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


Remembrance Day trips for Far East POWs by Big Lottery Fund

Hands holding medals

More than 54,000 WW2 veterans, widows, spouses and carers have embarked on commemorative trips

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.

Veteran holds medals

More than £26.6 million has been distributed in grants by Heroes Return

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



Scottish veterans return to where they served by Big Lottery Fund

Veteran holds medals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



“I showed my daughter places I knew” by Big Lottery Fund

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

Jim Colecliffe returned to Singapore (photo credit – Dominic Holden)

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.

Jim Colecliffe

Jim pictured during his wartime service (credit – Dominic Holden)

“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.”

Jim Colecliffe

Jim studies wartime photos with his daughter Brenda (photo credit – Dominic Holden)

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



Podcast – “My time in Bomber Command” by Big Lottery Fund

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.

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

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




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 358 other followers