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


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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