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


Remembrance Day trips for Far East POWs by Big Lottery Fund

Hands holding medals

More than 54,000 WW2 veterans, widows, spouses and carers have embarked on commemorative trips

As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 10th), veterans across the country will be embarking on emotional journeys both in the UK and across the world to pay their respects to those who lost their lives over 70 years ago.

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.

Among those who have received an award is the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare and Remembrance Association for a journey to Singapore and Thailand. The group, nearly all in their 90s, will be attending remembrance ceremonies in Singapore, and will travel to the infamous ‘Death Railway’ camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, scene of the Bridge over the River Kwai, to mark 11 November Remembrance Day commemorations.

Travelling with the group is 93-year old veteran POW William Mundy from Dartford, Kent. An RAF Aircraftman, William was 20 years old when he sailed from Gourock in Scotland on 3rd December 1941, on the City of Canterbury, bound for Kuala Lumpur. But as the Japanese made rapid advances through Malaya, William was re-routed to Batavia, (now Jakarta).

However, RAF operational life on the island of Java would prove to be short lived as William and his comrades were taken prisoner by the Japanese in Garoet, after the Dutch forces capitulated. Sent to Boei Glodok prison in February 1942, William then spent 1943-1944 incarcerated on Java, after which he was taken to Ambon, and then back to Java for another six weeks.

The Java POWs were set to work building airfields with ‘chunkels’ (wide  hoes) used to chip away at the coral which was then hauled in baskets slung on poles. Only a third returned from these camps, as the death rate was one of the highest with the prisoners suffering constant maltreatment, beatings, starvation and illnesses.

Veteran holds medals

More than £26.6 million has been distributed in grants by Heroes Return

He recalls; “We had to make a two days march from Ambon harbour to Liang, where we built an airstrip.

“On route to Liang is a Christian village, Waai. The villagers there took great risks, when we were working on the road through the village, to pass titbits under the walls of the hut to us.”

“No matter where I was in prison, the diet was the same; breakfast pint of steamed rice and spoonful of sugar, mid day three quarters of a pint steamed rice and “green” water and in the evening one pint of steamed rice and the “greens” that had been cooked in the mid-day water.

“Only those who were working were allocated food, so we needed to share ours with those in hospital or otherwise sick.”

“In Ambon it was breakfast before 8am and then a march of about three quarters of a mile to the airstrip, dressed only with a strip of material between the legs and so far as we could some sort of foot wear. Walking on the coral was soul destroying. There was a brief break between when we got there and started “work” and the arrival of the mid-day meal and another in the afternoon before returning to camp about six or six–thirty for the evening meal. Treatment, as experienced by all the prisoners was harsh as the ‘powers that be’ wanted the work finished yesterday.”

In June 1944 William was put on a transport ship destined for the Thai-Burma ‘Death Railway’ but was taken off the boat at Singapore and hospitalised at Changi suffering from Beriberi disease.  After six months in hospital he was transferred to the local Kranji prison as part of a forced labour group digging into the granite hillside to form bomb proof storage chambers.

After the Japanese surrender, William returned to the UK via Colombo, Suez and Liverpool on a Dutch boat in October 1945.

William said: “I think most people would ask why on earth I would want to go back to where I had such a traumatic experience. There are the war graves, where some of the 775 out of the 1,000 who didn’t survive are buried, and I would appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their sacrifice. ”

He continued: “Visiting the graves would also provide an opportunity to thank Almighty God for his grace, mercy, love and preservation which brought me safely back to the UK. I know I can continually do this but on the site would be very appropriate.”

William, who plans to take plenty of photographs to record his experience of the trip said:  “I would like these to be able to give my children and grandchildren the knowledge of what happened.”

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



Veteran recalls chance meeting with PoW by Big Lottery 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



“I showed my daughter places I knew” by Big Lottery Fund

A Royal Airforce (RAF) veteran from Wythenshaw, Manchester, recently embarked upon a Lottery-funded journey to where he served in Singapore. Having enjoyed his emotional return, through the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, he now wants others like him to apply for funding.

