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


Saluting the fallen, Remembrance 2014 by Big Lottery Fund

Never forgotten Remembrance Day veterans salute the fallen

As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism and fortitude of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 9) veterans across the country are embarking on emotional journeys both in the UK and across the world to pay their respects to those who lost their lives over 70 years ago.

Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth HighlanderTo reflect the nation’s debt to our Armed Forces veterans of WW2 the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over  £28 million to more than 57,000 WW2 veterans, spouses, widows and carers since 2004 to make journeys of remembrance.

Peter Ainsworth chair of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “As we approach this important day of commemorations it is with gratitude and pride that the country remembers and honours our veterans who endured the horrors of war and whose courage and sacrifice finally brought an end to a conflict that cost over 60 million lives across the world.”

Among those benefiting from the Heroes Return programme today is Colonel Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth Highlander.

On Sept 1939 Edward was an 18 year-old third year Electrical Engineering apprentice in HM Naval Dockyard, Devonport and a student at HM Dockyard School.

He remembers: “Third year apprentices were required to spend that year ‘afloat’, that is working on ships that were already in service with a naval crew. All those working in naval dockyards were exempt from call up and like many young men at the time we couldn’t wait to be called up and immediately wanted to volunteer to join the Forces in a unit of our choice. We were told we could not and should not.

“By nature I am a loner and inclined to find my own solutions so I wrote to the Admiral Superintendant, HM Dockyard, Devonport and he gave me permission to volunteer, adding that my training would be particularly valuable in the Royal Navy. But, I failed the RN Medical Board because I did not have perfect 20/20 vision and spectacles were unacceptable.” 

Consequently, he volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment joining them in early 1941 at Bovington camp in Dorset. Training as a tank radio operator/driver he was then sent to active service in the Middle East in early 1942, serving as tank Trooper in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) with the 7th Hussars part of the 7th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats.

He recalls: “When we eventually reached Egypt I went down with the awful Sand Fly Fever and ended up in the British military hospital in Helwan, a leafy suburb of Cairo. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire 7th Armoured Brigade were rushed to Rangoon with their light tanks to attempt to defend Burma against the Japanese. It was a terrible battle with much sickness.

“The Brigade was driven back into India, with practically everyone suffering from malaria and dysentery and it took many months and much reinforcement before the brigade eventually returned to Egypt. We missed the first Battle of El Alamein. Those like me, when we left hospital went to our depots in the Canal Zone and were formed and trained as complete tank crews with firstly Grant tanks and later with Sherman tanks.” 

Edward’s crew was reallocated as part replacement crews to the many other RTR units in time for the second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and formed up beyond Alexandria as part of a replacement troop of 5th RTR.

“My tank was hit early on and caught fire,” he recalls.” My back was burnt getting out of the turret and I ended up again in the British military hospital at Helwan, in Cairo. When I was fully fit again I was chosen for a commission in the Infantry as a Seaforth Highlander, 2nd Lieutenant, in late 1943 but by then there were no Seaforth units in the Middle East, so I volunteered and passed the selection process for the SAS, including the essential parachute training.”

Edward now a Captain in the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR) went on to take part in raids and longer operations working with the working with the Special  Boating Services (SBS) in Italy the Aegean Islands, Albania, and Yugoslavia, including  two raids on the Albanian coast and the occupation of the Island of Vis, off the German held Yugoslavian coast.

He said: “It was very difficult for the Germans to defend the Adriatic and Italian coast. There was a main road that ran up from Brindisi to Venice where we could land agents. In the Aegeans we worked with the Special Boating Services (SBS) on short sharp raids. There were thousands of Greek Islands and we could mingle in with the local fishing boats.”

In January 1945 after returning to Special Forces HQ in Bari, Italy, Edward was then summoned to form part of Monty’s final push into Germany.

He recalls: “We used to love going back to base in Bari. It was always full of nice British girls. We’d try and stay at the Hotel Imperiali, built by Mussolini and taken over by the NAAFI.  The Commanding Officer came all the way to Bari to claim me as his battalion was about to go into the front line short of officers, whereas, as far as he could see I was “only dancing with FANY’s.”

As part of the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Edward moved up through France direct from Italy to join the 5th Division for the Rhine Crossings and advance into Germany where after a few battles the Battalion reached Lubeck and Wismar on the Baltic.

The European War now over, in July 1945 Edward flew to Ceylon in a Sunderland Flying Boat to join Force 136 Special Operations Executive (SOE). 

He said: “Luckily for me, before I was parachuted into Japanese – held lands, the A bombs were dropped in August and my war service ended with a fiancée, Veronica who was serving in the ATS in Mountbatten’s HQ in Kandy where Force 136 also had its HQ.

“We married in July 1946, and lived very happily for 57 years till sadly Veronica died in 2003, having given me four marvellous children.”

