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


Xmas award for Heroes Return to scene of dramatic escape by Big Lottery Fund

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Royal Navy coder Ian Gordon struggled desperately to escape as the Tunsberg Castle began to sink beneath the icy December waters of the Norwegian fjord. The exploding mine had ripped through the quarterdeck killing five men and jamming shut a solid steel door entombing Ian and his shipmate in a tiny cabin below. As the black water rose, Ian, just 19, did not expect to see 20.

The approach of Christmas for WW2 veteran Ian Gordon, now 88, will bring back very special memories of 69 years ago when he was given survivors leave for a surprise visit home, and an emotional reunion with his family on Christmas morning 1944.

As the festive season brings 2013 to a close, 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.

Ian from the Isle of Wight is just one of many veterans receiving a Christmas award today. Born in Manchester, Ian was conscripted into the Royal Navy in July 1943 aged 18. After a series of tests he discovered he was colour blind so was assigned duties as a coder in naval communications, responsible for deciphering Morse code transmissions.

First Christmas in hospital

After training at combined operations base HMS Vectis, Ian caught jaundice and spent his first Christmas in the Navy laid up in hospital. Once recovered he underwent further training in Warrington before being posted to Devonport, Plymouth to prepare for the D-Day assault on Juno Beach aboard HMS Lawford, headquarters ship for Assault Group 1, Force 1.

He recalls: “At the beginning of June 1944 we left the Beaulieu River to join the frigate
H.M S. Lawford lying in Cowes Roads amid a big concentration of ships and landing craft of all descriptions. We weighed anchor at about 2100 on June 5th and slipped out through the Spithead Channel to lead our flotilla of assault landing craft south for Normandy, battle ensign streaming.

“Later that evening we gathered in the wireless office where our group signals officer unrolled a chart of the Normandy coast. He described the general plan for the invasion – our first official intimation that this was the real thing. Our group was to land the Canadians on Juno Beach.

Abandon ship!

“After the initial assault on Juno on D-Day I was off watch and fast asleep in the after mess deck when two 500lb bombs struck us amidships. Up on deck I could see that some men were already in the water, no doubt having been blown there by the explosion.”

“The ship was listing severely to starboard. A group of us on the quarterdeck were ordered to make our way to the forecastle, which we did, but there was clearly nothing we could do to save the ship.”

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He continued: “Another lurch to starboard and I heard a voice on the bridge immediately above us: ‘She’s going Sir’, then came the order to abandon ship. I don’t know how long our small group were in the water clinging to a rolled-up scrambling net; probably about an hour before we were picked up by the minesweeper H.M.S. Pique. Some of the survivors had broken bones and there was one guy wrapped up in cotton wool. He had been in the boiler room and was scalded very badly.

“Wrapped in blankets and warmed by a tot of neat rum we were transferred to the cruiser H.M.S. Scylla, and our Captain was promptly ordered to find himself another ship and get back to the Normandy coast a.s.a.p.

Farewell to old shipmates

Ian said: “Lawford never came back. She’s still there, lying some 30 metres deep off Arromanches with 26 of my shipmates who didn’t make it when she was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft in the early hours of June 8th when coming to anchor off Gold Beach.

He recalls “I was transferred to HMS Frobisher and returned to England. We got four days leave. I was sent to HMS Waveney and then back to Exbury. It was there that I heard that the Captain (D) Liverpool base was looking for a coder. I volunteered as I thought I would be near home.”

But Ian soon discovered that far from being closer to home he had in fact volunteered to serve on a Norwegian corvette as part of an Arctic Convoy Escort, and duly sailed on the Tunsberg Castle on convoy JW 62 to Murmansk in Russia, arriving Polyarny at the Kola Inlet early December 1944. After a few days in Murmansk the Tunsberg along with another corvette and two minesweepers, were ordered to proceed to Båtsfjord, a small community at the end of a narrow fjord on the north side of the Varanger peninsula, in Finnmark, Norway, where a radio station was to be established.

Ian recalls: “The fjord was a sort of no man’s land between the Germans and the Russians. The people there were starving and we were taking food and supplies. We were the leading ship. We got into the entrance of the fjord where we sighted a merchant ship.

