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


“Returning to Italy was emotional” by Big Lottery Fund

A Merchant Navy veteran is urging others to apply for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers, 85 from Leeds, went on a Heroes Return visit to Italy last September, to revisit the country he first saw during his time with the Merchant Navy. He joined up in 1943 when he was aged just 16.

He said: “I was in the sea cadets and the Merchant Navy had lost a lot of men and were asking for volunteers. My first ship was a cargo ship, SS Cape Wrath – a commandeered Tate and Lyle ship.

“We sailed north to Scotland and joined a convoy off Oban and from there sailed out into the north Atlantic and down towards Italy. We had a large aircraft carrier with us and carrier escorts. It was huge – I don’t remember the number but it was around 40 ships.

“We had vehicles on the deck which made the ship top heavy. It was January 1944 and the weather was really rough and she rolled around a lot – it was a tough journey.

“As we got near to France we were attacked by air and had a couple of submarine warnings. I remember hearing explosions during the night and I think we lost a couple of ships. We were called to action stations and it was my job to back the gunners up as an ammunition carrier.

“They opened fire all over the place – it was very noisy with all ships firing. The planes took off from the carrier and helped to drive the enemy aircraft away.

“At Gibraltar the convoy split – we went to Tunis. On the way out of Tunis the ship in front of us hit a mine and had to turn back. We went on to Cagliari, Sardinia where there had been heavy bombing.

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers

“We dropped off the cargo and I can remember the smell – there were a lot of bodies under the rubble. It was really traumatic and that memory lingered with me for years.

“Then we went to Naples to deliver armoured vehicles for the troop at Anzio and Monte Cassino. Vesuvius erupted after the Allied troops arrived and we could see larva flowing down and we were all covered in dust. We could hear guns and bombs dropping at the battlefield at Monte Cassino and see the flashes at night.”

Derek visited Monte Cassino, Salerno and Anzio on a Heroes Return visit last September.

He said: “I wanted to go and see what it was like now. Also, during the war I was offshore and so my perspective was different. Although the war was so long ago it all came back to me. On my visit there were two other veterans in my group. It was really wonderful and very emotional.”

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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