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

A Desert Rat Returns by The National Lottery Community Fund
June 16, 2011, 12:47 pm
Filed under: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

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.”

Battling the Hitler Youth by Big Lottery Fund
March 17, 2011, 5:32 pm
Filed under: ceremony, D-Day, France | Tags: ,

Coventry veteran Harry Sale, 87, survived some of the most dangerous missions in the Second World War – serving with 46 Commando Royal Marines in the D-Day Landings in June 1944 and the subsequent battles that brought about the liberation of France from German forces.

He recalls: “I was only 18 years old when I joined the Royal Marines in January 1942. I’d wanted to be a pilot really but the RAF was fully-recruited and I was told to go next door and sign up for the Commandos. The training was incredibly tough but it prepared us well for D-Day.                                                                                                     

“We didn’t know what our mission was exactly until we boarded our ship two years later and left port in a huge convoy of cruisers, landing craft and destroyers. My unit landed at Juno Beach on D-Day + 1 and under heavy fire, we managed to capture a German strongpoint of pillboxes and coastal guns. We took 65 prisoners, linked up the other landing points and helped with the push into France.”

In the days that followed, 46 Commando Royal Marines were involved in a number of perilous missions to liberate inland villages, most notably Rots, where 22 of Harry’s comrades were killed and 30 were seriously wounded.                                                 

“Fighting with the Canadians, we defeated the SS Panzer Grenadiers and Hitler Youth movement in house-to-house battles for control of Rots,” he continues. “We lost a lot of men that day against some of the most fanatical fighters I ever saw. They were no-doubt brain-washed and prepared to die for their leader.

“I was also involved in a night assault on the strategic ‘Hill 112’, just outside Caen. This was a heavily-defended German outpost that was key to the capture of the towns that surrounded it. After surviving other battles and skirmishes thereafter I ended up at the port of Dunkirk and the next episode of my service began.” 

Harry was also involved in the allied advance through Holland and Germany towards Berlin. His battalion was the first British troop unit to cross the Rhine in 1945 and his last mission was a successful crossing of the River Elbe as victory began to loom large. A blast from a German grenade injured his thigh and brought about an early return from the front line.

He is returning to Normandy in June with his son and daughter thanks to an award from the Heroes Return 2 programme. Whilst there, he plans to visit cemeteries and memorials in Rots and other nearby villages, paying respect to those who fought bravely beside him but did not return.

“There are only about ten veterans remaining from those that I fought alongside all those years ago,” he concludes. “I’ll be travelling back with some of them and would like to thank the Big Lottery Fund for my grant. It’s something that I’m very glad to be able to do and I’d urge others in my position to do the same.”

Stanley McColl and his family revist France where he saw action during WW2 by The National Lottery Community Fund
November 9, 2010, 4:52 pm
Filed under: D-Day | Tags: , , , , ,

Stanley McColl was a young soldier in 615 Guards, Armoured Division, when his tank landed on Sword Beach on D Day +2 with the objective – to liberate Caen.

With help from the Big Lottery Fund, my sister and I took our dad who is now 85 years old, back to France in October 2010, with a view to revisiting Sword Beach. We flew to Paris and after a couple of days sightseeing, we then took the train to Caen. My dad said “the last time I was here – the place was flattened.”

The next day we had to get a taxi to Bayeux because the trains were off due to the General Strike. Once in Bayeux we spent the morning at the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. After lunch we met our guide for our afternoon tour of Sword Beach. We were taken first to Pegasus Bridge where we saw one of the gliders, then we went to the German bunker which had a simulation of the noise experienced during the invasion attack on the beach. When we arrived at Sword Beach, the guide took us to the part of the beach where my dad had landed and he asked my dad to tell his story – which everyone on the tour found very moving. After the beach we went to visit the British cemetery and we signed the visitors book.

The following day should have been a nice trip back to Paris by train, but once again we were caught up in strike action. We were very lucky to get the last three seats on a shuttle bus back to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

We had a wonderful visit and we would like to thank the Big Lottery Fund, the staff at Normandy Sightseeing Tours and especially our guide Mathias.

Memories by Lawrence Emerick by The National Lottery Community Fund
August 3, 2010, 10:36 am
Filed under: D-Day, Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

Lawrence Emerick served in Europe in the Second World War and here he recounts his trip back to France where the D Day landings took place.

‘So after 66 years I saw an advertisement for the 4 day weekend to visit Normandy and the D Day beaches.  I had been thinking about this trip but did not get round to it.  Now I thought it was about time I went back to see how much things had changed.

Obviously they had, there is very little sign of the destruction that occurred  everything seems to have been repaired and in the sunshine it would hard to imagine the utter desolation we had seen.

Our journey took us via Dover and Calais to Caen.  The roads are so much different to 1945, wide and easy to drive along.  Then they were crowded and rather difficult to negotiate.  From our base in Caen out journey took us to the landing beaches and I was particularly interested in  Arromanges Looking over the beach you cannot see anything of the Mulbery Harbour where in June 1945 I had driven onto not knowing what lay before us (at 19 I think it was more apprehension than fear).  Parts of the outer breakwater are still visible but you have to see the models in the museum to realise what a feat of engineering it took to put in place.  From the top of the hill I could see the exit we made from the beach driven on by shouts of the Beachmasters “to get off the beach as quickly as possible”. You can see a section of the Mulbery Harbour behind the museum which houses models which show how much it was used by so much traffic.  We visited the new Pegasus Bridge over the Orme river, where so many paratroopers were lost.  The original bridge is still preserved in a nearby field.  We visited the 5 landing beaches Omaha, Juno. Sword, Gold and Utah where so much carnage took place, now it looks so peaceful in the sunshine with miles of golden sand and sand yachts skipping along.

