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


I survived the ‘Typhoon of Steel’ by The National Lottery Community Fund
August 16, 2012, 11:56 am
Filed under: Heroes Return, Navy | Tags: , , ,

A veteran from Anglesey has recalled the role he played in the Battle of the Pacific, known as the ‘Typhoon of Steel’,  and how he survived desperate Kamikaze suicide attacks and cheated death in major naval battles stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.

WW2 veteran Caradog Jones will make an emotional return to Australia

WW2 veteran Caradog Jones will make an emotional return to Australia

Thanks to a grant from BIG’s Heroes Return programme, 88 year old Caradog Jones from Holyhead, Anglesey, will be returning to Australia this year to recall where his War ended 67 years ago and to pay his respects to those who lost their lives in the bitter and bloody conflict between 1939 and 1945.

In November 1942 and only 18 years of age, Caradog Jones was called up by the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman. He joined the Torpedo Branch and was responsible for firing torpedoes from Destroyers on enemy ships and dropping depth charges to sink incoming enemy submarines. His War ended with the eventual surrender of the Japanese when the Americans dropped Atom Bombs on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.     

“I went to war completely innocent, not knowing what to expect,” explains Caradog. “The funny thing is that I joined the Royal Navy and I couldn’t even swim a stroke, despite being surrounded by the sea growing up on Anglesey. I still can’t swim to this day.”

After successfully completing his training in Plymouth, in 1943 Caradog was acquainted for the first time with his ship, HMS Queenborough in Gourock, Scotland.

The Queenborough was dubbed ‘The Lucky Ship’ after the War in reference to all the near deadly scrapes she and the crew emerged out of unscathed despite fighting in some of the deadliest theatres of war around the world.

“I can’t really describe what I felt when I was on my way to join the ship,” says Caradog. “I knew nothing about her or what I had to do, didn’t know any of the crew, everything was strange and I was quite worried. The only thing I knew is that I had to go.”

Visit our newsroom to read more of Caradog’s story.

More information and details of how to apply for a Heroes Return 2 grant are available by calling 0845 00 00 121 or visiting www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



WWII fighter pilot returns to Japan in tribute to best friend by The National Lottery Community Fund

Flight commander Keith Quilter hurtled along in his fighter bomber towards the Japanese aerodrome. Flying right beside him was his best friend Walter Stradwick and two other fighters.

At just 50 feet from the ground they closed in on Japanese aircraft. As they prepared to let loose a burst of gunfire, Keith saw Walter’s fighter at his side suddenly plunge into the ground and explode into a ball of flames.

Keith was aged 23 at the time. Today (Tuesday, 6 March) is his 90th birthday and he is also celebrating being awarded funding to make an emotional visit to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate from aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, killed on 18 July 1945 aged 22.

Keith, from Tenterden, Kent, recently learnt he will receive £3,700 from BIG’s Heroes Return programme to make a commemorative visit in May 2012. His is the 50th successful application for funding for a veteran to visit Japan.

Keith served as a pilot in the navy from 1942 to 1946 and rejoined in 1947, leaving in 1952. During the war he flew many death-defying missions in his F4U Corsair fighter bomber, at first in attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck, in Norway in August 1944. 

Keith pictured during his wartime service

Keith pictured during his wartime service

HMS Formidable then joined the British Pacific Fleet. They attacked Japanese aerodromes in islands between Okinawa and Taiwan to prevent Kamikaze suicide missions against Allied ships and to prepare for a possible ground invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Keith said: “I want to go and pay my respects to my cabin mate Walter Stradwick. I found out where his grave is and I’m going to leave a wreath there. I’m also hoping to somehow trace his family. I’m going to take a photograph of his grave and would like them to be able to see it.

“He went into the ground and I saw a horrible great mass of flames alongside me. Then my wing man said his oil pressure was dropping and so the fourth pilot had to escort him back to the carrier. This meant I was on my own so I joined the tail end of my CO’s group to attack a different aerodrome.

“I got hit as I went into a 45 degree dive to strafe the aerodrome. I heard this huge bang. A 20mm shell hit the side. When I eventually got back to the carrier all the chaps on deck were pointing up at my aircraft. When I got out I saw a hole in the fuselage so big you could put your head inside.

