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


Saluting the fallen, Remembrance 2014 by Big Lottery Fund

Never forgotten Remembrance Day veterans salute the fallen

As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism and fortitude of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 9) veterans across the country are 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.

Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth HighlanderTo reflect the nation’s debt to our Armed Forces veterans of WW2 the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over  £28 million to more than 57,000 WW2 veterans, spouses, widows and carers since 2004 to make journeys of remembrance.

Peter Ainsworth chair of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “As we approach this important day of commemorations it is with gratitude and pride that the country remembers and honours our veterans who endured the horrors of war and whose courage and sacrifice finally brought an end to a conflict that cost over 60 million lives across the world.”

Among those benefiting from the Heroes Return programme today is Colonel Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth Highlander.

On Sept 1939 Edward was an 18 year-old third year Electrical Engineering apprentice in HM Naval Dockyard, Devonport and a student at HM Dockyard School.

He remembers: “Third year apprentices were required to spend that year ‘afloat’, that is working on ships that were already in service with a naval crew. All those working in naval dockyards were exempt from call up and like many young men at the time we couldn’t wait to be called up and immediately wanted to volunteer to join the Forces in a unit of our choice. We were told we could not and should not.

“By nature I am a loner and inclined to find my own solutions so I wrote to the Admiral Superintendant, HM Dockyard, Devonport and he gave me permission to volunteer, adding that my training would be particularly valuable in the Royal Navy. But, I failed the RN Medical Board because I did not have perfect 20/20 vision and spectacles were unacceptable.” 

Consequently, he volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment joining them in early 1941 at Bovington camp in Dorset. Training as a tank radio operator/driver he was then sent to active service in the Middle East in early 1942, serving as tank Trooper in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) with the 7th Hussars part of the 7th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats.

He recalls: “When we eventually reached Egypt I went down with the awful Sand Fly Fever and ended up in the British military hospital in Helwan, a leafy suburb of Cairo. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire 7th Armoured Brigade were rushed to Rangoon with their light tanks to attempt to defend Burma against the Japanese. It was a terrible battle with much sickness.

“The Brigade was driven back into India, with practically everyone suffering from malaria and dysentery and it took many months and much reinforcement before the brigade eventually returned to Egypt. We missed the first Battle of El Alamein. Those like me, when we left hospital went to our depots in the Canal Zone and were formed and trained as complete tank crews with firstly Grant tanks and later with Sherman tanks.” 

Edward’s crew was reallocated as part replacement crews to the many other RTR units in time for the second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and formed up beyond Alexandria as part of a replacement troop of 5th RTR.

“My tank was hit early on and caught fire,” he recalls.” My back was burnt getting out of the turret and I ended up again in the British military hospital at Helwan, in Cairo. When I was fully fit again I was chosen for a commission in the Infantry as a Seaforth Highlander, 2nd Lieutenant, in late 1943 but by then there were no Seaforth units in the Middle East, so I volunteered and passed the selection process for the SAS, including the essential parachute training.”

Edward now a Captain in the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR) went on to take part in raids and longer operations working with the working with the Special  Boating Services (SBS) in Italy the Aegean Islands, Albania, and Yugoslavia, including  two raids on the Albanian coast and the occupation of the Island of Vis, off the German held Yugoslavian coast.

He said: “It was very difficult for the Germans to defend the Adriatic and Italian coast. There was a main road that ran up from Brindisi to Venice where we could land agents. In the Aegeans we worked with the Special Boating Services (SBS) on short sharp raids. There were thousands of Greek Islands and we could mingle in with the local fishing boats.”

In January 1945 after returning to Special Forces HQ in Bari, Italy, Edward was then summoned to form part of Monty’s final push into Germany.

He recalls: “We used to love going back to base in Bari. It was always full of nice British girls. We’d try and stay at the Hotel Imperiali, built by Mussolini and taken over by the NAAFI.  The Commanding Officer came all the way to Bari to claim me as his battalion was about to go into the front line short of officers, whereas, as far as he could see I was “only dancing with FANY’s.”

