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


Xmas award for Heroes Return to scene of dramatic escape by Big Lottery Fund

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Royal Navy coder Ian Gordon struggled desperately to escape as the Tunsberg Castle began to sink beneath the icy December waters of the Norwegian fjord. The exploding mine had ripped through the quarterdeck killing five men and jamming shut a solid steel door entombing Ian and his shipmate in a tiny cabin below. As the black water rose, Ian, just 19, did not expect to see 20.

The approach of Christmas for WW2 veteran Ian Gordon, now 88, will bring back very special memories of 69 years ago when he was given survivors leave for a surprise visit home, and an emotional reunion with his family on Christmas morning 1944.

As the festive season brings 2013 to a close, the Big Lottery Fund has to date awarded over £26.6 million to more than 54,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK under its Heroes Return 2 programme.

Ian from the Isle of Wight is just one of many veterans receiving a Christmas award today. Born in Manchester, Ian was conscripted into the Royal Navy in July 1943 aged 18. After a series of tests he discovered he was colour blind so was assigned duties as a coder in naval communications, responsible for deciphering Morse code transmissions.

First Christmas in hospital

After training at combined operations base HMS Vectis, Ian caught jaundice and spent his first Christmas in the Navy laid up in hospital. Once recovered he underwent further training in Warrington before being posted to Devonport, Plymouth to prepare for the D-Day assault on Juno Beach aboard HMS Lawford, headquarters ship for Assault Group 1, Force 1.

He recalls: “At the beginning of June 1944 we left the Beaulieu River to join the frigate
H.M S. Lawford lying in Cowes Roads amid a big concentration of ships and landing craft of all descriptions. We weighed anchor at about 2100 on June 5th and slipped out through the Spithead Channel to lead our flotilla of assault landing craft south for Normandy, battle ensign streaming.

“Later that evening we gathered in the wireless office where our group signals officer unrolled a chart of the Normandy coast. He described the general plan for the invasion – our first official intimation that this was the real thing. Our group was to land the Canadians on Juno Beach.

Abandon ship!

“After the initial assault on Juno on D-Day I was off watch and fast asleep in the after mess deck when two 500lb bombs struck us amidships. Up on deck I could see that some men were already in the water, no doubt having been blown there by the explosion.”

“The ship was listing severely to starboard. A group of us on the quarterdeck were ordered to make our way to the forecastle, which we did, but there was clearly nothing we could do to save the ship.”

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He continued: “Another lurch to starboard and I heard a voice on the bridge immediately above us: ‘She’s going Sir’, then came the order to abandon ship. I don’t know how long our small group were in the water clinging to a rolled-up scrambling net; probably about an hour before we were picked up by the minesweeper H.M.S. Pique. Some of the survivors had broken bones and there was one guy wrapped up in cotton wool. He had been in the boiler room and was scalded very badly.

“Wrapped in blankets and warmed by a tot of neat rum we were transferred to the cruiser H.M.S. Scylla, and our Captain was promptly ordered to find himself another ship and get back to the Normandy coast a.s.a.p.

Farewell to old shipmates

Ian said: “Lawford never came back. She’s still there, lying some 30 metres deep off Arromanches with 26 of my shipmates who didn’t make it when she was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft in the early hours of June 8th when coming to anchor off Gold Beach.

He recalls “I was transferred to HMS Frobisher and returned to England. We got four days leave. I was sent to HMS Waveney and then back to Exbury. It was there that I heard that the Captain (D) Liverpool base was looking for a coder. I volunteered as I thought I would be near home.”

But Ian soon discovered that far from being closer to home he had in fact volunteered to serve on a Norwegian corvette as part of an Arctic Convoy Escort, and duly sailed on the Tunsberg Castle on convoy JW 62 to Murmansk in Russia, arriving Polyarny at the Kola Inlet early December 1944. After a few days in Murmansk the Tunsberg along with another corvette and two minesweepers, were ordered to proceed to Båtsfjord, a small community at the end of a narrow fjord on the north side of the Varanger peninsula, in Finnmark, Norway, where a radio station was to be established.

Ian recalls: “The fjord was a sort of no man’s land between the Germans and the Russians. The people there were starving and we were taking food and supplies. We were the leading ship. We got into the entrance of the fjord where we sighted a merchant ship.

“My action station was the auxiliary wireless transmitter housed in the ship’s carpenter’s tiny cabin/workshop. It was accessed by one steel door in the after superstructure leading off the quarterdeck. My post was shared with a Norwegian telegraphist, Thorvald (Tony) Andersen.

“We hadn’t been closed up at action stations long before we felt the vibration as the ship increased speed, then almost immediately afterwards, there was a loud explosion. We had hit a mine. The steel deck came up beneath us and we were both sent sprawling. The steel door that provided our only means of escape was jammed tight shut.

Ian continued: “We knew the ship was sinking and we were really struggling for a while but thanks to Tony Andersen, who was much stronger than I was, we eventually forced the door open just enough for us to get through. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”

Ian was rescued by escort corvette Eglantine which came alongside and took off the survivors before Tunsberg slipped beneath the icy waters. With the Tunsberg lost, the operation was abandoned and Ian went back to Polyarny. He was then given two weeks survivors leave and took passage back to the UK in a British frigate.

