a major allied offensive which would repel the Japanese advance on Delhi and prove a decisive turning point in the Far East war.
Jack remembers: “We were sent to reinforce a major road block on the Imphal Road. The Japanese had been battling around Garrison Hill at Kohima and were now coming down the road towards us. My friend Willis Wray was shot dead. He was right next to me, and I got hit at the same time. I found out later that the same bullet that killed him went into me. I was very lucky.”
Out of action for three months Jack learned that his mother had been sent a war telegram. He recalls: “It just said that her son was injured in action and more information would follow. But she heard nothing else as it took ages for any communications to get through. Though I finally managed to get a message to her as I knew she would be very worried.”
However, by the time Jack had recovered and rejoined his comrades in Meiktila, the allies had recaptured Rangoon, and reoccupied most of Burma as the Japanese army was forced to retreat having suffered 85,000 casualties, due to fierce allied resistance, sickness and disease after their supplies lines were cut off.
The troop moved to Penang and it was there that Jack learnt about the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the ensuing Japanese surrender. He recalls: “At the time we all said three cheers that the war was finally over and our duty had been completed. If those bombs hadn’t been dropped we would never have seen the end of war.
Finally arriving in Singapore Jack celebrated his 21st birthday with a homemade cake and ham sandwich which his mother had posted to him in a tin, and which he duly shared out amongst his pals. But while in Singapore Jack was stunned when he saw groups of allied PoW’s from the local Changi Jail, he said: “They were like skeletons. I didn’t get a chance to speak to them. I could see that they were not interested in talking, they just wanted to get home.”
For more information about the Heroes Return programme, visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121
Filed under: memorial, monument, RAF | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Bomber Command, Guy Gibson, Heroes Return, netherlands, RAF
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.
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
Filed under: France, Heroes Return, memorial, monument, Normandy, RAF | Tags: 9 Squadron, Big Lottery Fund, Blitz, Bomber Command, France, Halifax, Heroes Return, interview, Lancaster, Podcast, RAF, Royal Air Force, World War Two
The historic unveiling of the first national memorial to RAF Bomber Command takes place today at Green Park, London. We were lucky enough to talk to veteran Harry Irons, who flew 60 missions during World War Two.
Now aged 88, Harry talks about some of his wartime memories, his Heroes Return trip to France and what it means to finally see a memorial for Bomber Command.
In 1941 Harry Irons volunteered for air crew duty with Bomber Command. He was only 16 but added a year to his age and was accepted for gunnery training.
Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1944, Harry was promoted to Warrant Officer and went on to survive 60 raids over the Ruhr, Munich, Nuremberg, and Northern France, flying as a rear gunner in Lancaster and Halifax bombers.
Harry was living in London when war broke out. After witnessing the devastation of the Blitz he decided to volunteer as aircrew, and was assigned to 9 Squadron based at Waddington in Lincolnshire from where he flew 37 missions in Lancaster X for X-ray.
Harry, who has worked tirelessly to help raise funds for the memorial, will be attending the official unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, and members of the Royal family.
Looking forward to the historic day, he said: “As part of a crew you got to know each other, you were like family. We lost so many brave men. But we are over the moon. We are so grateful at last to be able to do something for the boys. At last we have got some recognition”.
For more information on the Heroes Return programme and the funding that is available for World War Two veterans, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121
Filed under: D-Day, France, Heroes Return | Tags: Arromanches, Big Lottery Fund, France, Heroes Return
Hugh Beach crept closer to the bridge, armed with a sten-gun. He had been sent forward alone to check that the bridge was safe for tanks and other vehicles to cross. As he silently approached, two figures came into view and he recognised the grey uniform – German. Instead of retreating to safety and reporting the danger, he crept ever closer, raised his weapon and opened fire.
The courageous solo assault left the lieutenant severely wounded from enemy fire, temporarily paralysed from the waist down. At the age of just 21 he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. Now, aged 89, after 40 years in the Armed Forces and having been knighted twice by the Queen, General Sir Hugh Beach GBE KCB MC, has made a Lottery-funded trip coinciding with D-Day to visit the areas he served during the war, including the spot he made his single-handed attack.
