- Heroes Return
- Release date:
- 14 6 2010
World famous secret agent James Bond is not normally associated with a Second World War veteran from the Welsh valleys.
But this connection can be made by Dennis Whitcombe from Cwmbran as he was part of 30 Commando Assault Unit – created by James Bond author Ian Fleming, a former WW2 naval Intelligence Commander, to undertake covert operations into enemy territory.
Working alongside notorious safecracker, “Gentle Johnny” Ramensky, the 90-year-old was involved in reconnaissance missions in Italy, gathering key information from partisan groups which helped change the course of the war.
Former Scottish prisoner, Ramensky joined the commandos, instructing them in the techniques of safe-cracking and later parachuting behind enemy lines to blow safes containing important documents in German and Italian buildings
Years later at a reunion of 30AU, Mr Whitcombe even met Patrick Dalzel-Job, the soldier believed to have inspired the James Bond character.
And thanks to the Big Lottery Fund, Mr Whitcombe and others from the Pontypool Branch of the Royal Welsh Regimental Association were awarded £1,640 to attend a remembrance service in Weymouth. The Big Lottery Fund’s (BIG) multi-million pound Heroes Return 2 programme provides grants of between £150 and £5,500 to allow WWII veterans to return to the battlefields and cemeteries across Europe. A total of 182 grants amounting to £343,235 have been awarded in Wales to transport veterans, their spouses, widows and carers to destinations including France, Belgium, Italy, Gibraltar and Egypt since May 2009.
Speaking about his memories, Mr Whitcombe explained how he joined the Commando Assault Unit. “While I was in Italy in 1944 I saw a list on the wall asking whether anyone wanted to join the commandos. I put my name down and was interviewed. The interviewee wrote that I was a bright, sparkling little man with plenty of “L” and in November 1944 I became a commando.”
Mr Whitcombe described how training for daring parachute jumps behind enemy lines involved jumping 60ft from a tree into a sandpit.
“Serving for 30 Commando was exhilarating but as we working behind enemy lines you lived on your nerves,” he recalled. “But the information gathered helped change the course of the war – I’m very proud of what our unit achieved. And it’s incredible when I think about how closely I was connected to both Ian Fleming and his world famous creation James Bond.”
The great ?grandfather admits that new friendships he and his family made during the war kept him going. One amazing story he recounted included a chance meeting with a woman called Mrs O’Neil in a pub in Kilmarnock where he was based with the South Wales Borderers. By now, Mr Whitcombe was married to his wife of 67 years, Mary, who had given birth to the first of their seven children. At the time she was living in County Durham.
“I was sitting in the pub looking sad because I was missing my wife and child,” he said. “When Mrs O’Neil saw my glum face and heard why she invited my wife and child up to live with her. It was an amazing, kind act – typical of how people treated each other during the war.”
Amazingly, while serving in Italy in 1944, Mr Whitcombe received a parcel from the Good Samaritan which contained a loaf of bread concealing a bottle of whisky to lift his spirits.
And then more than 60 years later, following a letter sent to a local paper by his daughter, Anne, appealing for more information about the family, Mrs O’Neil’s 100-year-old daughter made contact again.
“During the war people would look out for one another and this bond stretched over decades,” said Mr Whitcombe. “Mrs O’Neil’s family learnt so much more about the war because of this chance reunion.”
Mr Whitcombe, a former coalminer, was called up aged 20 in June 1940.He was sent to Brecon for training before travelling to Cardigan and then County Durham to serve on sea coastal defences. Following further training in Kilmarnock, he left to fight in Algers on St David’s Day 1943.
“Everyone stopped to listen when we started to sing as we left,” he said. “The scenes we were confronted with in Algiers were a world apart from this. It was in a terrible state with men dying around us on the ground. And it was very hot with little water around.”
After Mr Whitcombe left North Africa, he landed in Taranto before travelling to Bari, Salerno and then onto Anzio. Then for five months between January and May 1944 he was caught up in intense fighting with German soldiers. On February 17, 1944, Mr Whitcombe had a lucky escape.
