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


WW2 bombardier relives his great escape on 67th anniversary of VE Day by The National Lottery Community Fund
May 8, 2012, 9:00 am
Filed under: Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: , , ,

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.

Eric Batteson, 92, is returning to Italy thanks to funding from Heroes Return

Eric Batteson, 92, is returning to Italy thanks to funding from Heroes Return

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.

Eric Batteson is just one of many WW2 veterans to have received funding for a commemorative trip

Eric Batteson is just one of many WW2 veterans to have received funding for a commemorative trip

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.



Irish veterans return to theatres of war by The National Lottery Community 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.



Veterans visit Malta to mark 70th anniversary of islanders’ bravery award by The National Lottery Community Fund
April 11, 2012, 7:00 am
Filed under: Heroes Return, Malta | Tags: , , ,

Ronald Quested considers himself lucky. He survived, when more than 30,000 Merchant Navy seamen were killed during the Second World War.

Ronald Quested stands proudly on parade with his Merchant Navy standard

Ronald Quested stands proudly on parade with his Merchant Navy standard

Many seamen paid the ultimate price, hunted by U-boat ‘Wolfpacks’ and dive-bombed by enemy aircraft while importing vital food, fuel and ammunition to allow an Allied victory.

Ronald, from Ingatestone, Essex, wants their sacrifice to never be forgotten. He, along with two other Merchant Navy veterans and two war widows, is making a visit to Malta to mark the 70th anniversary on Sunday 15 April 2012 of the Maltese people being awarded collectively the George Cross for their bravery in withstanding an intensive bombing campaign on the island.

The £8,150 cost of the visit is being funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. As part of the commemorations, his party will be joining a tribute to fellow Merchant Navy seamen killed when a hospital ship was attacked and sunk near Anzio.

Also attending the commemorations thanks to £800 in funding is Margaret Machin from Dover, Kent, who was born to British parents on the island, grew up there and survived the bombardment of the island. She started working aged just 15 in the Vice Admiral Malta’s top secret cypher office in the underground headquarters Lascaris at Valletta. Her office received and sent coded messages using the Typex code machines – the British version of the German Enigma machines.

Ronald joined the Merchant Navy aged only 17 and served for 14 months during the war. He was a radio operator but also a trained gunner on board SS Samnebra. The ship took supplies to the British 8th Army from the United Kingdom stopping at Bon in Algiers, Port Augusta in Sicily, and Naples, Italy between November and December 1944. His ship also stopped at North Africa, the United States, Egypt and India before the war ended.

Ronald, now 84, remembers leaving Birkenhead with 1,000 tonnes of TNT on board. He said: “I saw men loading supplies with thick sacks wrapped around their hob-nail boots to stop any sparks. I was so young it didn’t scare me. In fact, you didn’t think about all the explosives on board. I was more inquisitive at that age.”

Ronald pictured post-war in 1946

Ronald pictured post-war in 1946

During the 14 months he served during the war his convoy was attacked only once, for which he feels lucky. He recalled: “We’d have ten lines of merchant ships with five ships nose to tail in each line. In the starboard quarter on the right hand side there was a tanker. That’s where they sailed in case they were attacked. You couldn’t have a tanker right in the middle of a convoy.

“We had just passed the Straits of Gibraltar in December 1944 after having delivered our cargo to Naples. The alarm sounded and we had to go to our stations. I went to my gun – a 20mm rapid fire gun – which was above the navigation bridge. I got into the harness. It was pitch black but I could see huge flames from what appeared to be the tanker completely alight. Being so dark I can only assume it was a submarine that attacked it.” 

Ronald and the rest of his party have been invited to the 70th anniversary event in Malta by the George Cross Island Association to commemorate the lives of 13 Merchant Navy seaman lost when the hospital ship St David was sunk south-west of the Anzio beachhead. An enemy aircraft dive-bombed the ship despite it displaying Red Cross markings.

