Filed under: Italy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, ceremony, Heroes Return, Heroes Return 2, Monte Cassino, veterans, World War Two, WW2
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, is Jim Knox, 89, from Upminster, Havering. Jim is returning to the battlefields in May 2014 with the Monte Cassino Society.
The battle (January – May 1944) was fought to capture a vital German stronghold and open up the way for the main allied advance into Rome and claimed over 50,000 lives.
Jim joined the Army in 1941 aged 16 after persuading the sergeant at Romford Army recruitment office that he was 18. In August 1942 he volunteered for the Paras and joined 4th Parachute Battalion, part of the 2nd Parachute Brigade. Jim first served in North Africa, landing at Oran in early 1943. The 2nd Brigade landed in Italy at Taranto in September and moved up the west coast to the Sangro river where the brigade became the Independent Parachute Brigade, joining forces with a New Zealand Division patrolling the Gustav Line.
He recalled: “Once on night patrol the two lads in front heard some talking – our officer who could understand German crept up to listen and could hear what their plans were. It was a German fighting patrol – about eight or nine of them – armed with rapid fire Schmeiser machine guns which had a terrific firepower. We wouldn’t have stood a chance against them so we crept inside a mausoleum. They stopped right outside and we could hear them talking. Luckily they didn’t come in.
“The most frightening time of the war for me was going into Monte Cassino for the first time. There was a tremendous noise from the mortars and this hideous yellow smog. The sky was lit up red and yellow and we could see flames. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realised that was Vesuvius erupting. It was like walking into hell. The stench was horrible from dead mules and dead soldiers. It was terrifying.
“We were with a New Zealand division at the railway station and Germans were dug in just a few yards away at the Continental Hotel. We were so close that we shouted abuse at each other.
“You could hardly move – and you only moved at night. And we constantly worried about treading on a mine. The mortaring was constant from both sides. It was a bit like trench warfare at the First World War – a stalemate – no one could move. You did get the odd glimpse of a German but very rarely. If there was any movement from either side everyone would open fire.
“I was on a two inch mortar – when you saw a flash you had to send some back in that direction. We were there for 13 days until the Poles advanced to the monastery.”
Following the battle for Monte Cassino, Jim was parachuted into France, behind enemy lines. The daring operation to surround and contain a German garrison at Le Muy took place a few days before the invasion of the Southern France in August 1944. Jim was awarded the Legion d’honneur – the highest decoration in France – following his work with French Resistance guerrillas, the Maquis, during the operation.
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Cambridge, John Field, Operation Husky, Operation Mincemeat, Operation Zipper, RMS Maloja, Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, Royal Navy, Sicily, SS Bergensfjord, Stuka, U-Boat
John Field crouched in the packed hold of the converted allied troop ship RMS Maloja as it slipped through the deadly U-Boat killing grounds of the North Atlantic. Billeted deep below the water line John knew that he and his comrades would never survive a dreaded torpedo attack. Terrified to sleep he began to pray, a desperate act that would bring a calm and lasting spiritual courage to the 20-year old Royal Marine armourer in the dark days to come.
John, now 92, is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.
In 1941, as Britain waited under the threat of a German invasion, 19 year-old Cambridge lad John Field was earning his stripes as an apprentice locksmith.
Upon reaching his 20th birthday John joined up with the Royal Navy, and underwent training as an Armourer, gun fitter. A year later John set sail on troop ship RMS Maloja bound for the Middle East via the Cape Route, stopping at Sierra Leone, Durban and arriving in Suez.
He recalls: “We went the long way round to try and avoid the U- Boats but got chased by some on our route towards Iceland. Troop quarters were well below the ship’s waterline and I was absolutely terrified as we wouldn’t be able to get out if a torpedo hit us. I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t even get into my hammock or take my shoes off.
“I wanted to be able to get onto the rope ladder and climb up as quickly as possible if something happened. This fear gripped me for some time until one night I just started to say the Lord’s Prayer and kept saying it till it gradually calmed me down. After a while, I took off my boots, got into the hammock and went to sleep. It was a spiritual experience which helped me keep calm. I was never afraid like that again.”
Arriving safely in Suez John was sent to an allied base at Quassassin where he was put to work maintaining and repairing tank guns. He said: “We were given a square block of steel from which we had to make replacement bits for guns. Everything had to be absolutely accurate. That’s where my training as a locksmith came in. We were glad to have this job to protect our mates, but glad not to be doing the shooting.”
In early July 1943 John set sail from Port Said to Sicily on SS Bergensfjord in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, codenamed ‘Operation Husky’. The mission was to launch a large scale amphibious and airborne attack that would drive the Axis air, land and naval forces from the island; a move that would open up the Mediterranean sea lanes and pave the way for the invasion of the Italian mainland.
