Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, North Africa, Royal Navy
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 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.
Filed under: events, Heroes Return | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, Heroes Return 2, television, TV, veterans
Watch the beginning of the National Lottery Draw programme on the BBC for more information about the extension of Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return funding programme.
Filed under: Army, Heroes Return | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, funding, Heroes Return 2, veterans
The Big Lottery Fund is committing over £1 million in extra good cause funding in the year ahead for the country’s WWII veterans so they can make battlefront commemorative journeys to the places they saw action.
The additional funding comes on the day BIG named the 50,000th individual to benefit from the Heroes Return grant scheme – 91-year old Gordon Mellor, a former RAF bomber command navigator.
Gordon Mellor is awarded a grant to fund the visit he made to pay his respects to those of the fabled Comete resistance group who helped him escape across Nazi-occupied Belgium and France and over the Pyrenees into Spain.
Serving with Bomber Command 103 Squadron, Gordon aged 22 was shot down in November 1942 while his Halifax bomber was returning from a raid over Germany.
He recalls: “Returning from a short night raid over Aachen we were chased by a Messerschmitt 109. I managed to bail out and crashed into a tree. The Flight engineer came out behind me but his parachute failed and he hit a roof on the side of a house and was killed. I saw the plane burning in a field about 2km away. I managed to get out of the tree, stuffing my parachute between the branches. As I stood in the darkness looking at the flames I had the loneliest feeling of all my life. I decided I had to get away as quick as I could so started heading South West across the blackness toward Spain.”
Gordon’s long journey took him through Belgium, France, over the Pyrenees and then took him to Bilbao, Madrid and finally Gibraltar where he was flown back to Britain in a Dakota.
Recently returning to France to pay his respects to those who helped him escape to freedom, Gordon now 91 said; “It was like going back to meet old friends. The efforts of those people were amazing. They were just ordinary people yet so extraordinary. We can never pay back the debt we owe them.”
Here is a short film from the day…
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.
Filed under: Heroes Return, Navy | Tags: BIG, Heroes Return 2, HR2, Isle of Man, Navy
Former Able Seaman, George Wells returns to where he trained
Filed under: Far East, Singapore | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, British Pacific and East Indies Fleets Association, egypt. world war 2, Heroes Return, Heroes Return 2, HMS Victorious, HR2, Lottery Funding, Malaysia, Penang, Singapore, veterans, WW2, WWII
Second World War Royal Navy veterans from across the UK are flying out to Singapore and Malaysia next week (28thJanuary) to pay their respects for the final time to the comrades that lost their lives in the Pacific. The veterans are part of a 127 strong party from the British Pacific and East Indies Fleets Association
It is the final time the veterans, most now in their 80s and 90s, are travelling as a group to pay their respects in Singapore and on the Malaysian island of Penang.
One member of the association making the trip is Mr Victor Gray who lives in Plymouth and first joined the Royal Navy in September 1943 just after his 18th birthday. Victor, who is now 85, was chosen to be trained as a specialist radio operator, intercepting the enemy radio transmissions and in 1944 travelled to the Far East on the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious via the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Victor explains: “We went to India and became part of the East Indies Fleet. We then set sail for Palembang and in a battle with the Japanese over two or three days we managed to destroy a third of the Japanese oil supplies. After that we travelled down to Sydney where we joined what then became the British Pacific Fleet. It was so hot, you could fry an egg on the flight deck and I actually saw that done more than once.
To find out more about Victor’s story and the Heroes Return 2 programme visit our programme page
Filed under: Far East | Tags: BIG, Big Lottery Fund, Death Railway, Far East, Heroes Return, Heroes Return 2, Hong Kong, Jack Fowler, Japanese, Keelung Harbour, Kinhaseki, Kinkasekid, Lottery Funding, National Lottery, Pearl Fowler, POW, Prisoner of War, Second World War. WW2, Singapore, Stanley Market, WWII
Pearl Fowler went back to the Far East with her husband who served there during the Second World and was the taken as a Prisoner of War. Pearl has recorded some of the most memorable parts of their trip.
Arrived with time to spare despite traffic. In duty free, do I treat myself?
Arrived in Hong Kong. Lost camera and spectacles, not to worry. Lovely meal in hotel and so to bed as very exhausted
Selling poppies at Great Pacific Mall in Central Hong Kong with fellow travellers
Remembrance Service in Central Hong Kong. Talking with Captain Alex Butterfield about being released by the Americans. Laying poppy wreaths at cenotaph. Went to Sai Wan Cemetery finding gravestones of several Suffolks, which was very emotional. Visited and left poppy cross at Jack Edwards grave, a very emotional day.
A day of shopping at Stanley Market. An experience travelling 1 hr by local bus and trying to barter with stall holders. It was very hot and clammy
Had a meal at the revolving restaurant, then onto the peak. Wonderful views, an exceptional day
Short flight and long car journey to reach hotel, settled in and got an early night as busy day tomorrow.
Visit the campsite of the copper mine Kinkasekid and the mining museum which has now become a tourist destination. Followed by visit to Keelung Harbour where all the prisoners landed after their long sea trips on the hell ships. From here they were taken by train so far and then a 10 mile march up a very steep track to the campsite carrying whatever kit they still had in their possession.
Historical & cultural tour
Jungle campsite for memorial service, all the locals were there to greet the P.O.W.’s with a band playing, drums beating and bugles playing. Met 90 yr old farmer who remembered the P.O.W’s time
Memorial services at Kinhaseki. Laying of wreaths. Last post played by trumpeter Andrew Tsao. Bagpipers played by Mal Turner whilst wreaths were laid. Prayers by Rev Diane Womg. Very emotional time when P.O.W’s paid tributes.