Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, North Africa, Royal Navy
At 8pm at 17 December 1943, 19-year-old Quartermaster Robert Lang finished his shift at the wheel of merchant ship SS Kingswood. He headed down below for a meal, sat down in the mess room with his mates and picked up his cutlery.
“As I put my knife and fork to the plate, the torpedo struck the ship,” he said.
Robert is one of a number of Second World War veterans who will be returning to the place where they served as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. The 88-year-old from Preston will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco on the west coast of Africa this year – near where his merchant ship was torpedoed 68 years ago. To date more than £25 million has been awarded to over 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.
Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “A huge debt of gratitude and recognition is owed by today’s society to the men and women who fought across the world during the Second World War. They built the peace and protected the freedoms we enjoy today.”
Robert recalled how he fought for his life escaping a sinking ship, clinging to a piece of wood in shark-infested waters, his rescue by local African fishermen, and treatment by a witch doctor on the Ivory Coast before friendly African forces helped his shipmates to a hospital. Decades later he managed to contact and even become friends with two members of the same U-boat crew that sunk his ship.
Weeks before the U-boat struck, Robert’s ship had previously called at Gibraltar. The ship loaded with cargo in Lagos in Nigeria and on 17th December set sail for UK. It was passing the Ivory Coast when the torpedo slammed into its side.
“All the lights went out – and the steel door to get out was jammed,” said Robert. “The ship was turning and the portholes were below the water line. It was like a sealed coffin. Someone shouted ‘we’re going’ and I thought we were headed to the bottom of the ocean. Then there was another explosion from the ammunition locker. That saved us – it blew the steel door open by 18 inches – just enough for us to squeeze out.
“When we got on deck the ship was leaning about 45 to 50 degrees. The engines should have been turned off when the captain called abandon ship but hadn’t been. We were trying to get a lifeboat down but the ship was dragging it along. Because the ship didn’t stop a second torpedo was fired which hit.
“I was blown clean out of the lifeboat and into the sea. I went straight down and thought that was it. When you hear of people saying you see your life and family before you it’s all true – and it wasn’t a fearful feeling. Eventually I popped up near the rotating blades. The ship kept going for a bit further and then turned over and sank.
“I was clinging to a piece of wood four feet long in the dark. I was terrified about the sharks – we’d seen them earlier in the day and I was living in fear of being eaten. One lifeboat got away and eventually it discovered me. It was made for 14 men but there were about 50 inside and I was the last to be pulled out of the sea.”
But the ordeal on the seas was not over. Suddenly, they heard and engine and a searchlight suddenly swept onto them – the deadly German U-boat had surfaced.
“I thought we were going to be blown out of the water,” said Robert. “The Germans demanded that our captain came aboard but we said he wasn’t in the lifeboat and must still be in the water. They wanted someone to go over and speak to their captain but none of us wanted to. Then a chap offered and they questioned him about our route and cargo. He was let go and came back to us. The search light came on us again and we feared the worst but the U-boat disappeared into the darkness.”
Robert, with broken fingers, injured arm and a gash in his groin, drifted in the lifeboat for two days while sharks circled the boat. After two days adrift they spotted local fishermen from Grand Popo in long canoes who helped them find the shore.
He recalled, “We slept on the beach. They looked after us in their village of clay huts with straw roofs and fed us yams. At one point the chief of the tribe called for me and another mate to follow him. We came to a witch doctor covered in feathers. He chanted all sorts of incantations and abracadabra stuff, throwing his hands to the heavens. He also threw little stones at my broken fingers. Eventually the chief tapped me on the shoulder and my treatment was over!”
Robert and his shipmates then walked for days through the bush, coming across another tribe who killed a wild boar and fed them. Days later they met soldiers from the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was taken to a hospital in Takoradi in Ghana suffering from malaria where he spent Christmas day and eventually made it home, five months after the torpedoing.
Decades after the war, sometime in the early 1980s, Robert discovered the name of the U-boat – U515 – and wrote to the German Embassy for see if there was an association. They replied with contact details of two members of the crew from the submarine. He became pen pals with Carl Moller and Herman Kaspers. One day a couple of years later Robert’s phone rang.
He said: “My wife said someone wanted to speak to me and it was Carl. He asked if he could visit – I said yes anytime – he then said ‘I’ll see you in four hours!’ He was on holiday in Scotland! It was a strange feeling seeing the Mercedes pulling up my drive. Carl got out the car and then Herman stepped out too! Carl walked up to me, put his arm around me and the first thing he said was ’We are sorry for sinking the ship under your feet’.”
Robert, Carl and Herman stayed in touch for many years and Robert paid four visits to Germany, one time talking a tour of a U-boat on the Elbe with Carl and another occasion visiting Herman and his brother Helmut who also served on the U-515.
“I’m not at all resentful”, said Robert. “They were just doing their job like we were. When you get older you start to reflect differently on life.”
Robert served on nine merchant ships during the war. He has received a £800 grant from the Big Lottery Fund and will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco in June next year.
Filed under: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Desert Rats, Heroes Return 2, Italy
Len Burritt, 92, will journey to Egypt later this year to visit some of the places that he served in with the 7th Armoured Division – known historically as the ‘Desert Rats’.
This legendary division fought in every major battle during the North African Campaign and helped swing the war, at a pivotal point, in the Allies favour.