“My action station was the auxiliary wireless transmitter housed in the ship’s carpenter’s tiny cabin/workshop. It was accessed by one steel door in the after superstructure leading off the quarterdeck. My post was shared with a Norwegian telegraphist, Thorvald (Tony) Andersen.

“We hadn’t been closed up at action stations long before we felt the vibration as the ship increased speed, then almost immediately afterwards, there was a loud explosion. We had hit a mine. The steel deck came up beneath us and we were both sent sprawling. The steel door that provided our only means of escape was jammed tight shut.

Ian continued: “We knew the ship was sinking and we were really struggling for a while but thanks to Tony Andersen, who was much stronger than I was, we eventually forced the door open just enough for us to get through. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”

Ian was rescued by escort corvette Eglantine which came alongside and took off the survivors before Tunsberg slipped beneath the icy waters. With the Tunsberg lost, the operation was abandoned and Ian went back to Polyarny. He was then given two weeks survivors leave and took passage back to the UK in a British frigate.

Surprise homecoming for Christmas

hrblog-xmas3He said: “While I was out in Russia I met this guy from Urmston who said he would let my parents know that I was ok, though he wasn’t allowed to tell them anything about where I was. I arrived back in Manchester on Christmas Eve and stayed at the YMCA overnight before catching the first tram home to Chorlton-cum-hardy on Christmas morning.

It was quite a surprise for everyone when I suddenly turned up on the doorstep. It was great. I spent the time with my family and friends. As I was doing my rounds one guy even said to me ‘third time unlucky’, referring to my previous escapes from sinking ships. I could have done without that.”

Battle ready for the New Year

Christmas over, Ian once again said his farewells before being transferred to Devonport and in spring 1945 was posted out to the Far East with Combined operations as part of a landing party on the Malay Peninsula.

He remembers: “We were sailing into Bombay docks. We were all set with our rations and jungle green uniforms when an Indian newspaper broke the news that the bomb had been dropped. We didn’t know anything about a bomb. Suddenly all the ships started making ‘V’ for Victory. It was wonderful.”

Ian was transferred to Escort carrier HMS Pursuer and sailed up to Port Swettenham in Penang where the captain went ashore with 200 marines.

He recalls: “The Japanese soldiers were piling their weapons and all seemed ok till their officers were asked to hand over their swords. They were very reluctant to do this so the marines held rifles to the heads of Japanese officers telling them they had five minutes to comply. The officers held out for about four minutes then capitulated.”

After three months Ian was transferred to Singapore for Christmas 1945. He said: “It was decided we would have a Christmas dance. So we invited the girls from the Post Office who we were told were very respectable. At the time there was a shortage of ice cream in Singapore so we advertised the dance offering ‘ice cream for ladies only’. It was a good dance and we had a really good laugh.”

Ian finally returned home on HMS Manxman in August 1946. He will travel with his wife on a Heroes Return trip back to Norway in summer 2014.

Looking back, he said: “I was extremely lucky; there were times when I really thought I’d had it.”

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



Ron Rowson returns to Normandy by Big Lottery Fund

In June 2012 Ron took part in the annual pilgrimage to Normandy with D-Day Revisited, his first trip back since 1944, which proved a very moving trip for him. His commemorative journey was funded by the Heroes Return 2 programme.

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



Scottish veterans return to where they served by Big Lottery Fund

Veteran holds medals

The Big Lottery Fund today announces its latest round of funding made through Heroes Return 2, which enables veterans to embark on poignant visits back to the places where they saw action almost 70 years ago.

John Wotherspoon, 88, from Bonnybridge in Stirlingshire, made a special trip back to the beaches of Normandy in June this year.  Thomas served in the 15th Division of the Scottish Royal Engineers and landed in France two weeks after the D Day Landings on June, 20 1944.

John said, “A lot of people don’t know but there was still a lot of fighting going on.  We were a mile or so behind the infantry guys; the Germans were really organised and we were being attacked from all sides.  I was only 18 at the time and had never really experienced anything like that before. I have been back to Normandy before but on this trip I got to do things that I didn’t get a chance to do the first time. It meant a lot for me to go back again.  It’s really hard to explain to people but it still makes me emotional after all those years.”