John was assigned to the Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, (RM NBDO) responsible for the capture and maintenance of enemy gun defences.
He remembers, “As we approached Sicily we had to transfer into a Landing Craft to get in close. Aircraft were bombing and machine gunning us. The Landing
Craft in front was hit and destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. I was quite calm. I had a job to do. We were very young. We thought we were immortal.”
“There were three beaches, ‘George’, ‘Item’, and ‘Hal’, which was our beach. There was very little troop resistance as the Germans had transferred their army to Crete thanks to Operation Mincemeat. Once we were near the shore we jumped into the water and waded the rest of the way. Then we ran up the beach and managed to take cover in a farmhouse. We were very thankful for this.”
The next day John and his comrades set off marching towards the port of Syracuse. He recalls; “Our rations were biscuits and dry foods, anything that was light to carry. There was an incident about water and an officer told us not to drink from the springs. When we arrived just south of Syracuse we went up onto a headland. There was a lighthouse and a scattering of guns.
“We took over ten guns that weren’t damaged. Two of the guns looked very peculiar. They were four inch anti-aircraft guns which we used for barrage against attacking planes. One night, one of them exploded and the barrel fell off. Luckily no one was hurt. We couldn’t understand why this had happened till we found an Italian handbook with bits marked in red ink which translated read, ‘On no account use more than seven shells when firing.’
We later saw a whole group of Italian soldiers going home to their wives and families. They walked off and left their billets. There was just one group of German infantry defending Syracuse and after three days they retreated.”
The RM NBDO was then deployed to repair guns across the island. On one occasion John found himself in the middle of a ferocious battle for the capture of the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River, a move that would give the Eighth Army vital access for an allied advance across the Catania plain, driving enemy forces back toward the Italian mainland.
He recalls: “We had to go out to an 88 millimetre German gun stuck on the other side of the river. The Germans were up in the hills beyond the river and as we crossed from the British side the shells were exchanging over our heads. When we eventually reached the gun we marvelled at its engineering.”
After Sicily, John came down with jaundice and was sent to Scotland on sick leave.
Once recovered, he was involved in the testing of Landing Ship Docks in the Mediterranean, before being posted back to Suez. In 1945 he was sent out to India and the Far East as part of Operation Zipper.
He recalls, “The Japanese were still resisting. They didn’t know the bomb had been dropped. Communication lines were not good at this time.”
However, after the final surrender John was posted to Singapore where he spent his final months of the war as a dockyard policeman before finally arriving back home in England in early 1946. Five years after the war John travelled back to India to live and work as a missionary for over 20 years.
John is now looking forward to travelling back to Sicily with his family, where he will retrace his steps across the island. He said: “I wouldn’t have dreamt of going back if it wasn’t for Heroes Return. It will be marvellous after 70 years.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Italy, Navy | Tags: Anzio, Cagliari, Derek Vickers, France, Heroes Return, Merchant Navy, Monte Cassino, Salerno, Sardinia, SS Cape Wrath, Yorkshire
A Merchant Navy veteran is urging others to apply for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.
Derek Vickers, 85 from Leeds, went on a Heroes Return visit to Italy last September, to revisit the country he first saw during his time with the Merchant Navy. He joined up in 1943 when he was aged just 16.
He said: “I was in the sea cadets and the Merchant Navy had lost a lot of men and were asking for volunteers. My first ship was a cargo ship, SS Cape Wrath – a commandeered Tate and Lyle ship.
“We sailed north to Scotland and joined a convoy off Oban and from there sailed out into the north Atlantic and down towards Italy. We had a large aircraft carrier with us and carrier escorts. It was huge – I don’t remember the number but it was around 40 ships.
“We had vehicles on the deck which made the ship top heavy. It was January 1944 and the weather was really rough and she rolled around a lot – it was a tough journey.
“As we got near to France we were attacked by air and had a couple of submarine warnings. I remember hearing explosions during the night and I think we lost a couple of ships. We were called to action stations and it was my job to back the gunners up as an ammunition carrier.
“They opened fire all over the place – it was very noisy with all ships firing. The planes took off from the carrier and helped to drive the enemy aircraft away.
“At Gibraltar the convoy split – we went to Tunis. On the way out of Tunis the ship in front of us hit a mine and had to turn back. We went on to Cagliari, Sardinia where there had been heavy bombing.
“We dropped off the cargo and I can remember the smell – there were a lot of bodies under the rubble. It was really traumatic and that memory lingered with me for years.
“Then we went to Naples to deliver armoured vehicles for the troop at Anzio and Monte Cassino. Vesuvius erupted after the Allied troops arrived and we could see larva flowing down and we were all covered in dust. We could hear guns and bombs dropping at the battlefield at Monte Cassino and see the flashes at night.”