As part of the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Edward moved up through France direct from Italy to join the 5th Division for the Rhine Crossings and advance into Germany where after a few battles the Battalion reached Lubeck and Wismar on the Baltic.

The European War now over, in July 1945 Edward flew to Ceylon in a Sunderland Flying Boat to join Force 136 Special Operations Executive (SOE). 

He said: “Luckily for me, before I was parachuted into Japanese – held lands, the A bombs were dropped in August and my war service ended with a fiancée, Veronica who was serving in the ATS in Mountbatten’s HQ in Kandy where Force 136 also had its HQ.

“We married in July 1946, and lived very happily for 57 years till sadly Veronica died in 2003, having given me four marvellous children.”

Edward reflects: “Remembrance Day means a lot to me. I was born just after World War One ended. I lost two uncles only 20 at the time so there was grief in the family. But as you grow older it becomes more important and given the opportunity to go back and visit battle sites, remembrance becomes much much more important, and you begin to have regrets  that you didn’t do more  about remembering. It does become terribly important.” 

“I think Heroes Return is a marvellous idea and I’m very grateful to have been able to make these important trips with the support of the lottery. I think Heroes Return has got it right, just in time to allow thousands of veterans to go back, many who might not have otherwise been able to. What I like about it too is that the funding is not means tested. It helps every veteran, like we were in the war, all equal, all one.”

The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has awarded over £28 million to over 57,000 WW2 veterans, widows and carers since 2004.

The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.

This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have already been funded since the programme relaunched in 2009 will have a second opportunity to apply for a grant towards travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served, or make a commemorative visit in the UK.

For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Second trips for WW2 heroes by Big Lottery Fund
Dr. Bill Frankland

Heroes Return grants are still available for WW2 veterans (photo credit – David Devins)

World War II veterans will be able to apply for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Heroes Return 2 programme, the Big Lottery Fund announced today.

Over £25 million has been awarded since 2004 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. From today, veterans will be able to apply for funding to go a second time.

Peter Ainsworth, Big Lottery Fund UK Chair, said: “It is for me a very real honour and pleasure to announce that our Second World War veterans who have already been on a Heroes Return commemorative visit can now be supported to make another journey to a place where they fought or served. They let us know how important these visits are to them  – whether it be a trip to London’s Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, a visit to the beaches of Normandy, or journeys to war cemeteries in the Far East. The experiences they revisit remind us that we must never take for granted the peace this generation secured for all of us and the debt we owe for the freedoms we enjoy and value today.”

London Second World War veteran Bill Frankland, a renowned allergist and registrar to Sir Alexander Fleming in the development of penicillin was studying medicine at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School when war broke out. Bill accepted a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps and in late 1941 with the rank of Captain he joined a team of 30 doctors as they embarked on a two-month long voyage to Singapore.

Bill Frankland

WW2 veteran Bill Frankland, 100 (photo credit – David Devins)

Bill, who is approaching his 101st birthday in March recalls: “We were on our way to form a new general hospital in Johor Bahru. But when we arrived it was decided that there would be no new hospital and we would be split into two groups.

“I spun a coin and went to Tanglin Military Hospital and my friend went to Alexandra Military Hospital. It was three days before Pearl Harbour.”

Two months later on Friday 13th February 1942, known as Black Friday, allied forces were in full retreat as the Japanese seized most of the reservoirs leaving the city with only seven days water supply.

Caught under constant heavy mortar fire Bill transferred his patients from Tanglin to a makeshift hospital in the Fullerton Theatre in the centre of Singapore.

When the Japanese invaded Singapore Bill’s friend and colleague was murdered along with nursing staff and patients, one in the middle of surgery, as the marauding soldiers, armed with bayonets, and ignoring a white flag of truce stormed the Alexandra Hospital on a killing spree.

Bill recalls: “The Japanese had no plans on how they would deal with prisoners. We were sent to Changi. It was an 18 mile march, but I went by lorry with my patients. There was a lot of dysentery and after six months we were all starving. I was looking after one of the dysentery wards and saw little of the Japanese. Our guards were mostly Koreans and later Indians.”

