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


“The sea was black with ships”
April 5, 2013, 9:33 am
Filed under: Navy | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Veteran Ron Veitch, 88, from Billingham in Teesside is about to make his first visit under the Heroes Return programme and is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for funding for a first or second journey back to where they served.

Ron Veitch holds a picture of HMS Glasgow

Ron Veitch holds a picture of HMS Glasgow

Ron is visiting Malta, where his ship HMS Glasgow was repaired after being bombed by Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean. Ron was a Petty Officer on board the cruiser.

His most vivid memory of the war is the early morning bombardment and landings at Omaha beach on D-Day.

He said: “We hadn’t been told anything, but when we first set off and saw the amount of shipping, we realised this was it. This was the invasion.

“It was my job to check two boiler rooms to make sure the engines were running well. I had to alternate between the two rooms.

“At 6.30am our ship opened fire and bombarded German forces at Normandy. While going between the boiler rooms I popped up to sneak a look. What an incredible sight it was.

“The sea was black with ships. To the left and right of us were warships and landing craft full of US servicemen heading for the shore. They were bobbing up and down and being tossed around like corks. They must have been so seasick. We were firing broadsides and the noise of the bombardment was horrendous.

“We were six miles out so I couldn’t see the shore but we heard from the captain that the US troops were getting annihilated and casualties were mounting up.”

With the assistance of air spotters, HMS Glasgow continued to pound targets ashore and more than 500 six inch shells were fired from the cruiser that day.

Ron in his Naval uniform

Ron in his Naval uniform

Ron’s first close brush with death during the war came a few days later when HMS Glasgow and an Allied task force was sent to the coast off Cherbourg to provide support to US Army units engaged in the battle at the French city.

The naval force bombarded the German fortifications near and in the city and became engaged in repeated duels with coastal batteries. When German salvos from the outskirts of Cherbourg began falling among Allied minesweeper flotillas, HMS Glasgow with Spitfire spotters began returning fire on the German batteries before coming under fire herself.

Ron said: “US army units were facing resistance from the Germans at Cherbourg and we were sent there. I was in the engine room. We could hear our guns were firing and could tell from the orders coming into the engine room that we were engaging with the enemy.

“My hair was standing on end – I thought ‘we are in trouble here’. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. We had been hit twice. Most of the lights went out and the emergency lights came on. There was a strong acrid smell of cordite and dust everywhere.

“The explosions had wiped out our anti aircraft guns. We knew it would take a lot to sink a ship of our size so everyone stayed focused on the job at hand – our engines. The captain ordered us to increase speed so we could get out of danger.”

The cruiser briefly broke off the engagement to assess the damage, before returning to the battle, firing on German batteries. After the battle, Glasgow underwent a complete refit at Palmer’s Yard at Hebburn on the river Tyne.

Ron experienced other battles during the war, including Operation Stonewall – a blockade against the import by Germany of seaborne goods. In late December 1943, Glasgow and the cruiser Enterprise fought a three-hour battle with several German destroyers and torpedo boats protecting the cargo ship Alsterufer. Three enemy ships were destroyed but two of Glasgow’s ships company were lost.

He remembered: “After the battle the captain gave us a run-down of what happened. We learnt that several torpedoes had been fired at us – some even went right underneath us. I remember the gasp that went around the crew when we heard that.”

Now, Ron is looking forward to making a Heroes Return commemorative trip to Malta, where Glasgow was repaired for damage caused by Italian glider bombs. He plans to visit the dockyard and the Rotunda of Mosta church, where a German bomb pierced the dome and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. Miraculously, it did not explode.

He said: “I’ll be going with my son to show him the places I remember. It will bring back memories of how wonderful the people were and the kindness they showed to us. They were very grateful to the Allies for risking and losing their lives at sea for them.”

Ron with his cherished collection of medals

Ron with his cherished collection of medals

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



“It meant so much to pay my final respects”

When Northern Irish veteran John Murtagh, 91, joined up to help the war effort in 1943 he could never have imagined the adventure and experiences that lay ahead.

