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


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



BIG funding for Northern Irish World War Two hero by The National Lottery Community Fund
February 1, 2012, 1:40 pm
Filed under: Heroes Return, RAF | Tags: , ,

A Northern Ireland WWII veteran has made an emotional journey to re-visit old friends and memories thanks to a Big Lottery Fund grant.

Ninety-year-old Royal Air Force veteran Lithgow ‘John’ McFarland was awarded a grant from our Heroes Return 2 programme to return to his flight base in England to commemorate the battles he fought in and the comrades he lost during the Second World War.

Ninety-year-old RAF veteran Lithgow ‘John’ McFarland with his wife, Elsie

Ninety-year-old RAF veteran Lithgow ‘John’ McFarland with his wife, Elsie

John’s story is an exciting and very moving one. When he decided to join up in 1940 he could never have imagined the adventure which lay ahead. But the fact that a young man of just 18, son of a L/Derry farmer and more used to hand-milking the cows, ended up shot down and imprisoned in an infamous Nazi stalag is a story worth telling.

In June 1941 John was formally called up as a navigator for the 75th New Zealand Squadron. They flew from a remote based near Ely in East Anglia and took part in mining operations, as well as drops to the French Resistance.  But it was during one of these missions that his plane was shot down.

“Everything happened so fast,” he explains.  “We had to bail out and use our parachutes. The parachute wrappers used to put little notes in with the silk saying things like ‘all the best’!  Only three of us survived that night – the rear gunner’s parachute failed to open. That could have been any one of us for you just grabbed a parachute on your way out to board the aircraft.”

John was captured by the Nazis and sent to a prisoner of war camp where he spent the rest of the war and experienced some terrible hardships. “I’ve never experienced cold like it. One POW found a rat and held onto it just to keep his hands warm!” he recalls.

John pictured during his WWII service with the RAF

John pictured during his WWII service with the RAF

He has since kept in touch with other ex-servicemen and last year, on a trip funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, visited his old Ely base. “It was a great experience to go back to the base and we were very well looked after. We enjoyed it immensely and it brought back old memories,” says John.

“I appreciate very much that the Big Lottery Fund gives people like us a chance to remember those times and those friends again, for the bonds of war are very strong.

To read more about John’s compelling story and to find out about the funding available from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme go to: http://bit.ly/wLGXcZ



WWII veteran recalls U-boat attack by The National Lottery Community Fund
January 6, 2012, 6:52 pm
Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

At 8pm at 17 December 1943, 19-year-old Quartermaster Robert Lang finished his shift at the wheel of merchant ship SS Kingswood. He headed down below for a meal, sat down in the mess room with his mates and picked up his cutlery.

“As I put my knife and fork to the plate, the torpedo struck the ship,” he said.

Robert Lang

Robert is one of a number of Second World War veterans who will be returning to the place where they served as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. The 88-year-old from Preston will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco on the west coast of Africa this year – near where his merchant ship was torpedoed 68 years ago. To date more than £25 million has been awarded to over 51,000 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.

Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “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.”

Robert recalled how he fought for his life escaping a sinking ship, clinging to a piece of wood in shark-infested waters, his rescue by local African fishermen, and treatment by a witch doctor on the Ivory Coast before friendly African forces helped his shipmates to a hospital. Decades later he managed to contact and even become friends with two members of the same U-boat crew that sunk his ship.

Weeks before the U-boat struck, Robert’s ship had previously called at Gibraltar. The ship loaded with cargo in Lagos in Nigeria and on 17th December set sail for UK. It was passing the Ivory Coast when the torpedo slammed into its side.

“All the lights went out – and the steel door to get out was jammed,” said Robert. “The ship was turning and the portholes were below the water line. It was like a sealed coffin. Someone shouted ‘we’re going’ and I thought we were headed to the bottom of the ocean. Then there was another explosion from the ammunition locker. That saved us – it blew the steel door open by 18 inches – just enough for us to squeeze out.