Jim Colecliffe

Jim Colecliffe returned to Singapore (photo credit – Dominic Holden)

Jim Colecliffe, 87, joined the RAF in 1944 aged 18. Sent to Cardington for basic training he went on to Cosford where he completed a Flight Mechanic Engine Course.

He recalls: “I had been in the ATC a couple of years before I joined up. I was always very interested in planes. I had a model aircraft flying on wires in my house.”

Jim was sent to a squadron in Towyn, North Wales from where he received his posting to the Far East.

Boarding a converted troop ship, HMS Ranchi, Jim sailed for Bombay arriving in January 1945, and from there was transferred to Akyab Island in Burma where he served at rank of Aircraftman 1st class with 62 Squadron RAF a Dakota supply unit.

He said: “Once we knew we were being posted overseas we were sent to Morecambe to get kitted out with pith helmets and all the jungle gear. Once we got to Bombay we had four or five days travelling across India by train.

“It was terrible to see the poverty. People with badly maimed limbs even women and children. I couldn’t believe that people could live like that in this day and age.               

“We then flew to 62 Squadron base on Akyab Island just off the coast of Burma. Once we got there we had to deal with the monsoons, putting up tents and then digging trenches around them. We were what you might call slightly damp. I was only 18 and it was a different world to me all this.”

Carrying out four to five sorties a day to drop vital supplies to front line troops fighting the Japanese, Jim’s was assigned to keep Dakota ‘U’ for Uncle serviced and flying safely.

Jim recalls: “As soon as they landed I would check the cowlings and the engines and then climb into the cockpit, check over all the instruments and run the engines to make sure everything was working properly.

Jim Colecliffe

Jim pictured during his wartime service (credit – Dominic Holden)

“It was all quite an experience really. We tolerated the heat somehow, no shirts, just bush hats. We got a cooked breakfast every morning from the RAF cooks and then after that we lived on typical American K rations.

“These were the same as were supplied to all aircrew in case they got ditched. There were packets of biscuits, cigarettes, chocolate, even toilet paper, typical Yank stuff. It was a little bit sparse, but we didn’t starve.

“When I heard the bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, I felt a bit upset that they’d had to do it. But then we hadn’t had it tough like others.

“We only had one fatality when a Canadian pilot got caught in a cumulonimbus weather cloud and his plane was destroyed.”

Following the Japanese surrender, 62 Squadron was disbanded and Jim was posted to Singapore for three months where he was assigned to looking after VIP aircraft used by generals and admirals.

He was later transferred to Indonesia where he serviced planes flying Japanese PoWs back home. Jim then received his last posting to Saigon at that time a staging post for aircraft between Singapore and Indonesia.

He remembers: “One night I was on guard duty when we had to look after two very high ranking Japanese officers stopping with us in our guard house. They were extremely polite. But I could never work out if they were being very polite because they had lost the war, or if it was just their nature.”

Jim, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, recalls his Heroes Return 2 trip to Singapore in June last year where he was accompanied by his daughter Brenda.

“We went round the airfield at Changi where I was stationed. We also visited the Changi Museum and were shocked by the atrocity of some of the stories we read. One was about an Australian lady who had two sons aged 11 and 12 who were both seriously ill.

“In desperation she approached a Japanese guard for help but he smashed her face in with a rifle butt. There was also the story of a Malaysian woman who came to the fence of a PoW camp to pass food through to the prisoners. She was caught by a guard who smashed her with a rifle butt, but she still came back the next day.                  

“I think the chance to have a second trip with Heroes Return 2 is absolutely fantastic news. I couldn’t believe it. I am over the moon. I wouldn’t have been able to go back without the funding. It was a great experience for both me and my daughter Brenda, and for me to be able to show her the places I knew. The whole thing has made such a big impression on both of us. She has never stopped talking about it.”

Jim Colecliffe

Jim studies wartime photos with his daughter Brenda (photo credit – Dominic Holden)

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