John was part of the Royal Army Service Corps that supported the allied offensive as it made its way across Europe during 1944 and 1945.

He landed on Normandy’s Sword Beach shortly after D-Day, advancing through Europe and into Germany, before eventually reaching Belsen concentration camp where he witnessed some of the war’s most harrowing images.

John Murtagh

John Murtagh landed on Sword Beach shortly after D-Day (photo credit – Brian Morrison)

He received a grant from the Heroes Return 2 programme to return to Normandy last year, and it proved an emotional experience.

“I could see it all,” said John. “I could see the faces of our friends. It was upsetting, but I am glad I went back,” says John, a quiet man who denies he is a hero.

“It was important for me to remember what happened there when we landed on the beach on D-Day, the brave men who fell and the sacrifices they made and the heroes they truly were. It was the first time I’ve ever been back and it really meant a lot to me.”

John’s war began in the Faroe Islands where he was a Messing Officer, buying in the food and helping load and unload boats and warehouses for forces fighting in Russia.

Then in May 1944 he was called back to London to join the allied offensive in Europe. He landed on Sword Beach on June 9, shortly after D-Day.

John explained:  “There was so much noise, but the infantry and tanks were between us and the Germans. I was a supporter at the back, but we still took a lot of enemy fire. We brought the supplies in and looked after the soldiers who had suffered injuries.”

After tending the wounded, John moved to Caen which had been devastated in an Allied bombing. “We were not welcomed with open arms. The people were very resentful of what had happened,” he recalls. “The town was completely flat and the stench was awful. The troops had to get the corpses out of the rubble. There were dark patches where the blood had flowed.”

“We moved on to Belgium after that and I helped organise Prisoners of War to send to the UK. They were mostly young fellows of 15 or 16, just like us really. We had been given such a bad name by the Germans as to what we would do to them, so they were very, very frightened.”

“I continued to provide support for the forces as we moved down through Europe and I was in Holland when I found out the war was over. It was a great time and we celebrated in style.”

But the celebrations ended abruptly when John arrived in north western Germany in 1945 to help with the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. “I could not describe the smell or the people when we arrived there,” he said. “It was one of the most harrowing things I have ever seen. They had been so badly treated, some were just skin and bone, I don’t know how they survived. The faces were tortured – that’s the best description I can give of it.

“We fed them and gave them clothes and tried to clean up. It was shocking to see how people could be degraded in such a way. There was one man I thought was dead, and it was only when his tongue moved in his mouth I realised he was still alive. He died soon after.”

For John, getting the chance to pay his final respects was hugely important. “This was the first time I have ever been back,” he said. “I wanted to do it now as I’m not getting any younger. I read about the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme in the local paper and I applied straight away. It meant so much to be able to pay my final respects. I’m so grateful.”

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”

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



“Being a Wren sounded glamorous”

Former Wren Wendy Hogarth, 89, from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, is about to take her first trip through the Heroes Return programme and is urging other veterans to apply for funding for a first or second visit.

Wendy Hogarth (photo credit - Dan James)

Wendy Hogarth (photo credit – Dan James)

Wendy joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and was trained as a radar mechanic, testing equipment for aircraft. She met her husband George, a Scottish RAF night fighter pilot, at RAF Defford and they married four months later in September 1944.

However they were soon separated when Wendy was posted to Arbroath, Scotland. While on leave, George visited her in Arbroath and the couple enjoyed New Year’s Eve together.

Those few days together meant so much to them that Wendy is making a Heroes Return visit to Arbroath, and the Victorian mansion Letham Grange where she was stationed.

She said: “Worcestershire is about as far as from the sea as it is possible to be, but I thought being a Wren sounded glamorous and I had visions of being a member of a boat crew. I was told I would be a radio mechanic as I had studied Maths and Physics.”

After learning some basics like soldering joints at Chelsea Polytechnic she was sent to HMS Ariel in Lancashire for three months of practical training.

