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


“You had to rely on your comrades” by Big Lottery Fund

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.

Reg Downes

Reg Downes joined the Territorial Army in 1938 (photo credit – David Devins)

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.

Reg Downes

Reg Downes during his wartime service

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


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