On to Pointe du Hoc where the only remaining pill box of the Atlantic wall remains.  The bomb craters have been left as they were made a grim reminder of what bombing can do.  Ste Mere Eglise now appears a peaceful village.

The visits to the American war graves cemetery and the British and Commonwealth cemetery brings home the utter futility of war and the suffering it brings.

One headstone read “Driver RASC 19.  Another “Unknown seaman 20” (I was 19).  Standing looking at the rows of headstones made me feel sad and grateful and tearful to the many servicemen and women who lost their lives.

Another visit was the American Air Museum where the town church still sports a parachute hanging from the steeple where the paratrooper got hung up on – he played dead so was not shot at and was rescued.

I am glad I went on this trip at last to see how the museums have preserved the weapons of war and tributes to all who took part from D Day onwards.’

Normandy 65 Years On by The National Lottery Community Fund
March 4, 2010, 12:18 pm
Filed under: D-Day, Normandy | Tags:

A party of 31 including seven veteran Skins, accompanied by the Colonel of the RDG, the previous and present Regimental Secretaries, the ‘Courier’ Captain Alan Henshall and some widows and family members set off from Ouistreham on Monday 24 August 2009. It was ‘beau temps’ all the way to Bourneville and back for the 65th anniversary of the Liberation.

The visit began with Arromanches and the extremely powerful video where the thunderous sound track made even hardened veterans jump, you could hear the tiles cascading off a roof, and it closed with a reminder of the terrible losses the Americans endured on Omaha Beach. The museum paid tribute to all who took part in the D Day landing, who included our brother regiment the 4th/7th DG. We drove past the turning to Port en Bessin on Juno Beach where the Skins had landed in July ’44. South of Bayeux we passed Jerusalem Cross roads where Patrick Leavey was killed talking to his 4th/7th friends.

The topography of France has changed in 65 years, with motor ways galore. Even with Jim Boardman’s running commentary, as a Normandy troop leader I hardly recognised any of the ground. We began with ceremonies at Caumont and Cahagnes where speeches were needed. Then to Courvaudon and a meeting again with Oliver McTiernan from Lisbellaw. We laid a wreath on the grave of Lieut Cornwall, an Irish Guards subaltern whose father had asked for him to be buried there. Driving south of Villers-Bocage where the Sharpshooters, our predecessors in 7th Armored Div had a damaging time, we passed Aunay sur Odon, last seen totally flattened, now rebuilt. I remembered well the scorching hot August day when we took on Mt.Pincon with the 13th/18th and won a battle honour.

We spent a very comfortable night at the Chateau de Baffy Colombiers and dined well.

A wreath was laid on the 4th/7th memorial at Creully.

Tuesday saw us at Pegasus Bridge captured in the night by a glider ‘coup de main’ led by Major Howard. Knox Chapman of the Skins, serving with the glider regiment was a member of the team. The old bridge dwarfed by the new, is in the excellent Museum grounds, and we saw the bust of Major Howard and the new bridge rose for a passing vessel.

On our route to Lisieux we were able to visit the St.Desir Cemetery where Grieves, Elson and Turner are buried. A wreath was laid, and then we drove on to Lisieux. The Basilica is world famous, and St.Therese has been in the news lately. Recce veterans will remember the many steps to the viewing platform, where Jim Boardman took a close view of the enemy. We were royally received by the Mayor Monsieur Bernard Aubril and treated to a vin d’honneur. ‘Your struggle was not in vain, thank you for giving us the happiness of living in peace’. (if the photograph is printed it can name the veterans). We spent the night at the Novotel in Rouen.

It is a matter of fact that the narrow hidden bridge over the river Risle, found by Sgt Archie Carr of A Squadron was used by the entire 7th Armoured Division. We all walked down and were surprised by the width of the river at that point where a new bridge has been built.

After St Georges du Vievre Jim took us for a walk through the woods on a route that only he remembered to Boissy le Chatel. They had organised a treat for us by holding the ‘vin d’honneur’ in the Chateau de Tilly a superb restored Renaisance turreted chateau, with the remains of fortified towers in the park and some stunning brickwork on the frontage.

Bourneville on Thursday was the ‘piece de resistance’. We had scarcely finished laying a wreath in the cemetery, when we assembled in church for a Memorial Mass taken by Father Eric Ladon. Ushers in mediaeval tabards led us to our seats and the Regimental collect was read in English and French by veterans. At the war memorial Gerard Reine asked me to repeat ‘Mort pour la France’ some 50 times after the French and English names thereon. Thierry Chion, our man in France, had laid on an exhibition of photographs of characters in the regiment. We were reminded of Bill Bradfield who was decorated for his part in the liberation. At a ceremony a square was named ‘Place 27 Aout’. The Senator for the district, Marc Vampa was present and spoke. The day finished with a memorable meal and a gourmet’s delight of an iced pudding.

On behalf of the Regimental Association of the Royal Dragoon Guards we would like to thank the Big Lottery Fund for their generous donation to our trip, fore without the fund many of our veterans would not have been able to attend this last memorial visit on the 65th Anniversary of operations.

Cyril Haworth’s Heroes Return by The National Lottery Community Fund
November 10, 2009, 4:38 pm
Filed under: D-Day | Tags: , ,

As a World War II soldier, Cyril Haworth took part in D-Day. Here Cyril tells his story as he recalls the D-Day landings and his return journey made possible through Big Lottery funding.