She recalled: “I was then sent back to Worcestershire to RAF Defford and a top secret experimental radar establishment at nearby Malvern. I didn’t really know how important radar was going to be but we knew how serious it was when we had to sign secrecy documents.

“It was at Defford where my life changed for I met a handsome RAF pilot who was resting there and we got married. He flew as a night fighter in Mosquitoes. Later on his role shifted to intruder patrols – he used to fly out looking for targets to bomb such as trains and ammunition depots.

“Shortly after we married I was posted to Arbroath. Being apart was nothing unusual during the war. I never worried too much about him – I guess we were young and very positive and never thought anything would happen to us. We wrote to each other a lot – loved ones writing to each other every day was not unusual during the war.

“After we married I spent New Year in Scotland for the first time. George came up on leave and we stayed in a hotel on the main square. What a difference New Year’s Eve was – the town went mad – dancing in the streets and bands playing.”

George passed away in August 2011 just before his 90th birthday. Now Wendy is planning to return to Arbroath and Letham Grange, to revisit the places the couple spent during that New Year period.

She said: “Those days were very important to us – when we bought our first house we called it ‘Letham’ and our second ‘Letham House’. This is why I want to return to Arbroath. Those few days together that New Year were very special.”

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



“I want to thank them for what they did”
March 11, 2013, 11:46 am
Filed under: France, Heroes Return | Tags: , , , , , ,

World War Two veteran Ray Wilton, 88, speaks of his return to the beaches of Normandy where he took part in the first wave of landings on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

His journey back to the French coast was funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, which gives grants to veterans and their families for commemorative trips back to where they served.

This emotional film, one of two on the subject, featured on National Lottery Saturday draw shows during March 2013.

It was also part of a wider series on Lottery funding and the good causes which are benefiting. Lottery players should feel proud that they are helping veterans like Ray to make incredible journeys to revisit their past.

Read Ray’s story in full in another post on the Heroes Return blog.

For more information on Heroes Return funding, visit the programme page.



Second trips for WW2 heroes
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



Return to the shores of Anzio

As the Royal Navy Landing Ship Tank made a desperate race for the Anzio beachhead, 18-year old Ordinary seaman Matthew Toner once again braced himself under the horrific barrage of ‘Anzio Annie’ – a pair of death dealing German long range guns. It was just one of many hazardous trips he would make to supply vital reinforcements in support of the allied invasion of Southern Italy.

World War Two veteran

World War Two veteran Matthew Toner, 87 (Credit: Dominic Holden)

Now aged 87, Matthew from the Wirral on Merseyside will be returning for the first time to the shores of Anzio, 69 years on.

Matthew will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers.

Birkenhead lad Matthew joined up with the Royal Navy in 1941 aged just 16. Not long after, he was making his first voyage across the treacherous Atlantic to America to pick up a newly built Landing Ship Tank (LST) 410 designed for carrying troops and heavy vehicles from sea to shore.

Matthew recalls: “The LSTs were known as ‘the ships with no names’ because Churchill thought that they would have an 80% casualty rate. My job was to maintain the general upkeep of the ship, mostly, cleaning, loading cargo and repairing equipment.”

After spending three months in America, LST 410 set sail for the Mediterranean loaded up with ammunition for the allied troops in French North Africa before taking part in Operation Husky the allied invasion of Sicily.

He remembers: “The Sicily landing was marvellous. We did the job. But the LSTs had a very shallow draught for sailing in shallow water. They were top heavy and they rocked and bounced about. I was very lucky, I was never sea sick. But the troops were being sick all the time. My job was to look after them and make sure they got off the ship ok.”

With the success of Husky and the Italian campaign launched and underway, Matthew was deployed as part of Operation Avalanche, the main invasion of Italy at Salerno in September of 1943. He remembers: “At Salerno we were landing the original 7th Armoured Division Desert Rats. We felt sorry for them as they had been in the desert for four years and were promised leave to go home. But they had to do it because Churchill had wanted it.

