Big thank you from

Veterans prepare for trips to scenes of wartime action

The Bismarck -pride of the German fleet. A LISBURN Royal Marine veteran who, as a crew member on HMS Rodney, took part in the attack which sank the German battleship `Bismarck' will shortly make a poignant return to the island of Malta which was the scene of so much devastation during the Second World War.

Jim Mitchell (84) whose 21st birthday occurred on the same day the pride of the German navy slipped beneath the North Atlantic waves with the loss of almost 2000 of her crew will travel to Malta with his wife Hilda courtesy of the Big Lottery Fund's 'Heroes Return Programme'.

Meanwhile, another Lisburn veteran, Bill Eames (81), will travel to Arnhem in Holland after receiving a grant from the same fund.

As an RAF pilot he was seriously injured in the skies over the famous 'bridge too far' and was lucky to survive the experience.

Sadly, Bill is now a widower but he will make the trip to Holland along with his 28 year old grandson and other family members.

Both men have spoken of their wartime experiences and their stories reveal graphically the true horror of conflict.

Jim recalled how his ship HMS Rodney and HMS Hood were given orders to sink the Bismarck and protect the allied vessel Britannic.

But just next day he had to watch as many of his friends on the Hood perished after it was sunk by the Germans.

"It was then we got the order from Churchill to sink the Bismarck at any cost," he recalled.

"On the night of May 26 the reveille went. The Bismarck's rudder was damaged and she was going round in circles.

"On my 21st birthday we sank her and I could not have got a better present. "But it was not pleasant - I kept seeing my tombstone - born May 27th, died May 27th.

We had to torpedo her at the end and there were only 100 survivors.

As a Royal Marine Jim served all over the world during the 1939-45 conflict. A native of Cornwall, he left school at 14 and took to sea in a trawler.

Before he was 15 he was working as a galleyboy on a ship sailing to Australia, earning �2.12 a month.

He moved on to oil tankers and sailed to Iraq before his father instructed him to 'join the services and get some discipline.'

It was at this stage he joined the Royal Marines and trained with the Naval Gunnery before beginning a four-year stint on HMS Rodney.

War was still some time off, but he can clearly recall a chance meeting with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, when the PM told Jim and his colleagues: "I shall be needing you shortly" - words which came all too true.

When war broke out, Jim played a role in the Norwegian Campaign and after the successful invasion returned to the Rodney which took part in numerous Malta runs ferrying supplies into the beleaguered island during the three years it was besieged by the Germans. During his four years on the Rodney Jim married his first wife Betty and the couple had a son.

Drafted back to barracks he was promoted to Sergeant, and was sent to Portsmouth where ships were being converted into Landing Craft Gun (LCG), Flak and Rocket ships.

Two LCGs converted in Belfast were sent to the mainland but never arrived, capsizing in rough seas off Milford Haven, where a permanent memorial now stands to the 80 lives lost.

Jim was then sent to his hometown of Falmouth.

"My old dad moaned cos we drank the town dry," he laughed, and from there it was on to Gibraltar and then to join the Americans in North Africa in 1943.

Jim was involved in the successful invasion of Sicily before returning to Malta where the hostilities were coming to an end.

Back in North Africa he learned that 12 of the 18 gunnery ships would be returning to England but his ship was to remain.

"We were promised we would go home in the spring, but they did not say what spring," said Jim.

After more action near Capri, Jim helped sink German supply ships working from his base in Corsica. Then it was on to the Aegean Sea where lie took part in operations with Marshall Tito and the partisans in Yugoslavia.

As the end of the war neared, Jim and his colleagues were asked to volunteer for a final attack near Venice. He refused, but some of his colleagues agreed.

"They were wiped out and never came back. I had warned them that them would be a Victoria Cross awarded for this, and there was, but it was awarded posthumously, that's no good - you can't wear it in your coffin," said Jim.

With the war in North Italy ended, Jim returned home in June 1945 for month's leave, only to be told he was t be sent to the Far East.

"I got no rest. I thought I was the only bloke fighting the war but the war ended and instead I was sent back to barracks," he said.

Jim was invalided out of the Royal Marines in 1946 but was awarded Distinguished Services Medal in recognition of his wartime service.

Bill Eames was injured on September 19, 1944, three days into the Arnhem operation.

Since September 17 he and his colleagues had been delivering gliders and reinforcing the British First Airborne Division by dropping supplies during the doomed effort to capture vital river crossings at the town.

The aircraft were to fly low, putting them at risk of not only flak, but also small arms fire.

"We lost half our squadron bet wee Sunday and Friday that week. We were trying to drop supplies at a designate spot, but it was a deadly trap," Bill recalled.

"After being hit we made it home. My navigator did what he could with tourniquets. I was lucky to survive an lucky to go to such a good hospital it Oxford.

After about five months I was back flying again, and after the war ended stayed in the RAF until 1947."

Bill still bears the scars of his brush with death in the skies above Arnhem. One hand, he admits, remains full of shrapnel.

Bill was a 17-year-old student in Enniskillen when war broke out in 1939.

He immediately joined the Home Guard and enlisted in the RAF when he became old enough.

He began operational flying in 1943 but is reluctant to talk about his experiences.

Day and night he flew aircraft all over Europe, dropping troops and supplies. He was involved in the D-Day operation, dropping troops from the Sixth Airborne Division into Normandy in the early morning of June 6 1944.

He met his late wife Fay during the war when she served in the WAF and was stationed with him.

The couple married after the conflict and made just one trip to Arnhem, where they visited the cemetery i which many of the squadron they both knew so well were laid to rest.

By the end of the war, Bill had the commissioned rank of Flying Officer.

After he was demobbed, he worked as an air traffic controller, and until has year continued to pilot aircraft with the Ulster Flying Club.

He still flies weekly, and is a member of the Air Crew Association NI branch, the RAF Association, Lisburn an Enniskillen, and the Royal British Legion.

This month, accompanied by one o his two sons, a daughter-in-law and his grandson, Bill will visit the cemetery and the Arnhem Airborne Force Museum. "I lost a lot of friends during the war, but when you are 20 or 21 you don't take it so seriously. Most of my colleagues were the same age a myself," Bill said.

"But we are not going out there to mourn and weep tears. it was one of those things that happen. Arnhem was a battle we lost and D-Day was a battle we won.

"I am looking forward to the trip. never thought I would get money to go. It is wonderful of the Big Lottery Fun to do this."