“That mission was the one that caused me the most personal loss. When your close friend and cabin mate is shot down and you get back to the ship and walk back into an empty cabin room, that is….quite something.”

Keith survived two Kamikaze attacks on HMS Formidable. The first strike killed several men on the flight deck who didn’t hear the alarm because of the sound of the engines of aircraft taxiing towards one end. As a result of that attack, it was decided that someone would also wave a red flag to warn pilots of a Kamikaze approaching. This new procedure saved Keith’s life.

Keith said: “I was strapped into my aircraft with the engine running. Suddenly I saw someone frantically waving a red flag in front of me. I switched the engine off, unstrapped myself as quick as I could and me and three other pilots leapt out of our fighters and jumped down two of three decks before it hit the ship. The ship lurched as the kamikaze hit us. My aircraft was completely destroyed.”

Less than a week after Walter died, Keith was shot down attacking a Japanese destroyer inside a harbour at Owaze.

Keith recalled: “Twelve of us were flying towards a target on the mainland when we spotted a destroyer. I was told to attack it so me and three others peeled away from the main group. Because it was on the inside of the harbour wall we had to approach from the land which had high hills. We attacked by coming in really low over the water and released the bombs just before we passed over the ship so that they hit its side.

Keith is returning to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate Walter Stradwick (credit PA)

Keith is returning to Japan to visit the grave of his best friend and cabin mate Walter Stradwick

“One of our chaps got hit and had to ditch in the water. I wanted to come around again to see if he was okay in his dingy and saw a side creek with hills that would have hidden me from view of the town as I came around for a look. But there was a gun position there and I got hit. My engine suddenly stopped so I had no choice but to ditch.

“I had to open the hood quickly before the plane sank, got into my dingy and paddled away to the open sea. The other pilot was doing the same while Japanese were taking pot shots at him from the shore.

“Then I saw this sinister looking black submarine sail towards us. At first I feared it was a Japanese submarine but men got out and I recognised the US Navy uniform. They were on standby to save Allied pilots like myself. I couldn’t believe a US sub would come in that close.

“I was aboard for three weeks, by which time the atom bombs had been dropped. As we sailed into Saipan we heard on the radio that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.”

As well as visiting Walter’s grave at Yokohama War Cemetery, Keith also wanted to visit the memorial dedicated to Robert Hampton Gray, a Corsair fighter pilot also on board HMS Formidable. “Hammy” Gray was one of the last Canadians to die in the war and was awarded a Victoria Cross for an attack on a destroyer in Onagawa Bay. Despite coming under heavy fire and his plane ablaze, he remained on course to bomb and sink the ship before crashing into the water. The memorial is the only one dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.

Keith said: “We were all such young and cocky fighter pilots. But by the time VJ day came I think half the squadron had been lost. Walter was a lovely guy and Hammy was also full of fun in the mess.”

The Heroes Return 2 programme is still open for applications. For more information, please visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the advice line on 0845 0000 121



WWII veteran recalls U-boat attack by The National Lottery Community Fund
January 6, 2012, 6:52 pm
Filed under: Africa, Heroes Return | Tags: , , ,

At 8pm at 17 December 1943, 19-year-old Quartermaster Robert Lang finished his shift at the wheel of merchant ship SS Kingswood. He headed down below for a meal, sat down in the mess room with his mates and picked up his cutlery.

“As I put my knife and fork to the plate, the torpedo struck the ship,” he said.

Robert Lang

Robert is one of a number of Second World War veterans who will be returning to the place where they served as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme. The 88-year-old from Preston will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco on the west coast of Africa this year – near where his merchant ship was torpedoed 68 years ago. To date more than £25 million has been awarded to over 51,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.

Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “A huge debt of gratitude and recognition is owed by today’s society to the men and women who fought across the world during the Second World War. They built the peace and protected the freedoms we enjoy today.”

Robert recalled how he fought for his life escaping a sinking ship, clinging to a piece of wood in shark-infested waters, his rescue by local African fishermen, and treatment by a witch doctor on the Ivory Coast before friendly African forces helped his shipmates to a hospital. Decades later he managed to contact and even become friends with two members of the same U-boat crew that sunk his ship.

