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In 2012 at a Forward Assist ‘peer led’ support group meeting in Sunderland. Veterans  listened spellbound to an extraordinary story told by John Hall DFC (Veteran Mentor) who was a Flight Lieutenant and Lancaster bomber rear gunner during the Second World War.


Mr Hall, now 93, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1943 and after completing 60 operations in total during which he was shot down three times  the first time seeing him and his crew spending four days in a dinghy before being picked up off the Isles of Scilly, apparently only minutes away from heading out into the Atlantic Ocean where they would probably have been lost forever.

John, from Grindon in Sunderland, told a remarkable story of wartime camaraderie concerning his friendship with James “Hank” Hancock, who served in the RAF with him. “Hank was my first navigator and he was definitely one of the best,” he said.“We were like twins and we always stuck together. Where one was, you would always find the other.” Together they braved the skies during the Second World War, but as they were nearing 30 missions, Hank was struck down by illness. He was grounded by the RAF doctor and so John completed the next two operations without him. Mr Hancock was then sent to complete this tour with another crew, but tragically he never returned from his final flight which left RAF Syerston on the 25th June 1943 and crashed into the sea off the coast of Holland. Mr Hall, said: “I cried my eyes out when it happened. Even talking about it now makes me choke up as he was such a great fellow. He kept the crew alive and he was full of fun. He took good care of everyone in the crew as we were all younger. It was a big loss to me. As a navigator, he was a true professional and as a friend you couldn’t do without him. Even now I keep a photo of him on the wall.” He also added that recent investigations showed that Hank was buried in a British war grave in Harderwijk cemetery Holland and that it was his dearest wish to visit the grave before he died.

At the time, Tony Wright CEO of Forward Assist said that Mr Hall set the standard at the group sessions he attended by always being punctual and well dressed, and that he was "idolised" by those he met there and that John's wisdom and experience brought a great deal to the sessions and that he played a huge role in supporting and helping young combat veterans when they return to the community.

Tony decided that the least Forward Assist could do for John was to help him say goodbye to his great friend and set about raising funds for the trip and in July 2012 he was awarded an £875 grant by the Big Lottery Fund, which is part of their Heroes Return 2 programme. The scheme aims to pay for veterans to make trips like this and gives veterans the chance to have travel and accommodation paid for by the grant.

Additional funding was supplied by the Sage Fund and Forward Assist  who planned and researched the trip to Holland which departed North Shields on August 22nd for Amsterdam. Accompanying John were two other veterans, Stephen Jackson who was the driver and another veteran l who gave emotional support and acted as John’s personal batman. Logistics and management of the trip was carried out by a Forward Assist facilitator.

On the way over to Holland, John was understandably uncertain as how he would handle paying his last respects and confessed to be looking forward to saying goodbye to Hank but being unsure how he would deal with the experience. Watch the documentary to see how he got on.