Rose Gallagher, from Troon is going to South Africa in January next year.  Rose said, “My husband, Thomas, was in the Royal Air Force and spent over three years of the war there training pilots. He died in 1992 but he used to talk about the place a lot. He loved the country but unfortunately he never got the chance to go back.

“He applied for a job there shortly after the War ended and even had an interview lined up but he met me and that was that. I’m going back with our daughter and we would like to try and go to some of the places he spoke about. It’s lovely to get this experience and also have the chance to feel close to him again.”

John and Rose are amongst six Scottish Second World War veterans who will be making poignant commemorative visits as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Big Lottery Fund Scotland Chair, Maureen McGinn, said, “We are extremely proud to support veterans and their families to reflect on their experiences of the Second World War. The heroism of that time should never be forgotten and the stories we hear from those who served with such distinction are testament to that.

“Earlier this year the Big Lottery Fund extended the programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. In this way, Lottery funding continues to assist these modest heroes and their families join up with their comrades and revisit the places where they demonstrated such dedication and bravery.

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



BIG salute on VE-Day anniversary by Big Lottery Fund

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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.

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



BIG salutes WW2 RAF light bomber pilot by Big Lottery Fund

Leslie Valentine

Leslie Valentine pictured at the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London

RAF Flying Officer Leslie Valentine hurtled along at 250 mph 50 feet above the D-Day Normandy shoreline, his Douglas Boston light bomber ‘E’ Easy running the gauntlet between a devastating barrage of Royal Navy gunships and German 88 heavy artillery defences.

Holding his nerve the 24 year-old blazed a trail of thick smoke across the British landing beaches, shielding his comrades below from enemy view. It was a valiant mission, and one of 60 back to back operations that the plucky young pilot would carry out during WW2.

Leslie 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.

Shortly to celebrate his 95th birthday, Leslie from Hethe, Oxfordshire is the only surviving of two British servicemen to hold the revered Croix de guerre (cross of war) with Silver Star, one of France’s highest accolades for heroic deeds performed in the liberation of France. Leslie’s derring-do has also been captured for posterity in a stunning watercolour painting ‘Friendly Smoke’ by renowned artist Michael Turner – though at the time the artist had no idea that a striking coincidence would reveal the true identity of the real pilot immortalised in his historic depiction.

Painting of Boston E Easy

Michael Turner’s ‘Friendly Smoke’

Called up for military service at the outbreak of war, 19-year old Leslie joined the Highland Light Infantry as a Private. A few months later in the wake of Dunkirk he was posted to northern France but was recalled back to England after just ten weeks.

Spotting an RAF recruitment poster on the battalion notice board calling for pilots and navigators Leslie, a mathematician, readily volunteered to use his skills and along with a 2nd Lieutenant from the battalion was one of only two accepted from 800 applicants.

Leslie recalls: “Unfortunately the 2nd Lieutenant broke his arm and so I went alone through the selection process and was later installed as a student Pilot in the RAF.”

Leslie joined RAF 88 Squadron 2nd Tactical Air Force, Bomber Command, where he carried out mainly daylight sorties across France, sabotaging vital supply lines to disrupt transport of enemy reinforcements, such as road bridges, rail yards, road transport convoys, submarine pens and the deadly V1 rocket launching sites.

He recalls: “We flew in very close formation, an arrowhead, six aircraft, two in front and three behind. We had a lead navigator who got you over the target. He was in charge. You needed a very good navigator. You were always a bit apprehensive but once you’d started the job you had to concentrate on what you were doing.”

Such were the abilities of the Boston that it was the operational choice to undertake the hazardous task of laying smoke over the beaches to protect the invading UK forces from enemy fire on D Day 6th June 1944. Entrusted with this critical role Leslie took his Boston ‘E-Easy’ down to just 50 feet above the D-Day beaches.

Above and over his aircraft arched the trajectories of shells from the 14” guns of the capital ships of the Royal Navy 8 miles off shore, and the German 88 heavy guns firing back from just inside enemy lines.

Leslie Valentine

Leslie pictured in his RAF uniform

Leslie recalls: “I’d anticipated that it was going to be a little hairy. I had just 46 seconds to let off four canisters of smoke. The Germans were only half a mile back off the beach. The noise of the shells was deafening.

