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


Jim to return to Monte Cassino for 70th anniversary by Big Lottery Fund

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, is Jim Knox, 89, from Upminster, Havering. Jim is returning to the battlefields in May 2014 with the Monte Cassino Society.

Jim Knox

Jim Knox with a painting presented to him by the Ilford Branch of the Parachute Regimental Association.

The battle (January – May 1944) was fought to capture a vital German stronghold and open up the way for the main allied advance into Rome and claimed over 50,000 lives.

Jim joined the Army in 1941 aged 16 after persuading the sergeant at Romford Army recruitment office that he was 18. In August 1942 he volunteered for the Paras and joined 4th Parachute Battalion, part of the 2nd Parachute Brigade. Jim first served in North Africa, landing at Oran in early 1943. The 2nd Brigade landed in Italy at Taranto in September and moved up the west coast to the Sangro river where the brigade became the Independent Parachute Brigade, joining forces with a New Zealand Division patrolling the Gustav Line.

He recalled: “Once on night patrol the two lads in front heard some talking – our officer who could understand German crept up to listen and could hear what their plans were. It was a German fighting patrol – about eight or nine of them – armed with rapid fire Schmeiser machine guns which had a terrific firepower. We wouldn’t have stood a chance against them so we crept inside a mausoleum. They stopped right outside and we could hear them talking. Luckily they didn’t come in.

Jim in his teens

Jim in his teens

“The most frightening time of the war for me was going into Monte Cassino for the first time. There was a tremendous noise from the mortars and this hideous yellow smog. The sky was lit up red and yellow and we could see flames. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realised that was Vesuvius erupting. It was like walking into hell. The stench was horrible from dead mules and dead soldiers. It was terrifying.

“We were with a New Zealand division at the railway station and Germans were dug in just a few yards away at the Continental Hotel. We were so close that we shouted abuse at each other.

Jim (far left) with fellow Paras, Italy

Jim (far left) with fellow Paras, Italy

“You could hardly move – and you only moved at night. And we constantly worried about treading on a mine. The mortaring was constant from both sides. It was a bit like trench warfare at the First World War – a stalemate – no one could move. You did get the odd glimpse of a German but very rarely. If there was any movement from either side everyone would open fire.

“I was on a two inch mortar – when you saw a flash you had to send some back in that direction. We were there for 13 days until the Poles advanced to the monastery.”

Following the battle for Monte Cassino, Jim was parachuted into France, behind enemy lines. The daring operation to surround and contain a German garrison at Le Muy took place a few days before the invasion of the Southern France in August 1944. Jim was awarded the Legion d’honneur – the highest decoration in France – following his work with French Resistance guerrillas, the Maquis, during the operation.

 



BIG funding helps Josephine return to recall her ‘Malta Story’ by Big Lottery 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 Big Lottery 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



Heroes Return podcast by Big Lottery 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 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!”



A Desert Rat Returns by Big Lottery 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.”