Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return, Remembrance Day | Tags: Death Railway, Far East, Heroes Return, History, National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association, PoWs, Prisoner of War, RAF, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Second World War, Thai-Burma, veterans, War, World War Two, WW2
As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 10th), veterans across the country will be embarking on emotional journeys both in the UK and across the world to pay their respects to those who lost their lives over 70 years ago.
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.
Among those who have received an award is the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association for a journey to Singapore and Thailand. The group, nearly all in their 90s, will be attending remembrance ceremonies in Singapore, and will travel to the infamous ‘Death Railway’ camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, scene of the Bridge over the River Kwai, to mark 11 November Remembrance Day commemorations.
Travelling with the group is 93-year old veteran POW William Mundy from Dartford, Kent. An RAF Aircraftman, William was 20 years old when he sailed from Gourock in Scotland on 3rd December 1941, on the City of Canterbury, bound for Kuala Lumpur. But as the Japanese made rapid advances through Malaya, William was re-routed to Batavia, (now Jakarta).
However, RAF operational life on the island of Java would prove to be short lived as William and his comrades were taken prisoner by the Japanese in Garoet, after the Dutch forces capitulated. Sent to Boei Glodok prison in February 1942, William then spent 1943-1944 incarcerated on Java, after which he was taken to Ambon, and then back to Java for another six weeks.
The Java POWs were set to work building airfields with ‘chunkels’ (wide hoes) used to chip away at the coral which was then hauled in baskets slung on poles. Only a third returned from these camps, as the death rate was one of the highest with the prisoners suffering constant maltreatment, beatings, starvation and illnesses.
He recalls; “We had to make a two days march from Ambon harbour to Liang, where we built an airstrip.
“On route to Liang is a Christian village, Waai. The villagers there took great risks, when we were working on the road through the village, to pass titbits under the walls of the hut to us.”
“No matter where I was in prison, the diet was the same; breakfast pint of steamed rice and spoonful of sugar, mid day three quarters of a pint steamed rice and “green” water and in the evening one pint of steamed rice and the “greens” that had been cooked in the mid-day water.
“Only those who were working were allocated food, so we needed to share ours with those in hospital or otherwise sick.”
“In Ambon it was breakfast before 8am and then a march of about three quarters of a mile to the airstrip, dressed only with a strip of material between the legs and so far as we could some sort of foot wear. Walking on the coral was soul destroying. There was a brief break between when we got there and started “work” and the arrival of the mid-day meal and another in the afternoon before returning to camp about six or six–thirty for the evening meal. Treatment, as experienced by all the prisoners was harsh as the ‘powers that be’ wanted the work finished yesterday.”
In June 1944 William was put on a transport ship destined for the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ but was taken off the boat at Singapore and hospitalised at Changi suffering from Beriberi disease. After six months in hospital he was transferred to the local Kranji prison as part of a forced labour group digging into the granite hillside to form bomb proof storage chambers.
After the Japanese surrender, William returned to the UK via Colombo, Suez and Liverpool on a Dutch boat in October 1945.
William said: “I think most people would ask why on earth I would want to go back to where I had such a traumatic experience. There are the war graves, where some of the 775 out of the 1,000 who didn’t survive are buried, and I would appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their sacrifice. ”
He continued: “Visiting the graves would also provide an opportunity to thank Almighty God for his grace, mercy, love and preservation which brought me safely back to the UK. I know I can continually do this but on the site would be very appropriate.”
William, who plans to take plenty of photographs to record his experience of the trip said: “I would like these to be able to give my children and grandchildren the knowledge of what happened.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: RAF | Tags: Flight Sergeant, Gardermoen Airfield, Gliders, Hurricanes, Norman Shepherd, Norway, Nottingham, Operation Doomsday, Oslo, RAF, Rhine, Royal Airforce, Short Stirlings, Special Air Service, Spitfires
RAF veteran Norman Shepherd, 88, from Nottingham, who visited Norway on a Heroes Return visit, is urging other veterans to apply for funding for a first or second trip.
Norman joined the RAF in 1943 and after training joined 196 Squadron 38 Group. The Flight Sergeant was a flight engineer in Short Stirlings in operations over occupied Europe.
The squadron carried out various transport, glider-towing and supply-dropping flights as well as Special Air Service parachuting missions over occupied territories.
