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.”
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 | 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.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: D-Day, Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: Anzio, Atlantic, Birkenhead, D-Day, Husky, Italy, Landing Ship Tank, Navy, Normandy, Operation Avalanche, Operation Overlord
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.
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.
“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.
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
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: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Desert Rats, Heroes Return 2, Italy
Len Burritt, 92, will journey to Egypt later this year to visit some of the places that he served in with the 7th Armoured Division – known historically as the ‘Desert Rats’.
This legendary division fought in every major battle during the North African Campaign and helped swing the war, at a pivotal point, in the Allies favour.
After joining the army at the age of 18 in 1936, he formed part of a Wireless troop controlling communications for a new formation to be known as The Mobile Desert Division (Egypt) – later renamed the 7th Armoured Division.
He recalls: “I joined the army at a young age but I wasn’t particularly nervous about the prospect of doing so. I’d worked all my life on farms and wanted a change of scenery, so at that age, when you felt as though you’re ready to take on the world, worry didn’t really come into it.
“I served as a wireless operator with the 7th Armoured Division, using Morse Code to pass on key communications from north Africa to places as far afield as Hong Kong, Palestine and India. Eight different generals were in command during the campaign and I was the personal wireless operator for the first five of them. As a result, I became one of the most informed chaps out there and would often be briefing our commanders on troop positions in the middle of the desert.”
Len worked from Armoured Command Vehicles (ACVs) – the nerve centres for the Division, positioned just behind the forward troops. As he mentions, in many of the battles that he saw action, there was no ‘front line’ as such and elaborate camouflage was often needed to divert enemy attention away from their vital radio equipment.
On many occasions he accompanied his commanding officers deep into raging battles, travelling in the relative ‘safety’ of their personal armoured cars. They would do battle with the elements as well as the enemy, and after one ferocious sandstorm Len found he had sand trapped behind his eyes which meant a lengthy operation and two weeks in cumbersome bandages.
“Operating long shifts as a wireless operator was both mentally and physically taxing,” he continues. “You had to have your mind completely focused on the task at hand while being aware of your surroundings and position. During the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941, I was in our ACV for four days and nights with almost no rest at all. One shift was often quickly followed by another so you just had to get used to it. The ‘crack, crack, crack’ of bullets bouncing off the armour plating became commonplace.”
As well as being an expert in communications, relaying accurate Morse Code messages in cramped, sweltering conditions, Len was also trained in the use of the Bren guns and anti-tank weapons mounted on his armoured vehicles – his teacher being Major Gott, who later became a renowned lieutenant general. In close combat with both German and Italian forces, Len recalls a particularly bizarre attack by a low-flying plane.
“I remember quite clearly an attack on our convoy by the Italian Air Force. As the pilot swooped down low there was no burst of gunfire as there had been many times before – we were used to the threat of flak. On this occasion he simply opened the cockpit window and threw a mechanic’s wrench at us instead. The pilot’s action was his undoing, as Corporal Burgon of the BEM shot him down using an anti-tank rifle, firing from the hip. I’m not sure how he managed it, but he was as strong as a horse. The memory of it sticks with me to this very day.”
Surviving the desert’s inhospitable conditions, Len landed on the Salerno beaches during the invasion of Italy and the Normandy beaches during the D-Day Landings (6 June 1944). During the war he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major and was involved in over 100 front line battles in 15 different countries before being demobbed in May 1946.
During his journey back to Egypt, Len will visit memorials and cemeteries marking the sacrifice made by those who fought and did not return from battle. He will also visit some of the places in which he was stationed.
“I’m looking forward to going back and seeing some of the places in which I served,” Len concludes. “They have changed immeasurably since I was there with the Desert Rats but the memories of that time still remain strong.”