He said: “We need to keep alive the memory of all those who lost their lives. And we must not take for granted the normal everyday lives we enjoy today.”

Malta played an important role owing to its proximity to German and Italian shipping lanes. The opening of a new front in North Africa in mid-1940 increased Malta’s already considerable strategic value. British air and sea forces based on the island could attack Axis ships transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe.  The Axis attempted to bomb, or starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied ships supplying the island. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war. The bravery of the Maltese people moved King George VI to award the George Cross to Malta on 15 April 1942.

Margaret remembers the horrendous conditions on the island. She said: “The bombardments were horrific. We would feel our ears moving in and out from the pressure of explosions above. I remember once coming up from underground to find the Opera House bombed out. Our office was right underneath that.

Margaret and Wesley

Margaret and Wesley

“We worked very hard sending and receiving messages to convoys and their escorts. Sometimes it was awful – we’d be sending messages to ships and then later we’d come up from underground to see the ships had arrived but were smoking away from being bombed.

“My family home was around the dock area. We had to be moved away to barracks and we shared a room with three other families, a curtain separating each family. We were really starving. My mother queued up with the poor people of Malta just to get a bowl of soup.”

Margaret’s then future husband Wesley served on the island as a Lance Corporal. He arrived from fighting in Palestine to operate searchlights in Malta and was nearly killed when he was shot through both legs by an enemy aircraft.

She said: “One bullet went right through one leg, another bullet exploded inside his other leg and took part of the muscle away. He recovered and managed to take part in the D-Day landings. I think he earned his pension.

“I have been back to the island since the war, but I think this will be the last time. This visit will be special.”

For more information on the Heroes Return 2 programme, visit BIG’s website, or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121.



WW2 veteran recalls wartime experiences by The National Lottery Community Fund
March 21, 2012, 12:47 pm
Filed under: Far East, Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

The story of World War Two veteran Jack Jennings, 93, inspired a recent National Lottery good causes TV advert campaign.

Having trouble viewing this video? Watch it on our YouTube channel.

In this video, Jack speaks of his return to the Far East with funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme. He also gives his thoughts on how Lottery money benefits good causes across the UK.

For more information on Heroes Return visit our website or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121.

Take a look at the National Lottery’s good causes directory for a snapshot of all of those supported right on your doorstep.



WWII fighter pilot returns to Japan in tribute to best friend by The National Lottery Community Fund

Flight commander Keith Quilter hurtled along in his fighter bomber towards the Japanese aerodrome. Flying right beside him was his best friend Walter Stradwick and two other fighters.

At just 50 feet from the ground they closed in on Japanese aircraft. As they prepared to let loose a burst of gunfire, Keith saw Walter’s fighter at his side suddenly plunge into the ground and explode into a ball of flames.

Keith was aged 23 at the time. Today (Tuesday, 6 March) is his 90th birthday and he is also celebrating being awarded funding to make an emotional visit to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate from aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, killed on 18 July 1945 aged 22.

Keith, from Tenterden, Kent, recently learnt he will receive £3,700 from BIG’s Heroes Return programme to make a commemorative visit in May 2012. His is the 50th successful application for funding for a veteran to visit Japan.

Keith served as a pilot in the navy from 1942 to 1946 and rejoined in 1947, leaving in 1952. During the war he flew many death-defying missions in his F4U Corsair fighter bomber, at first in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, in Norway in August 1944. 

Keith pictured during his wartime service

Keith pictured during his wartime service

HMS Formidable then joined the British Pacific Fleet. They attacked Japanese aerodromes in islands between Okinawa and Taiwan to prevent Kamikaze suicide missions against Allied ships and to prepare for a possible ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Keith said: “I want to go and pay my respects to my cabin mate Walter Stradwick. I found out where his grave is and I’m going to leave a wreath there. I’m also hoping to somehow trace his family. I’m going to take a photograph of his grave and would like them to be able to see it.