“Not only was there the chance of being hit in the crossfire but, as the UK forces on the ground were unsure who the aircraft flying so low above them were, they also let fly with small arms fire. I was flying at 250mph at only 50 feet I had to hold it very steady, at that speed and height if I’d even sneezed that would have been it.”

Two aircraft were lost on this mission, but Leslie returned safely to 88 Squadron base at RAF Hartford Bridge, going on to fly many more sorties against tactical targets by both night and day. Surviving two tours of operations, 60 in all he said: “After a while you felt you had become lucky.”

Of his part in Michael Turner’s famous painting of ‘E’ Easy he recalls: “My son had bought the painting for me some years ago. One day I was looking at it and I had a sort of feeling  about it so I went and got my log book out and saw that my log entry for 6th June showed that I had flown ‘E’ Easy on that day.

“I couldn’t believe it. We got in touch with Michael Turner and he visited me with some other copies of the painting and asked me to sign them while he signed my copy, saying ‘thank you for being the subject of my painting’.”

Accompanied by his son Dudley, Leslie recently visited the Bomber Command Memorial in London and was invited to a private audience at 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister David Cameron presented him with the WW2 Defence Medal.

Now, living in Hethe, Oxfordshire, only four miles from Bicester where he was trained in 1943, Leslie is looking forward to his Heroes Return trip to Northern France next month where he has been invited to attend a special Armistice Day commemoration, and from there he will return to the Normandy beaches to pay his respects to fallen comrades.

He said: “I think heroes return is a marvellous idea and I would like to thank the Lottery.”

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



“The sea was black with ships” by Big Lottery Fund
April 5, 2013, 9:33 am
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Veteran Ron Veitch, 88, from Billingham in Teesside is about to make his first visit under the Heroes Return programme and is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for funding for a first or second journey back to where they served.

Ron Veitch holds a picture of HMS Glasgow

Ron Veitch holds a picture of HMS Glasgow

Ron is visiting Malta, where his ship HMS Glasgow was repaired after being bombed by Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean. Ron was a Petty Officer on board the cruiser.

His most vivid memory of the war is the early morning bombardment and landings at Omaha beach on D-Day.

He said: “We hadn’t been told anything, but when we first set off and saw the amount of shipping, we realised this was it. This was the invasion.

“It was my job to check two boiler rooms to make sure the engines were running well. I had to alternate between the two rooms.

“At 6.30am our ship opened fire and bombarded German forces at Normandy. While going between the boiler rooms I popped up to sneak a look. What an incredible sight it was.

“The sea was black with ships. To the left and right of us were warships and landing craft full of US servicemen heading for the shore. They were bobbing up and down and being tossed around like corks. They must have been so seasick. We were firing broadsides and the noise of the bombardment was horrendous.

“We were six miles out so I couldn’t see the shore but we heard from the captain that the US troops were getting annihilated and casualties were mounting up.”

With the assistance of air spotters, HMS Glasgow continued to pound targets ashore and more than 500 six inch shells were fired from the cruiser that day.

Ron in his Naval uniform

Ron in his Naval uniform

Ron’s first close brush with death during the war came a few days later when HMS Glasgow and an Allied task force was sent to the coast off Cherbourg to provide support to US Army units engaged in the battle at the French city.

The naval force bombarded the German fortifications near and in the city and became engaged in repeated duels with coastal batteries. When German salvos from the outskirts of Cherbourg began falling among Allied minesweeper flotillas, HMS Glasgow with Spitfire spotters began returning fire on the German batteries before coming under fire herself.

Ron said: “US army units were facing resistance from the Germans at Cherbourg and we were sent there. I was in the engine room. We could hear our guns were firing and could tell from the orders coming into the engine room that we were engaging with the enemy.

“My hair was standing on end – I thought ‘we are in trouble here’. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. We had been hit twice. Most of the lights went out and the emergency lights came on. There was a strong acrid smell of cordite and dust everywhere.

“The explosions had wiped out our anti aircraft guns. We knew it would take a lot to sink a ship of our size so everyone stayed focused on the job at hand – our engines. The captain ordered us to increase speed so we could get out of danger.”