Filed under: Germany, RAF | Tags: Australian Squadron, Dresden, Germany, Italy, Lancasters, POW, RAF
One veteran making the most of the scheme is Reg White from Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. Joining up in the RAF aged 19, Reg underwent training in Stafford and Crewe before embarking on operational training on Wellington bombers, and then on to Lancasters as a Flight Sergeant Rear Gunner in Australian Squadron, 460 based at Binbrook, Lincolnshire.
Flying hazardous night operations over Germany, Italy and German-occupied Europe, Reg, recalls the fateful evening of Jan 27th 1944, on a mission over the heavily defended Berlin.
He recalls: “We were approaching the target when we were suddenly attacked and very badly hit. At first I didn’t realise what was happening as I was in the rear turret and had no phone communication. Then as we started to jump I remember hearing someone shout ‘For god’s sake Skipper, bail out!’ I don’t remember what happened after that till I hit the ground and looked up at the black parachute above me. Everything was so quiet. I found out after that only three of us had survived, the other four were killed and later buried in Posen.”
Escaping the jump with no more than a burst eardrum Reg quickly hid his parachute and decided to try and head for home. He recalls: “I wanted to set off for Switzerland. I travelled at night and during the day hid in trees. But one day I decided to chance it and as I was coming out of a clearing I suddenly saw a German soldier. He saw me, raised his gun and shouted ‘Englander? Americano?’ I told him I was English and then he seemed quite friendly. I remember wondering what he would have done if I had said Americano.”
He continued: “He took me to a nearby farm and handed me over to a German sergeant who told me he had fought in the First World War and had been taken prisoner by the English. I asked him how he was treated and he said, ‘very well’, and then offered me something to eat.”
He was then taken to an air base in Guben, where he met up with the other two survivors of his aircrew, and from there to Berlin where he was put on a flight to Frankfurt to undergo interrogation. He recalls: “The interrogation wasn’t so bad, being a rear gunner I wasn’t expected to know too much. It was the navigators who knew all about the flight routes and plotting.”
Reg was then transported to Stalag Luft 6 a Luftwaffe controlled camp at Hydekrug, on the Baltic Coast. He recalls with irony: “It wasn’t a holiday camp and we were not ill-treated, but all we had to live on was watery swede and potato soup and a bit of black bread. At the beginning of the war the POW rations were quite good but of course it was our own boys shooting everything up that caused the shortage.”
Later when the Russians started to advance into Germany Reg and his compatriots were loaded into cattle trucks and transported to an army camp in Torun, Poland and then onto Fallingbostel in Central Germany where they were liberated. Reg was eventually flown home in a Lancaster arriving in England on VE Day. He recalls: “I know I was very lucky. Things that happened to me always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”
Now 87, Reg will travel on a Heroes Return 2 grant to Germany where he will visit aircrew war graves in Berlin, travel to the Ruhr Valley, Mohne Dam, Colditz, Dresden, and visit the museum at the famous Stalag Luft III, site of the great escape.
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Adrano, Heroes Return, Italy, memories, Poem, Sicily, veterans, WW2
One of the towns we passed through was called Adrano and the impression it made on me was sufficient to inspire the only poem I have ever written or am likely to write. Apart from a slight alteration to the last few lines it remains as I wrote it some sixty years ago and I print it here without comment.”
Darkness was falling as we entered the town, but t’was light enough still to see
The shattered ruins of what had been, a town, in Sicily.
It wasn’t much to call a town, compared with those of greater size.
It wasn’t built for modern war and now a stinking heap it lies,
Rotting beneath the azure skies, of Sicily.
It seemed as if an angry God had run amok with gory hands,
Then dropped a veil, a canopy, of dirty, blinding, choking sands
And as to wreak his vengeance more
Had propped a body in each door
We drove on by with sober thought,
Of those poor b******s who’d been caught,
We grimaced at the sick, sweet, smell, of this small piece of man made hell
This could be you, the bodies said, this could be you, soon gone, soon dead
We hurried by, enough to be, alive that day, in Sicily”