Dagenham Second World War veteran pays respects to comrades killed in Italy
- Credit: Carl Allen/Big Wave PR
A Second World veteran from Dagenham has returned to the scene of some of the conflict’s hardest-fought battles to honour his fallen comrades.
Former Royal Navy gunner John King, 94, was one of a dozen veterans paying their respects on a special tour funded by the travel arm of the Royal British Legion.
The group embarked on a four-day trip of Italy to mark the anniversary of the Battles of Anzio and Monte Cassino, bloody campaigns that slaughtered thousands in the Allies’ bid for a breakthrough to Rome.
For John, who lives in Becontree Avenue, the trip allowed him to lay old ghosts to rest.
It was quite a bit upsetting for me,” he told the Post, “because in the two cemeteries at Anzio I’ve got three shipmates.
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“So I found the area where they were buried and it brought back old memories.”
Born in Bethnal Green before moving to Bonham Road, in Dagenham, John was conscripted into the Navy at age 18 in April 1943.
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Less than a year later, he would witness his friends scramble for their lives as their destroyer sank off the coast of the Anzio beachhead in western Italy.
At the time, John served as a sight-setter on the warship’s stern gun, manning the range and deflection controls under heavy attack to keep shells on target.
HMS Janus rained down more than 500 volleys of shells in the first two days of the battle to support landing troops.
But, on January 23 1944, a guided bomb dropped by a German bomber tore the ship in two, sinking it within minutes. John, however, disputes this version of events.
“In my younger days when I was in the air raid in Dagenham, you could hear a bomb coming down because it whistled. There was a scream to it,” he said.
“I never heard any screams or anything, so my assumption is that it was an aerial torpedo.”
Bomb or torpedo, only 80 crew members survived.
Despite this, John maintains he was one of the lucky ones, who never had to experience hand-to-hand fighting as in Monte Cassino.
Here, soldiers battled in horrific conditions; on exposed mountain slopes, knee-deep in mud and snow — all amid a barrage of bombs and bullets.
The veterans’ visit took place on May 15-19.