World War Two veteran with medals and photo

Matthew with his WW2 medals and a picture of himself in Naval uniform (Credit: Dominic Holden)

“We were praying for them. We shared our rum and cigs and we looked after them on the ship. We heard the Italians had surrendered so we all rejoiced with a double tot of rum. Nelson’s Blood we called it and it was very strong.

“But the Germans had quickly replaced the Italians and when we landed and opened our bow doors the Germans were waiting for us. They were coming toward the beach and there was a lot of hand to hand fighting.

“It was terrible. The coast was being bombarded and it was there that I first saw remote control bombs. One hit HMS Warspite and put her out of action.”

Despite the heavy German counter attack the combined British and American forces finally secured bridgeheads at Salerno and Taranto and from there pushed up toward Naples where an allied offensive was launched to break the German Gustav line at Monte Cassino. However, hampered by the difficult mountain terrain the allies struggled to capture the German stronghold and Operation Shingle was launched in an attempt to support the offensive by landing troops along the Italian coast below Rome to establish a beachhead at Anzio far behind the enemy lines.

Matthew recalls: “There was horrific shelling at Anzio. Wherever we were sent we knew there was trouble but you always tried to be a little bit macho as if you weren’t scared. But sometimes I was scared. We must have made about 30 trips running back and forth between Anzio and Naples and the Germans were shelling us with Anzio Annie, huge guns lobbing shells right into the harbour. We landed the American Rangers and some of the Black Cat Division and the Welsh Guards. We took a lot of wounded back to the hospital ship in the bay and others back to Naples.

“We also took German Afrika Korps PoWs to prison camps. They were quite amiable. We had them doing little jobs around the ship, scraping off paint. We gave them cigs. One of them made me a little lamp in the shape of a Stuka dive bomber. But later it got smashed when we went through rough seas in the Bay of Biscay.”

D-Day followed and after picking up troops and heavy transport vehicles in Southampton, Matthew set sail as part of Operation Overlord in a flotilla of over 5,000 ships heading for the beaches of Normandy.

Picture of World War Two naval veteran

Matthew pictured during his wartime service (Credit: Dominic Holden)

He said: “We were anchored off the Isle of Wight. When we picked up the troops they were bored stiff. They didn’t know what was going on. At about 7am we saw the Paratroops in planes going over to France. We were part of a huge armada with over 150,000 men.

“As we got close to Juno beach there were lots of shells exploding round us and there were many dead bodies in the water. It was pandemonium getting the men off. The sea had been rough and many of them were violently sick. They were sick and they had to go and fight.”

As the Normandy offensive got underway Matthew’s ship continued to operate as part of a vital supply line before finally returning to Liverpool for repairs before being re deployed to Kochi on the West coast of India.

He said: “We knew we were taking part in practice exercises for landing in India but then we were told to hold troops in Malaya. We then went down the Malacca straits to Penang but the Japanese had gone two weeks before. We went on to Calcutta and then we heard the bomb had been dropped.

“We all got sandfly fever, a form of malaria with headaches and shaking. We looked like  horrible skinny runts. We had to take Mepacrine tablets every day which made your skin turn yellow.”

Matthew and crew were sent to a camp in Darjeeling where they rested up before sailing to Bangkok to pick up supplies of rice which they took on to Singapore following the Japanese surrender. Matthew came back to England in 1946, though stayed in the Navy where he served in mine clearing operations round the British Coast, and later as part of the Atom bomb testing in the Pacific Atolls. He finally came out of the service in 1951 with the rank of Seaman Petty Officer.

Looking back he said: “I just liked being in the Navy. I had some smashing mates. But many got killed. That’s the way it went. My mother made me wear a St Christopher medal to keep me safe. ”

Matthew will be making his first trip back to Anzio since the landings 69 years ago. He said: “I think Heroes Return is absolutely wonderful.”

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



A hero’s return to Penang

Bob Simmons, 86, recently travelled to Malaysia to pay his respects to comrades lost during the liberation of Penang in the Second World War. His journey was funded by the Heroes Return programme.

