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


“Returning to Italy was emotional” by The National Lottery Community Fund

A Merchant Navy veteran is urging others to apply for funding from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme.

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers, 85 from Leeds, went on a Heroes Return visit to Italy last September, to revisit the country he first saw during his time with the Merchant Navy. He joined up in 1943 when he was aged just 16.

He said: “I was in the sea cadets and the Merchant Navy had lost a lot of men and were asking for volunteers. My first ship was a cargo ship, SS Cape Wrath – a commandeered Tate and Lyle ship.

“We sailed north to Scotland and joined a convoy off Oban and from there sailed out into the north Atlantic and down towards Italy. We had a large aircraft carrier with us and carrier escorts. It was huge – I don’t remember the number but it was around 40 ships.

“We had vehicles on the deck which made the ship top heavy. It was January 1944 and the weather was really rough and she rolled around a lot – it was a tough journey.

“As we got near to France we were attacked by air and had a couple of submarine warnings. I remember hearing explosions during the night and I think we lost a couple of ships. We were called to action stations and it was my job to back the gunners up as an ammunition carrier.

“They opened fire all over the place – it was very noisy with all ships firing. The planes took off from the carrier and helped to drive the enemy aircraft away.

“At Gibraltar the convoy split – we went to Tunis. On the way out of Tunis the ship in front of us hit a mine and had to turn back. We went on to Cagliari, Sardinia where there had been heavy bombing.

Derek Vickers

Derek Vickers

“We dropped off the cargo and I can remember the smell – there were a lot of bodies under the rubble. It was really traumatic and that memory lingered with me for years.

“Then we went to Naples to deliver armoured vehicles for the troop at Anzio and Monte Cassino. Vesuvius erupted after the Allied troops arrived and we could see larva flowing down and we were all covered in dust. We could hear guns and bombs dropping at the battlefield at Monte Cassino and see the flashes at night.”

Derek visited Monte Cassino, Salerno and Anzio on a Heroes Return visit last September.

He said: “I wanted to go and see what it was like now. Also, during the war I was offshore and so my perspective was different. Although the war was so long ago it all came back to me. On my visit there were two other veterans in my group. It was really wonderful and very emotional.”

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



Remembering lost comrades by The National Lottery Community Fund

George Harris, 87, from Sidmouth, Devon, is urging other World War Two veterans to apply for Heroes Return funding to make a first or second visit to where they served.

He visited the Bay of Genoa area in Italy in October 2012, returning to one of the many places in the west Mediterranean he stopped at while on board a minesweeper.

George Harris

George Harris (credit – Kevin Clifford)

George joined the Royal Navy Coastal Services aged 17 in April 1943. Following training on lochs in Scotland, he joined a troop ship in a convoy to Malta.

He then joined ML134 – a motor launch adapted to be a minesweeper. The Able Seaman was a gunner on board the craft which swept mines from the sea to make way for larger Allied shipping.

He said: “We would tow metal cables behind us that would sweep just under the surface. The cables would slice through a mine’s mooring cables and it would float to the surface.

“I was a gunner on the bow and when it came to the surface I would shoot at it from a safe distance. If you hit one of the horns that stuck out it would explode. If I didn’t hit a horn then eventually the mine would get so pumped full of shells and water that it would sink to the bottom.

“One time we were sweeping somewhere off La Spezia and Genoa in Italy and a German Tiger tank began from the shore at our flotilla. Luckily we were too far away for him to hit us. Sometimes US bombers dropped bombs into the bay – perhaps they thought we were Germans.

“One day we heard that a US Liberator had gone down and we were asked to look for it. We spotted a huge inflatable life-raft and thought we’d found them – but it was empty.

“I wasn’t in any real danger during the war and it was actually a wonderful part of my life. There were 18 of us on board the motor launch – that was it. We went all around the West Mediterranean – Corsica, Sardinia, Santa Margarita and off the south of France. We were together for a whole year. They were such lovely blokes. I was the youngest on board – most of the others were in the late 20 or maybe early 30s. I expect they will have passed away by now.

“The most vivid war memories that I have are those of the chaps on board. Their faces came back to me while I was on my Heroes Return visit. I’ve often thought of them over the years.”

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