At the age of 17, a year before he was called up to serve in the war, Charles Medhurst opened the telegram which told him that his 19-year-old brother had been killed in Burma.
Now at the age of 89, Charles is embarking on an emotional journey to the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore to find his brother’s name.
“I had a terrible feeling as I opened the telegram,” said Charles, from Greenwich. “I had to go and tell my mother, who collapsed. She never got over it. She never said anything when I was called up a year later but she must have been upset.
“I was called up in July 1943 and became a wireless operator in the RAF but they needed men for the Royal Navy so I was detailed. I’d never been on water before!”
As a telegraphist in the Navy, Charles had to take down Morse code messages at a speed of 26 words a minute. Charles found himself on HMS Malaya – a battleship that took part in the bombardment of German fortifications on the French island of Cezembre.
He recalled: “It was shattering. I was able to watch because I was off duty and we had to wear anti-flash hoods. When you have eight 15-inch guns firing broadsides it has quite an impact on you. It’s frightening. At the same time the RAF was bombing the island as well. It was quite a long distance away but the shape of the island appeared to change from the bombardment.”
Charles was due to take part in D Day but Malaya was replaced shortly beforehand by HMS Warspite. Malaya sailed to Scotland and took part in trials of updated versions of the bouncing bomb famously used in the Dambusters raid. Malaya moored in Loch Striven and while a crew including Charles was on board, inert prototypes were aimed at the ship, successfully striking Malaya. One was reported to have punched a hole in the ship’s side.
“I do remember a dummy bomb actually hitting our ship while I was on board!”, said Charles.
Charles sailed by liner from Liverpool to Halifax in Canada where he took a five day train ride through the Rockies to board HMS Beachy Head in Vancouver. From there the ship sailed via San Francisco to the Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu in the Pacific.
He recalled fondly: “We had a day’s leave ashore and played football with the locals who gave me a gift of a necklace made of shells. I’ve still got the necklace to this day. They were such friendly people.”
If Tuvalu represented a South Pacific paradise, the next destination was a stark reminder of the war that still raged elsewhere in the Pacific.
He said: “From there we went to Hawaii where we went to Pearl Harbour and could still see the tops of the ships that were sunk in the Japanese attack. When we got to Darwin in Australia, which had been bombed by the Japanese, it was like a ghost town. They were afraid of a Japanese invasion and many people had deserted the city. Parts of it looked like the set of a Wild West film with shutter doors swinging in the breeze.”
After refuelling in New Guinea, Beachy Head sailed to the Solomon Islands and towards Singapore.
“We were only going at a rate of ten knots which was a little unnerving,” said Charles. “However we had a skeleton crew of three telephonists so we were constantly on duty so didn’t really have time to think about the dangers. We went from Singapore to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as it is now, and from there our ship commanded mine sweeping operations around the Indian Ocean. I spent a week’s leave in the hills which were so green and peaceful. By the time we got to Penang in Malaysia the Japanese had surrendered.”
Charles returned home on an aircraft carrier via the Suez Canal and was demobbed in October 1946.
Charles said: “When I joined the forces I’d never been away from home. We were a poor family. I was lucky during the war – I didn’t fight in the front line and didn’t face the dangers that others did.
“When my brother was killed, all that my mother got was a telegram saying he had been killed on March 24 1942 and that there were no remains or personal effects.
“It wasn’t until last year that I decided to try and find out more. I contacted the War Graves Commission and they put me in touch with the Royal Air Force. I received a very helpful letter about what happened. Henry was ground staff with the air force in Burma. They were being evacuated as the Japanese advanced but didn’t get out in time. The Japanese launched an attack on the airfield in Toungoo with grenades and mortars.
“My brother Henry died aged just 19. He would have been 92 if he were alive today. When I think about how young he was when he died, it’s tragic. He was just one of thousands.”
Charles is currently preparing for his visit to Sri Lanka and Singapore where he will make an emotional visit to the Kranji War Memorial to find his brother’s name.
Charles said: “It’s important to visit the memorial and see his name – to see that he has been recognised for giving his life at such a young age.”
