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


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



Podcast – “My time in Bomber Command” by Big Lottery Fund

The historic unveiling of the first national memorial to RAF Bomber Command takes place today at Green Park, London. We were lucky enough to talk to veteran Harry Irons, who flew 60 missions during World War Two.

Now aged 88, Harry talks about some of his wartime memories, his Heroes Return trip to France and what it means to finally see a memorial for Bomber Command.

In 1941 Harry Irons volunteered for air crew duty with Bomber Command. He was only 16 but added a year to his age and was accepted for gunnery training.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1944, Harry was promoted to Warrant Officer and went on to survive 60 raids over the Ruhr, Munich, Nuremberg, and Northern France, flying as a rear gunner in Lancaster and Halifax bombers.

Harry was living in London when war broke out. After witnessing the devastation of the Blitz he decided to volunteer as aircrew, and was assigned to 9 Squadron based at Waddington in Lincolnshire from where he flew 37 missions in Lancaster X for X-ray.

Harry, who has worked tirelessly to help raise funds for the memorial, will be attending the official unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, and members of the Royal family.

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Looking forward to the historic day, he said: “As part of a crew you got to know each other, you were like family. We lost so many brave men. But we are over the moon. We are so grateful at last to be able to do something for the boys. At last we have got some recognition”.

For more information on the Heroes Return programme and the funding that is available for World War Two veterans, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121



WWII veteran revisits site of wartime attack by Big Lottery Fund
June 11, 2012, 1:09 pm
Filed under: D-Day, France, Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

Hugh Beach crept closer to the bridge, armed with a sten-gun. He had been sent forward alone to check that the bridge was safe for tanks and other vehicles to cross. As he silently approached, two figures came into view and he recognised the grey uniform – German. Instead of retreating to safety and reporting the danger, he crept ever closer, raised his weapon and opened fire.

Sir Hugh Beach returned to France thanks to funding from BIG

Sir Hugh Beach returned to France thanks to funding from BIG

The courageous solo assault left the lieutenant severely wounded from enemy fire, temporarily paralysed from the waist down. At the age of just 21 he was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery. Now, aged 89, after 40 years in the Armed Forces and having been knighted twice by the Queen, General Sir Hugh Beach GBE KCB MC, has made a Lottery-funded trip coinciding with D-Day to visit the areas he served during the war, including the spot he made his single-handed attack.

Sir Hugh, from Earl’s Court, London, is just one of a number of Second World War veterans who have made poignant commemorative visits as part of the Big Lottery Funds Heroes Return programme.

Sir Hugh Beach, who joined the Army in 1941 as a sapper, landed in France six days after D-Day. A lieutenant in 621 Field Squadron 7th Armoured Division, he was first tasked with finding his unit to deliver a three-tonne lorry full of supplies. After finding his unit, Sir Hugh was billeted at a farm at St Paul du Vernay for six weeks.

It was at the village of La Vallee on 8 August 1944 when Sir Hugh first demonstrated the kind of courage that later earned him a Military Cross. He was attached to an infantry division which had fought and driven away German soldiers.

He recalled: “We suspected the Germans would have left landmines behind. We needed to get some anti-tank guns into position in case the Germans counter-attacked, which they did later. So we had to clear the road of landmines from the village to some crossroads.

“About six of us using mine detectors then cleared the road. But the first vehicle to leave the village was blown up – we missed that mine. This threw the plans up into the air – no-one wanted to move, understandably. I then decided to do something that was, in hindsight, absolutely crazy.

“I thought the only way to get everyone moving again was to sit on the mudguard of the first vehicle. Demonstrating confidence that I certainly didn’t have inside, I said ‘let’s go’. I was full of a mixture of emotions – I didn’t want to be seen as having failed and was also displaying the bravado of someone who hadn’t yet been directly involved in action. Secretly I was hoping that we hadn’t missed any more mines and luckily there weren’t otherwise I’d have been a gonner. We drove forward and everyone got though safely. Afterwards I fell asleep standing up leaning against a tree.”

