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D-Day veteran makes poignant return to shores of Normandy

Area:
England
Programme:
Heroes Return
Release date:
11 12 2012

All around the sea was turning red with blood as Ray Wilton’s Motor Launch guided the first wave of Normandy landing crafts through the deadly German sea mines. Many struggled desperately in the high tide as their crafts foundered under heavy shell fire or were wrecked by enemy defences lurking under the water. Those that did not die of their wounds sank like stones under the weight of heavy kitbags. Twenty-year-old Ray looked on helplessly as his boat ploughed on towards Gold Beach.

Now aged 88, Ray from the Wirral on Merseyside will be making a poignant trip 68 years on back to the Normandy beach at Arromanches. Ray will travel as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme which has to date awarded over £25 million to more than 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.

Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, Peter Wanless said: “We salute the bravery of so many who lost their lives in what became the largest amphibious invasion in world history and a major turning point in the European conflict. We owe a huge debt of gratitude and recognition to all the men and women who served across the world and at home during the Second World War. They built the peace and protected the freedoms we enjoy today.”

A Prescot lad, 18 year old Ray was originally in a reserved occupation as a technical engineer but in 1942 decided to register as a reserve in the Royal Navy. He recalls: “I was raring to go. Two of my mates had already joined, so in 1943 when I hadn’t received my call up I just went down and volunteered. I was eager to get on and do my bit.”

Ray was sent to Skegness to do his basic training in a local Butlin’s holiday camp requisitioned by the Royal Navy. After eight weeks he was sent to train as a telegraphist first to Aberdeen and then to Ayr where he learnt Morse code, passing out with 22 words a minute. Promoted to the rank of Ordinary Telegraphist, Ray was transferred to Southampton based stone frigate HMS Squid as part of Combined Operations.

He said: “We were the central communication base for everyone involved in the invasion, the Army, Navy and Air force. I was manning a radio set when one day the phone rang and I was told that I was to be a replacement out at sea for a telegraphist with appendicitis serving on Motor Launch patrols in the Channel. Our job was to look for German convoys and submarines hugging the French coast.

“We were more like a pirate ship really. It was a little boat and we all lived together, very informal. We used to wear boiler suits and plimsolls and put on oilskins if it got too wet. 

He continued: “We were all ready for D-day which was originally planned for the 5th of June, but the weather turned awful so we were sent out to make sure that everyone knew that the operation would be delayed. We caught an American ship quite near the French coast and called out to them ‘Get back. We’ve been delayed!’ then after that we saw another boat full of tanks and we sent them back too. We also found the body of an American airman floating in a life jacket. He was very badly decomposed so we took his dog tag and then slipped off his jacket to let him sink. I later took the tag to the American depot so at least someone would know what had happened and could tell his family.”

Sailing overnight on the 5th June, Ray and crew were deployed to assist the landings scheduled for 7.30 am on Gold Beach. He recalls: “The troops were put onto landing crafts about six miles out. Our job was to escort the landing crafts through the German mines. It was an exceptionally high tide and it covered all the beach obstacles, iron fences with explosives. We were under heavy shell and mortar fire. Quite a number of the crafts came to grief and there were lots of men struggling in the sea. You couldn’t help them. We were constantly being pushed from behind and we just had to go on.  I can still see those lads in the water. It was very sad, very sad. 

“But we got the first wave through and then we pulled back and marshalled the crafts behind. You could hardly see the sea for ships. There were 138 warships spread along all the beaches. The Germans were positioned behind French holiday homes along the front. They put up a very strong resistance with mortars and machine guns. We were unscathed, not a bullet. But the poor bloody infantry couldn’t pull back.”

With 25,000 troops landed on Gold Beach and the invasion well underway, Ray continued patrol duties on the Normandy coast, before being sent back to Plymouth Naval Hospital after a foot injury caused his leg to turn septic. He recalls, “At this time the Germans were targeting Plymouth with doodlebugs so I was sent up north to Rainhill Hospital near home and managed to get seven days leave.”

Once recovered, Ray sailed in the Jamaica up to Spitsbergen in the Arctic Circle on a mission to rescue Norwegian meteorologists stranded at a Royal Navy weather station bombed by the German Battleship, Tirpitz.  He then transferred to frigate HMS Dart at Londonderry carrying out offshore sweeps looking for German U boats and then as convoy escort out to Gibraltar. He recalls: “We attacked a number of ‘U’ boats and sunk two. We had hedgehog anti sub bombs we fired in front of us and which formed a huge circle of bombs exploding all around the sub. We knew we had destroyed them when we saw oil and wreckage come up to the surface.”

“When VE-day came we were sent to marshal the surrendering ‘U’ Boats directing them to various places. It was quite a strange feeling. We had spent so much time trying to blow each other out of the water.”

With the European conflict at an end, Dart was deployed as part of the far eastern fleet and  sailed out to join allied forces massing at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka as part of Operation Zipper, the main invasion of Malaya.                                                
 
Ray recalls, “Now we had a chance to deploy a huge number of ships, aircraft and troops. We got halfway across the Indian Ocean when we got the message that the Atomic Bomb had been dropped. We all said ‘what’s an atomic bomb?’ nobody had ever heard of it. We slowed up and waited for a while. We were given further orders to proceed then the Nagasaki bomb was dropped and we were told to proceed to Singapore to take the Japanese surrender.”

Ray stayed on in Singapore helping with the release of PoW’s and the many foreign nationals incarcerated by the Japanese before transferring to duties at the Ceylon West Receiving Station, a huge underground global communications centre built under a coconut grove.

He confesses: “I didn’t want to leave. It was such a beautiful place now the war was over.” However, Ray was duly demobbed and arrived back in England just in time for Christmas 1945. He said: “My dad had died in 1943 but it was wonderful to see my mother and my two sisters. We had a lovely reunion.  Sadly I lost my best pal in the air force. He was in Bomber Command and was killed over Berlin. But there were still a few good mates around.”

Ray plans to travel out to Normandy with his daughter Deborah in the New Year. He said; “Over the years I thought I’d like to go back to pay my respects. I was lucky, a lot of young lads didn’t come back.”

Wartime and present day photos of Ray Wilton are available: please contact the Big Lottery Fund press office on 020 7211 1661/1888.  

The Big Lottery Fund has extended its Heroes Return 2 programme. The programme has no fixed deadline for applications. This will ensure Second World War veterans from the UK, Channel Islands and Republic of Ireland who have yet to take advantage of the funding opportunity since the programme opened in 2009, now have more time to apply for grants to cover travel and accommodation expenses to enable them to make trips back to places across the world where they served. They can also receive funding to take part in an official commemoration in the UK. For details contact: Heroes Return helpline: 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn

Further Information

Big Lottery Fund Press Office: 020 7211 1888
Out of hours media contact: 07867 500 572
Full details of the Big Lottery Fund programmes and grant awards are available on the website: www.biglotteryfund.org.uk
Ask BIG a question here: https://ask.biglotteryfund.org.uk
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Notes to Editors

• The Big Lottery Fund (BIG), the largest distributor of National Lottery good cause funding, is responsible for giving out 40% of the money raised for good causes by the National Lottery.
• BIG is committed to bringing real improvements to communities and the lives of people most in need and has been rolling out grants to health, education, environment and charitable causes across the UK. Since its inception in June 2004 BIG has awarded close to £6 bn. The Fund was formally established by Parliament on 1 December 2006.
• Since the National Lottery began in 1994, 28p from every pound spent by the public has gone to good causes. As a result, over £29 billion has now been raised and more than 383,000 grants awarded across arts, sport, heritage, charities, health, education and the environment.


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