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


“I want to thank them for what they did” by Big Lottery Fund
March 11, 2013, 11:46 am
Filed under: France, Heroes Return | Tags: , , , , , ,

World War Two veteran Ray Wilton, 88, speaks of his return to the beaches of Normandy where he took part in the first wave of landings on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

His journey back to the French coast was funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, which gives grants to veterans and their families for commemorative trips back to where they served.

This emotional film, one of two on the subject, featured on National Lottery Saturday draw shows during March 2013.

It was also part of a wider series on Lottery funding and the good causes which are benefiting. Lottery players should feel proud that they are helping veterans like Ray to make incredible journeys to revisit their past.

Read Ray’s story in full in another post on the Heroes Return blog.

For more information on Heroes Return funding, visit the programme page.



Return to the shores of Anzio by Big Lottery Fund

As the Royal Navy Landing Ship Tank made a desperate race for the Anzio beachhead, 18-year old Ordinary seaman Matthew Toner once again braced himself under the horrific barrage of ‘Anzio Annie’ – a pair of death dealing German long range guns. It was just one of many hazardous trips he would make to supply vital reinforcements in support of the allied invasion of Southern Italy.

World War Two veteran

World War Two veteran Matthew Toner, 87 (Credit: Dominic Holden)

Now aged 87, Matthew from the Wirral on Merseyside will be returning for the first time to the shores of Anzio, 69 years on.

Matthew will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers.

Birkenhead lad Matthew joined up with the Royal Navy in 1941 aged just 16. Not long after, he was making his first voyage across the treacherous Atlantic to America to pick up a newly built Landing Ship Tank (LST) 410 designed for carrying troops and heavy vehicles from sea to shore.

Matthew recalls: “The LSTs were known as ‘the ships with no names’ because Churchill thought that they would have an 80% casualty rate. My job was to maintain the general upkeep of the ship, mostly, cleaning, loading cargo and repairing equipment.”

After spending three months in America, LST 410 set sail for the Mediterranean loaded up with ammunition for the allied troops in French North Africa before taking part in Operation Husky the allied invasion of Sicily.

He remembers: “The Sicily landing was marvellous. We did the job. But the LSTs had a very shallow draught for sailing in shallow water. They were top heavy and they rocked and bounced about. I was very lucky, I was never sea sick. But the troops were being sick all the time. My job was to look after them and make sure they got off the ship ok.”

With the success of Husky and the Italian campaign launched and underway, Matthew was deployed as part of Operation Avalanche, the main invasion of Italy at Salerno in September of 1943. He remembers: “At Salerno we were landing the original 7th Armoured Division Desert Rats. We felt sorry for them as they had been in the desert for four years and were promised leave to go home. But they had to do it because Churchill had wanted it.

World War Two veteran with medals and photo

Matthew with his WW2 medals and a picture of himself in Naval uniform (Credit: Dominic Holden)

“We were praying for them. We shared our rum and cigs and we looked after them on the ship. We heard the Italians had surrendered so we all rejoiced with a double tot of rum. Nelson’s Blood we called it and it was very strong.

“But the Germans had quickly replaced the Italians and when we landed and opened our bow doors the Germans were waiting for us. They were coming toward the beach and there was a lot of hand to hand fighting.

“It was terrible. The coast was being bombarded and it was there that I first saw remote control bombs. One hit HMS Warspite and put her out of action.”

Despite the heavy German counter attack the combined British and American forces finally secured bridgeheads at Salerno and Taranto and from there pushed up toward Naples where an allied offensive was launched to break the German Gustav line at Monte Cassino. However, hampered by the difficult mountain terrain the allies struggled to capture the German stronghold and Operation Shingle was launched in an attempt to support the offensive by landing troops along the Italian coast below Rome to establish a beachhead at Anzio far behind the enemy lines.

Matthew recalls: “There was horrific shelling at Anzio. Wherever we were sent we knew there was trouble but you always tried to be a little bit macho as if you weren’t scared. But sometimes I was scared. We must have made about 30 trips running back and forth between Anzio and Naples and the Germans were shelling us with Anzio Annie, huge guns lobbing shells right into the harbour. We landed the American Rangers and some of the Black Cat Division and the Welsh Guards. We took a lot of wounded back to the hospital ship in the bay and others back to Naples.

