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


Podcast – “My time in Bomber Command” by Big Lottery Fund

The historic unveiling of the first national memorial to RAF Bomber Command takes place today at Green Park, London. We were lucky enough to talk to veteran Harry Irons, who flew 60 missions during World War Two.

Now aged 88, Harry talks about some of his wartime memories, his Heroes Return trip to France and what it means to finally see a memorial for Bomber Command.

In 1941 Harry Irons volunteered for air crew duty with Bomber Command. He was only 16 but added a year to his age and was accepted for gunnery training.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1944, Harry was promoted to Warrant Officer and went on to survive 60 raids over the Ruhr, Munich, Nuremberg, and Northern France, flying as a rear gunner in Lancaster and Halifax bombers.

Harry was living in London when war broke out. After witnessing the devastation of the Blitz he decided to volunteer as aircrew, and was assigned to 9 Squadron based at Waddington in Lincolnshire from where he flew 37 missions in Lancaster X for X-ray.

Harry, who has worked tirelessly to help raise funds for the memorial, will be attending the official unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, and members of the Royal family.

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Looking forward to the historic day, he said: “As part of a crew you got to know each other, you were like family. We lost so many brave men. But we are over the moon. We are so grateful at last to be able to do something for the boys. At last we have got some recognition”.

For more information on the Heroes Return programme and the funding that is available for World War Two veterans, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121



WWII veteran revisits site of wartime attack by Big Lottery Fund
June 11, 2012, 1:09 pm
Filed under: D-Day, France, Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

Hugh Beach crept closer to the bridge, armed with a sten-gun. He had been sent forward alone to check that the bridge was safe for tanks and other vehicles to cross. As he silently approached, two figures came into view and he recognised the grey uniform – German. Instead of retreating to safety and reporting the danger, he crept ever closer, raised his weapon and opened fire.

Sir Hugh Beach returned to France thanks to funding from BIG

Sir Hugh Beach returned to France thanks to funding from BIG

The courageous solo assault left the lieutenant severely wounded from enemy fire, temporarily paralysed from the waist down. At the age of just 21 he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. Now, aged 89, after 40 years in the Armed Forces and having been knighted twice by the Queen, General Sir Hugh Beach GBE KCB MC, has made a Lottery-funded trip coinciding with D-Day to visit the areas he served during the war, including the spot he made his single-handed attack.

Sir Hugh, from Earl’s Court, London, is just one of a number of Second World War veterans who have made poignant commemorative visits as part of the Big Lottery Funds Heroes Return programme.

Sir Hugh Beach, who joined the Army in 1941 as a sapper, landed in France six days after D-Day. A lieutenant in 621 Field Squadron 7th Armoured Division, he was first tasked with finding his unit to deliver a three-tonne lorry full of supplies. After finding his unit, Sir Hugh was billeted at a farm at St Paul du Vernay for six weeks.

It was at the village of La Vallee on 8 August 1944 when Sir Hugh first demonstrated the kind of courage that later earned him a Military Cross. He was attached to an infantry division which had fought and driven away German soldiers.

He recalled: “We suspected the Germans would have left landmines behind. We needed to get some anti-tank guns into position in case the Germans counter-attacked, which they did later. So we had to clear the road of landmines from the village to some crossroads.

“About six of us using mine detectors then cleared the road. But the first vehicle to leave the village was blown up – we missed that mine. This threw the plans up into the air – no-one wanted to move, understandably. I then decided to do something that was, in hindsight, absolutely crazy.

“I thought the only way to get everyone moving again was to sit on the mudguard of the first vehicle. Demonstrating confidence that I certainly didn’t have inside, I said ‘let’s go’. I was full of a mixture of emotions – I didn’t want to be seen as having failed and was also displaying the bravado of someone who hadn’t yet been directly involved in action. Secretly I was hoping that we hadn’t missed any more mines and luckily there weren’t otherwise I’d have been a gonner. We drove forward and everyone got though safely. Afterwards I fell asleep standing up leaning against a tree.”

Sir Hugh then remembers the Allied breakthrough and the sudden rush across France with a small group of men in a car. He said:“It was very exhilarating. We were moving so fast we ran out of maps and had to use our AA book. Young ladies were coming out to the road to hand us tomatoes. We felt like heroes.”

