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


Saluting the fallen, Remembrance 2014 by Big Lottery Fund

Never forgotten Remembrance Day veterans salute the fallen

As the nation prepares for poignant ceremonies to commemorate the heroism and fortitude of a special generation on this Remembrance Sunday (Nov 9) veterans across the country are 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.

Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth HighlanderTo reflect the nation’s debt to our Armed Forces veterans of WW2 the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has to date awarded over  £28 million to more than 57,000 WW2 veterans, spouses, widows and carers since 2004 to make journeys of remembrance.

Peter Ainsworth chair of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “As we approach this important day of commemorations it is with gratitude and pride that the country remembers and honours our veterans who endured the horrors of war and whose courage and sacrifice finally brought an end to a conflict that cost over 60 million lives across the world.”

Among those benefiting from the Heroes Return programme today is Colonel Edward Toms, 93 from Hythe in Kent, former wartime SAS officer and Seaforth Highlander.

On Sept 1939 Edward was an 18 year-old third year Electrical Engineering apprentice in HM Naval Dockyard, Devonport and a student at HM Dockyard School.

He remembers: “Third year apprentices were required to spend that year ‘afloat’, that is working on ships that were already in service with a naval crew. All those working in naval dockyards were exempt from call up and like many young men at the time we couldn’t wait to be called up and immediately wanted to volunteer to join the Forces in a unit of our choice. We were told we could not and should not.

“By nature I am a loner and inclined to find my own solutions so I wrote to the Admiral Superintendant, HM Dockyard, Devonport and he gave me permission to volunteer, adding that my training would be particularly valuable in the Royal Navy. But, I failed the RN Medical Board because I did not have perfect 20/20 vision and spectacles were unacceptable.” 

Consequently, he volunteered for the Royal Tank Regiment joining them in early 1941 at Bovington camp in Dorset. Training as a tank radio operator/driver he was then sent to active service in the Middle East in early 1942, serving as tank Trooper in the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) with the 7th Hussars part of the 7th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the famous Desert Rats.

He recalls: “When we eventually reached Egypt I went down with the awful Sand Fly Fever and ended up in the British military hospital in Helwan, a leafy suburb of Cairo. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire 7th Armoured Brigade were rushed to Rangoon with their light tanks to attempt to defend Burma against the Japanese. It was a terrible battle with much sickness.

“The Brigade was driven back into India, with practically everyone suffering from malaria and dysentery and it took many months and much reinforcement before the brigade eventually returned to Egypt. We missed the first Battle of El Alamein. Those like me, when we left hospital went to our depots in the Canal Zone and were formed and trained as complete tank crews with firstly Grant tanks and later with Sherman tanks.” 

Edward’s crew was reallocated as part replacement crews to the many other RTR units in time for the second Battle of El Alamein at the end of October 1942 and formed up beyond Alexandria as part of a replacement troop of 5th RTR.

“My tank was hit early on and caught fire,” he recalls.” My back was burnt getting out of the turret and I ended up again in the British military hospital at Helwan, in Cairo. When I was fully fit again I was chosen for a commission in the Infantry as a Seaforth Highlander, 2nd Lieutenant, in late 1943 but by then there were no Seaforth units in the Middle East, so I volunteered and passed the selection process for the SAS, including the essential parachute training.”

Edward now a Captain in the Raiding Support Regiment (RSR) went on to take part in raids and longer operations working with the working with the Special  Boating Services (SBS) in Italy the Aegean Islands, Albania, and Yugoslavia, including  two raids on the Albanian coast and the occupation of the Island of Vis, off the German held Yugoslavian coast.

He said: “It was very difficult for the Germans to defend the Adriatic and Italian coast. There was a main road that ran up from Brindisi to Venice where we could land agents. In the Aegeans we worked with the Special Boating Services (SBS) on short sharp raids. There were thousands of Greek Islands and we could mingle in with the local fishing boats.”

In January 1945 after returning to Special Forces HQ in Bari, Italy, Edward was then summoned to form part of Monty’s final push into Germany.

He recalls: “We used to love going back to base in Bari. It was always full of nice British girls. We’d try and stay at the Hotel Imperiali, built by Mussolini and taken over by the NAAFI.  The Commanding Officer came all the way to Bari to claim me as his battalion was about to go into the front line short of officers, whereas, as far as he could see I was “only dancing with FANY’s.”

As part of the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Edward moved up through France direct from Italy to join the 5th Division for the Rhine Crossings and advance into Germany where after a few battles the Battalion reached Lubeck and Wismar on the Baltic.