“He went into the ground and I saw a horrible great mass of flames alongside me. Then my wing man said his oil pressure was dropping and so the fourth pilot had to escort him back to the carrier. This meant I was on my own so I joined the tail end of my CO’s group to attack a different aerodrome.

“I got hit as I went into a 45 degree dive to strafe the aerodrome. I heard this huge bang. A 20mm shell hit the side. When I eventually got back to the carrier all the chaps on deck were pointing up at my aircraft. When I got out I saw a hole in the fuselage so big you could put your head inside.

“That mission was the one that caused me the most personal loss. When your close friend and cabin mate is shot down and you get back to the ship and walk back into an empty cabin room, that is….quite something.”

Keith survived two Kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable. The first strike killed several men on the flight deck who didn’t hear the alarm because of the sound of the engines of aircraft taxiing towards one end. As a result of that attack, it was decided that someone would also wave a red flag to warn pilots of a Kamikaze approaching. This new procedure saved Keith’s life.

Keith said: “I was strapped into my aircraft with the engine running. Suddenly I saw someone frantically waving a red flag in front of me. I switched the engine off, unstrapped myself as quick as I could and me and three other pilots leapt out of our fighters and jumped down two of three decks before it hit the ship. The ship lurched as the kamikaze hit us. My aircraft was completely destroyed.”

Less than a week after Walter died, Keith was shot down attacking a Japanese destroyer inside a harbour at Owaze.

Keith recalled: “Twelve of us were flying towards a target on the mainland when we spotted a destroyer. I was told to attack it so me and three others peeled away from the main group. Because it was on the inside of the harbour wall we had to approach from the land which had high hills. We attacked by coming in really low over the water and released the bombs just before we passed over the ship so that they hit its side.

Keith is returning to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate Walter Stradwick (credit PA)

Keith is returning to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate Walter Stradwick

“One of our chaps got hit and had to ditch in the water. I wanted to come around again to see if he was okay in his dingy and saw a side creek with hills that would have hidden me from view of the town as I came around for a look. But there was a gun position there and I got hit. My engine suddenly stopped so I had no choice but to ditch.

“I had to open the hood quickly before the plane sank, got into my dingy and paddled away to the open sea. The other pilot was doing the same while Japanese were taking pot shots at him from the shore.

“Then I saw this sinister looking black submarine sail towards us. At first I feared it was a Japanese submarine but men got out and I recognised the US Navy uniform. They were on standby to save Allied pilots like myself. I couldn’t believe a US sub would come in that close.

“I was aboard for three weeks, by which time the atom bombs had been dropped. As we sailed into Saipan we heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.”

As well as visiting Walter’s grave at Yokohama War Cemetery, Keith also wanted to visit the memorial dedicated to Robert Hampton Gray, a Corsair fighter pilot also on board HMS Formidable. “Hammy” Gray was one of the last Canadians to die in the war and was awarded a Victoria Cross for an attack on a destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite coming under heavy fire and his plane ablaze, he remained on course to bomb and sink the ship before crashing into the water. The memorial is the only one dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.

Keith said: “We were all such young and cocky fighter pilots. But by the time VJ day came I think half the squadron had been lost. Walter was a lovely guy and Hammy was also full of fun in the mess.”

The Heroes Return 2 programme is still open for applications. For more information, please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121



Far East POW inspires UK Lottery campaign by The National Lottery Community Fund

The amazing story of 93-year-old Far East veteran Jack Jennings is the inspiration for a National Lottery TV advert and UK-wide publicity campaign launched today (Sunday, 4 March).

 

The Devon WWII veteran recently made an emotional journey to re-visit old friends and memories in Thailand and Singapore thanks to a grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Jack served with the Suffolk Regiment, the First Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment, and was fighting a fierce last stand in Singapore when it eventually fell to the Japanese in February 1942. 

