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

Precious cargo

In the war former merchant seaman John Burgess, 83, from Taunton served as a radio operator aboard Atlantic convoys. With his Heroes Return 2 grant he visited the Brittany Merchant Navy Museum and Memorial as part of a group of four veterans from the Taunton and District Merchant Navy Association

“It’s very important for veterans to make the trip to remember our time in the war and the men that were lost,” John says.

“Obviously most veterans funded through Heroes Return 2 go back to the places where they fought, but as we can’t go back to the middle of the ocean we decided to go to the museum dedicated to the Battle of the Atlantic.”

John joined the Merchant Navy and first went to sea aged 16. During the war he served on nine Atlantic convoys, helping to bring pork from Canada in banana boats and steel and timber from New York safely home to Britain. He also served in the Pacific alongside the Americans up to VJ Day in August 1945.

“At the end of the war I was part of a very memorable convoy,” he says. “Because the ship I was serving on was a refrigerated ship we were sent down with two other ships to South Africa.

“Each ship carried a cargo of oranges from South Africa set for the UK. My ship went to Glasgow. We brought the first commercial cargo of oranges after the war. One orange was allocated to every child younger than 14 for Christmas 1945.

“As far as I was concerned the worst of the war was over by the time I first went to sea in February 1944. But I saw a ship sink and lost friends on other ships in other places.

“I was delighted to make the trip to the Merchant Navy Museum and to meet the other veterans. I carried a precious cargo – a letter of friendship from the Mayor of Taunton to the Mayor of Camaret. It gave me great pleasure to pass this on when I met him during our stay in their country.

“Our party attended a special ceremony alongside members of the French resistance in the Finistère region and laid wreaths in memory of those who lost their lives.

“We exchanged neckties with our French hosts and they gave us a bronze plaque each to mark what was an emotional occasion. The friendship they showed to our whole party was first class – I’ll never forget it.

“The museum in Camaret is the only museum in mainland Europe that’s solely dedicated to the Battle of the Atlantic.

“The exhibits are built into the structure of a former German gun emplacement. Looking at charts of the wartime action in the Atlantic brought back many memories for me. They also displayed some of the communication equipment that I operated in my role as radio operator on the convoys.

“I don’t want to be looked upon as being unique in any way – there were lots of young lads like me who went to war without making a fuss and did their part.

“I’ve never had any regrets about the choices I made back then and the things I witnessed – I loved every minute of it.”

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