“When we got on deck the ship was leaning about 45 to 50 degrees. The engines should have been turned off when the captain called abandon ship but hadn’t been. We were trying to get a lifeboat down but the ship was dragging it along. Because the ship didn’t stop a second torpedo was fired which hit.

“I was blown clean out of the lifeboat and into the sea. I went straight down and thought that was it. When you hear of people saying you see your life and family before you it’s all true – and it wasn’t a fearful feeling. Eventually I popped up near the rotating blades. The ship kept going for a bit further and then turned over and sank.

“I was clinging to a piece of wood four feet long in the dark. I was terrified about the sharks – we’d seen them earlier in the day and I was living in fear of being eaten. One lifeboat got away and eventually it discovered me. It was made for 14 men but there were about 50 inside and I was the last to be pulled out of the sea.”

But the ordeal on the seas was not over. Suddenly, they heard and engine and a searchlight suddenly swept onto them – the deadly German U-boat had surfaced.

“I thought we were going to be blown out of the water,” said Robert. “The Germans demanded that our captain came aboard but we said he wasn’t in the lifeboat and must still be in the water. They wanted someone to go over and speak to their captain but none of us wanted to. Then a chap offered and they questioned him about our route and cargo. He was let go and came back to us. The search light came on us again and we feared the worst but the U-boat disappeared into the darkness.”

Robert, with broken fingers, injured arm and a gash in his groin, drifted in the lifeboat for two days while sharks circled the boat. After two days adrift they spotted local fishermen from Grand Popo in long canoes who helped them find the shore.

He recalled, “We slept on the beach.  They looked after us in their village of clay huts with straw roofs and fed us yams. At one point the chief of the tribe called for me and another mate to follow him. We came to a witch doctor covered in feathers. He chanted all sorts of incantations and abracadabra stuff, throwing his hands to the heavens. He also threw little stones at my broken fingers. Eventually the chief tapped me on the shoulder and my treatment was over!”

Robert and his shipmates then walked for days through the bush, coming across another tribe who killed a wild boar and fed them. Days later they met soldiers from the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was taken to a hospital in Takoradi in Ghana suffering from malaria where he spent Christmas day and eventually made it home, five months after the torpedoing.

Decades after the war, sometime in the early 1980s, Robert discovered the name of the U-boat – U515 – and wrote to the German Embassy for see if there was an association. They replied with contact details of two members of the crew from the submarine. He became pen pals with Carl Moller and Herman Kaspers. One day a couple of years later Robert’s phone rang.

He said: “My wife said someone wanted to speak to me and it was Carl. He asked if he could visit – I said yes anytime – he then said ‘I’ll see you in four hours!’ He was on holiday in Scotland! It was a strange feeling seeing the Mercedes pulling up my drive. Carl got out the car and then Herman stepped out too! Carl walked up to me, put his arm around me and the first thing he said was ’We are sorry for sinking the ship under your feet’.”

Robert, Carl and Herman stayed in touch for many years and Robert paid four visits to Germany, one time talking a tour of a U-boat on the Elbe with Carl and another occasion visiting Herman and his brother Helmut who also served on the U-515.

“I’m not at all resentful”, said Robert. “They were just doing their job like we were. When you get older you start to reflect differently on life.”

Robert served on nine merchant ships during the war. He has received a £800 grant from the Big Lottery Fund and will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco in June next year.



Heroes Return podcast by The National Lottery Community Fund

World War II veterans throw a poppy wreath for Remembrance Sunday

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.

Listen to it here:

Why not subscribe to our iTunes channel to hear future podcasts



Chance meeting 67 years on for lottery-funded D-day duo by The National Lottery Community 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 The National Lottery Community 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!”



A Desert Rat Returns by The National Lottery Community Fund
June 16, 2011, 12:47 pm
Filed under: Africa, Army, D-Day, Italy, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

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.”