A WEARSIDE war veteran is to make an emotional return to the battlefield where he fought in one of the bloodiest struggles of the Second World War.
Former soldier Jack Watson was still a teenager when he joined the army in 1941, fighting in the Battle of Monte Cassino, in Italy, which left a quarter of a million dead or wounded.
Now the 88-year-old, from High Barnes, Sunderland, is preparing to travel back to the war zone to pay his respects to the fallen as part of the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return trip.
“The trip will bring back a lot of memories,” he said. “We all lost friends there.”
Allied forces spent months fighting their way up from southern Italy towards Rome, with the monastery of Monte Cassino at the strongest point of a powerful German defensive line.
As well as the bombing of a 1,400 year-old Benedictine monastery, the 1944 conflict saw the town of Cassino come under heavy fire.
Mr Watson, who served as a signaller with the 75th Medium Shropshire Yeomanry Royal Artillery, took part in observation and target-spotting while helping to maintain communications on the front line.
“It is something that is there constantly. You never forget those experiences,” he said. “They will stay with me forever.”
As well as Americans and British, the Allied forces included French from North Africa, Indians and Gurkhas, New Zealanders, Canadians and Poles.
“Sometimes I wondered how we got by,” said Mr Watson. “There was a real mix. We had people from all over the world, but somehow we got through it.”
The grandfather, who also served in Egypt, was awarded a £1,425 grant from the Big Lottery Fund to make the trip later this month.
“The funding was a massive help,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, is urging more veterans to apply for Heroes Return funding.
“We are very privileged to hear these incredible and extremely humbling stories from our veterans,” he said. “We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.”
For more information about the Heroes Return scheme, call 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn