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


Remembering Market Garden by Big Lottery Fund

World War Two veteran holding medals

Commemorating the 69th anniversary of Operation Market Garden (Arnhem, Holland, 17–25 September 1944) is WW2 veteran Arthur Shackleton, 94, from Dorchester. He will be making an historic journey to the battlefields of Holland 69 years on to attend key commemorations and pay respects to old comrades. Arthur will be supported by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Arthur was part of a force of over 86,000 men who were involved in a daring operation to seize control of bridges and river crossings in Germany and the Netherlands. The Allied assault (September 17-25 1944) was initially successful, but ultimately ended in defeat with thousands killed and many more injured or taken prisoner.

Aged 25, Arthur was a Staff Sergeant, First Pilot in the Glider Pilot Regiment. Piloting a Horsa Glider, he transported  troops  from the South Staffordshire Regiment to a designated landing strip at Wolfheze, 8 kilometers from Arnhem, as part of the first wave of landings on Sunday 17th September 1944.

Arthur recalls: “We had quite a few skirmishes on the way to Arnhem. When we reached the Arnhem road just outside of the town we saw a German staff car with four bodies hanging out of it. I remembers seeing  blood in the road which trickled down the side of the road into a little stream. We later found out that one of the dead was a German General Kusseins, commander of the town who against explicit advice had come out to see what was happening.”

Arthur and comrades then came under intense air bombardment from Messcherschmidt fighters.

He said: “We realised after a while that they weren’t shooting at us. They were attacking the gliders at the nearby landing zone. We heard that they had captured the allied battle orders from one of the crashed gliders. But the Germans  weren’t sure whether to believe the plans so they waited for the next landing. But the fog in England was so bad that the next wave of gliders didn’t come so the  Germans thought it wasn’t going ahead, and dismissed it.”

“We  reached the outskirts of Arnhem and were in the middle of a battle when suddenly  a man came running out of a hospital shouting that his wife was having a baby. He rushed up to me and grabbed my tunic begging me to help him.   I pointed him over to a soldier with a red cross armband. That was the last I saw of  him and I’ve often wondered what happened to him and his wife, and if the baby was born.”

The Parachute regiment decided to put in an attack on Arnhem, and the troops positioned themselves outside of the town. Arthur and comrades took possession of a derelict house .

He recalls, “It was very dark, very eery, the windows were all blown out and the wind was whistling through. At dawn we started the attack. But they were waiting for us with Panzer tanks. Three hundred and fifty of us were killed in just one hour. It was over three quarters of our number. We were finally given the order to retreat and went back to Oosterbeek where they positioned themselves in and around the Hartenstein Hotel.

He said” I was looking forward to having four walls around me but we were never in the hotel. We were always patrolling outside around trenches looking to see who had been killed or injured. They were shells screaming over all the time. I was frightened to death. I thought we were all going to get killed.”

It was 10 days after their initial landing that the troops finally got the order to pull out.

“Major Urqhuart came to tell us what was happening and asked the glider pilots to act as guides down to the River Rhine. At three in the morning  we went down toward the river. As we came out of some woods we saw six troops. They were lost and making a lot of noise. Our Major told them to keep quiet. Then they were told to follow me. When we got down to the bank of the river I asked them to lay down and keep quiet. Suddenly I heard this burst of machine gun fire  and I felt like someone had hit my arm with a sledgehammer. When I turned I saw that the others were dead. Then I felt my hand was sticky and blood running down my sleeve.”

“At first it was numb then it started to hurt really badly as I got down to the river bank. I was put in a boat with other wounded.

We were crossing over when I heard this muffled bang  and suddenly I was in the river on my back. All I could see were light flashes. I thought I was going to drown. Suddenly I felt my leg bump down into some mud and I heard someone say ‘here’s a body washed up’ and I shouted, ‘I’m not a body, I’m alive!’

Arthur was pulled to safety and after receiving medical treatment he was taken to Brussels and from there brought back to Birmingham where he recovered in hospital and finally discharged in late October 1944. However, Arthur was soon back in service and later took part in the Rhine Crossing of 1945, which eventually led to the defeat of the Germans.

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



“You had to rely on your comrades” by Big Lottery Fund

World War Two veteran Reg Downes, 91, from Hoddesden in Hertfordshire, recently made a commemorative visit to Salerno, Italy, thanks to funding from the Heroes Return programme.

Reg joined the Territorial Army in 1938. Called up at the outbreak of war he joined the Middlesex Regiment, aged just 17 before volunteering in the Army Commandos. In 1941 he was posted up to Achnacarry  near Fort William where he underwent a tough six-week intensive training course on fitness, weapons training, map reading, climbing, and demolitions operations.

Reg Downes

Reg Downes joined the Territorial Army in 1938 (photo credit – David Devins)

He remembers: “I was always a bit of a daredevil, humdrum life didn’t suit me. The training was hard but I was never fitter in my life than I was then.”

Training completed and at rank of Private, Reg was assigned to the Motor Transport section No2 Army Commando under the command of Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, distant relative of Winston Churchill.

Reg was posted out to North Africa and from there to Sicily where he saw his first action as the troop landed near the town of Scaletta in advance of Monty’s Eighth Army. Here they engaged the German rearguard.

He remembers: “It was a bit hairy being our first action. I was the section driver and we were loaded up with bombs. We got involved in house- to-house fighting in Scaletta, but by then most of the Germans had retreated to Messina and then back to mainland Italy.”

After success in Sicily the invasion of Italy followed on 3rd September 1943 when No. 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mare, in Salerno in the early hours of the morning. The troop’s first task was to take a German gun battery but after finding it undefended they moved on to secure the town of Vietri where they set up a headquarters and opened up the beach for allied landings.

Supported by the Royal Marine Commandos, Reg and comrades moved on to take a German observation post outside the town of La Molina which controlled a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. Despite heavy German opposition they eventually captured the post taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad.

Reg said: “This was a heavy battle. We held the beachhead but they really came after us. We were a thorn in their sides and they were trying to wipe us out. We were only supposed to hold it for eight hours but we were stuck there for over two weeks. People had fear. You wouldn’t be telling the truth if you said you hadn’t. But comradeship was very good. You had to rely on your comrades. At first it was very hard to kill people but after a while you got a bit cynical about it. There weren’t many prisoners taken on either side.  It was live or die.”

The commando units went on to face fierce resistance from crack German troops in Salerno with 367 killed, wounded or missing out of the 738 who had taken part in the landings.

Reg Downes

Reg Downes during his wartime service

In January 1944 Reg was posted to the Yugoslavian island of Vis. With half the unit depleted they carried out assaults on German garrisons, and raids on shipping.

He recalls: “We used to pick up and destroy boats carrying German ammunition to the Island.  Yugoslavia was full of partisans. Tito had insisted that they were included in our raids on the Germans. They were mostly youngsters very wild and silly, waving machine guns around. It was all a bit risky.”

The troop saw further action in Albania in raids at Himare and at Sarande where they were heavily outnumbered and pinned down by superior German forces until support units   arrived, and the town was captured cutting off the German garrison in Corfu which later . surrendered to the Commandos in November 1944.

Reg recently returned to Salerno with his sons, he said: “I thought the grant was wonderful. I couldn’t have afforded to go without it. I looked for the place we landed at Vietri sul Mare, but I couldn’t find it. Then I asked a local and he pointed it out. I also went to Salerno War Cemetery to see the graves of the chaps I fought with. We lost quite a lot there. The graves were beautifully kept. It put a lump in my throat.”

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