03/02/2012

WWII Veteran Makes Heroes Return

A Northern Ireland veteran who fought in WWII has made an emotional journey to re-visit old friends and memories thanks to a grant from the Big Lottery Fund.

The Heroes Return 2 programme has allowed 90-year-old Royal Air Force veteran Lithgow ‘John’ McFarland to return to his flight base in England to commemorate the battles he fought in and the comrades he lost during the Second World War.

When L/Derry lad John decided to join up in 1940 he could never have imagined the adventure which lay ahead. But the fact that a young man of just 18, son of a L/Derry farmer and more used to hand-milking the cows, ended up shot down and imprisoned in an infamous Nazi stalag is a story worth telling.

Like many of his fellow servicemen, John – a great grandfather now living in south Belfast – never spoke about the war for over 40 years. And even now Elsie, his wife of over 60 years, says there are things she doesn’t know about that time.

John’s story began when he came to Belfast in 1940 to sit a Latin exam for a pharmacist’s apprenticeship he’d secured in Derry. “I’d always found the Latin a chore and a friend had told me about the great time he was having in the RAF so when I was in Belfast I went to the RAF recruiting office and joined up,” he said.

In June 1941 John was formally called up and began training as a navigator. After graduating, he should have gone to an Operational Training Unit where the air crews were put together, though they were infamous for their 20% loss of life.

“But then word came through that I was to by-pass this, I never knew why, and join a crew before going onto the 75th New Zealand Squadron as a replacement navigator – and you never asked who you were replacing,” said John.

He continued: “We flew from a remote base near Ely in East Anglia and were engaged mainly in sea and French railway yard mining operations as well as drops to the French Resistance. It was during one of these we were shot down. The Germans had the capability to fire vertically upwards. We were over Denmark and it was around midnight when my navigator’s table shattered and I knew we’d been hit from below.

“Everything happened so fast. We had to bail out and use our parachutes. The parachute wrappers used to put little notes in with the silk saying things like ‘all the best’! Only three of us survived that night – the rear gunner’s parachute failed to open. That could have been any one of us for you just grabbed a parachute on your way out to board the aircraft.”
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John landed in a ploughed field and was rescued by the farmer’s son whose family sheltered him for three days before the Germans found him. “I was sent to the same prison camp which featured in The Great Escape,” he explained. “Life there wasn’t great but some of the lads had built a radio and brought us news every day so we heard about D-Day and thought we’d be home by Christmas. Of course we weren’t.”

In January 1945 with the Russians advancing the POWs were put to march, sleeping in barns along the roadside, despite the bitter winter. “I’ve never experienced cold like it. One POW found a rat and held onto it just to keep his hands warm!” recalled John.

“I remember one morning though, two British fighter planes were circling overhead, making to attack because they thought we were Germans. We tried to spell out ‘POWs’ with towels on the ground but they came in, all guns blazing. Twenty men died - friendly fire I think they would call it today. Just days later we were freed by the British.”

Despite his stoicism in recounting the story, the tragic irony of that loss of life still sits heavily on John McFarland’s heart. “Back in the UK we were de-loused, de-briefed and told we could go home – so home it was,” he said. “That’s when I understood what it must’ve been like for our families. Our Commanding Officer, a wonderful man, had sent a personal letter to them when our plane hadn’t come back that night.”

Whether or not John thought about that time as years went by, he doesn’t say. He certainly didn’t speak of it until 1984 when a commemoration was organised in Denmark and the McFarlands had the chance to meet again the family which had sheltered John so long ago.

He has since kept in touch with other ex servicemen and last year, on a trip funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme, visited his old Ely base with his comrade in arms Norman Allen from Loughgall, Co Armagh who also fought with the 75th. “It was a great experience to go back to the base and we were very well looked after. We enjoyed it immensely and it brought back old memories,” said John.

He continued: “We appreciate very much that the Big Lottery Fund gives people like us a chance to remember those times and those friends again, for the bonds of war are very strong.

“We read about this funding programme in a local newspaper article and applied and we just hope that other ex-service men and women will maybe read this and apply so they too can pay their respects in the places they served and to the people they served with,” says John, though he maintains he’s no hero; a survivor - yes, but a hero - no.

It’s as if even, after all this time, he stands by the 75th’s motto: “Ake Ake Kia Kaha – For ever and ever be strong.”

The Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme pledges funding for veterans, spouses, widows and carers across Ireland wishing to mark overseas anniversaries. They can also receive funding to take part in an official commemoration in the UK.

* John is pictured in his flight gear during the war (left) and with his wife Elsie (right)

(GK/DW)

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