The cruiser briefly broke off the engagement to assess the damage, before returning to the battle, firing on German batteries. After the battle, Glasgow underwent a complete refit at Palmer’s Yard at Hebburn on the river Tyne.

Ron experienced other battles during the war, including Operation Stonewall – a blockade against the import by Germany of seaborne goods. In late December 1943, Glasgow and the cruiser Enterprise fought a three-hour battle with several German destroyers and torpedo boats protecting the cargo ship Alsterufer. Three enemy ships were destroyed but two of Glasgow’s ships company were lost.

He remembered: “After the battle the captain gave us a run-down of what happened. We learnt that several torpedoes had been fired at us – some even went right underneath us. I remember the gasp that went around the crew when we heard that.”

Now, Ron is looking forward to making a Heroes Return commemorative trip to Malta, where Glasgow was repaired for damage caused by Italian glider bombs. He plans to visit the dockyard and the Rotunda of Mosta church, where a German bomb pierced the dome and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. Miraculously, it did not explode.

He said: “I’ll be going with my son to show him the places I remember. It will bring back memories of how wonderful the people were and the kindness they showed to us. They were very grateful to the Allies for risking and losing their lives at sea for them.”

Ron with his cherished collection of medals

Ron with his cherished collection of medals

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



“It meant so much to pay my final respects” by Big Lottery Fund

When Northern Irish veteran John Murtagh, 91, joined up to help the war effort in 1943 he could never have imagined the adventure and experiences that lay ahead.

John was part of the Royal Army Service Corps that supported the allied offensive as it made its way across Europe during 1944 and 1945.

He landed on Normandy’s Sword Beach shortly after D-Day, advancing through Europe and into Germany, before eventually reaching Belsen concentration camp where he witnessed some of the war’s most harrowing images.

John Murtagh

John Murtagh landed on Sword Beach shortly after D-Day (photo credit – Brian Morrison)

He received a grant from the Heroes Return 2 programme to return to Normandy last year, and it proved an emotional experience.

“I could see it all,” said John. “I could see the faces of our friends. It was upsetting, but I am glad I went back,” says John, a quiet man who denies he is a hero.

“It was important for me to remember what happened there when we landed on the beach on D-Day, the brave men who fell and the sacrifices they made and the heroes they truly were. It was the first time I’ve ever been back and it really meant a lot to me.”

John’s war began in the Faroe Islands where he was a Messing Officer, buying in the food and helping load and unload boats and warehouses for forces fighting in Russia.

Then in May 1944 he was called back to London to join the allied offensive in Europe. He landed on Sword Beach on June 9, shortly after D-Day.

John explained:  “There was so much noise, but the infantry and tanks were between us and the Germans. I was a supporter at the back, but we still took a lot of enemy fire. We brought the supplies in and looked after the soldiers who had suffered injuries.”

After tending the wounded, John moved to Caen which had been devastated in an Allied bombing. “We were not welcomed with open arms. The people were very resentful of what had happened,” he recalls. “The town was completely flat and the stench was awful. The troops had to get the corpses out of the rubble. There were dark patches where the blood had flowed.”

“We moved on to Belgium after that and I helped organise Prisoners of War to send to the UK. They were mostly young fellows of 15 or 16, just like us really. We had been given such a bad name by the Germans as to what we would do to them, so they were very, very frightened.”

“I continued to provide support for the forces as we moved down through Europe and I was in Holland when I found out the war was over. It was a great time and we celebrated in style.”

But the celebrations ended abruptly when John arrived in north western Germany in 1945 to help with the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. “I could not describe the smell or the people when we arrived there,” he said. “It was one of the most harrowing things I have ever seen. They had been so badly treated, some were just skin and bone, I don’t know how they survived. The faces were tortured – that’s the best description I can give of it.

“We fed them and gave them clothes and tried to clean up. It was shocking to see how people could be degraded in such a way. There was one man I thought was dead, and it was only when his tongue moved in his mouth I realised he was still alive. He died soon after.”

For John, getting the chance to pay his final respects was hugely important. “This was the first time I have ever been back,” he said. “I wanted to do it now as I’m not getting any younger. I read about the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme in the local paper and I applied straight away. It meant so much to be able to pay my final respects. I’m so grateful.”

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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