Sir Hugh, from Earl’s Court, London, is just one of a number of Second World War veterans who have made poignant commemorative visits as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme.
Sir Hugh Beach, who joined the Army in 1941 as a sapper, landed in France six days after D-Day. A lieutenant in 621 Field Squadron 7th Armoured Division, he was first tasked with finding his unit to deliver a three-tonne lorry full of supplies. After finding his unit, Sir Hugh was billeted at a farm at St Paul du Vernay for six weeks.
It was at the village of La Vallee on 8 August 1944 when Sir Hugh first demonstrated the kind of courage that later earned him a Military Cross. He was attached to an infantry division which had fought and driven away German soldiers.
He recalled: “We suspected the Germans would have left landmines behind. We needed to get some anti-tank guns into position in case the Germans counter-attacked, which they did later. So we had to clear the road of landmines from the village to some crossroads.
“About six of us using mine detectors then cleared the road. But the first vehicle to leave the village was blown up – we missed that mine. This threw the plans up into the air – no-one wanted to move, understandably. I then decided to do something that was, in hindsight, absolutely crazy.
“I thought the only way to get everyone moving again was to sit on the mudguard of the first vehicle. Demonstrating confidence that I certainly didn’t have inside, I said ‘let’s go’. I was full of a mixture of emotions – I didn’t want to be seen as having failed and was also displaying the bravado of someone who hadn’t yet been directly involved in action. Secretly I was hoping that we hadn’t missed any more mines and luckily there weren’t otherwise I’d have been a gonner. We drove forward and everyone got though safely. Afterwards I fell asleep standing up leaning against a tree.”
Sir Hugh then remembers the Allied breakthrough and the sudden rush across France with a small group of men in a car. He said:“It was very exhilarating. We were moving so fast we ran out of maps and had to use our AA book. Young ladies were coming out to the road to hand us tomatoes. We felt like heroes.”
It was at La Bassee in northern France near the Belgian border, while Sir Hugh was attached to the 11th Hussars, that he came within millimetres of being paralysed from the waist down.
“We approached a bridge and knew that the Germans had tried to demolish it,” he said. “I was asked to take a look at it and see if it was safe to take tanks and vehicles across. I drove towards it and about 200 yards to the side of the bridge and parked my scout-car behind a hut. I approached, carrying a sten-gun.
“The railways line was about 100 yards away and the bridge seemed okay – although really I wasn’t close enough to make a proper assessment. Then I saw grey figures across the bank and realised they were German soldiers. This was my first chance to engage the enemy. I opened fire and after two rounds the gun jammed. I dropped down and they returned fire.
“I tried to crawl back behind the railway line which ran alongside a canal but my backside was too high – a bullet grazed my spine and took a bit of bone away. I was paralysed from the waist down. A staff sergeant got to me and dragged me back, very bravely I might add.”
His comrades tried to find a field ambulance but as it was getting dark they saw a building which had a door and a red cross painted on it.
He said: “It turns out it was an order of nuns. They were very calm and dressed my wound. The next day a vehicle then took me to a field dressing station. I went from feeling nothing from the waist down to then getting my feeling back and the pain as if I had suffered a heavy blow on the head. As life came back to my nerves I couldn’t stand anything touching me. It was ghastly.”
Sir Hugh was awarded the Military Cross but the wound marked the end of the war for him and he was flown back to Britain to undergo further treatment on his spine. Following his recovery, the next year he served in India, Ceylon and then saw active service in Java during the Allied mission to liberate the Dutch held by the Japanese in jungle internment camps. The Indonesians believed the real goal was the restoration of Dutch rule and a bloody insurgency was sparked.
Sir Hugh was accompanied on his Heroes Return trip to France by his son Michael, who served with the Royal Green Jackets between 1977 and 1980, and grandson William.
Speaking before his visit, Sir Hugh said: “I think the Heroes Return programme is fantastic – allowing people like me to return to the sites of our most exciting days. To remember and explain to those with us what it was like is very important.”
To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.