Sir Hugh then remembers the Allied breakthrough and the sudden rush across France with a small group of men in a car. He said:“It was very exhilarating. We were moving so fast we ran out of maps and had to use our AA book. Young ladies were coming out to the road to hand us tomatoes. We felt like heroes.”

Sir Hugh with his son Michael on Arromanches beach

Sir Hugh with his son Michael on Arromanches beach

It was at La Bassee in northern France near the Belgian border, while Sir Hugh was attached to the 11th Hussars, that he came within millimetres of being paralysed from the waist down.

“We approached a bridge and knew that the Germans had tried to demolish it,” he said. “I was asked to take a look at it and see if it was safe to take tanks and vehicles across. I drove towards it and about 200 yards to the side of the bridge and parked my scout-car behind a hut. I approached, carrying a sten-gun.

“The railways line was about 100 yards away and the bridge seemed okay – although really I wasn’t close enough to make a proper assessment. Then I saw grey figures across the bank and realised they were German soldiers. This was my first chance to engage the enemy. I opened fire and after two rounds the gun jammed. I dropped down and they returned fire.

“I tried to crawl back behind the railway line which ran alongside a canal but my backside was too high – a bullet grazed my spine and took a bit of bone away. I was paralysed from the waist down. A staff sergeant got to me and dragged me back, very bravely I might add.”

His comrades tried to find a field ambulance but as it was getting dark they saw a building which had a door and a red cross painted on it.

He said: “It turns out it was an order of nuns. They were very calm and dressed my wound. The next day a vehicle then took me to a field dressing station. I went from feeling nothing from the waist down to then getting my feeling back and the pain as if I had suffered a heavy blow on the head. As life came back to my nerves I couldn’t stand anything touching me. It was ghastly.”

Sir Hugh was awarded the Military Cross but the wound marked the end of the war for him and he was flown back to Britain to undergo further treatment on his spine. Following his recovery, the next year he served in India, Ceylon and then saw active service in Java during the Allied mission to liberate the Dutch held by the Japanese in jungle internment camps. The Indonesians believed the real goal was the restoration of Dutch rule and a bloody insurgency was sparked.

Sir Hugh was accompanied on his Heroes Return trip to France by his son Michael, who served with the Royal Green Jackets between 1977 and 1980, and grandson William.

Speaking before his visit, Sir Hugh said: “I think the Heroes Return programme is fantastic – allowing people like me to return to the sites of our most exciting days. To remember and explain to those with us what it was like is very important.”

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 Big Lottery 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.



Stanley McColl and his family revist France where he saw action during WW2 by Big Lottery Fund
November 9, 2010, 4:52 pm
Filed under: D-Day | Tags: , , , , ,

Stanley McColl was a young soldier in 615 Guards, Armoured Division, when his tank landed on Sword Beach on D Day +2 with the objective – to liberate Caen.

With help from the Big Lottery Fund, my sister and I took our dad who is now 85 years old, back to France in October 2010, with a view to revisiting Sword Beach. We flew to Paris and after a couple of days sightseeing, we then took the train to Caen. My dad said “the last time I was here – the place was flattened.”

The next day we had to get a taxi to Bayeux because the trains were off due to the General Strike. Once in Bayeux we spent the morning at the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. After lunch we met our guide for our afternoon tour of Sword Beach. We were taken first to Pegasus Bridge where we saw one of the gliders, then we went to the German bunker which had a simulation of the noise experienced during the invasion attack on the beach. When we arrived at Sword Beach, the guide took us to the part of the beach where my dad had landed and he asked my dad to tell his story – which everyone on the tour found very moving. After the beach we went to visit the British cemetery and we signed the visitors book.

The following day should have been a nice trip back to Paris by train, but once again we were caught up in strike action. We were very lucky to get the last three seats on a shuttle bus back to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

We had a wonderful visit and we would like to thank the Big Lottery Fund, the staff at Normandy Sightseeing Tours and especially our guide Mathias.