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

Veteran recalls chance meeting with PoW by The National Lottery Community Fund

85-year-old Dennis Tracey has welcomed news of Heroes Return funding for World War Two veterans making second trips back to where they served.

Dennis Tracey

Dennis Tracey pictured with the bamboo windmill gifted to him by a prisoner of war (photo credit – David Devins)

Aged 17, Dennis volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1944 as a boy sailor. Dennis joined aircraft carrier HMS Fencer bound for Australia but the ship developed serious rudder problems whilst crossing the Mediterranean and had to put in to Malta for major repairs.

Once underway again the Fencer re routed to what was then Ceylon where Dennis was assigned to salvage duties in Colombo.

He recalls: “When we boarded HMS Fencer we didn’t even know where we were going.

“I originally joined up as a ships’ accountant in supplies but never did that job. When we got to Colombo I got shipped out to Fleet Salvage. We did all sorts of crazy things.

“We travelled everywhere, raising ships that had sunk, blowing up oil tanks. We were a mixed bunch. We had explosive experts, divers and electrical experts. I was the youngest of the lot.”

It was during this time that Dennis met the love of his life, Noreen.

He recalls: “We were based in a house in Colombo. Noreen, then Trixie Vandersay, lived in a house nearby with her family. There were four sisters and we use to watch them go by. They were all very beautiful.  We used to connive to knock at their gate and offer them bottles of whisky and butter which our divers had brought up from a sunken NAAFI ship.

“One day we got invited in and sat on the verandah. The family were Dutch Burghers, and very strict, so the mother and father kept a close eye on us. I didn’t realise that Noreen and her sisters worked in the Royal Navy Cypher office.  After that I would take cables over to be sent to our ships and she would take them from me. I said to my friends, ‘I’m going to marry that girl’.

However, when Dennis and Noreen got secretly engaged Noreen’s father wrote to the Admiral of the East Indies Fleet in an effort to get Dennis shipped off to Hong Kong. Fortunately that didn’t happen and true love was allowed to run its course with Noreen later able to join Dennis in England after the war.

Dennis Tracey

Dennis volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1944 (photo credit – David Devins)

After the Japanese surrender Dennis was transferred to a Landing Craft Tank crew and sent to Singapore to support clearing out operations and evacuation of PoWs from the notorious Changi Jail.

He said: “Some were only five stone. They had to be careful not to feed them too much or it would have killed them. It took many up to six months to get well again, and they couldn’t come home for some time. There was one guy I was trying to pick up to carry him to a bus that was waiting.

“He was clutching a great big paper package and I couldn’t get him to put it down. He was swearing at me, calling me all the names under the sun, so in the end I managed to get him and the package on the bus.

“It was 43 years later when I was selling my house in South Wales when a chap came to buy it. We got talking about the war and I was telling him about my experience with the man at Changi when he started to cry. He said, ‘that was me’ and came back a few days later with the package still wrapped in the same old paper, Straits Times newspaper, falling to pieces.

“He unwrapped it and inside was a windmill made out of bamboo sticks stuck together with crushed insects. He told me that it was the only thing that had kept him alive in Changi.  I said, ‘you should hang on to that’ He said ‘I’m giving it to you.’ I still have it, although sadly, he has since died.”

Dennis finally returned home on HMS Victorious in January 1946. Looking forward to their trip to Sri Lanka in May, Dennis and Noreen will visit Colombo to re unite with family and friends from the past, Dennis said: “We have kept in touch with them all these years and would like a chance to see them one final time. I think Heroes Return is a great idea, and I am delighted to hear that veterans will now get a second opportunity to travel.”

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

“The sea was black with ships” by The National Lottery Community Fund
April 5, 2013, 9:33 am
Filed under: Navy | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Veteran Ron Veitch, 88, from Billingham in Teesside is about to make his first visit under the Heroes Return programme and is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for funding for a first or second journey back to where they served.

Ron Veitch holds a picture of HMS Glasgow

Ron Veitch holds a picture of HMS Glasgow

Ron is visiting Malta, where his ship HMS Glasgow was repaired after being bombed by Italian aircraft in the Mediterranean. Ron was a Petty Officer on board the cruiser.

His most vivid memory of the war is the early morning bombardment and landings at Omaha beach on D-Day.

He said: “We hadn’t been told anything, but when we first set off and saw the amount of shipping, we realised this was it. This was the invasion.

“It was my job to check two boiler rooms to make sure the engines were running well. I had to alternate between the two rooms.

“At 6.30am our ship opened fire and bombarded German forces at Normandy. While going between the boiler rooms I popped up to sneak a look. What an incredible sight it was.

“The sea was black with ships. To the left and right of us were warships and landing craft full of US servicemen heading for the shore. They were bobbing up and down and being tossed around like corks. They must have been so seasick. We were firing broadsides and the noise of the bombardment was horrendous.

“We were six miles out so I couldn’t see the shore but we heard from the captain that the US troops were getting annihilated and casualties were mounting up.”

With the assistance of air spotters, HMS Glasgow continued to pound targets ashore and more than 500 six inch shells were fired from the cruiser that day.

Ron in his Naval uniform

Ron in his Naval uniform

Ron’s first close brush with death during the war came a few days later when HMS Glasgow and an Allied task force was sent to the coast off Cherbourg to provide support to US Army units engaged in the battle at the French city.

The naval force bombarded the German fortifications near and in the city and became engaged in repeated duels with coastal batteries. When German salvos from the outskirts of Cherbourg began falling among Allied minesweeper flotillas, HMS Glasgow with Spitfire spotters began returning fire on the German batteries before coming under fire herself.

Ron said: “US army units were facing resistance from the Germans at Cherbourg and we were sent there. I was in the engine room. We could hear our guns were firing and could tell from the orders coming into the engine room that we were engaging with the enemy.

“My hair was standing on end – I thought ‘we are in trouble here’. Suddenly there was a deafening explosion. We had been hit twice. Most of the lights went out and the emergency lights came on. There was a strong acrid smell of cordite and dust everywhere.

“The explosions had wiped out our anti aircraft guns. We knew it would take a lot to sink a ship of our size so everyone stayed focused on the job at hand – our engines. The captain ordered us to increase speed so we could get out of danger.”

The cruiser briefly broke off the engagement to assess the damage, before returning to the battle, firing on German batteries. After the battle, Glasgow underwent a complete refit at Palmer’s Yard at Hebburn on the river Tyne.

Ron experienced other battles during the war, including Operation Stonewall – a blockade against the import by Germany of seaborne goods. In late December 1943, Glasgow and the cruiser Enterprise fought a three-hour battle with several German destroyers and torpedo boats protecting the cargo ship Alsterufer. Three enemy ships were destroyed but two of Glasgow’s ships company were lost.

He remembered: “After the battle the captain gave us a run-down of what happened. We learnt that several torpedoes had been fired at us – some even went right underneath us. I remember the gasp that went around the crew when we heard that.”

Now, Ron is looking forward to making a Heroes Return commemorative trip to Malta, where Glasgow was repaired for damage caused by Italian glider bombs. He plans to visit the dockyard and the Rotunda of Mosta church, where a German bomb pierced the dome and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. Miraculously, it did not explode.

He said: “I’ll be going with my son to show him the places I remember. It will bring back memories of how wonderful the people were and the kindness they showed to us. They were very grateful to the Allies for risking and losing their lives at sea for them.”

Ron with his cherished collection of medals

Ron with his cherished collection of medals

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

Veterans visit Malta to mark 70th anniversary of islanders’ bravery award by The National Lottery Community Fund
April 11, 2012, 7:00 am
Filed under: Heroes Return, Malta | Tags: , , ,

Ronald Quested considers himself lucky. He survived, when more than 30,000 Merchant Navy seamen were killed during the Second World War.

Ronald Quested stands proudly on parade with his Merchant Navy standard

Ronald Quested stands proudly on parade with his Merchant Navy standard

Many seamen paid the ultimate price, hunted by U-boat ‘Wolfpacks’ and dive-bombed by enemy aircraft while importing vital food, fuel and ammunition to allow an Allied victory.

Ronald, from Ingatestone, Essex, wants their sacrifice to never be forgotten. He, along with two other Merchant Navy veterans and two war widows, is making a visit to Malta to mark the 70th anniversary on Sunday 15 April 2012 of the Maltese people being awarded collectively the George Cross for their bravery in withstanding an intensive bombing campaign on the island.