Bob pictured with his wife Sheryl during their commemorative trip

Bob pictured with his wife Sheryl during their commemorative trip

In Burma he served in Chittagong, Ramree Island and Rangoon. As part of the liberation of Penang he set up a radar beacon at Bayan Lepas airport, helping the planes which were evacuating POWs back to the UK.

He spent Christmas in Singapore and 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, who had been freed from the notorious Changi jail in Singapore. For more about his war experiences, read Bob’s earlier blog entry.

The Remembrance Day commemoration ceremony in Malaysia on Sunday 18 November was organised by the Penang Veterans Association in Georgetown, the capital of Penang.

Bob sat next to the First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy and was also in the company of the Chief Minister of Penang, the British High Commissioner and the Chief Defence Adviser.

Bob got a special mention in the President’s address and also a whole page of his story in the souvenir programme. After the reading of The Ode, The Last Post performed by the 2nd Royal Malay Regiment, the one minute silence and Reveille, Bob laid a wreath on the steps of the Penang Cenotaph in memory of all WW2 veterans.

Bob was also very thrilled to have a chat with Royal Australian Air Force Air Vice Marshal Warren Ludwig who is based at Butterworth, one of Bob’s old postings.

Accompanying Bob on his commemorative trip was his wife Sheryl. She said: “Bob made the local press with articles in The Star newspaper and The New Straits Times, where he is shown laying his wreath, so he became quite famous locally! It was a really exciting time for us both and we are very grateful to the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme for making it all possible.”

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



A return to the Normandy shores

All around the sea was turning red with blood as Ray Wilton’s Motor Torpedo Boat guided the first wave of Normandy landing crafts through the deadly German sea mines. Many struggled desperately in the high tide as their crafts foundered under heavy shell fire or were wrecked by enemy defences lurking under the water. Those that did not die of their wounds sank like stones under the weight of heavy kitbags. Twenty-year-old Ray looked on helplessly as his boat ploughed on towards Gold Beach.

Ray Wilton

Ray Wilton

Now aged 88, Ray from the Wirral on Merseyside will be making a poignant trip 68 years on back to the Normandy beach at Arromanches.

Ray will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country.

A Prescot lad, 18 year old Ray was originally in a reserved occupation as a technical engineer but in 1942 decided to register as a reserve in the Royal Navy.

He recalls: “I was raring to go. Two of my mates had already joined, so in 1943 when I hadn’t received my call up I just went down and volunteered. I was eager to get on and do my bit.”

Ray was sent to Skegness to do his basic training. After eight weeks he trained as a telegraphist, learning Morse code and passing out with 22 words a minute. Promoted to the rank of Ordinary Telegraphist, Ray was transferred to Southampton-based stone frigate HMS Squid as part of Combined Operations.

He said: “We were the central communication base for everyone involved in the invasion. I was manning a radio set when one day the phone rang and I was told that I was to be a replacement out at sea for a telegraphist with appendicitis serving on Motor Torpedo Boat patrols in the Channel. Our job was to look for German convoys and submarines hugging the French coast.

“We were more like a pirate ship really. It was a little boat and we all lived together, very informal. We used to wear boiler suits and plimsolls and put on oilskins if it got too wet.

He continued: “We were all ready for D-day which was originally planned for the 5th of June, but the weather turned awful so we were sent out to make sure that everyone knew that the operation would be delayed. We caught an American ship quite near the French coast and called out to them ‘Get back. We’ve been delayed!’ then after that we saw another boat full of tanks and we sent them back too.

Ray, pictured bottom right, as young Royal Navy Telegraphist

Ray, pictured bottom right, as young Royal Navy Telegraphist

“We also found the body of an American airman floating in a life jacket. He was very badly decomposed so we took his dog tag and then slipped off his jacket to let him sink. I later took the tag to the American depot so at least someone would know what had happened and could tell his family.”

Sailing overnight on the 5th June, Ray and crew were deployed to assist the landings scheduled for 7.30 am on Gold Beach.

