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

Salute for ‘Husky’ heroes on 70th anniversary by The National Lottery Community Fund

John Field crouched in the packed hold of the converted allied troop ship RMS Maloja as it slipped through the deadly U-Boat killing grounds of the North Atlantic. Billeted deep below the water line John knew that he and his comrades would never survive a dreaded torpedo attack. Terrified to sleep he began to pray, a desperate act that would bring a calm and lasting spiritual courage to the 20-year old Royal Marine armourer in the dark days to come.

John, now 92, is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 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.

World War Two veteran, John Field

John Field, 92, is returning to where he served in Sicily (Credit – David Devins)

In 1941, as Britain waited under the threat of a German invasion, 19 year-old Cambridge lad John Field was earning his stripes as an apprentice locksmith.

Upon reaching his 20th birthday John joined up with the Royal Navy, and underwent training as an Armourer, gun fitter. A year later John set sail on troop ship RMS Maloja bound for the Middle East via the Cape Route, stopping at Sierra Leone, Durban and arriving in Suez.

He recalls: “We went the long way round to try and avoid the U- Boats but got chased by some on our route towards Iceland. Troop quarters were well below the ship’s waterline and I was absolutely terrified as we wouldn’t be able to get out if a torpedo hit us. I couldn’t sleep. I wouldn’t even get into my hammock or take my shoes off.

“I wanted to be able to get onto the rope ladder and climb up as quickly as possible if something happened. This fear gripped me for some time until one night I just started to say the Lord’s Prayer and kept saying it till it gradually calmed me down. After a while, I took off my boots, got into the hammock and went to sleep. It was a spiritual experience which helped me keep calm. I was never afraid like that again.”

Arriving safely in Suez John was sent to an allied base at Quassassin where he was put to work maintaining and repairing tank guns. He said: “We were given a square block of steel from which we had to make replacement bits for guns. Everything had to be absolutely accurate. That’s where my training as a locksmith came in. We were glad to have this job to protect our mates, but glad not to be doing the shooting.”

In early July 1943 John set sail from Port Said to Sicily on SS Bergensfjord in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily, codenamed ‘Operation Husky’. The mission was to launch a large scale amphibious and airborne attack that would drive the Axis air, land and naval forces from the island; a move that would open up the Mediterranean sea lanes and pave the way for the invasion of the Italian mainland.

John Field

John pictured in his wartime uniform (Credit – David Devins)

John was assigned to the Royal Marine Naval Base Defence Organisation, (RM NBDO) responsible for the capture and maintenance of enemy gun defences.

He remembers, “As we approached Sicily we had to transfer into a Landing Craft to get in close. Aircraft were bombing and machine gunning us. The Landing

Craft in front was hit and destroyed by a Stuka dive bomber. I was quite calm. I had a job to do. We were very young. We thought we were immortal.”

“There were three beaches, ‘George’, ‘Item’, and ‘Hal’, which was our beach. There was very little troop resistance as the Germans had transferred their army to Crete thanks to Operation Mincemeat. Once we were near the shore we jumped into the water and waded the rest of the way. Then we ran up the beach and managed to take cover in a farmhouse. We were very thankful for this.”

The next day John and his comrades set off marching towards the port of Syracuse. He recalls; “Our rations were biscuits and dry foods, anything that was light to carry. There was an incident about water and an officer told us not to drink from the springs. When we arrived just south of Syracuse we went up onto a headland. There was a lighthouse and a scattering of guns.

“We took over ten guns that weren’t damaged.  Two of the guns looked very peculiar. They were four inch anti-aircraft guns which we used for barrage against attacking planes. One night, one of them exploded and the barrel fell off. Luckily no one was hurt. We couldn’t understand why this had happened till we found an Italian handbook with bits marked in red ink which translated read, ‘On no account use more than seven shells when firing.’

We later saw a whole group of Italian soldiers going home to their wives and families. They walked off and left their billets. There was just one group of German infantry defending Syracuse and after three days they retreated.”

The RM NBDO was then deployed to repair guns across the island. On one occasion John found himself in the middle of a ferocious battle for the capture of the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto River, a move that would give the Eighth Army vital access for an allied advance across the Catania plain, driving enemy forces back toward the Italian mainland.

John Field

John, top right of picture, with comrades

He recalls: “We had to go out to an 88 millimetre German gun stuck on the other side of the river. The Germans were up in the hills beyond the river and as we crossed from the British side the shells were exchanging over our heads. When we eventually reached the gun we marvelled at its engineering.”

After Sicily, John came down with jaundice and was sent to Scotland on sick leave.

Once recovered, he was involved in the testing of Landing Ship Docks in the Mediterranean, before being posted back to Suez. In 1945 he was sent out to India and the Far East as part of Operation Zipper.

He recalls, “The Japanese were still resisting. They didn’t know the bomb had been dropped. Communication lines were not good at this time.”

However, after the final surrender John was posted to Singapore where he spent his final months of the war as a dockyard policeman before finally arriving back home in England in early 1946. Five years after the war John travelled back to India to live and work as a missionary for over 20 years.

John is now looking forward to travelling back to Sicily with his family, where he will retrace his steps across the island. He said: “I wouldn’t have dreamt of going back if it wasn’t for Heroes Return. It will be marvellous after 70 years.”

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

“You had to rely on your comrades” by The National Lottery Community Fund

World War Two veteran Reg Downes, 91, from Hoddesden in Hertfordshire, recently made a commemorative visit to Salerno, Italy, thanks to funding from the Heroes Return programme.