“We also took German Afrika Korps PoWs to prison camps. They were quite amiable. We had them doing little jobs around the ship, scraping off paint. We gave them cigs. One of them made me a little lamp in the shape of a Stuka dive bomber. But later it got smashed when we went through rough seas in the Bay of Biscay.”

D-Day followed and after picking up troops and heavy transport vehicles in Southampton, Matthew set sail as part of Operation Overlord in a flotilla of over 5,000 ships heading for the beaches of Normandy.

Picture of World War Two naval veteran

Matthew pictured during his wartime service (Credit: Dominic Holden)

He said: “We were anchored off the Isle of Wight. When we picked up the troops they were bored stiff. They didn’t know what was going on. At about 7am we saw the Paratroops in planes going over to France. We were part of a huge armada with over 150,000 men.

“As we got close to Juno beach there were lots of shells exploding round us and there were many dead bodies in the water. It was pandemonium getting the men off. The sea had been rough and many of them were violently sick. They were sick and they had to go and fight.”

As the Normandy offensive got underway Matthew’s ship continued to operate as part of a vital supply line before finally returning to Liverpool for repairs before being re deployed to Kochi on the West coast of India.

He said: “We knew we were taking part in practice exercises for landing in India but then we were told to hold troops in Malaya. We then went down the Malacca straits to Penang but the Japanese had gone two weeks before. We went on to Calcutta and then we heard the bomb had been dropped.

“We all got sandfly fever, a form of malaria with headaches and shaking. We looked like  horrible skinny runts. We had to take Mepacrine tablets every day which made your skin turn yellow.”

Matthew and crew were sent to a camp in Darjeeling where they rested up before sailing to Bangkok to pick up supplies of rice which they took on to Singapore following the Japanese surrender. Matthew came back to England in 1946, though stayed in the Navy where he served in mine clearing operations round the British Coast, and later as part of the Atom bomb testing in the Pacific Atolls. He finally came out of the service in 1951 with the rank of Seaman Petty Officer.

Looking back he said: “I just liked being in the Navy. I had some smashing mates. But many got killed. That’s the way it went. My mother made me wear a St Christopher medal to keep me safe. ”

Matthew will be making his first trip back to Anzio since the landings 69 years ago. He said: “I think Heroes Return is absolutely wonderful.”

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



A return to the Normandy shores by Big Lottery Fund

All around the sea was turning red with blood as Ray Wilton’s Motor Torpedo Boat guided the first wave of Normandy landing crafts through the deadly German sea mines. Many struggled desperately in the high tide as their crafts foundered under heavy shell fire or were wrecked by enemy defences lurking under the water. Those that did not die of their wounds sank like stones under the weight of heavy kitbags. Twenty-year-old Ray looked on helplessly as his boat ploughed on towards Gold Beach.

Ray Wilton

Ray Wilton

Now aged 88, Ray from the Wirral on Merseyside will be making a poignant trip 68 years on back to the Normandy beach at Arromanches.

Ray will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country.

A Prescot lad, 18 year old Ray was originally in a reserved occupation as a technical engineer but in 1942 decided to register as a reserve in the Royal Navy.

He recalls: “I was raring to go. Two of my mates had already joined, so in 1943 when I hadn’t received my call up I just went down and volunteered. I was eager to get on and do my bit.”

Ray was sent to Skegness to do his basic training. After eight weeks he trained as a telegraphist, learning Morse code and passing out with 22 words a minute. Promoted to the rank of Ordinary Telegraphist, Ray was transferred to Southampton-based stone frigate HMS Squid as part of Combined Operations.

He said: “We were the central communication base for everyone involved in the invasion. I was manning a radio set when one day the phone rang and I was told that I was to be a replacement out at sea for a telegraphist with appendicitis serving on Motor Torpedo Boat patrols in the Channel. Our job was to look for German convoys and submarines hugging the French coast.

“We were more like a pirate ship really. It was a little boat and we all lived together, very informal. We used to wear boiler suits and plimsolls and put on oilskins if it got too wet.

He continued: “We were all ready for D-day which was originally planned for the 5th of June, but the weather turned awful so we were sent out to make sure that everyone knew that the operation would be delayed. We caught an American ship quite near the French coast and called out to them ‘Get back. We’ve been delayed!’ then after that we saw another boat full of tanks and we sent them back too.