He recalls: “The troops were put onto landing crafts about six miles out. Our job was to escort the landing crafts through the German mines. It was an exceptionally high tide and it covered all the beach obstacles, iron fences with explosives.

We were under heavy shell and mortar fire. Quite a number of the crafts came to grief and there were lots of men struggling in the sea. You couldn’t help them. We were constantly being pushed from behind and we just had to go on.  I can still see those lads in the water. It was very sad, very sad.

“But we got the first wave through and then we pulled back and marshalled the crafts behind. You could hardly see the sea for ships. There were 138 warships spread along all the beaches. The Germans were positioned behind French holiday homes along the front. They put up a very strong resistance with mortars and machine guns. We were unscathed, not a bullet. But the poor bloody infantry couldn’t pull back.”

With 25,000 troops landed on Gold Beach and the invasion well underway, Ray continued patrol duties on the Normandy coast, before being sent back to Plymouth Naval Hospital after a foot injury caused his leg to turn septic. He recalls, “At this time the Germans were targeting Plymouth with doodlebugs so I was sent up north to Rainhill Hospital near home and managed to get seven days leave.”

Once recovered, Ray sailed in the Jamaica up to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle on a mission to rescue Norwegian meteorologists stranded at a Royal Navy weather station bombed by the German Battleship, Tirpitz.  He then transferred to frigate HMS Dart at Londonderry carrying out offshore sweeps looking for German U boats and then as convoy escort out to Gibraltar.

He recalls: “We attacked a number of ‘U’ boats and sunk two. We had hedgehog anti sub bombs we fired in front of us and which formed a huge circle of bombs exploding all around the sub. We knew we had destroyed them when we saw oil and wreckage come up to the surface.”

“When VE-day came we were sent to marshal the surrendering ‘U’ Boats directing them to various places. It was quite a strange feeling. We had spent so much time trying to blow each other out of the water.”

With the European conflict at an end, Dart was deployed as part of the far eastern fleet and  sailed out to join allied forces massing at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka as part of Operation Zipper, the main invasion of Malaya.

Ray Wilton with his daughter Deborah

Ray Wilton with his daughter Deborah

Ray recalls, “Now we had a chance to deploy a huge number of ships, aircraft and troops. We got halfway across the Indian Ocean when we got the message that the Atomic Bomb had been dropped. We all said ‘what’s an atomic bomb?’ nobody had ever heard of it.

“We slowed up and waited for a while. We were given further orders to proceed then the Nagasaki bomb was dropped and we were told to proceed to Singapore to take the Japanese surrender.”

Ray stayed on in Singapore helping with the release of PoWs and the many foreign nationals incarcerated by the Japanese before transferring to duties at the Ceylon West Receiving Station, a huge underground global communications centre built under a coconut grove.

He confesses: “I didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful place now the war was over.” However, Ray was duly demobbed and arrived back in England just in time for Christmas 1945.

“My dad had died in 1943 but it was wonderful to see my mother and my two sisters. We had a lovely reunion.  Sadly I lost my best pal in the air force. He was in Bomber Command and was killed over Berlin. But there were still a few good mates around.”

Ray plans to travel out to Normandy with his daughter Deborah in the New Year. He said; “Over the years I thought I’d like to go back to pay my respects. I was lucky, a lot of young lads didn’t come back.”

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



Scouring for the deadly catch
November 29, 2012, 3:23 pm
Filed under: Navy, Sri Lanka | Tags: , , , , ,

He was a crew member onboard a former fishing boat which was commandeered by the Royal Navy to sweep the seas around Britain for a new deadly catch of mines during WWII. He also guided ships safely to harbour in waters threatened by constant attack from German submarines and served in theatres of war around the world stretching from the North Sea to Sri Lanka.

George Davies

87 year old George Davies will be returning to Sri Lanka in January 2012

Now, thanks to an award from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, 87-year-old George Davies from Monmouth will return to Sri Lanka in January 2012 to recall the role he played during the Second World War and retrace his steps for the last time.

George Davies was working in a bank in Carmarthen when he was called up for war duty in September 1943. He enlisted in the RAF and was initially trained as a wireless operator.