Derek visited Monte Cassino, Salerno and Anzio on a Heroes Return visit last September.
He said: “I wanted to go and see what it was like now. Also, during the war I was offshore and so my perspective was different. Although the war was so long ago it all came back to me. On my visit there were two other veterans in my group. It was really wonderful and very emotional.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: Italy | Tags: Army Commandos, Hertfordshire, Hoddesdon, Italy, La Molina, Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, Middlesex Regiment, Reg Downes, Royal Marine Commandos, Salerno, Sicily, Territorial Army, Tito, Vietri, Vis, Winston Churchill, Yugoslavia
World War Two veteran Reg Downes, 91, from Hoddesden in Hertfordshire, recently made a commemorative visit to Salerno, Italy, thanks to funding from the Heroes Return programme.
Reg joined the Territorial Army in 1938. Called up at the outbreak of war he joined the Middlesex Regiment, aged just 17 before volunteering in the Army Commandos. In 1941 he was posted up to Achnacarry near Fort William where he underwent a tough six-week intensive training course on fitness, weapons training, map reading, climbing, and demolitions operations.
He remembers: “I was always a bit of a daredevil, humdrum life didn’t suit me. The training was hard but I was never fitter in my life than I was then.”
Training completed and at rank of Private, Reg was assigned to the Motor Transport section No2 Army Commando under the command of Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, distant relative of Winston Churchill.
Reg was posted out to North Africa and from there to Sicily where he saw his first action as the troop landed near the town of Scaletta in advance of Monty’s Eighth Army. Here they engaged the German rearguard.
He remembers: “It was a bit hairy being our first action. I was the section driver and we were loaded up with bombs. We got involved in house- to-house fighting in Scaletta, but by then most of the Germans had retreated to Messina and then back to mainland Italy.”
After success in Sicily the invasion of Italy followed on 3rd September 1943 when No. 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mare, in Salerno in the early hours of the morning. The troop’s first task was to take a German gun battery but after finding it undefended they moved on to secure the town of Vietri where they set up a headquarters and opened up the beach for allied landings.
Supported by the Royal Marine Commandos, Reg and comrades moved on to take a German observation post outside the town of La Molina which controlled a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. Despite heavy German opposition they eventually captured the post taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad.
Reg said: “This was a heavy battle. We held the beachhead but they really came after us. We were a thorn in their sides and they were trying to wipe us out. We were only supposed to hold it for eight hours but we were stuck there for over two weeks. People had fear. You wouldn’t be telling the truth if you said you hadn’t. But comradeship was very good. You had to rely on your comrades. At first it was very hard to kill people but after a while you got a bit cynical about it. There weren’t many prisoners taken on either side. It was live or die.”
The commando units went on to face fierce resistance from crack German troops in Salerno with 367 killed, wounded or missing out of the 738 who had taken part in the landings.
In January 1944 Reg was posted to the Yugoslavian island of Vis. With half the unit depleted they carried out assaults on German garrisons, and raids on shipping.
He recalls: “We used to pick up and destroy boats carrying German ammunition to the Island. Yugoslavia was full of partisans. Tito had insisted that they were included in our raids on the Germans. They were mostly youngsters very wild and silly, waving machine guns around. It was all a bit risky.”
The troop saw further action in Albania in raids at Himare and at Sarande where they were heavily outnumbered and pinned down by superior German forces until support units arrived, and the town was captured cutting off the German garrison in Corfu which later . surrendered to the Commandos in November 1944.
Reg recently returned to Salerno with his sons, he said: “I thought the grant was wonderful. I couldn’t have afforded to go without it. I looked for the place we landed at Vietri sul Mare, but I couldn’t find it. Then I asked a local and he pointed it out. I also went to Salerno War Cemetery to see the graves of the chaps I fought with. We lost quite a lot there. The graves were beautifully kept. It put a lump in my throat.”
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: D-Day, Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: Anzio, Atlantic, Birkenhead, D-Day, Husky, Italy, Landing Ship Tank, Navy, Normandy, Operation Avalanche, Operation Overlord
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Filed under: Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Heroes Return, Italy, Royal Artillery
PoW Eric Batteson crouched in the dark watching the camp guard’s every movement before seizing his split second moment to escape to what would be an uncertain and precarious freedom high in the Italian mountains.
Now, thanks to a Lottery award the 92-year veteran from Chester is making an emotional pilgrimage to thank the courageous villagers of Colleregnone who risked their lives to feed and shelter him from the enemy. He will even stay in the same house owned by the same family who gave him refuge through those dark days of war.
Eric, who saw front line action in major battles across the Middle East, Greece, Albania and Crete, completed his field training as a Lance Bombardier with the Royal Artillery in 1939, and a year later, aged 21, embarked on the SS Oropesa bound for the Middle East.