Sir Hugh with his son Michael on Arromanches beach

Sir Hugh with his son Michael on Arromanches beach

It was at La Bassee in northern France near the Belgian border, while Sir Hugh was attached to the 11th Hussars, that he came within millimetres of being paralysed from the waist down.

“We approached a bridge and knew that the Germans had tried to demolish it,” he said. “I was asked to take a look at it and see if it was safe to take tanks and vehicles across. I drove towards it and about 200 yards to the side of the bridge and parked my scout-car behind a hut. I approached, carrying a sten-gun.

“The railways line was about 100 yards away and the bridge seemed okay – although really I wasn’t close enough to make a proper assessment. Then I saw grey figures across the bank and realised they were German soldiers. This was my first chance to engage the enemy. I opened fire and after two rounds the gun jammed. I dropped down and they returned fire.

“I tried to crawl back behind the railway line which ran alongside a canal but my backside was too high – a bullet grazed my spine and took a bit of bone away. I was paralysed from the waist down. A staff sergeant got to me and dragged me back, very bravely I might add.”

His comrades tried to find a field ambulance but as it was getting dark they saw a building which had a door and a red cross painted on it.

He said: “It turns out it was an order of nuns. They were very calm and dressed my wound. The next day a vehicle then took me to a field dressing station. I went from feeling nothing from the waist down to then getting my feeling back and the pain as if I had suffered a heavy blow on the head. As life came back to my nerves I couldn’t stand anything touching me. It was ghastly.”

Sir Hugh was awarded the Military Cross but the wound marked the end of the war for him and he was flown back to Britain to undergo further treatment on his spine. Following his recovery, the next year he served in India, Ceylon and then saw active service in Java during the Allied mission to liberate the Dutch held by the Japanese in jungle internment camps. The Indonesians believed the real goal was the restoration of Dutch rule and a bloody insurgency was sparked.

Sir Hugh was accompanied on his Heroes Return trip to France by his son Michael, who served with the Royal Green Jackets between 1977 and 1980, and grandson William.

Speaking before his visit, Sir Hugh said: “I think the Heroes Return programme is fantastic – allowing people like me to return to the sites of our most exciting days. To remember and explain to those with us what it was like is very important.”

To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.



Irish veterans return to theatres of war by Big Lottery Fund

World War Two veterans from across Ireland are making emotional journeys to the places where they fought thanks to funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

George Lemon, 88, will return to France, Germany, Belgium and Holland later this year

George Lemon, 88, will return to France, Germany, Belgium and Holland later this year

George Lemon, 88, from Belfast, George Hopley, 91, from North Down and Ted Jones, 89, from Dublin will revisit their wartime postings across the world, from Florida to the Bahamas and Europe.

George Lemon, from Newtownbreda in Belfast, is travelling to battlefields in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland later this year but was just 18 and in sixth year at Larne Grammar School when he signed up with the RAF in 1941.

“You don’t think much about the dangers at that age – you just want adventure. Things were going quite badly at that stage in the war with Dunkirk and so on, so I suppose I had these romantic notions of taking to the hills to defend the country,” he explained.

George began his training at Lords Cricket Ground which was the receiving centre for the RAF and progressed through various courses before being designated as a bomb aimer flying operational missions over France and Germany.

“At the time you don’t really feel afraid – before we’d take off I sometimes felt anxious, but once you’re airborne the training takes over. When you’re flying though you’re quite divorced from what’s going on below so this trip will be an experience and help me appreciate the full story of what I was involved in,” said George.

“This trip will be a chance to think again about the role I played in those days and I really appreciate the opportunity.”

George Lemon pictured during his wartime service with the RAF

George Lemon pictured during his wartime service with the RAF

George Hopley, from North Down, is travelling to Nassau in the Bahamas later this year where he was stationed as RAF ground crew after joining up at just 18 with the RAF’s 502 Ulster Squadron.

“I was sent to the RAF’s base in the Bahamas in 1944 to train on American aircraft, chiefly the Liberators,” he said. “The Big Lottery Fund has given me a wonderful opportunity to go back later this year to a place I never thought I’d see again because it’s so far away. It’s given me a chance to think back and reminisce.”

Ted Jones, from Dublin, is travelling to Pensacola in Florida where he completed his pilot’s training at the RAF base there. Ted trained on Catalina seaplanes and gained his wings on April 29, 1942, as well as being recommended for a commission and made a Captain with the 190 Squadron in March 1943.

Ted said: “I was fortunate enough to fly with a great bunch of blokes during the war and that makes all the difference. Travelling back to Florida is a great opportunity to re-visit old sites and memories, a chance to remember those years.”

To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.



Chance meeting 67 years on for lottery-funded D-day duo by Big Lottery Fund
October 17, 2011, 10:43 am
Filed under: D-Day, France, Normandy | Tags: , , , , ,

Clifford Baker (left) and Bill Betts (right)

Two veterans of the Normandy landings have been reunited for the first time in 67 years following a chance meeting on return journey to France funded by the Heroes Return 2 programme.

Bill Betts, 88, and Clifford Baker, 98, landed on Gold Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944, but would not see each other again until their paths crossed at Arromanches war museum earlier this year.

The pair received separate grants for their poignant trips and had never expected to meet each other after all these years. The last time they’d been together was in the relative safety of sand dunes as German mortars screamed overhead. Mr Betts had been injured by enemy fire and was told by his captain to stay put while Mr Baker and the rest of the Essex Yeomanry continued their assault further up the beach.

Warwick-based veteran, Bill Betts, 88, joined the Essex Yeomanry at the age of 19 in December 1941 – training for over two years as a radio operator in preparation for the D-Day Landings. When the day of invasion arrived, Bill and his comrades boarded landing craft in Poole, Dorset, before linking up with other regiments further down the coast in Southampton. From there they began the perilous push across the Channel towards the Normandy beaches where many men would sadly lose their lives.

He recalls: “I suffered terrible sea-sickness on that rough crossing which luckily took my mind off what was lay in store for us. As a radio operator on one of the craft, I was responsible for checking map references so the shells we fired on the beaches from three to four miles out at sea hit their intended targets and not our own boys. It was quite a responsibility for a lad my age.

“When we made it to Gold Beach and left the landing craft with bullets and bombs exploding around us, we followed a tape marking a safe route past land mines buried beneath the sand. I made it as far as some dunes a bit further up but then felt a searing pain in my right leg – I’d been shot and could go no further.

“I was told by my captain that I’d have to stay behind for the time-being while everyone moved on ahead. I agreed with him that it was the right thing to do but I was angry with myself for getting wounded so early – I’d trained for such a long time in preparation for D-Day and here I was immobilised. That was the last time I saw Clifford until I returned to France this year to remember those who weren’t as fortunate as I was.”

Bill had been signing the leather-bound book of remembrance at Arromanches D-Day Museum when he spotted Clifford’s handwritten entry directly above his.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw his name and a mention of the Essex Yeomanry in the book, but there it was in black and white. I’d been given a commemorative medal by the Mayor of Arromanches so asked her just when Mr. Baker had been into the museum that day. When she said only twenty minutes before and that his coach to Port Talbot was now boarding in the car park, I decided that I had to take the chance to catch him.

“The lady mayor ran off and thankfully managed to halt his coach before it left,” he continues. “After 67 years we were face to face again so you can imagine just how emotional that was. We had a chat about D-Day and the events that happened such a long time ago. The memories of it all are still very clear in my mind.

“I never imagined that we’d see each other after all that time, let alone in a place so close to where we were last together. After I’d said my goodbyes and boarded the coach again everyone onboard broke into a roar of cheers and applause. It made my trip that bit more special.”

After recovering from his war wounds back on home soil, Bill rejoined the Essex Yeomanry in France. He fought on with them through Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany.

Surviving countless skirmishes with the enemy and some of the coldest winter weather on record, Bill was finally demobbed in December 1946 and in later years enjoyed a successful career in the motor industry which allowed him to travel across the world once again.