Reg joined the Territorial Army in 1938. Called up at the outbreak of war he joined the Middlesex Regiment, aged just 17 before volunteering in the Army Commandos. In 1941 he was posted up to Achnacarry  near Fort William where he underwent a tough six-week intensive training course on fitness, weapons training, map reading, climbing, and demolitions operations.

Reg Downes

Reg Downes joined the Territorial Army in 1938 (photo credit – David Devins)

He remembers: “I was always a bit of a daredevil, humdrum life didn’t suit me. The training was hard but I was never fitter in my life than I was then.”

Training completed and at rank of Private, Reg was assigned to the Motor Transport section No2 Army Commando under the command of Lt-Colonel Jack Churchill, distant relative of Winston Churchill.

Reg was posted out to North Africa and from there to Sicily where he saw his first action as the troop landed near the town of Scaletta in advance of Monty’s Eighth Army. Here they engaged the German rearguard.

He remembers: “It was a bit hairy being our first action. I was the section driver and we were loaded up with bombs. We got involved in house- to-house fighting in Scaletta, but by then most of the Germans had retreated to Messina and then back to mainland Italy.”

After success in Sicily the invasion of Italy followed on 3rd September 1943 when No. 2 Commando landed at Vietri sul Mare, in Salerno in the early hours of the morning. The troop’s first task was to take a German gun battery but after finding it undefended they moved on to secure the town of Vietri where they set up a headquarters and opened up the beach for allied landings.

Supported by the Royal Marine Commandos, Reg and comrades moved on to take a German observation post outside the town of La Molina which controlled a pass leading down to the Salerno beach-head. Despite heavy German opposition they eventually captured the post taking 42 prisoners including a mortar squad.

Reg said: “This was a heavy battle. We held the beachhead but they really came after us. We were a thorn in their sides and they were trying to wipe us out. We were only supposed to hold it for eight hours but we were stuck there for over two weeks. People had fear. You wouldn’t be telling the truth if you said you hadn’t. But comradeship was very good. You had to rely on your comrades. At first it was very hard to kill people but after a while you got a bit cynical about it. There weren’t many prisoners taken on either side.  It was live or die.”

The commando units went on to face fierce resistance from crack German troops in Salerno with 367 killed, wounded or missing out of the 738 who had taken part in the landings.

Reg Downes

Reg Downes during his wartime service

In January 1944 Reg was posted to the Yugoslavian island of Vis. With half the unit depleted they carried out assaults on German garrisons, and raids on shipping.

He recalls: “We used to pick up and destroy boats carrying German ammunition to the Island.  Yugoslavia was full of partisans. Tito had insisted that they were included in our raids on the Germans. They were mostly youngsters very wild and silly, waving machine guns around. It was all a bit risky.”

The troop saw further action in Albania in raids at Himare and at Sarande where they were heavily outnumbered and pinned down by superior German forces until support units   arrived, and the town was captured cutting off the German garrison in Corfu which later . surrendered to the Commandos in November 1944.

Reg recently returned to Salerno with his sons, he said: “I thought the grant was wonderful. I couldn’t have afforded to go without it. I looked for the place we landed at Vietri sul Mare, but I couldn’t find it. Then I asked a local and he pointed it out. I also went to Salerno War Cemetery to see the graves of the chaps I fought with. We lost quite a lot there. The graves were beautifully kept. It put a lump in my throat.”

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

Memories of Adrano by The National Lottery Community Fund
December 9, 2009, 11:43 am
Filed under: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , ,

One of the towns we passed through was called Adrano and the impression it made on me was sufficient to inspire the only poem I have ever written or am likely to write. Apart from a slight alteration to the last few lines it remains as I wrote it some sixty years ago and I print it here without comment.”

Darkness was falling as we entered the town, but t’was light enough still to see
The shattered ruins of what had been, a town, in Sicily.
It wasn’t much to call a town, compared with those of greater size.
It wasn’t built for modern war and now a stinking heap it lies,
Rotting beneath the azure skies, of Sicily.

It seemed as if an angry God had run amok with gory hands,
Then dropped a veil, a canopy, of dirty, blinding, choking sands
And as to wreak his vengeance more
Had propped a body in each door

We drove on by with sober thought,
Of those poor b******s who’d been caught,
We grimaced at the sick, sweet, smell, of this small piece of man made hell
This could be you, the bodies said, this could be you, soon gone, soon dead
We hurried by, enough to be, alive that day, in Sicily”

Ron Goldstein Returns to Sicily by The National Lottery Community Fund
December 9, 2009, 11:08 am
Filed under: Army, Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In 1942 he was called up and by April 1943 found himself in North Africa as a Wireless Operator reinforcement to the 1st Army. Ron’s unit, the 49th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, R.A. was involved in the whole of the Sicilian campaign before moving on to the Italian mainland. His Regiment was disbanded in late 1944 and he was retrained as a Wireless op in tanks.

Ron’s unit, the 49th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, R.A. was involved in the whole of the Sicilian campaign before moving on to Italy where he remained until early 1947.

In September 1943, Ron crossed the Messina straits in a Tank Landing Craft. It was this memory that stayed with Ron and despite visiting Italy many times after the war, he had never returned to Sicily. Ron felt that to make this journey once again would lay matters to rest.

Thanks to the Heroes Return scheme, Ron was able to travel to Sicily and make that same trip across the straits, this time accompanied by his wife, Nita. (picture here)

“As the sharp breeze hit my face I confess to feeling a distinct feeling of pride that I had made my original trip almost exactly sixty-six years before and that I had lived to return to the very same spot with my partner of sixty odd years.”