The £8,150 cost of the visit is being funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. As part of the commemorations, his party will be joining a tribute to fellow Merchant Navy seamen killed when a hospital ship was attacked and sunk near Anzio.

Also attending the commemorations thanks to £800 in funding is Margaret Machin from Dover, Kent, who was born to British parents on the island, grew up there and survived the bombardment of the island. She started working aged just 15 in the Vice Admiral Malta’s top secret cypher office in the underground headquarters Lascaris at Valletta. Her office received and sent coded messages using the Typex code machines – the British version of the German Enigma machines.

Ronald joined the Merchant Navy aged only 17 and served for 14 months during the war. He was a radio operator but also a trained gunner on board SS Samnebra. The ship took supplies to the British 8th Army from the United Kingdom stopping at Bon in Algiers, Port Augusta in Sicily, and Naples, Italy between November and December 1944. His ship also stopped at North Africa, the United States, Egypt and India before the war ended.

Ronald, now 84, remembers leaving Birkenhead with 1,000 tonnes of TNT on board. He said: “I saw men loading supplies with thick sacks wrapped around their hob-nail boots to stop any sparks. I was so young it didn’t scare me. In fact, you didn’t think about all the explosives on board. I was more inquisitive at that age.”

Ronald pictured post-war in 1946

Ronald pictured post-war in 1946

During the 14 months he served during the war his convoy was attacked only once, for which he feels lucky. He recalled: “We’d have ten lines of merchant ships with five ships nose to tail in each line. In the starboard quarter on the right hand side there was a tanker. That’s where they sailed in case they were attacked. You couldn’t have a tanker right in the middle of a convoy.

“We had just passed the Straits of Gibraltar in December 1944 after having delivered our cargo to Naples. The alarm sounded and we had to go to our stations. I went to my gun – a 20mm rapid fire gun – which was above the navigation bridge. I got into the harness. It was pitch black but I could see huge flames from what appeared to be the tanker completely alight. Being so dark I can only assume it was a submarine that attacked it.” 

Ronald and the rest of his party have been invited to the 70th anniversary event in Malta by the George Cross Island Association to commemorate the lives of 13 Merchant Navy seaman lost when the hospital ship St David was sunk south-west of the Anzio beachhead. An enemy aircraft dive-bombed the ship despite it displaying Red Cross markings.

He said: “We need to keep alive the memory of all those who lost their lives. And we must not take for granted the normal everyday lives we enjoy today.”

Malta played an important role owing to its proximity to German and Italian shipping lanes. The opening of a new front in North Africa in mid-1940 increased Malta’s already considerable strategic value. British air and sea forces based on the island could attack Axis ships transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe.  The Axis attempted to bomb, or starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns, cities and Allied ships supplying the island. Malta was one of the most intensively bombed areas during the war. The bravery of the Maltese people moved King George VI to award the George Cross to Malta on 15 April 1942.

Margaret remembers the horrendous conditions on the island. She said: “The bombardments were horrific. We would feel our ears moving in and out from the pressure of explosions above. I remember once coming up from underground to find the Opera House bombed out. Our office was right underneath that.

Margaret and Wesley

Margaret and Wesley

“We worked very hard sending and receiving messages to convoys and their escorts. Sometimes it was awful – we’d be sending messages to ships and then later we’d come up from underground to see the ships had arrived but were smoking away from being bombed.

“My family home was around the dock area. We had to be moved away to barracks and we shared a room with three other families, a curtain separating each family. We were really starving. My mother queued up with the poor people of Malta just to get a bowl of soup.”

Margaret’s then future husband Wesley served on the island as a Lance Corporal. He arrived from fighting in Palestine to operate searchlights in Malta and was nearly killed when he was shot through both legs by an enemy aircraft.

She said: “One bullet went right through one leg, another bullet exploded inside his other leg and took part of the muscle away. He recovered and managed to take part in the D-Day landings. I think he earned his pension.

“I have been back to the island since the war, but I think this will be the last time. This visit will be special.”

For more information on the Heroes Return 2 programme, visit BIG’s website, or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121.

BIG funding helps Josephine return to recall her ‘Malta Story’ by The National Lottery Community 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