Filed under: France, Heroes Return, memorial | Tags: film, France, funding, Heroes Return, History, Just imagine, Lottery Good Causes, Normandy, Robert Coupe, Second World War, veteran, World War Two, WW2, WWII
Just imagine if the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme wasn’t there to support World War Two veterans wanting to make a return journey to where they served. This National Lottery Good Causes film tells the story of Robert Coupe who applied for funding for a commemorative trip and has since successfully applied for a second trip.
Since 2009, over £25 million has been awarded to more than 52,000 World War II veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK for journeys in the UK and to countries including France, Germany, the Middle East, the Far East.
To use the new ‘Good Cause Finder’ to see projects in your area, or to find out more about Just Imagine January, visit www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and follow Lottery Good Causes on Twitter: @lottogoodcauses
Filed under: Far East, memorial, RAF, Remembrance Day | Tags: Heroes Return, Malaysia, Mechanic, Penang, RAF, Remembrance Day, Royal Air Force
A WWII veteran will travel to Malaysia to lay a wreath at a Remembrance Day ceremony to mark the sacrifice of soldiers in liberating the region from the Japanese.
Bob Simmons, 86, will be making the 8,000 mile commemorative trip to Penang as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme. Bob, a corporal and radar mechanic with the RAF, will be laying the wreath at the state cenotaph alongside the British High Commissioner and the Chief Minister of Penang.
Bob was born in Belgium, the son of a British soldier who had fought in the First World War, and lived in Ypres where an expatriate outpost grew around the British ex-servicemen who cared for the war memorials and cemeteries of ‘Flanders Fields’. Bob went to the British Memorial School in Ypres, the subject of a recent BBC Four documentary.
He said: “I learnt history, some Shakespeare and was taught Morse Code and semaphore. We all realised war was coming. There is a book about the school called The Children Who Fought Hitler and you can see me on the cover.”
His family fled Belgium for England in 1940, just before the Dunkirk rescue, and lived in Selsey Bill, on the West Sussex coast during the Battle of Britain.
He recalled: “One day a Junkers 87 came over our home and crashed. I scrambled on my bike with a hammer, pliers and a saw. By the time I got there two of the crew who survived were being marched away by the Home Guard. I managed to take out the radio transmitter because my father once owned a radio shop in Belgium and was an amateur radio enthusiast. I gave it to him and he used it to build an amateur radio transmitter. He also had a receiver and we used to tune into the fighter pilots talking to ground staff which was incredibly exciting.
“On another occasion a Heinkel dropped a stick of bombs over the village. I rushed home to make sure our house wasn’t hit. My father and sister walked out the house and we stared at the huge crater in someone’s garden. Then an unexploded bomb suddenly went off just ten yards away – I remember a huge bang and saw thousands of fragments fly up into the air. They then stopped for what seemed like ages and then poured down on us.”
Bob managed to get a job with the BBC by pretending he was older than he was and was sent on courses on oversees radio signals and frequencies.
Aged just 16 he even had experience of swapping local transmitters to confuse enemy bombers. At 17 he volunteered for the RAF.
He said: “I couldn’t fly because of my eyesight so I became a radar mechanic. I said I wanted to go to France – I spoke the language and knew the country like the back of my hand. So they sent me to Burma!”
Bob sailed from Liverpool in January 1945, zig-zagging to avoid U-boats, towards the US before sailing around Ireland down to Gibraltar, through Suez to Bombay, across by train to Calcutta and eventually to Burma where his overloaded ferry nearly capsized in a river on the way to Chittagong during a storm.
In Burma he served in Chittagong, Ramree Island and Rangoon. He was then sent to be part of the liberation of Penang. Bob experienced two brushes with death while serving in Southeast Asia.
He recalled: “I remember a Japanese bombing raid at a US base. We dived into some trenches with some US servicemen and I remember one American saying ‘Gee this is just like Pearl Harbour’. It was funny because I’d experienced more danger back in England.
“On arrival in Penang we had to transfer from our ship to a destroyer to be taken to landing craft to get to shore. We had to climb down a net to the destroyer – one man slipped and landed on a Lewis machine gun which started shooting all over us. One chap was badly hit.”
At Penang he set up a radar beacon at Bayan Lepas airport, helping the planes which were evacuating all the POWs back to the UK.
He spent Christmas in Singapore and then served 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, some who had been freed from the notorious Changi jail in Singapore.