He said: “I flew something between 20 to 30 wartime operations. Most of them were dropping supplies or soldiers parachuting from our aircraft. My job as flight engineer was checking the engines and fuel.
“One of the most memorable operations was when we had to tow gliders over the Rhine. We flew from Suffolk to Essex to pick up the gliders. Some were full of troops, others had jeeps and weapons.
“There were hundreds of planes in the sky. A lot got hit by flack and we saw a few go down. We were also hit but we weren’t badly damaged. It was really terrifying when we got hit. We were flying so low towing the gliders that we wouldn’t have survived bailing out.
“After the gliders detached themselves we headed back. The rope used to tow the gliders was extremely thick and heavy and we were trained to drop it on targets. On the way back we dropped it over an anti aircraft position and the rear gunner called out from the back saying we hit it. We all gave out a big cheer.
“On another operation I remember we had to transport fuel for Spitfires and Hurricanes in jerry cans. We were like a flying bomb. One tracer bullet and we would have exploded. That was a bit hairy.
“There was a high loss rate of crews. When I was first started on operations I remember looking at a seasoned aircrew and thinking ‘what a scruffy lot’. Two months later they never returned from an operation and so we then became the scruffy lot. You got used to people not coming back.”
One cargo Norman wasn’t expecting was at the end of the war. His crew were delivered a dozen Jewish children who had been freed from a concentration camp and were to be flown to England.
He said: “They were aged between eight and 12 and I was put in charge of them. I gave them a chocolate bar each and they gobbled them all down. But they weren’t used to it and it made them sick in the aircraft.
“They got all tearful when I went over. They were cowering in fear – I think they thought I was going to hit them, the poor little things.”
Norman visited Oslo, Norway, last year for his Heroes Return 2 visit. He had been invited to take part in a ceremony to commemorate crewmen lost during Operation Doomsday – the supervision of the surrender of German forces in occupied Norway following the Allied victory in Europe on May 8 1945.
More than 360,000 German troops still occupied Norway and the Allies launched a massive operation to take 30,000 soldiers to Norway.
On May 10 1945 three Short Stirlings crashed enroute to Gardermoen Airfield. Norman joined relatives of the lost men at Gardermoen and also visited the crash site and cemetery where the men now rest.
He remembered: “We took off but the weather became dreadful about two-thirds of the way. We were recalled but three aircraft carried on. All three crashed, including one carrying the Commander of 38 Group Air Vice-Marshall James Scarlet –Streatfield.
“It was tragic – that could have happened to us. It wasn’t down to a particular person or crew – it was luck or fate what happened. They actually went to their death on Ascension Day so they went up like Jesus to the right place as far as I’m concerned. I really enjoyed the trip to reminisce. Sixty-seven years is a long time to think about these things. The visit brought to all to the surface.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: France | Tags: 88 Squadron, Arimistice Day, Bomber Command, Croix de guerre, D-Day, Douglas Boston, Dunkirk, E-Easy, France, Friendly Smoke, Leslie Valentine, memorial, Michael Turner, Normandy, RAF, RAF Hartford Bridge
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.
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 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
Filed under: RAF | Tags: 62 Squadron, Akyab Island, Bombay, Burma, Changi, Hiroshima, HMS Ranchi, Indonesia, Nagasaki, PoWs, RAF, Royal Air Force, Saigon, Singapore
A Royal Airforce (RAF) veteran from Wythenshaw, Manchester, recently embarked upon a Lottery-funded journey to where he served in Singapore. Having enjoyed his emotional return, through the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, he now wants others like him to apply for funding.
Jim Colecliffe, 87, joined the RAF in 1944 aged 18. Sent to Cardington for basic training he went on to Cosford where he completed a Flight Mechanic Engine Course.
He recalls: “I had been in the ATC a couple of years before I joined up. I was always very interested in planes. I had a model aircraft flying on wires in my house.”
Jim was sent to a squadron in Towyn, North Wales from where he received his posting to the Far East.
Boarding a converted troop ship, HMS Ranchi, Jim sailed for Bombay arriving in January 1945, and from there was transferred to Akyab Island in Burma where he served at rank of Aircraftman 1st class with 62 Squadron RAF a Dakota supply unit.
He said: “Once we knew we were being posted overseas we were sent to Morecambe to get kitted out with pith helmets and all the jungle gear. Once we got to Bombay we had four or five days travelling across India by train.
“It was terrible to see the poverty. People with badly maimed limbs even women and children. I couldn’t believe that people could live like that in this day and age.