After joining the army at the age of 18 in 1936, he formed part of a Wireless troop controlling communications for a new formation to be known as The Mobile Desert Division (Egypt) – later renamed the 7th Armoured Division.
He recalls: “I joined the army at a young age but I wasn’t particularly nervous about the prospect of doing so. I’d worked all my life on farms and wanted a change of scenery, so at that age, when you felt as though you’re ready to take on the world, worry didn’t really come into it.
“I served as a wireless operator with the 7th Armoured Division, using Morse Code to pass on key communications from north Africa to places as far afield as Hong Kong, Palestine and India. Eight different generals were in command during the campaign and I was the personal wireless operator for the first five of them. As a result, I became one of the most informed chaps out there and would often be briefing our commanders on troop positions in the middle of the desert.”
Len worked from Armoured Command Vehicles (ACVs) – the nerve centres for the Division, positioned just behind the forward troops. As he mentions, in many of the battles that he saw action, there was no ‘front line’ as such and elaborate camouflage was often needed to divert enemy attention away from their vital radio equipment.
On many occasions he accompanied his commanding officers deep into raging battles, travelling in the relative ‘safety’ of their personal armoured cars. They would do battle with the elements as well as the enemy, and after one ferocious sandstorm Len found he had sand trapped behind his eyes which meant a lengthy operation and two weeks in cumbersome bandages.
“Operating long shifts as a wireless operator was both mentally and physically taxing,” he continues. “You had to have your mind completely focused on the task at hand while being aware of your surroundings and position. During the Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941, I was in our ACV for four days and nights with almost no rest at all. One shift was often quickly followed by another so you just had to get used to it. The ‘crack, crack, crack’ of bullets bouncing off the armour plating became commonplace.”
As well as being an expert in communications, relaying accurate Morse Code messages in cramped, sweltering conditions, Len was also trained in the use of the Bren guns and anti-tank weapons mounted on his armoured vehicles – his teacher being Major Gott, who later became a renowned lieutenant general. In close combat with both German and Italian forces, Len recalls a particularly bizarre attack by a low-flying plane.
“I remember quite clearly an attack on our convoy by the Italian Air Force. As the pilot swooped down low there was no burst of gunfire as there had been many times before – we were used to the threat of flak. On this occasion he simply opened the cockpit window and threw a mechanic’s wrench at us instead. The pilot’s action was his undoing, as Corporal Burgon of the BEM shot him down using an anti-tank rifle, firing from the hip. I’m not sure how he managed it, but he was as strong as a horse. The memory of it sticks with me to this very day.”
Surviving the desert’s inhospitable conditions, Len landed on the Salerno beaches during the invasion of Italy and the Normandy beaches during the D-Day Landings (6 June 1944). During the war he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major and was involved in over 100 front line battles in 15 different countries before being demobbed in May 1946.
During his journey back to Egypt, Len will visit memorials and cemeteries marking the sacrifice made by those who fought and did not return from battle. He will also visit some of the places in which he was stationed.
“I’m looking forward to going back and seeing some of the places in which I served,” Len concludes. “They have changed immeasurably since I was there with the Desert Rats but the memories of that time still remain strong.”
Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Heroes Return 2, Remembrance, veterans
Robert Day who featured in our Heroes Return 2 film, where he returned to Egypt, sadly passed away 16th April 2010. Our thoughts are with his family.
Filed under: Africa | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, egypt. world war 2, film, filming, Heroes Return, HR2, Robert Day, veterans, WW2, WWII
Our trip to Egypt was a once in a lifetime experience. It was fascinating for my father to re-visit and for myself to experience just a very small part of what he, as a young man, must have endured, and maybe bringing just a small understanding of the effects this terrible war had on the lives of so many of his generation.
Filed under: Africa | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, egypt. world war 2, German, Graves, Heroes Return, HR2, Italian, veterans, WW2, WWII
We also visited the Italian and German war graves. Originally these graves had been together but the German cemetery has been moved and stands just off the shoreline. Both of these are also beautifully maintained monuments to all those young people who lost their lives in this terrible conflict
Filed under: Africa | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, egypt. world war 2, El Alamein, Heroes Return, HR2, museum, veterans, WW2, WWII
At El Alamein Museum we saw a 3 ton truck that was exactly what my father and his fellow soldiers had made their home whilst in the desert. They would dig into the sand and drive their lorry in, covering themselves with a tarpaulin at night so as to be warm and not visible to the enemy. It was said with meaning that really the real enemy at this time was the desert.
The soldiers would not always know where the enemy actually was. Although appearing flat, the desert is not at all, and has many ridges that can hide tanks and soldiers. Also, when Germans captured British vehicles they would sometimes use these in battles so it was not always possible to recognise the real enemy.
Filed under: Africa | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, egypt. world war 2, El Alamein, Food, Heroes Return, HR2, rations, veterans, WW2, WWII
Lunch this day consisted of tahini and cold chips, cheese rolls, cucumber and a tomato with an unusual fruit drink as accompaniment. This was taken in the middle of the desert, perched on an extremely uncomfortable rock in 40 degrees heat. But this couldn’t even begin to compare in discomfort to what my father and his generation must have borne. We didn’t complain. We were beginning at this stage to desire some different kind of fayre for our meals but bore this also with fortitude when my father explained that his daily diet was corned beef and hard taq biscuits that the soliders had to crush with water in order to make them edible. He also said that he only got one pint of water a day, and he recalls that sometimes he had to give some of this to the cook.