He recalled; “We were evacuating those who were fit enough to travel. They had washed and been given clean uniforms but they were very emaciated and stooped. Many looked broken mentally. And these POWs were the fitter ones.
“I think the remembrance service in Penang will be particularly moving. As I get older I seem to become more emotional about the war than I used to be. It will be a tremendous experience returning to the region – to where I played a small part in the liberation of a country.”
Bob lived in Camberley, Surrey, for many years and Teddington, London, before moving to Toulouse in France in recent years. He now splits his time between there and family in Tonbridge, Kent.
For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: memorial, monument, RAF | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, Bomber Command, Guy Gibson, Heroes Return, netherlands, RAF
Of all the men who served in Bomber Command, Flight Lt John Hall may well be one of the luckiest. Crews had to complete at least 30 missions, despite odds of being shot down at one in 25 per mission. Yet John Hall survived 60 missions – including being shot down twice over the Channel. On the first occasion he and his crew spent four days in a dinghy and were picked up off the Isles of Scilly.
For his courage, John Hall, a rear gunner, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1943.
Of the 60 missions he flew, John said the worst was the March 1944 raid on Nuremberg when 795 bombers were sent to the industrial town and 95 failed to return. More airmen were killed that night than in the entire Battle of Britain.
He recalled: “It was a full moon and you could see anti-aircraft fire, searchlights, German fighters, flak all around and bombers in flames going down left right and centre. It was hell on earth.”
The 91-year-old veteran travelled down from Sunderland to take part in the unveiling of the memorial to Bomber Command in Green Park by Her Majesty The Queen on Thursday 28 June. And next month, John will be making an emotional Heroes Return trip to Netherlands to pay his respects to his friend James ‘Hank’ Hancock, the navigator on his Lancaster bomber.
John explained: “We had to do 30 trips on the first tour. When we were coming back from our 28th raid our navigator Hank said that he had an awfully sore throat. We went to the doctor first thing in the morning. The doc took one look at it and said ‘it’s not just a sore throat – you have quinsy. I’m afraid you are grounded’.
“This meant that Hank missed our 29th and 30th raids. When he recovered, Hank was then put with a different crew to complete his last two missions. I approached Wing Commander Guy Gibson and asked if we could fly another two raids with Hank so that he’d be with us for his last two missions. We were like a family. He said that he couldn’t allow it as we had completed 30 and had to rest.
“I watched Hank fly out on his 29th trip and saw him back. But he never returned from his 30th.
“He was a good lad. I’ve got a photo of him on my wall. We were all like brothers.”
For more information about the Heroes Return programme, call BIG’s advice line on 0845 0000 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn
Filed under: France, Heroes Return, memorial, monument, Normandy, RAF | Tags: 9 Squadron, Big Lottery Fund, Blitz, Bomber Command, France, Halifax, Heroes Return, interview, Lancaster, Podcast, RAF, Royal Air Force, World War Two
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.
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
Filed under: memorial, Remembrance Day | Tags: Big Lottery Fund, egypt. world war 2, Heroes Return 2, interview, Podcast
To mark Remembrance Sunday, we have produced a podcast featuring the moving stories of two veterans who have received funding through our Heroes Return scheme to visit the places they fought.
Doug Mayman is travelling back to Lucheux, Normandy in April with his daughter to retrace his steps using World War II diaries that he kept, and Ted Hedges, who served in RAF Coastal Command, hunting for the U-Boats targeting allied convoys, talks to us about his trip back to the Azores.
Big Lottery Fund Chief Executive Peter Wanless talks about what Heroes Return means to him and the Big Lottery Fund.
Filed under: ceremony, Heroes Return, memorial | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, funding, Heroes Return
As the nation prepares for ceremonies to commemorate the heroism of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 14th), the Big Lottery Fund announces its latest round of funding made today across the UK enabling veterans to embark on poignant visits back to the places they saw action almost 70 years ago.
Since launching in April 2009, the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme has enabled more than 11,300 veterans, widows, spouses and carers in the UK to go on emotional trips, home and abroad, to honour and remember those that did not return from the battlefields of 1939-1945.
These are very special people and as Remembrance Day approaches we are glad that we can pay tribute to them in this way. 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.