“We then flew to 62 Squadron base on Akyab Island just off the coast of Burma. Once we got there we had to deal with the monsoons, putting up tents and then digging trenches around them. We were what you might call slightly damp. I was only 18 and it was a different world to me all this.”
Carrying out four to five sorties a day to drop vital supplies to front line troops fighting the Japanese, Jim’s was assigned to keep Dakota ‘U’ for Uncle serviced and flying safely.
Jim recalls: “As soon as they landed I would check the cowlings and the engines and then climb into the cockpit, check over all the instruments and run the engines to make sure everything was working properly.
“It was all quite an experience really. We tolerated the heat somehow, no shirts, just bush hats. We got a cooked breakfast every morning from the RAF cooks and then after that we lived on typical American K rations.
“These were the same as were supplied to all aircrew in case they got ditched. There were packets of biscuits, cigarettes, chocolate, even toilet paper, typical Yank stuff. It was a little bit sparse, but we didn’t starve.
“When I heard the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I felt a bit upset that they’d had to do it. But then we hadn’t had it tough like others.
“We only had one fatality when a Canadian pilot got caught in a cumulonimbus weather cloud and his plane was destroyed.”
Following the Japanese surrender, 62 Squadron was disbanded and Jim was posted to Singapore for three months where he was assigned to looking after VIP aircraft used by generals and admirals.
He was later transferred to Indonesia where he serviced planes flying Japanese PoWs back home. Jim then received his last posting to Saigon at that time a staging post for aircraft between Singapore and Indonesia.
He remembers: “One night I was on guard duty when we had to look after two very high ranking Japanese officers stopping with us in our guard house. They were extremely polite. But I could never work out if they were being very polite because they had lost the war, or if it was just their nature.”
Jim, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, recalls his Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore in June last year where he was accompanied by his daughter Brenda.
“We went round the airfield at Changi where I was stationed. We also visited the Changi Museum and were shocked by the atrocity of some of the stories we read. One was about an Australian lady who had two sons aged 11 and 12 who were both seriously ill.
“In desperation she approached a Japanese guard for help but he smashed her face in with a rifle butt. There was also the story of a Malaysian woman who came to the fence of a PoW camp to pass food through to the prisoners. She was caught by a guard who smashed her with a rifle butt, but she still came back the next day.
“I think the chance to have a second trip with Heroes Return 2 is absolutely fantastic news. I couldn’t believe it. I am over the moon. I wouldn’t have been able to go back without the funding. It was a great experience for both me and my daughter Brenda, and for me to be able to show her the places I knew. The whole thing has made such a big impression on both of us. She has never stopped talking about it.”
Filed under: Far East, RAF | Tags: Bob Simmons, Malaysia, Morse Code, Penang, Penang Veterans Association, RAF, Royal Australian Air Force
Bob Simmons, 86, recently travelled to Malaysia to pay his respects to comrades lost during the liberation of Penang in the Second World War. His journey was funded by the Heroes Return programme.
In Burma he served in Chittagong, Ramree Island and Rangoon. As part of the liberation of Penang he set up a radar beacon at Bayan Lepas airport, helping the planes which were evacuating POWs back to the UK.
He spent Christmas in Singapore and was sent to Borneo in 1946 for two years before being demobbed. One of his lasting memories from his service is the haunting sight of Allied POWs, who had been freed from the notorious Changi jail in Singapore. For more about his war experiences, read Bob’s earlier blog entry.
The Remembrance Day commemoration ceremony in Malaysia on Sunday 18 November was organised by the Penang Veterans Association in Georgetown, the capital of Penang.
Bob sat next to the First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy and was also in the company of the Chief Minister of Penang, the British High Commissioner and the Chief Defence Adviser.
Bob got a special mention in the President’s address and also a whole page of his story in the souvenir programme. After the reading of The Ode, The Last Post performed by the 2nd Royal Malay Regiment, the one minute silence and Reveille, Bob laid a wreath on the steps of the Penang Cenotaph in memory of all WW2 veterans.
Bob was also very thrilled to have a chat with Royal Australian Air Force Air Vice Marshal Warren Ludwig who is based at Butterworth, one of Bob’s old postings.
Accompanying Bob on his commemorative trip was his wife Sheryl. She said: “Bob made the local press with articles in The Star newspaper and The New Straits Times, where he is shown laying his wreath, so he became quite famous locally! It was a really exciting time for us both and we are very grateful to the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme for making it all possible.”