Jack explains: “After the surrender had been signed we had to just wait for the Japanese to come and collect us. 500 of us were rounded up and taken to sit in a tennis court at the back of a large house. We had to sit there for five days, in the full sun, with water only occasionally and just biscuits thrown over the fences for food.  

We were then moved and put into Changi prisoner of war camp – worn out, tired and starving. The camp was packed by the time our company had arrived, so we had to settle for anything. After a meal of rice and watery soup, we felt better.

Jack Jennings, 93, pictured at home in Torquay (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

Jack Jennings, 93, pictured at home in Torquay (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

We managed to get a wash and clean up, before retiring to our hut for a well earned rest. Needless to say we slept that night whatever the discomfort was, sleeping on bamboo slats.

Our officers gave us our daily jobs and when these were finished there was time to wander around the camp to find out who had survived.

The minor injured or sick could attend sick parade, to receive whatever treatments were available. The wounded and the worst of the sick personnel were in the adjoining Roberts Hospital, but this was grossly overcrowded.

The change in diet affected many men, some with sores or upset stomachs, and others showed signs of vitamin deficiency. It was at Changi that I first saw coconut trees, but they were restricted for the Japanese. The result was a great struggle for survival and some couldn’t make it. The cemetery started at Changi, soon enlarged with three or four funerals every day.

Putting on a show

Occasionally in the evenings, when more organised, someone would give a lecture, or we would have a debate. Permission was given to make a stage and put on shows, and very soon the talented ones among us were able to form a good concert party. Musicians found instruments, or made them, to provide the accompanying music.

The result was a top class show which relieved the boredom for a while. Rumours of the progress of the war spread around at these gatherings, but at that stage it was not very cheery.

It was at Changi that I had my first birthday in captivity. Who would have thought that my birthday treat was little more than a helping of boiled rice? The day was just another boring, depressing day with only one thought: “How long were we to be kept prisoners of war, and could we, by some miracle, be freed to get out of this miserable experience?”

Jack Jennings survived the horrors of Changi prison camp (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

Jack Jennings survived the horrors of Changi prison camp (photo credit: Kevin Clifford)

The prophets in the camp gave us high hopes at times, but each prediction came to nothing. After dark, lying on bamboo slats, trying to get some rest was difficult enough, but with the torment of mosquitoes, lice and the croaking bullfrogs it was worse. Little did we know then that things were going to get much worse.”

Jack was later moved to Thailand to work on the infamous Thai-Burma death railway, featured in the epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the years that followed his release, he returned to his profession as a skilled joiner. He has two children, three grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Of making an emotional return to both Singapore and Thailand with his grand-daughter, Jack says:  “I was able to find and visit the graves of former comrades we also visited the British Embassy in Bangkok and met some notable people. It was important for me to go back to Singapore and Thailand and remember all the men that didn’t come back.”

To find out about the funding available from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121



BIG funding helps Josephine return to recall her ‘Malta Story’ by The National Lottery Community Fund
February 23, 2012, 12:02 pm
Filed under: Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

Thanks to a grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme, a war veteran from North Wales recently returned to her native Malta to recall the role she played in defending the strategically important Mediterranean island from falling into the clutches of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the Second World War.  

Malta Story, a classic 1953 British war film depicts the love story between an RAF pilot, played by Alec Guinness, and a Maltese girl during the heroic air defence of Malta when the island was under siege. 

Josephine looks through some old photos and memorabilia from WWII with her son, Paul Roberts.

Josephine looks through some old photos and memorabilia from WWII with her son, Paul Roberts.

This month, 85-year-old Josephine Barber from Rhyl returned to her native Malta with her son, Paul Roberts, to recall her very own ‘Malta Story’, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the love story depicted in the wartime classic. Josephine was a plotter in the Lascaris underground War Rooms during the conflict and had the important job of directing British Forces to engage enemy aircraft and monitor their activity.

Read her story in the Big Lottery Fund newsroom