Filed under: Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Heroes Return, Italy, Royal Artillery
PoW Eric Batteson crouched in the dark watching the camp guard’s every movement before seizing his split second moment to escape to what would be an uncertain and precarious freedom high in the Italian mountains.
Now, thanks to a Lottery award the 92-year veteran from Chester is making an emotional pilgrimage to thank the courageous villagers of Colleregnone who risked their lives to feed and shelter him from the enemy. He will even stay in the same house owned by the same family who gave him refuge through those dark days of war.
Eric, who saw front line action in major battles across the Middle East, Greece, Albania and Crete, completed his field training as a Lance Bombardier with the Royal Artillery in 1939, and a year later, aged 21, embarked on the SS Oropesa bound for the Middle East.
He recalls: “We couldn’t go through the Straits of Gibraltar because of the German U Boats. We had to go round South Africa. When we called in at Cape Town thousands of people turned out to greet us. We were let off the boat and people took us to their homes. Everybody had a great day out.”
The troop then sailed to Egypt where from December 1940 Eric was deployed in fierce desert warfare, plotting gun positions to range attacks on Italian forces as his unit fought their way up the Libyan coast to Benghazi as part of Operation Compass. The advance was the first major allied operation in the Western Desert Campaign, which saw the capture of 115,000 Italian prisoners, and destruction of thousands of enemy tanks, artillery, and aircraft.
Following the success of Compass, Eric’s battery was deployed to stem the German invasion of Greece but the allies were forced to retreat into Albania then finally to Crete.
He recalls: “If we hadn’t moved back we would have been totally swamped. The Germans were much better armed. The British Matilda tanks were no match for the Panzers and the Stuka attacks were terrible, we were relentlessly dive bombed. I was asleep in the back of a truck when one attack began. My battery commander, the signaller, and driver all leapt out into a ditch but I was still in the truck when two huge bombs landed, one in front and one behind. I was very lucky that day.”
Eric was evacuated from Crete on HMS Orion bound for Alexandria, an ill fated voyage that sustained horrendous bombing attacks which claimed the lives of over 360 sailors and troops and injured 280.
He remembers:“I was in the forward part of the ship when a bomb went down the ammunition hatch and exploded. It did terrible damage. We were trapped behind a watertight door and the front of the ship was going down. I had never before anticipated the thought of dying, but I thought I would die. But the sailors finally managed to get us out, and somehow they kept the engines going and we limped back to Alexandria. I have always had the greatest admiration for those sailors, they kept their heads. They did what they had to do.”
Eric’s next action was to see him taken prisoner after a running battle with Italian and German forces from El Alamein up to Tobruk, and where the troop were forced to surrender when Rommel’s Army surrounded the town. Marched across the desert to Benghazi, Eric survived on half a pint of water a day and hard biscuits before being shipped to a PoW camp at Macerata in eastern Italy.
He recalls, “We had to make the best of it. I spent my time making things from old tins. I made bellows to make force draft fires and one chap made a grandfather clock which actually worked! We were treated pretty fairly by the guards but rations were low and we were very dependent on Red Cross parcels, which often got filched.”
However, as the Italians capitulated and news came that the Germans were soon to take over the camp, Eric and two comrades decided to make a daring night time escape by slipping through an unlocked gate and scrambling to freedom in the Italian mountains.
Steering west by the stars they climbed by night but then switched to daylight travel to avoid stumbling over ledges in the dark. Reaching the village of Colleregnone, tired and starving, they spotted a farmer up a fruit tree and took the gamble to approach him.
“I can’t tell you what I feel about these people. They did so much.”
Eric recalls: “My memory is centred on those wonderful people who helped us. At first we would hide out in isolated places and the village girls would bring us food. Then after five months the snow came and the families hid us in their houses. They were taking a great risk. The Germans had recently rounded up eleven young men from a neighbouring village and shot them as a warning to anyone collaborating with the allies.”
As fierce fighting at Monte Cassino hampered the allied advance in Italy the group decided to try and reach the allied forces, so dressed as Italian farmers they came down from the mountains to the Adriatic. There they found a boat and met a local woman who promised to get them some sails.