Filed under: Far East, memorial, RAF, Remembrance Day | Tags: Heroes Return, Malaysia, Mechanic, Penang, RAF, Remembrance Day, Royal Air Force
A WWII veteran will travel to Malaysia to lay a wreath at a Remembrance Day ceremony to mark the sacrifice of soldiers in liberating the region from the Japanese.
Bob Simmons, 86, will be making the 8,000 mile commemorative trip to Penang as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme. Bob, a corporal and radar mechanic with the RAF, will be laying the wreath at the state cenotaph alongside the British High Commissioner and the Chief Minister of Penang.
Bob was born in Belgium, the son of a British soldier who had fought in the First World War, and lived in Ypres where an expatriate outpost grew around the British ex-servicemen who cared for the war memorials and cemeteries of ‘Flanders Fields’. Bob went to the British Memorial School in Ypres, the subject of a recent BBC Four documentary.
He said: “I learnt history, some Shakespeare and was taught Morse Code and semaphore. We all realised war was coming. There is a book about the school called The Children Who Fought Hitler and you can see me on the cover.”
His family fled Belgium for England in 1940, just before the Dunkirk rescue, and lived in Selsey Bill, on the West Sussex coast during the Battle of Britain.
He recalled: “One day a Junkers 87 came over our home and crashed. I scrambled on my bike with a hammer, pliers and a saw. By the time I got there two of the crew who survived were being marched away by the Home Guard. I managed to take out the radio transmitter because my father once owned a radio shop in Belgium and was an amateur radio enthusiast. I gave it to him and he used it to build an amateur radio transmitter. He also had a receiver and we used to tune into the fighter pilots talking to ground staff which was incredibly exciting.
“On another occasion a Heinkel dropped a stick of bombs over the village. I rushed home to make sure our house wasn’t hit. My father and sister walked out the house and we stared at the huge crater in someone’s garden. Then an unexploded bomb suddenly went off just ten yards away – I remember a huge bang and saw thousands of fragments fly up into the air. They then stopped for what seemed like ages and then poured down on us.”
Bob managed to get a job with the BBC by pretending he was older than he was and was sent on courses on oversees radio signals and frequencies.
Aged just 16 he even had experience of swapping local transmitters to confuse enemy bombers. At 17 he volunteered for the RAF.
He said: “I couldn’t fly because of my eyesight so I became a radar mechanic. I said I wanted to go to France – I spoke the language and knew the country like the back of my hand. So they sent me to Burma!”
Bob sailed from Liverpool in January 1945, zig-zagging to avoid U-boats, towards the US before sailing around Ireland down to Gibraltar, through Suez to Bombay, across by train to Calcutta and eventually to Burma where his overloaded ferry nearly capsized in a river on the way to Chittagong during a storm.
In Burma he served in Chittagong, Ramree Island and Rangoon. He was then sent to be part of the liberation of Penang. Bob experienced two brushes with death while serving in Southeast Asia.
He recalled: “I remember a Japanese bombing raid at a US base. We dived into some trenches with some US servicemen and I remember one American saying ‘Gee this is just like Pearl Harbour’. It was funny because I’d experienced more danger back in England.
“On arrival in Penang we had to transfer from our ship to a destroyer to be taken to landing craft to get to shore. We had to climb down a net to the destroyer – one man slipped and landed on a Lewis machine gun which started shooting all over us. One chap was badly hit.”
At Penang he set up a radar beacon at Bayan Lepas airport, helping the planes which were evacuating all the POWs back to the UK.
He spent Christmas in Singapore and then served was sent to Borneo in 1946 for two years before being demobbed. One of his lasting memories from his service is the haunting sight of Allied POWs, some who had been freed from the notorious Changi jail in Singapore.
He recalled; “We were evacuating those who were fit enough to travel. They had washed and been given clean uniforms but they were very emaciated and stooped. Many looked broken mentally. And these POWs were the fitter ones.
“I think the remembrance service in Penang will be particularly moving. As I get older I seem to become more emotional about the war than I used to be. It will be a tremendous experience returning to the region – to where I played a small part in the liberation of a country.”
Bob lived in Camberley, Surrey, for many years and Teddington, London, before moving to Toulouse in France in recent years. He now splits his time between there and family in Tonbridge, Kent.
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: 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: 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.