He recalls: “We couldn’t go through the Straits of Gibraltar because of the German U Boats. We had to go round South Africa. When we called in at Cape Town thousands of people turned out to greet us. We were let off the boat and people took us to their homes. Everybody had a great day out.”
The troop then sailed to Egypt where from December 1940 Eric was deployed in fierce desert warfare, plotting gun positions to range attacks on Italian forces as his unit fought their way up the Libyan coast to Benghazi as part of Operation Compass. The advance was the first major allied operation in the Western Desert Campaign, which saw the capture of 115,000 Italian prisoners, and destruction of thousands of enemy tanks, artillery, and aircraft.
Following the success of Compass, Eric’s battery was deployed to stem the German invasion of Greece but the allies were forced to retreat into Albania then finally to Crete.
He recalls: “If we hadn’t moved back we would have been totally swamped. The Germans were much better armed. The British Matilda tanks were no match for the Panzers and the Stuka attacks were terrible, we were relentlessly dive bombed. I was asleep in the back of a truck when one attack began. My battery commander, the signaller, and driver all leapt out into a ditch but I was still in the truck when two huge bombs landed, one in front and one behind. I was very lucky that day.”
Eric was evacuated from Crete on HMS Orion bound for Alexandria, an ill fated voyage that sustained horrendous bombing attacks which claimed the lives of over 360 sailors and troops and injured 280.
He remembers:“I was in the forward part of the ship when a bomb went down the ammunition hatch and exploded. It did terrible damage. We were trapped behind a watertight door and the front of the ship was going down. I had never before anticipated the thought of dying, but I thought I would die. But the sailors finally managed to get us out, and somehow they kept the engines going and we limped back to Alexandria. I have always had the greatest admiration for those sailors, they kept their heads. They did what they had to do.”
Eric’s next action was to see him taken prisoner after a running battle with Italian and German forces from El Alamein up to Tobruk, and where the troop were forced to surrender when Rommel’s Army surrounded the town. Marched across the desert to Benghazi, Eric survived on half a pint of water a day and hard biscuits before being shipped to a PoW camp at Macerata in eastern Italy.
He recalls, “We had to make the best of it. I spent my time making things from old tins. I made bellows to make force draft fires and one chap made a grandfather clock which actually worked! We were treated pretty fairly by the guards but rations were low and we were very dependent on Red Cross parcels, which often got filched.”
However, as the Italians capitulated and news came that the Germans were soon to take over the camp, Eric and two comrades decided to make a daring night time escape by slipping through an unlocked gate and scrambling to freedom in the Italian mountains.
Steering west by the stars they climbed by night but then switched to daylight travel to avoid stumbling over ledges in the dark. Reaching the village of Colleregnone, tired and starving, they spotted a farmer up a fruit tree and took the gamble to approach him.
“I can’t tell you what I feel about these people. They did so much.”
Eric recalls: “My memory is centred on those wonderful people who helped us. At first we would hide out in isolated places and the village girls would bring us food. Then after five months the snow came and the families hid us in their houses. They were taking a great risk. The Germans had recently rounded up eleven young men from a neighbouring village and shot them as a warning to anyone collaborating with the allies.”
As fierce fighting at Monte Cassino hampered the allied advance in Italy the group decided to try and reach the allied forces, so dressed as Italian farmers they came down from the mountains to the Adriatic. There they found a boat and met a local woman who promised to get them some sails.
He recalls: “She said that she had helped others escape and told us to come back after dark. But when we did a lorry load of Germans arrived and took us back to Macerata jail. Then we were transported by train to a prison camp in Hannover.”
“Here there were heavy allied bombing raids. We weren’t very popular. We would see civilians pushing their dead relatives in wheelbarrows. We were glad the German soldiers were protecting us. But treatment was a bit mixed, especially from the prison guards running the forced slave labour gangs. They were regularly bashed about. One man was shot dead because he didn’t want to urinate in front of the others.”
As the allied bombing increased Eric and his compatriots were deployed to clean up after an intense raid damaged a local oil refinery. He said: “One guy was always doing subtle sabotage and would put cement powder into air pressure instruments, and slightly open the valves on oxy acetylene canisters so that when they came to be used they were empty.”
Eric remained at the camp until he was liberated on April 14th 1945, before arriving back home in time for VE day. Now he will mark the anniversary 67 years on by making a special commemorative trip with his family, to thank the people of Collegerone.
He said: “I think we must have been legend in that village, they remember everything. I used to be a whistler and they told me ‘don’t do that, Italian men don’t whistle’. They passed this down to their children who still joke about it. I can’t tell you what I feel about these people. They did so much.”
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.
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.”