The European War now over, in July 1945 Edward flew to Ceylon in a Sunderland Flying Boat to join Force 136 Special Operations Executive (SOE). 

He said: “Luckily for me, before I was parachuted into Japanese – held lands, the A bombs were dropped in August and my war service ended with a fiancée, Veronica who was serving in the ATS in Mountbatten’s HQ in Kandy where Force 136 also had its HQ.

“We married in July 1946, and lived very happily for 57 years till sadly Veronica died in 2003, having given me four marvellous children.”

Edward reflects: “Remembrance Day means a lot to me. I was born just after World War One ended. I lost two uncles only 20 at the time so there was grief in the family. But as you grow older it becomes more important and given the opportunity to go back and visit battle sites, remembrance becomes much much more important, and you begin to have regrets  that you didn’t do more  about remembering. It does become terribly important.” 

“I think Heroes Return is a marvellous idea and I’m very grateful to have been able to make these important trips with the support of the lottery. I think Heroes Return has got it right, just in time to allow thousands of veterans to go back, many who might not have otherwise been able to. What I like about it too is that the funding is not means tested. It helps every veteran, like we were in the war, all equal, all one.”

The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme has awarded over £28 million to over 57,000 WW2 veterans, widows and carers since 2004.

The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.

This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have already been funded since the programme relaunched in 2009 will have a second opportunity to apply for a grant towards travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served, or make a commemorative visit in the UK.

For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Film: Heroes hitchhike to Normandy by Big Lottery Fund

Just imagine if the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme wasn’t there to support World War Two veterans wanting to make a return journey to where they served. This National Lottery Good Causes film tells the story of Robert Coupe who applied for funding for a commemorative trip and has since successfully applied for a second trip.

Since 2009, over £25 million has been awarded to more than 52,000 World War II veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the UK for journeys in the UK and to countries including France, Germany, the Middle East, the Far East.

To use the new ‘Good Cause Finder’ to see projects in your area, or to find out more about Just Imagine January, visit  www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and follow Lottery Good Causes on Twitter: @lottogoodcauses



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



Ron Rowson returns to Normandy by Big Lottery Fund

In June 2012 Ron took part in the annual pilgrimage to Normandy with D-Day Revisited, his first trip back since 1944, which proved a very moving trip for him. His commemorative journey was funded by the Heroes Return 2 programme.

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



Infographic: Heroes Return journeys to date by Big Lottery Fund

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Since launching in 2009 the Heroes Return programme has funded more than 50,000 veterans to make commemorative trips to where they served in World War Two.

These journeys have included emotional reunions on the beaches of Normandy, meeting old comrades across the battlefields of Arnhem, pilgrimages to remembrance sites across the Far East, and attending events and commemorative trips across the UK.

  • The Big Lottery Fund has paid for 55,001 veterans and their companions to visit places where they saw action
  • £27m has been awarded under the Heroes Return programme
  • 32,121 veterans have visited Northern and Western Europe (including the UK)
  • 13,177 veterans have visited the Mediterranean and North Africa
  • 1,997 veterans have visited Egypt, Libya and the Middle East
  • 7,706 veterans have visited the Far East and the rest of the world

The Heroes Return programme has recently been extended to enable veterans to apply for funding to make second trips to the places they served across the world. The programme deadline for closure will now be end of 2015.

If you know a WW2 veteran who may be eligible for a commemorative trip please contact the Heroes Return helpline on: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn

Have you been on a Heroes Return trip to where you served or do you know of someone who has? We’d love to hear from you. Leave your comments below or join the conversation on Twitter using #HeroesReturn.



Welsh veteran recalls D-Day torpedo attack by Big Lottery Fund

As we prepare to remember those who died in the line of duty on 11 November, a Welsh D-Day veteran whose ship was sunk by a German U-Boat with the loss of 110 lives recalls how he was lucky to have survived.

Thanks to an award from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, 87 year old Eddie Linton from Newport recently visited the beaches of Normandy for the first time to lay a wreath in memory of the 110 fellow crew-members that lost their lives on the frigate, HMS Mourne – the ship he served on during WW2.

Eddie recalls with sadness the first time the War hit home for him: “I remember walking to school and my friend looked a bit down so I asked him what was wrong,” recalls Eddie.

“‘My brother has been killed, he got blown up on HMS Adventure’ (1939) he said. I think she was the first ship blown up in the War and it brought it all home for me and I knew then what it was all about and how sad it was.”

To read Eddie’s story in full, visit the Big Lottery Fund newsroom.

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



Remembrance Day trips for Far East POWs by Big Lottery Fund

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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