Ray, pictured bottom right, as young Royal Navy Telegraphist

Ray, pictured bottom right, as young Royal Navy Telegraphist

“We also found the body of an American airman floating in a life jacket. He was very badly decomposed so we took his dog tag and then slipped off his jacket to let him sink. I later took the tag to the American depot so at least someone would know what had happened and could tell his family.”

Sailing overnight on the 5th June, Ray and crew were deployed to assist the landings scheduled for 7.30 am on Gold Beach.

He recalls: “The troops were put onto landing crafts about six miles out. Our job was to escort the landing crafts through the German mines. It was an exceptionally high tide and it covered all the beach obstacles, iron fences with explosives.

We were under heavy shell and mortar fire. Quite a number of the crafts came to grief and there were lots of men struggling in the sea. You couldn’t help them. We were constantly being pushed from behind and we just had to go on.  I can still see those lads in the water. It was very sad, very sad.

“But we got the first wave through and then we pulled back and marshalled the crafts behind. You could hardly see the sea for ships. There were 138 warships spread along all the beaches. The Germans were positioned behind French holiday homes along the front. They put up a very strong resistance with mortars and machine guns. We were unscathed, not a bullet. But the poor bloody infantry couldn’t pull back.”

With 25,000 troops landed on Gold Beach and the invasion well underway, Ray continued patrol duties on the Normandy coast, before being sent back to Plymouth Naval Hospital after a foot injury caused his leg to turn septic. He recalls, “At this time the Germans were targeting Plymouth with doodlebugs so I was sent up north to Rainhill Hospital near home and managed to get seven days leave.”

Once recovered, Ray sailed in the Jamaica up to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle on a mission to rescue Norwegian meteorologists stranded at a Royal Navy weather station bombed by the German Battleship, Tirpitz.  He then transferred to frigate HMS Dart at Londonderry carrying out offshore sweeps looking for German U boats and then as convoy escort out to Gibraltar.

He recalls: “We attacked a number of ‘U’ boats and sunk two. We had hedgehog anti sub bombs we fired in front of us and which formed a huge circle of bombs exploding all around the sub. We knew we had destroyed them when we saw oil and wreckage come up to the surface.”

“When VE-day came we were sent to marshal the surrendering ‘U’ Boats directing them to various places. It was quite a strange feeling. We had spent so much time trying to blow each other out of the water.”

With the European conflict at an end, Dart was deployed as part of the far eastern fleet and  sailed out to join allied forces massing at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka as part of Operation Zipper, the main invasion of Malaya.

Ray Wilton with his daughter Deborah

Ray Wilton with his daughter Deborah

Ray recalls, “Now we had a chance to deploy a huge number of ships, aircraft and troops. We got halfway across the Indian Ocean when we got the message that the Atomic Bomb had been dropped. We all said ‘what’s an atomic bomb?’ nobody had ever heard of it.

“We slowed up and waited for a while. We were given further orders to proceed then the Nagasaki bomb was dropped and we were told to proceed to Singapore to take the Japanese surrender.”

Ray stayed on in Singapore helping with the release of PoWs and the many foreign nationals incarcerated by the Japanese before transferring to duties at the Ceylon West Receiving Station, a huge underground global communications centre built under a coconut grove.

He confesses: “I didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful place now the war was over.” However, Ray was duly demobbed and arrived back in England just in time for Christmas 1945.

“My dad had died in 1943 but it was wonderful to see my mother and my two sisters. We had a lovely reunion.  Sadly I lost my best pal in the air force. He was in Bomber Command and was killed over Berlin. But there were still a few good mates around.”

Ray plans to travel out to Normandy with his daughter Deborah in the New Year. He said; “Over the years I thought I’d like to go back to pay my respects. I was lucky, a lot of young lads didn’t come back.”

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



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



Cyril Haworth’s Heroes Return by Big Lottery Fund
November 10, 2009, 4:38 pm
Filed under: D-Day | Tags: , ,

As a World War II soldier, Cyril Haworth took part in D-Day. Here Cyril tells his story as he recalls the D-Day landings and his return journey made possible through Big Lottery funding.