Surprise homecoming for Christmas

hrblog-xmas3He said: “While I was out in Russia I met this guy from Urmston who said he would let my parents know that I was ok, though he wasn’t allowed to tell them anything about where I was. I arrived back in Manchester on Christmas Eve and stayed at the YMCA overnight before catching the first tram home to Chorlton-cum-hardy on Christmas morning.

It was quite a surprise for everyone when I suddenly turned up on the doorstep. It was great. I spent the time with my family and friends. As I was doing my rounds one guy even said to me ‘third time unlucky’, referring to my previous escapes from sinking ships. I could have done without that.”

Battle ready for the New Year

Christmas over, Ian once again said his farewells before being transferred to Devonport and in spring 1945 was posted out to the Far East with Combined operations as part of a landing party on the Malay Peninsula.

He remembers: “We were sailing into Bombay docks. We were all set with our rations and jungle green uniforms when an Indian newspaper broke the news that the bomb had been dropped. We didn’t know anything about a bomb. Suddenly all the ships started making ‘V’ for Victory. It was wonderful.”

Ian was transferred to Escort carrier HMS Pursuer and sailed up to Port Swettenham in Penang where the captain went ashore with 200 marines.

He recalls: “The Japanese soldiers were piling their weapons and all seemed ok till their officers were asked to hand over their swords. They were very reluctant to do this so the marines held rifles to the heads of Japanese officers telling them they had five minutes to comply. The officers held out for about four minutes then capitulated.”

After three months Ian was transferred to Singapore for Christmas 1945. He said: “It was decided we would have a Christmas dance. So we invited the girls from the Post Office who we were told were very respectable. At the time there was a shortage of ice cream in Singapore so we advertised the dance offering ‘ice cream for ladies only’. It was a good dance and we had a really good laugh.”

Ian finally returned home on HMS Manxman in August 1946. He will travel with his wife on a Heroes Return trip back to Norway in summer 2014.

Looking back, he said: “I was extremely lucky; there were times when I really thought I’d had it.”

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



“There were hundreds of planes in the sky” by Big Lottery Fund

RAF veteran Norman Shepherd, 88, from Nottingham, who visited Norway on a Heroes Return visit, is urging other veterans to apply for funding for a first or second trip.

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Norman Shepherd (photo credit – Alan Fletcher)

Norman joined the RAF in 1943 and after training joined 196 Squadron 38 Group. The Flight Sergeant was a flight engineer in Short Stirlings in operations over occupied Europe.

The squadron carried out various transport, glider-towing and supply-dropping flights as well as Special Air Service parachuting missions over occupied territories.

He said: “I flew something between 20 to 30 wartime operations. Most of them were dropping supplies or soldiers parachuting from our aircraft. My job as flight engineer was checking the engines and fuel.

“One of the most memorable operations was when we had to tow gliders over the Rhine. We flew from Suffolk to Essex to pick up the gliders. Some were full of troops, others had jeeps and weapons.

“There were hundreds of planes in the sky. A lot got hit by flack and we saw a few go down. We were also hit but we weren’t badly damaged. It was really terrifying when we got hit. We were flying so low towing the gliders that we wouldn’t have survived bailing out.

“After the gliders detached themselves we headed back. The rope used to tow the gliders was extremely thick and heavy and we were trained to drop it on targets. On the way back we dropped it over an anti aircraft position and the rear gunner called out from the back saying we hit it. We all gave out a big cheer.

“On another operation I remember we had to transport fuel for Spitfires and Hurricanes in jerry cans. We were like a flying bomb. One tracer bullet and we would have exploded. That was a bit hairy.

“There was a high loss rate of crews. When I was first started on operations I remember looking at a seasoned aircrew and thinking ‘what a scruffy lot’. Two months later they never returned from an operation and so we then became the scruffy lot. You got used to people not coming back.”

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Norman returned to Oslo to commemorate those lost during Operation Doomsday

One cargo Norman wasn’t expecting was at the end of the war. His crew were delivered a dozen Jewish children who had been freed from a concentration camp and were to be flown to England.

He said: “They were aged between eight and 12 and I was put in charge of them. I gave them a chocolate bar each and they gobbled them all down. But they weren’t used to it and it made them sick in the aircraft.

“They got all tearful when I went over. They were cowering in fear – I think they thought I was going to hit them, the poor little things.”

Norman visited Oslo, Norway, last year for his Heroes Return 2 visit. He had been invited to take part in a ceremony to commemorate crewmen lost during Operation Doomsday – the supervision of the surrender of German forces in occupied Norway following the Allied victory in Europe on May 8 1945.

More than 360,000 German troops still occupied Norway and the Allies launched a massive operation to take 30,000 soldiers to Norway.

On May 10 1945 three Short Stirlings crashed enroute to Gardermoen Airfield. Norman joined relatives of the lost men at Gardermoen and also visited the crash site and cemetery where the men now rest.

He remembered: “We took off but the weather became dreadful about two-thirds of the way. We were recalled but three aircraft carried on. All three crashed, including one carrying the Commander of 38 Group Air Vice-Marshall James Scarlet –Streatfield.

“It was tragic – that could have happened to us. It wasn’t down to a particular person or crew – it was luck or fate what happened. They actually went to their death on Ascension Day so they went up like Jesus to the right place as far as I’m concerned. I really enjoyed the trip to reminisce. Sixty-seven years is a long time to think about these things. The visit brought to all to the surface.”

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