Veteran lays to rest his wartime ghosts

WHEN second world war veteran Brian Heaney returned to Great Yarmouth this week, it was to lay to rest an event that has haunted his dreams for nearly 70 years.

WHEN second world war veteran Brian Heaney returned to Great Yarmouth this week, it was to lay to rest an event that has haunted his dreams for nearly 70 years.

It was on a May morning in 1943 that Mr Heaney, then just 19 years old and finding himself in Yarmouth as a member of the lst Battalion Sherwood Foresters, was faced with devastation.

Called from manning a Bren gun positioned on the Britannia Pier, he and his colleagues faced clearing away the bodies of 26 young women killed after their Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) hostel was bombed by the Luftwaffe; a horrific experience that has stayed with him.

On Tuesday, together with his wife Alberta, the now 86-year-old paid his respects when he attended a memorial service with others at the scene of the destruction, now the Burlington Palm Hotel on North Drive.

Mr Heaney, wearing the army cap he was issued with in 1942, and a chest full of medals gained from his service in the war after leaving Yarmouth, said: “I thought if I came here and saw the site and the new building I would be able to say to myself that life still goes on.

“There have been times, when I'm dreaming, that I will shout out in the night because of what happened. I wanted to put all those bad memories to sleep, and you know I think I feel OK - I think it has done that.”

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Mr Heaney, who went on to sell air conditioning before retiring at the age of 64, was joined on a sunny Tuesday at 10.45am by around 20 others to gather around a marble memorial on the front of the hotel listing the names of the ATS women killed.

Fighting back tears, Mr Heaney told those gathered about his experiences that dreadful morning, before prayers were said and a two-minute silence at 11am.

The father of two, who lives in Bury St Edmunds, said afterwards: “I was the only person at the service who was here when it happened and it was good to see all those others there to pay homage.”

The plaque commemorating the wartime devastation was unveiled in 1994 by Lady Soames, the youngest daughter of Winston Churchill, and since then there have been commemoration services every year.

The large plaque records the death of 26 young women from the ATS killed at what was then named the Whitfield House Hostel.

Twelve servicemen also died when the same bombing raid hit their nearby headquarters. In total, the raid left 49 dead and 41 injured.

Following the morning in which he had to sift through the rubble to remove the victims of the air raid, Mr Heaney was soon posted overseas, to North Africa, before going on to serve in Italy and Palestine.

He told the Mercury this week: “I had no experience in life at that point, and when we were looking through the ruins for bodies we had to call someone over to check if they were alive. They were than extracted and wrapped in blankets.

“Afterwards it was something we didn't talk about. I don't think anyone even mentioned it, and after the war it didn't come back to me during the day - there was nothing to prompt it until I went to sleep.”

Alberta Heaney, 78, explained how although she had known about that fateful day, it was only last year they had been in Cromer when her husband said they should visit Great Yarmouth and she began to find out more about his dreadful experience.

After being unable to find the site of the bombing, Mr Heaney got in touch with The Mercury to find out more, leading to a Memory article by Peggotty last October.

Mrs Heaney said: “It was one of those occasions he really wanted to push to the back of his mind but we talked about it and though he gets very emotional about that day I think going to the memorial service was healthy; he's pleased he made the effort to come.”