Weeks before the U-boat struck, Robert’s ship had previously called at Gibraltar. The ship loaded with cargo in Lagos in Nigeria and on 17th December set sail for UK. It was passing the Ivory Coast when the torpedo slammed into its side.

“All the lights went out – and the steel door to get out was jammed,” said Robert. “The ship was turning and the portholes were below the water line. It was like a sealed coffin. Someone shouted ‘we’re going’ and I thought we were headed to the bottom of the ocean. Then there was another explosion from the ammunition locker. That saved us – it blew the steel door open by 18 inches – just enough for us to squeeze out.

“When we got on deck the ship was leaning about 45 to 50 degrees. The engines should have been turned off when the captain called abandon ship but hadn’t been. We were trying to get a lifeboat down but the ship was dragging it along. Because the ship didn’t stop a second torpedo was fired which hit.

“I was blown clean out of the lifeboat and into the sea. I went straight down and thought that was it. When you hear of people saying you see your life and family before you it’s all true – and it wasn’t a fearful feeling. Eventually I popped up near the rotating blades. The ship kept going for a bit further and then turned over and sank.

“I was clinging to a piece of wood four feet long in the dark. I was terrified about the sharks – we’d seen them earlier in the day and I was living in fear of being eaten. One lifeboat got away and eventually it discovered me. It was made for 14 men but there were about 50 inside and I was the last to be pulled out of the sea.”

But the ordeal on the seas was not over. Suddenly, they heard and engine and a searchlight suddenly swept onto them – the deadly German U-boat had surfaced.

“I thought we were going to be blown out of the water,” said Robert. “The Germans demanded that our captain came aboard but we said he wasn’t in the lifeboat and must still be in the water. They wanted someone to go over and speak to their captain but none of us wanted to. Then a chap offered and they questioned him about our route and cargo. He was let go and came back to us. The search light came on us again and we feared the worst but the U-boat disappeared into the darkness.”

Robert, with broken fingers, injured arm and a gash in his groin, drifted in the lifeboat for two days while sharks circled the boat. After two days adrift they spotted local fishermen from Grand Popo in long canoes who helped them find the shore.

He recalled, “We slept on the beach.  They looked after us in their village of clay huts with straw roofs and fed us yams. At one point the chief of the tribe called for me and another mate to follow him. We came to a witch doctor covered in feathers. He chanted all sorts of incantations and abracadabra stuff, throwing his hands to the heavens. He also threw little stones at my broken fingers. Eventually the chief tapped me on the shoulder and my treatment was over!”

Robert and his shipmates then walked for days through the bush, coming across another tribe who killed a wild boar and fed them. Days later they met soldiers from the Royal West African Frontier Force. He was taken to a hospital in Takoradi in Ghana suffering from malaria where he spent Christmas day and eventually made it home, five months after the torpedoing.

Decades after the war, sometime in the early 1980s, Robert discovered the name of the U-boat – U515 – and wrote to the German Embassy for see if there was an association. They replied with contact details of two members of the crew from the submarine. He became pen pals with Carl Moller and Herman Kaspers. One day a couple of years later Robert’s phone rang.

He said: “My wife said someone wanted to speak to me and it was Carl. He asked if he could visit – I said yes anytime – he then said ‘I’ll see you in four hours!’ He was on holiday in Scotland! It was a strange feeling seeing the Mercedes pulling up my drive. Carl got out the car and then Herman stepped out too! Carl walked up to me, put his arm around me and the first thing he said was ’We are sorry for sinking the ship under your feet’.”

Robert, Carl and Herman stayed in touch for many years and Robert paid four visits to Germany, one time talking a tour of a U-boat on the Elbe with Carl and another occasion visiting Herman and his brother Helmut who also served on the U-515.

“I’m not at all resentful”, said Robert. “They were just doing their job like we were. When you get older you start to reflect differently on life.”

Robert served on nine merchant ships during the war. He has received a £800 grant from the Big Lottery Fund and will be visiting Gibraltar and Morocco in June next year.