He recalls: “She said that she had helped others escape and told us to come back after dark. But when we did a lorry load of Germans arrived and took us back to Macerata jail. Then we were transported by train to a prison camp in Hannover.”
“Here there were heavy allied bombing raids. We weren’t very popular. We would see civilians pushing their dead relatives in wheelbarrows. We were glad the German soldiers were protecting us. But treatment was a bit mixed, especially from the prison guards running the forced slave labour gangs. They were regularly bashed about. One man was shot dead because he didn’t want to urinate in front of the others.”
As the allied bombing increased Eric and his compatriots were deployed to clean up after an intense raid damaged a local oil refinery. He said: “One guy was always doing subtle sabotage and would put cement powder into air pressure instruments, and slightly open the valves on oxy acetylene canisters so that when they came to be used they were empty.”
Eric remained at the camp until he was liberated on April 14th 1945, before arriving back home in time for VE day. Now he will mark the anniversary 67 years on by making a special commemorative trip with his family, to thank the people of Collegerone.
He said: “I think we must have been legend in that village, they remember everything. I used to be a whistler and they told me ‘don’t do that, Italian men don’t whistle’. They passed this down to their children who still joke about it. I can’t tell you what I feel about these people. They did so much.”
To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.
Filed under: France, Germany, Heroes Return, RAF | Tags: Belfast, Belgium, Big Lottery Fund, Dublin, France, Germany, Heroes Return, Holland, North Down, RAF
World War Two veterans from across Ireland are making emotional journeys to the places where they fought thanks to funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
George Lemon, 88, from Belfast, George Hopley, 91, from North Down and Ted Jones, 89, from Dublin will revisit their wartime postings across the world, from Florida to the Bahamas and Europe.
George Lemon, from Newtownbreda in Belfast, is travelling to battlefields in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland later this year but was just 18 and in sixth year at Larne Grammar School when he signed up with the RAF in 1941.
“You don’t think much about the dangers at that age – you just want adventure. Things were going quite badly at that stage in the war with Dunkirk and so on, so I suppose I had these romantic notions of taking to the hills to defend the country,” he explained.
George began his training at Lords Cricket Ground which was the receiving centre for the RAF and progressed through various courses before being designated as a bomb aimer flying operational missions over France and Germany.
“At the time you don’t really feel afraid – before we’d take off I sometimes felt anxious, but once you’re airborne the training takes over. When you’re flying though you’re quite divorced from what’s going on below so this trip will be an experience and help me appreciate the full story of what I was involved in,” said George.
“This trip will be a chance to think again about the role I played in those days and I really appreciate the opportunity.”
George Hopley, from North Down, is travelling to Nassau in the Bahamas later this year where he was stationed as RAF ground crew after joining up at just 18 with the RAF’s 502 Ulster Squadron.
“I was sent to the RAF’s base in the Bahamas in 1944 to train on American aircraft, chiefly the Liberators,” he said. “The Big Lottery Fund has given me a wonderful opportunity to go back later this year to a place I never thought I’d see again because it’s so far away. It’s given me a chance to think back and reminisce.”
Ted Jones, from Dublin, is travelling to Pensacola in Florida where he completed his pilot’s training at the RAF base there. Ted trained on Catalina seaplanes and gained his wings on April 29, 1942, as well as being recommended for a commission and made a Captain with the 190 Squadron in March 1943.
Ted said: “I was fortunate enough to fly with a great bunch of blokes during the war and that makes all the difference. Travelling back to Florida is a great opportunity to re-visit old sites and memories, a chance to remember those years.”
To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.
Filed under: Heroes Return, Malta | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, George Cross, Heroes Return, Malta
Ronald Quested considers himself lucky. He survived, when more than 30,000 Merchant Navy seamen were killed during the Second World War.
Many seamen paid the ultimate price, hunted by U-boat ‘Wolfpacks’ and dive-bombed by enemy aircraft while importing vital food, fuel and ammunition to allow an Allied victory.
