Lottery to pay for veterans to revisit old battlefields

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The Independent Online

Every Second World War veteran is to be given lottery money to revisit the battlefields where they once fought. The £10m Heroes Return scheme will allow old soldiers to travel on "remembrance visits" to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East.

Many veterans have never gone back, often because they could not afford it. The scheme will allow hundreds of them to return to Normandy this year for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings on 6 June. More than 3,000 British soldiers died on D-Day, when the Allies landed on the German-defended Normandy beaches.

Other veterans will be given help to travel to battlegrounds, cemeteries and other places where they lost comrades or were wounded.

Ministers hope that the Heroes Return scheme, funded by the New Opportunities Fund (NOP), will deflect criticism that lottery cash is being spent on politically correct and marginal causes while being denied to more traditional charities.

The controversy triggered an overhaul of the way lottery cash is allocated in an attempt to reverse dwindling ticket sales and restore public confidence in the system.

Launching the war veterans' scheme, Baroness Pitkeathley, chairwoman of the NOP, said: "I am keenly aware of the great debt we all owe to our veterans. The NOP is proud we are able to channel lottery good cause money to this scheme.

"It enables those who play the lottery to pay tribute in a special way to the fortitude and courage of our veterans, so they can revisit the places of special importance from their war service."

About 10,000 men and women who fought in the war and are still alive will be eligible for the lottery cash, which will be channelled through veterans' organisations or direct to individuals. Spouses, and widows or widowers, will also be able to apply for grants to travel abroad.

The scheme was announced yesterday in the Cabinet War Rooms in Whitehall, where Winston Churchill directed operations.

Captain Alun Ryle, vice-chairman of the Confederation of British Service and Ex-Service Organisations, said: "The war was a very special and unique event for many service personnel. They want to go back and remember and commemorate their comrades.

"Many of the veterans will be in their late 70s or 80s and most will not have returned before, probably because they could not afford it. It is a tremendous chance for these people, and their last chance in many cases."

The Heroes Return scheme will also link veterans with schools as part of a project to teach children about the war. Some of the lottery money may also be spent on funding school trips to French battlefields with war veterans. Pathé newsreel, archived film footage and photographs, letters and documents are to be copied into digital form for use when the generation of veterans fades away.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, said: "It is vital each generation understands what people went through in all wars, and why."

Britain lost nearly 330,000 dead in the three services in the Second World War, thousands of them buried in military cemeteries all over the world, most of them tended by the War Graves Commission.

Sergeant Major's tribute

Bill Hickman was just 19 when he joined the army on 1 September 1939. He saw service in North Africa and Italy, was wounded by a landmine and watched close friends die.

Now 84, he plans to use the Heroes Return scheme to travel to Salerno in Italy this June. The Allies landed at Salerno 9 September 1943, regaining a foothold in Europe, but at the cost of 8,000 British and American lives.

Mr Hickman, from Wood Green, north London, was a regimental sergeant major in the Royal Fusiliers. He said: "Some of the boys I knew joined the Army, had training for 10 weeks and then got killed on their very first day fighting in Salerno.

"It was very hard there, very fierce fighting. The first body I saw there was a friend I had been playing cards with the night before. We used to say that we were fighting to give people a tomorrow. Those boys who got killed have given me 60 years of tomorrows, and I want to go back to remember them."

Mr Hickman and six close friends from the war called themselves "the Magnificent Seven". Today, there are just three of them left.