“I was walking away from my Bofor gun to get some more vegetation to cover us when I felt a shell fly past me which then hit our gun position killing four of my friends,” he said. “Although I escaped uninjured it was a terrifying experience which left me in a bit of a state because of the loss of my friends. They are buried in a line together in Anzio and I was able to make a special trip to visit their graves a few years ago.”
When soldiers were finally able to break out from Anzio, Mr Whitcombe travelled to Rome and then joined the 30 Commando Unit. Despite the horror of war, he recalls some lighter times during conflict that usually happened around the time of his birthday on May 9 including VE day on May 8, 1945, and breaking out of Anzio on May 23, 1944. He is now a member of the local branch of the Royal Welsh Regimental Association and says he has never forgotten fallen comrades.
“The war took the valleys out of me and I came back with a different attitude,” he said. “The war formed bonds not just with the soldiers I served with but with those at home who served somewhere different to me. They are unshakable bonds that last a lifetime.”
The Big Lottery Fund is continuing to ensure the efforts of Second World War veterans from across the UK and Ireland are not forgotten through its Heroes Return 2 scheme, awarding grants for ex-servicemen and women to return on commemorative trips back to places across the world where they saw action. Veterans or their widows/widowers are still being urged to apply to the initiative, which remains open for applications until January 2011.
BIG is continuing its support for UK veterans through its new £35 million Forces in Mind initiative to establish an independent trust to provide long term support and advocacy for former service personnel. The funding will help veterans who served in conflicts including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War struggling with the transition to civilian life, especially those whose psychological well-being subsequently impacts on the quality of their life and others around them.
Originally launched in 2004 to mark the historic 60th anniversary of D-Day, BIG’s first Heroes Return scheme, part of the Veterans Reunited programme, awarded £16.6 million to over 39,000 veterans, spouses, widows and carers.
The funding covered commemorative visits to battlefields, cemeteries and other significant places across the world.
Home Front Recall, also part of the Veterans Reunited programme, has funded £19.2 million to support UK-based events and activities to commemorate war-efforts on the home front. In schools and through education programmes the £9.6 million ‘Their Past Your Future’ scheme continues to allow young people to learn first-hand from veterans about experiences of war.
To find out more about the programme call the Heroes Return 2 helpline on 0845 00 00 121 or visit the website www.biglotteryfund.org.uk.
Big Lottery Fund Press Office: 02920 678 207
Out of hours contact: 07760171431
Public Enquiries Line: 08454 102030
Textphone: 0845 6021 659
Full details of the Big Lottery Fund programmes and grant awards are available on the website: www.biglotteryfund.org.uk
Notes to editors
- The Big Lottery Fund (BIG), the largest distributor of National Lottery good cause funding, is responsible for giving out half 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 June 2004. 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 £24 billion has now been raised and more than 330,000 grants awarded across arts, sport, heritage, charities, health, education and the environment.
- Heroes Return £17 million scheme provided funding to Second World War veterans, their wives or husbands, widows and widowers and, where required, their present-day carers to visit the overseas areas where the veterans saw active service. By linking with activities funded through the Their Past Your Future scheme, Heroes Return is also helping to give young people a better understanding of the efforts and sacrifices made by veterans.
- Home Front Recall provided grants of between £500 and £20,000 for regional and local projects across the UK in 2004-2005 that commemorated the events of the Second World War and the contributions of different groups in society. The scheme funded a very wide range of projects including special community days; reunions and exhibitions; recordings of the experiences of those who lived through the War; plays and pieces of creative artwork. In addition, the scheme funded a number of national grants to organisations such as the TUC to fund a range of commemorative activities.
- Their Past Your Future is an ongoing UK-wide schools and education scheme to give young people the opportunity to learn first-hand from veterans about their experience of war. The Big Lottery Fund is working closely with the Imperial War Museum and the museums, libraries and archives sector UK-wide to help young people to research and learn about the personal experiences and roles played by forces personnel and civilians. Competitions have enabled schools to take part in World War Two related visits with veterans. The Imperial War Museum has a website (www.theirpast-yourfuture.org.uk) with a wide range of resources for schools to use and details of projects delivered by museums across the UK.