Ronald, from Ingatestone, Essex, wants their sacrifice to never be forgotten. He, along with two other Merchant Navy veterans and two war widows, is making a visit to Malta to mark the 70th anniversary on Sunday 15 April 2012 of the Maltese people being awarded collectively the George Cross for their bravery in withstanding an intensive bombing campaign on the island.
The £8,150 cost of the visit is being funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. As part of the commemorations, his party will be joining a tribute to fellow Merchant Navy seamen killed when a hospital ship was attacked and sunk near Anzio.
Also attending the commemorations thanks to £800 in funding is Margaret Machin from Dover, Kent, who was born to British parents on the island, grew up there and survived the bombardment of the island. She started working aged just 15 in the Vice Admiral Malta’s top secret cypher office in the underground headquarters Lascaris at Valletta. Her office received and sent coded messages using the Typex code machines – the British version of the German Enigma machines.
Ronald joined the Merchant Navy aged only 17 and served for 14 months during the war. He was a radio operator but also a trained gunner on board SS Samnebra. The ship took supplies to the British 8th Army from the United Kingdom stopping at Bon in Algiers, Port Augusta in Sicily, and Naples, Italy between November and December 1944. His ship also stopped at North Africa, the United States, Egypt and India before the war ended.
Ronald, now 84, remembers leaving Birkenhead with 1,000 tonnes of TNT on board. He said: “I saw men loading supplies with thick sacks wrapped around their hob-nail boots to stop any sparks. I was so young it didn’t scare me. In fact, you didn’t think about all the explosives on board. I was more inquisitive at that age.”
During the 14 months he served during the war his convoy was attacked only once, for which he feels lucky. He recalled: “We’d have ten lines of merchant ships with five ships nose to tail in each line. In the starboard quarter on the right hand side there was a tanker. That’s where they sailed in case they were attacked. You couldn’t have a tanker right in the middle of a convoy.
“We had just passed the Straits of Gibraltar in December 1944 after having delivered our cargo to Naples. The alarm sounded and we had to go to our stations. I went to my gun – a 20mm rapid fire gun – which was above the navigation bridge. I got into the harness. It was pitch black but I could see huge flames from what appeared to be the tanker completely alight. Being so dark I can only assume it was a submarine that attacked it.”
Ronald and the rest of his party have been invited to the 70th anniversary event in Malta by the George Cross Island Association to commemorate the lives of 13 Merchant Navy seaman lost when the hospital ship St David was sunk south-west of the Anzio beachhead. An enemy aircraft dive-bombed the ship despite it displaying Red Cross markings.
He said: “We need to keep alive the memory of all those who lost their lives. And we must not take for granted the normal everyday lives we enjoy today.”
Malta played an important role owing to its proximity to German and Italian shipping lanes. The opening of a new front in North Africa in mid-1940 increased Malta’s already considerable strategic value. British air and sea forces based on the island could attack Axis ships transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe. The Axis attempted to bomb, or starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied ships supplying the island. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war. The bravery of the Maltese people moved King George VI to award the George Cross to Malta on 15 April 1942.
Margaret remembers the horrendous conditions on the island. She said: “The bombardments were horrific. We would feel our ears moving in and out from the pressure of explosions above. I remember once coming up from underground to find the Opera House bombed out. Our office was right underneath that.
“We worked very hard sending and receiving messages to convoys and their escorts. Sometimes it was awful – we’d be sending messages to ships and then later we’d come up from underground to see the ships had arrived but were smoking away from being bombed.
“My family home was around the dock area. We had to be moved away to barracks and we shared a room with three other families, a curtain separating each family. We were really starving. My mother queued up with the poor people of Malta just to get a bowl of soup.”
Margaret’s then future husband Wesley served on the island as a Lance Corporal. He arrived from fighting in Palestine to operate searchlights in Malta and was nearly killed when he was shot through both legs by an enemy aircraft.
She said: “One bullet went right through one leg, another bullet exploded inside his other leg and took part of the muscle away. He recovered and managed to take part in the D-Day landings. I think he earned his pension.
“I have been back to the island since the war, but I think this will be the last time. This visit will be special.”
For more information on the Heroes Return 2 programme, visit BIG’s website, or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121.