However, due to a shortage of telegraphists to man all the landing craft for the second front, George was transferred to the Navy as a telegraphist. Using Morse code to communicate, telegraphists were indispensable at sea and were used for relaying secret coded messages. 

In 1944, he joined HMT Cranefly at Grimsby, a First World War fishing trawler converted for mine sweeping duties. Many of the crew, including the captain, were ex-fishermen. Mine sweepers were designed to counter the threat posed by the deadly naval mines and are often seen as the unsung heroes of WWII for their role in keeping the waters around Britain safe from the deadly explosives and submarine attacks.

“The ships worked in groups of four,” explains George. “My group consisted of the ships Cranefly, Gadfly, Firefly and the Equerry. The Equerry had her stern blown off and had been towed ashore. She was repaired with a new and larger stern and was much faster than the rest of our group.” 

“We swept for mines in a single line, one ship astern of the other, enabling quite a large area to be swept. Our sweeping area was from Flamborough Head of the coast of Yorkshire to Sheringham off the coast of Norfolk.

“We swept by day and patrolled by night, watching out for any e-boats or enemy aircraft dropping mines. The shipping lanes had to be swept clean before the convoys came through. Sometimes we would be out in the shipping lane picking up convoys and escorting them safely past the Boom Defense vessels at the mouth of the Humber and then sending them up river.”

And life certainly wasn’t always plain sailing on the ship: “It was a rough, uncomfortable life and the ship never stood still,” says George. “The trawlers were wonderful sea going vessels and can weather any gale, and boy did we get some! ‘The sea is full of holes today’, was the saying.”

18 year old George Davies

18 year old George Davies proudly displaying his uniform

The comradeship onboard is something George will never forget: “The fishermen were a hardy lot and didn’t take very kindly to naval discipline,” he recalls.

“They were very superstitious too. You didn’t shave at sea and you would never have an open safety pin on the mess deck. The daily tot of rum was served neat whereas on the big ships it was two parts water to one part rum.

“There was a wonderful comradeship onboard. We were a really close family and we had some wonderful characters on the ship. The ship was coal burning and we would be at sea for four or five days before returning to dock for two or three days for re-coaling.”

Following VE Day in May 1945, George was discharged from HMT Cranefly and sent on a Foreign Draft to HMS Mayina, a transit camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where all personnel in the East Indies Fleet passed through. George and the crew would now be focused on the War in the Pacific and combating the threat from the Japanese Imperial Navy.

“We sailed out from Greenock in Scotland on HMS Glengyle, a former cargo ship,” says George. “The accommodation was terrible as we had to sleep on the mess deck in hammocks with only a blanket. The ship had no air-conditioning which meant that when we reached warmer climes, we slept on the open deck to keep cool.

“I had terrible sunburn and blisters everywhere as there was no such thing as sun cream in those days. It was a relief when we reached Bombay which was as far as the ship was taking us.”  

As they were waiting to disembark from the ship off the coast of India, George heard on the radio that an atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

He was in a small village just outside Bombay by the time the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Japan surrendered. It was only later that George discovered that they were to form part of the plans for an invasion of Singapore to take it back from the Japanese. However, the atomic bombings of Japan had brought an end to the War.

George Davies and his wife, Barbara

George will be returning to Sri Lanka with his wife, Barbara

George remained in Sri Lanka until he was sent to Bombay to catch a liner called the Llanstephan Castle back to Britain.

However, naval mines remained a threat even after the war ended and before he was demobbed, George was drafted for duty onboard another mine sweeper with responsibility for clearing the inshore minefields between Boulogne and Dieppe off the coast of France.  

According to George, this will be his last chance to retrace his steps: “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the Big Lottery Fund,” he says. “This will probably be my last chance to do this trip.”

To date more than £25 million has been awarded to more than 51,000 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.

George is one of numerous veterans from Wales who have made a poignant return to the places where they served during the war.The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over £1 million to more than 830 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers from Wales for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.

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