Dutch town honours RAF war heroes 62 years on


28th September 2006

Top: A Halifax bomber and bottom, RAF pallbearers yesterday with the coffin of the remains of the bomber crew

The grateful people of a small Dutch town said they would never forget.

And yesterday - more than 62 years since a group of young men in an RAF bomber crashed to their deaths on the outskirts of the town - the people of Werkendam, Holland, were as good as their word.

Even though the population numbers just 24,000, the town provided £85,000 of the £135,000 cost of honouring properly the crew of LV905, a Mk III Halifax aircraft from RAF 78 Squadron which was shot down after a bombing raid over a railway station in Aachen, Germany, on May 25, 1944.

A lone Spitfire, provided by the Dutch Air Force which had masterminded the expensive five week salvage operation, circled overhead as a single coffin, carried containing their remains was buried in a poignant ceremony.

The stricken bomber buried itself 18ft down in the marshy ground, taking six of its crew – three Britons, two Canadians and a Rhodesian – with it into the unmarked grave.

The body of the seventh member, air gunner Sgt George Butler, 21, from Tottenham, North London, was thrown clear and later given a proper burial at the Jonkerbos Cemetery in Nijmegen.

Yesterday, at the same cemetery, similar dignity was at last afforded to his comrades, Englishmen Flying Officer Norman Marston, DFC, 24, from Suffolk, Flt Sgt Joe Henderson, 33, from Liverpool and Sgt William White, 22, from Birmingham plus Canadians Flying Officer Sidney Peterson, 21, and Sgt Joe Le Blanc, 29, and the Rhodesian pilot Pilot Officer Eric Wilson, 23.

A propeller from the doomed aircraft, shot down by German Luftwaffe ace Sgt Karl-Heinz Scherfling as it tried to escape back to England, now provides a lone memorial at the spot where it smashed into the ground.

It is inscribed with the names of the crew.

The town had always known the bomber was buried beneath its fields.

But the cost of recovery had always been regarded as prohibitive.

In recent years British relatives of those who died pushed harder for action, fearful that they were now elderly and might never see the remains recovered.

Then two years ago, at a stormy town council meeting, the townspeople decided its debt to the flying heroes who had died so that they could be free, was more important than its modern-day money worries.

The town's socialist mayor, Henk Hellegers, had argued that the town's finances were badly stretched and the cost of recovery of the plane would be just too much. "We face financial difficulties," he said.

"There are roads to maintain and we have 1,500 people unemployed." "Some of us think it is better to leave the men to continue to lie in peace after all this time or just erect a memorial."

But councillor Gerard Paans, swayed the vote for salvage by pleading: "Money should not be uppermost in our minds in a case like this."

"We owe our freedom to these brave airmen who sacrificed their lives."

After all these years we owe it to the families to see that their loved ones are buried in marked, individual graves with full honours."

He reminded the council that people in the town when the plane crashed had vowed their sacrifice would not be forgotten.

Yesterday Mayor Hellegers admitted he had been wrong, and revealed how townspeople and councillors alike had been deeply moved by appeals from families of the airmen, and by cash donations from British war veterans to help with recovery costs.

One letter from Flt Sgt Henderson’s daughter Norma Morris-Henderson said: "I know the cost was very high, but the crew of the Halifax, including my father, paid the highest price – they gave their lives."

Mr Hellegers said: "All the letters we received from veterans in England enclosing just a £5 note or a small cheque also touched our hearts."

The Dutch Government picked up most of the difference with an internet appeal raising £23,000.

Navigator Sidney Peterson’s brother Roy, one of the relatives who yesterday paid an emotional visit to the scene of the crash after the memorial service said: "Their gravestones have been waiting for 62 years. I wrote a letter which they read aloud before the town council in Werkendam decided to stop worrying about money and raise the plane."

"I remember writing that in the comfortable and easy days of the new Millennium human sacrifice is short changed and marginalised while this generation's considerations can only be honoured on the bottom line of the budget."

"But I must say the Dutch have been magnificent. They worked tirelessly and now after 62 years we have closure."

"To see their remains carried in a coffin into an empty grave is better than lying in a farmer's field being ploughed up every year."

Eighty-six-year-old Marjorie Stephenson, widow of bomb-aimer Norman Marston and her 90-year-old sister, Trudy, were the oldest relatives to be traced by the salvage team.

Mrs Stephenson, from Lound, Suffolk, said: "We'd only been married for two years and my boy Allan was just seven-months-old when Norman died."

"We met when he was a policeman and he told me off for showing a chink of light between the curtains during the black-out." [[The blackout started in Britain in 1940. Most nights, the streetlights in big towns and cities across Britain had to be swtiched off and the people had to put dark curtains over their windows to stop the light getting now. This was to fool German bombers. They would fly overhead and see almost no lights whatsoever so they would think there was no city down below to bomb. However, this obviously caused more accidents and in certain areas the crime rate soared, but it did cut down bomb damage from the Luftwaffe.]]

"He volunteered for the RAF after a German plane bombed a block of flats near us and so many people died in the cellar, full of gas and water."

"Norman wanted to swim inside to help but the police stopped him. So he joined up to give the Germans a taste of their own medicine."

"I suppose he knew he'd be killed but he never said much. He didn't even tell me that he's won the Distinguished Flying Cross."

"His plane ditched in the North Sea earlier in 1944 and he dragged another crew member into a dinghy to save his life."

"I knew nothing about it until the telegrams began to arrive at our house."

Dutch Air Force captain Hans Spierings, head of the salvage team, said that about 7,000 foreign aircraft crashed on Dutch soil during the war - and about 1,400 are still buried.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Sep 28th, 2006 at 12:57 PM..