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


Salute for ‘Husky’ heroes on 70th anniversary by Big Lottery Fund

John Field crouched in the packed hold of the converted allied troop ship RMS Maloja as it slipped through the deadly U-Boat killing grounds of the North Atlantic. Billeted deep below the water line John knew that he and his comrades would never survive a dreaded torpedo attack. Terrified to sleep he began to pray, a desperate act that would bring a calm and lasting spiritual courage to the 20-year old Royal Marine armourer in the dark days to come.

John, now 92, is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million 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.

World War Two veteran, John Field

John Field, 92, is returning to where he served in Sicily (Credit – David Devins)

In 1941, as Britain waited under the threat of a German invasion, 19 year-old Cambridge lad John Field was earning his stripes as an apprentice locksmith.

Upon reaching his 20th birthday John joined up with the Royal Navy, and underwent training as an Armourer, gun fitter. A year later John set sail on troop ship RMS Maloja bound for the Middle East via the Cape Route, stopping at Sierra Leone, Durban and arriving in Suez.

He recalls: “We went the long way round to try and avoid the U- Boats but got chased by some on our route towards Iceland. Troop quarters were well below the ship’s waterline and I was absolutely terrified as we wouldn’t be able to get out if a torpedo hit us. I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t even get into my hammock or take my shoes off.

“I wanted to be able to get onto the rope ladder and climb up as quickly as possible if something happened. This fear gripped me for some time until one night I just started to say the Lord’s Prayer and kept saying it till it gradually calmed me down. After a while, I took off my boots, got into the hammock and went to sleep. It was a spiritual experience which helped me keep calm. I was never afraid like that again.”

Arriving safely in Suez John was sent to an allied base at Quassassin where he was put to work maintaining and repairing tank guns. He said: “We were given a square block of steel from which we had to make replacement bits for guns. Everything had to be absolutely accurate. That’s where my training as a locksmith came in. We were glad to have this job to protect our mates, but glad not to be doing the shooting.”

In early July 1943 John set sail from Port Said to Sicily on SS Bergensfjord in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, codenamed ‘Operation Husky’. The mission was to launch a large scale amphibious and airborne attack that would drive the Axis air, land and naval forces from the island; a move that would open up the Mediterranean sea lanes and pave the way for the invasion of the Italian mainland.

John Field

John pictured in his wartime uniform (Credit – David Devins)

John was assigned to the Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, (RM NBDO) responsible for the capture and maintenance of enemy gun defences.

He remembers, “As we approached Sicily we had to transfer into a Landing Craft to get in close. Aircraft were bombing and machine gunning us. The Landing

Craft in front was hit and destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. I was quite calm. I had a job to do. We were very young. We thought we were immortal.”

“There were three beaches, ‘George’, ‘Item’, and ‘Hal’, which was our beach. There was very little troop resistance as the Germans had transferred their army to Crete thanks to Operation Mincemeat. Once we were near the shore we jumped into the water and waded the rest of the way. Then we ran up the beach and managed to take cover in a farmhouse. We were very thankful for this.”

The next day John and his comrades set off marching towards the port of Syracuse. He recalls; “Our rations were biscuits and dry foods, anything that was light to carry. There was an incident about water and an officer told us not to drink from the springs. When we arrived just south of Syracuse we went up onto a headland. There was a lighthouse and a scattering of guns.

“We took over ten guns that weren’t damaged.  Two of the guns looked very peculiar. They were four inch anti-aircraft guns which we used for barrage against attacking planes. One night, one of them exploded and the barrel fell off. Luckily no one was hurt. We couldn’t understand why this had happened till we found an Italian handbook with bits marked in red ink which translated read, ‘On no account use more than seven shells when firing.’

We later saw a whole group of Italian soldiers going home to their wives and families. They walked off and left their billets. There was just one group of German infantry defending Syracuse and after three days they retreated.”

The RM NBDO was then deployed to repair guns across the island. On one occasion John found himself in the middle of a ferocious battle for the capture of the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River, a move that would give the Eighth Army vital access for an allied advance across the Catania plain, driving enemy forces back toward the Italian mainland.

John Field

John, top right of picture, with comrades

He recalls: “We had to go out to an 88 millimetre German gun stuck on the other side of the river. The Germans were up in the hills beyond the river and as we crossed from the British side the shells were exchanging over our heads. When we eventually reached the gun we marvelled at its engineering.”

After Sicily, John came down with jaundice and was sent to Scotland on sick leave.

Once recovered, he was involved in the testing of Landing Ship Docks in the Mediterranean, before being posted back to Suez. In 1945 he was sent out to India and the Far East as part of Operation Zipper.

He recalls, “The Japanese were still resisting. They didn’t know the bomb had been dropped. Communication lines were not good at this time.”

However, after the final surrender John was posted to Singapore where he spent his final months of the war as a dockyard policeman before finally arriving back home in England in early 1946. Five years after the war John travelled back to India to live and work as a missionary for over 20 years.

John is now looking forward to travelling back to Sicily with his family, where he will retrace his steps across the island. He said: “I wouldn’t have dreamt of going back if it wasn’t for Heroes Return. It will be marvellous after 70 years.”

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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