The Troop Surrenders by Big Lottery Fund
June 24, 2011, 11:23 am
Filed under: Army, D-Day, France, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

One Normandy veteran, Eric Goldrein from Liverpool, recalls taking singlehandedly the surrender of a German troop, part of a fierce enemy resistance force against the allied invasion.     

Eric volunteered for service in 1939 aged 18 years old. However, he was due to take his place at Cambridge University so the Recruitment Board advised him to go off to University for two years and then join up later. But after 1940 when things started going badly, Eric decided to join the OCTU – Officer Cadet Training Unit.

Joining the 11th Armoured Division Anti-Tank Regiment, Eric spent months in landing practices and manoeuvres across the Yorkshire moors.

Eric recalls:

“We had been training for so long, I certainly had a sense this was a momentous historical event in the making. The main body of my Division went on the first day, although I didn’t get there until D-Day + 4, landing on Gold Beach in King Sector. I walked down the ramp of the LTC. The immediate danger on the beach itself had passed, but all around were the sounds of shellfire and mortars.

 Eric was a lieutenant in command of a troop of four artillery pieces which comprised 17 pounder Anti-Tank Guns, each with a 12 ft long barrel. Formidable in the field, each gun could fire an armour piercing shell with a muzzle velocity of 3,000 feet per second and knock out a Tiger Tank at a range of 800 yards.

Image by D-Day Revisited

He continues:

“We were of course constantly on the front line and were taking casualties from mortar fire all the time as the enemy naturally targeted the guns and supporting infantry. I think we were too busy to be frightened, but we didn’t dwell on the danger and just concentrated on the job we had to do.”

Having been on the ground in France for over seven weeks, Eric and his gunners had experienced tough fighting all the way from the beaches. In the aftermath of D-Day the German High Command recovered from their initial confusion, and resistance became resourced, disciplined and fierce with the Germans taking natural advantage of the high hedgerows, earth embankments and woodland of the Normandy countryside to defend their positions. It was during this period on 1st August that Eric fell into enemy hands after he and his driver went out in a Jeep across German lines on a reconnoitre to find new gun positions.

He remembers;

“It was early evening when I was caught. We’d just turned down a narrow lane and there was a burst of machine gun fire. I was hit from behind in my right shoulder. I could still walk and we were both marched off to a nearby farm building where I was presented to the Commanding Officer of this group. He was a Colonel, probably in his late thirties. He didn’t speak any English at all and I made it clear that I couldn’t speak German. Oddly enough we conversed in French, a language at which we were both quite fluent.”

Eric recalls;

“My driver was taken outside but I was seated in a corner of the room whilst a Medical Orderly was brought in to tend my shoulder wound. I could understand German well enough to realise the Colonel and his Adjutant were dealing with a constant flow of grave news all through the night. I didn’t let on to my understanding of German but it was clear that every message coming in to this local centre carried with it another military setback. As an officer myself I was held there awaiting an escort to take me off to their HQ for closer interrogation. By early morning the Colonel was in a quandary and we had by then established something of a relationship.”

As the Colonel was taking serious casualties and his defences were steadily weakening with British and Allied troops pouring into Normandy, Eric eventually managed to persuade him to surrender. “Then of course there was the practicality of who would take the surrender. I heard myself saying: ‘Don’t worry about that; surrender to me’.  When I think back, it’s such a surreal scene. I had my right arm in a sling so couldn’t salute. I had no experience of taking surrender, at the ripe old age of twenty-three!

“We set out at first light with me at the front, the Colonel and his Adjutant alongside, followed by 35 other ranks. In proper military order we marched along the narrow road, heading north towards the coast. Quite soon I heard tracked vehicles and we came upon a forward carrier patrol of the 1st Worcester Regiment.

“The patrol consisted of three Bren carriers and I put one at the front and one bringing up the rear of our small column. I travelled in the third vehicle along with my two captive officers. Before long we reached a main HQ assembly area where I was able to leave my group and report to the MO in a tented area. Once there, and in good hands, I promptly passed out.

“I later awakened in the British Military Hospital which was well established in a group of large tents pitched not far from the landing grounds. I was operated on and the bullet was removed. I still have it to this day – as a memento. That brought to an end my own modest contribution to the Normandy Campaign!”



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.”