Edward reflects: “Remembrance Day means a lot to me. I was born just after World War One ended. I lost two uncles only 20 at the time so there was grief in the family. But as you grow older it becomes more important and given the opportunity to go back and visit battle sites, remembrance becomes much much more important, and you begin to have regrets  that you didn’t do more  about remembering. It does become terribly important.” 

“I think Heroes Return is a marvellous idea and I’m very grateful to have been able to make these important trips with the support of the lottery. I think Heroes Return has got it right, just in time to allow thousands of veterans to go back, many who might not have otherwise been able to. What I like about it too is that the funding is not means tested. It helps every veteran, like we were in the war, all equal, all one.”

The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has awarded over £28 million to over 57,000 WW2 veterans, widows and carers since 2004.

The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.

This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have already been funded since the programme relaunched in 2009 will have a second opportunity to apply for a grant towards travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served, or make a commemorative visit in the UK.

For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Memories of battle by Big Lottery Fund
November 26, 2009, 11:45 am
Filed under: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

At El Alamein Museum we saw a 3 ton truck that was exactly what my father and his fellow soldiers had made their home whilst in the desert. They would dig into the sand and drive their lorry in, covering themselves with a tarpaulin at night so as to be warm and not visible to the enemy. It was said with meaning that really the real enemy at this time was the desert.

The soldiers would not always know where the enemy actually was. Although appearing flat, the desert is not at all, and has many ridges that can hide tanks and soldiers. Also, when Germans captured British vehicles they would sometimes use these in battles so it was not always possible to recognise the real enemy.



Food for thought by Big Lottery Fund
November 26, 2009, 11:44 am
Filed under: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Lunch this day consisted of tahini and cold chips, cheese rolls, cucumber and a tomato with an unusual fruit drink as accompaniment. This was taken in the middle of the desert, perched on an extremely uncomfortable rock in 40 degrees heat. But this couldn’t even begin to compare in discomfort to what my father and his generation must have borne. We didn’t complain. We were beginning at this stage to desire some different kind of fayre for our meals but bore this also with fortitude when my father explained that his daily diet was corned beef and hard taq biscuits that the soliders had to crush with water in order to make them edible. He also said that he only got one pint of water a day, and he recalls that sometimes he had to give some of this to the cook.



Camels….. by Big Lottery Fund
November 26, 2009, 11:43 am
Filed under: Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

One sight we do hope to recall in our minds is that of a herd of camels wandering through the desert with their herder. Apparently a man’s wealth is measured by how many camels he has. It was lovely seeing them in their natural habitat as opposed to all dressed up for giving tourist rides.



El Alamein Cemetery and Museum by Big Lottery Fund
November 26, 2009, 11:11 am
Filed under: Africa | Tags: , , , , , ,

I was the only one to oversleep this morning. My 91 year old father, despite being one of the last to go to bed due to putting the world to rights in the bar the previous night,  was up and breakfasted with everyone else and was wondering where I was. I blame my phone as the hour had gone back, realigned itself with Greenwich meantime which meant that so did my phone and Egypt was now GMT + 2.

This was the day we visited the cemetery at El Alamein. A deeply powerful moment for my father as this is where he did serve in those terrible days. The poignant moments for all our group were different but no-one could not be affected by seeing several touching headstones – this is because these young men died together, and their remains cannot be separated, therefore they rest, as they died – together.

The El Alamein museum is nicely appointed. Not entirely 100% accurate according to our guide Steve Hamilton who really does know everything there is to know about this period of history. The museum also holds examples of all the different kinds of desert uniform; the Italians still managed to be the most stylish – even in war.

We were told horrifying stories of POW ships and ships carrying the injured were sunk by friendly fire off the coast of North Africa. El Alamein train station itself is a wreck. What a pity as it could so easily be turned into a memorial. We then visited the actual sites of the battles themselves. There are still thousands of uncleared mines – so it is a bit risky wandering off the beaten track. There are still active mine sweeping divisions operating on a daily basis.



Visiting the Cemeteries by Big Lottery Fund

The cemeteries play host to the dead from many faiths:- Jews, Muslims, Christians, and are all beautifully maintained. This we found surprising as we had only expected the war graves to be so well tended.

The War grave we visited this morning was the final resting place for not only the fallen of WWII but also, the battles of a bygone age – now seen only in films. Napoleon fought battles along these shores and many dead from this time can be found in the graveyards. Whilst my father inspected the row upon row of pristine and highly respected graves of WWII I found myself very touched by a tomb dedicated to the family of one Daniel Frazer. The epitaph read:-

Maggie Frazer died 1892         34 years

Also lie here her children

Elizabeth         died 1887        11 months

Isabella            died 1891        6 years

Daniel              died 1891        3 years

“Sleep on loved ones and take your rest, I loved you well, but Jesus loved you best.”

Other inscriptions I found touching included, “He does not die who lives on in the hearts of loved ones.”

We both were wondering what these cities/ places must have been like in 1892.