But soon the PoWs were being sent to work on the notorious Thai-Burma death railway.  Bill was transferred to a working camp, formerly a British Artillery barracks on Blakang Mati Island, known then as Hell Island, now Sentosa.

He remembers: “I never saw the sea, even on the island. In the camp there were 75 per cent Australians and men from the British 18th Division. In my working group I knew every man personally. We lived off meagre rations of rice and everyone suffered from gross starvation. All we could think of was food. When we could we ate rats, mice and dogs.”

Apart from chronic dysentery other tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and starvation beriberi were rife amongst the prisoners.  However, even this didn’t save them from the relentless forced labour instigated by their captors.

Bill visited Kranji Memorial in Singapore

Bill visited Kranji Memorial in Singapore

Bill recalls: “The Japanese kept us all busy. If my sick parade got too large a Japanese private, non medical would take my sick parade and put them to work if they were strong enough to stand.

“If the men’s behaviour was bad the Japanese would bash the officers. They would line us up and just punch us in the face.

“The best bashing I ever had was when I was knocked unconscious. I didn’t feel much but when I got up I realised I had lost a tooth.

“Once a soldier came up to me and said he was going to kill me and he tried but I survived it. I think at the time it may have been in revenge for some allied victory abroad.”

Those who attempted to get away ran a hazardous course with the Japanese paying local people 100 dollars to give up escapees.

He said: “I looked after a marvellous man who had tried to escape. He had ulcerated legs, dysentery, malaria and starvation beriberi. After two months he was getting better and I was about to return him to his unit when a police officer from the much feared KEMPI Military Police came round with an armoured guard of Sikhs.

“They ordered him to dig his own grave but he was much too weak to do it so the Sikhs had to dig the grave. They were then ordered to shoot him but only one hit him so the police officer finished him off with a pistol.”

In May 1945, Australian troops landed in Borneo and British, American and Chinese forces defeated the Japanese in Burma, while American forces also moved towards Japan, capturing the islands of Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa.

Bill recalls: “Each corner of the prison parade ground was covered by machine gun posts. There was a Japanese order that if the Americans set foot in Japan all PoWs were to be killed. This would include 120,000 in all.”

Bill paid respect to those who lost their lives

Bill paid respect to those who lost their lives

“When the atom bomb was dropped we thought the war was finished but the local Japanese command said it wasn’t and fired on the VJ planes coming over Singapore. Five or six days after VJ day we asked to see a Japanese officer. It was a very risky thing to ask anything from a Japanese officer but we wanted to be released.”

The next day they were allowed to leave Blakang Mati and went back to Singapore Island. It would be Bill’s first taste of freedom for three and a half years. Bill remembers: “I was flown from Singapore to Rangoon 12 days after VJ day.  There was this marvellous Red Cross woman at the airport who gave me sandwiches. It was the first time I’d had bread in over three years.

“Shortly after I was examined by a doctor who pressed my stomach and said I had an enlarged spleen. But I said ‘no ‘it’s bread!’ But he still had me admitted to hospital.”

Arriving back in England in November he recalls: “The first thing I was asked was whether I wanted to see a psychiatrist. I said ‘no, I want to see my wife’.”

Less than two months later Bill was back at work at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. A renowned allergist, whose achievements include the popularisation of the pollen count as a vital piece of weather-related information and the prediction of increased levels of allergy to penicillin, Bill is also a key expert witness in matters of allergy.

Recently making a Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore with his daughter, he said: “I don’t think I would have gone without the grant. I went up to the Kranji Memorial to pay my respects to those who lost their lives. It was very quiet in November and I was all on my own. It was quite emotional.”

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



War veteran travels to Malaysia by Big Lottery Fund

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

Bob Simmons pictured with a Japanese plane in 1945

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.

Bob Simmons

Bob (centre) in Bombay, 1947

“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.”

Bob Simmons

Bob pictured with his wife, Sheryl

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.

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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