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


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



“It meant so much to pay my final respects” by Big Lottery Fund

When Northern Irish veteran John Murtagh, 91, joined up to help the war effort in 1943 he could never have imagined the adventure and experiences that lay ahead.

John was part of the Royal Army Service Corps that supported the allied offensive as it made its way across Europe during 1944 and 1945.

He landed on Normandy’s Sword Beach shortly after D-Day, advancing through Europe and into Germany, before eventually reaching Belsen concentration camp where he witnessed some of the war’s most harrowing images.

John Murtagh

John Murtagh landed on Sword Beach shortly after D-Day (photo credit – Brian Morrison)

He received a grant from the Heroes Return 2 programme to return to Normandy last year, and it proved an emotional experience.

“I could see it all,” said John. “I could see the faces of our friends. It was upsetting, but I am glad I went back,” says John, a quiet man who denies he is a hero.

“It was important for me to remember what happened there when we landed on the beach on D-Day, the brave men who fell and the sacrifices they made and the heroes they truly were. It was the first time I’ve ever been back and it really meant a lot to me.”

John’s war began in the Faroe Islands where he was a Messing Officer, buying in the food and helping load and unload boats and warehouses for forces fighting in Russia.

Then in May 1944 he was called back to London to join the allied offensive in Europe. He landed on Sword Beach on June 9, shortly after D-Day.

John explained:  “There was so much noise, but the infantry and tanks were between us and the Germans. I was a supporter at the back, but we still took a lot of enemy fire. We brought the supplies in and looked after the soldiers who had suffered injuries.”

After tending the wounded, John moved to Caen which had been devastated in an Allied bombing. “We were not welcomed with open arms. The people were very resentful of what had happened,” he recalls. “The town was completely flat and the stench was awful. The troops had to get the corpses out of the rubble. There were dark patches where the blood had flowed.”

“We moved on to Belgium after that and I helped organise Prisoners of War to send to the UK. They were mostly young fellows of 15 or 16, just like us really. We had been given such a bad name by the Germans as to what we would do to them, so they were very, very frightened.”

“I continued to provide support for the forces as we moved down through Europe and I was in Holland when I found out the war was over. It was a great time and we celebrated in style.”

But the celebrations ended abruptly when John arrived in north western Germany in 1945 to help with the liberation of Belsen concentration camp. “I could not describe the smell or the people when we arrived there,” he said. “It was one of the most harrowing things I have ever seen. They had been so badly treated, some were just skin and bone, I don’t know how they survived. The faces were tortured – that’s the best description I can give of it.

“We fed them and gave them clothes and tried to clean up. It was shocking to see how people could be degraded in such a way. There was one man I thought was dead, and it was only when his tongue moved in his mouth I realised he was still alive. He died soon after.”

For John, getting the chance to pay his final respects was hugely important. “This was the first time I have ever been back,” he said. “I wanted to do it now as I’m not getting any younger. I read about the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme in the local paper and I applied straight away. It meant so much to be able to pay my final respects. I’m so grateful.”

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