A message of hope

This queue of Dutch citizens of Den Ham wanting to pay their own respects to Les Knight by laying a rose at his memorial took more than 15 minutes for them all to do so. (Pic: Wim Govaerts)

On this last day of 2018 it seems appropriate that I recall here what turned out to be my most life-enhancing experience of the year. Various domestic events have prevented me recording this in detail before now, but it had such a profound effect on me that I wanted to share it with you, even though it occurred more than three months ago.

I wrote in September about how I had been to the small Dutch town of Den Ham, about 30km from the border with Germany. The occasion was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the death of the Australian Les Knight, one of the pilots who had taken part in the Dams Raid a few months before. While flying on a foggy night on another dangerous low-level operation to attack the Dortmund-Ems canal, his aircraft struck some trees and was badly damaged. He managed to gain enough height so that his crew of seven men could bale out and then he attempted a forced landing in a field just outside Den Ham.

Eyewitnesses said that they saw him change course to avoid landing in a built-up area. Unfortunately, he hit a hidden ditch in the field, the aircraft caught fire and he died. The seven other men all landed safely. Two were captured but the other five all escaped and with the help of the local resistance, ended up crossing the Pyrenees into neutral Spain. One of his crew, Fred Sutherland, is still alive and well and living in Canada.

Not surprisingly, Knight is regarded as something of a hero in the town. He was buried the next day in the local cemetery, in a hastily arranged service which most of the local population attended, despite being ordered not to by the occupying German forces. A granite memorial stone has now been erected at the crash site itself and it was near there on Saturday 15 September that the main commemoration took place. Several hundred people attended, and listened to speeches by the mayor, local politicians, community organisers and the Australian ambassador. Little children with cute Dutch pigtails read out poems. And a brass band played a selection of hymns and the Dam Busters march. They ended with the Last Post, and this was followed by two minutes silence. One of the quietest and deepest two minutes silence I have ever attended, and terribly moving.

We then walked down the road to the memorial itself. As we left the gates of the field, we were all handed a single rose. A number of wreaths were laid at the stone and then I watched as a queue of ordinary Dutch citizens shuffled slowly forward, bearing their rose. Many were far too young to have been in the war but some were older people who had lived as children in the town when it was occupied. As each one paused for a moment at the monument and laid the flower at its base I realised the significance of what was going on.

The Australian ambassador to the Netherlands, Matthew Neuhaus, who had spoken a little earlier, summed up the event well. During the war, he said, many thousands of his compatriots had travelled halfway across the world to fight for peace and freedom. Many of these had never returned and are buried in graves across Europe, and he reminded us how important events like these were for preserving the memory of courageous individuals and for preserving the memory of the horror of war.

He went on: ‘They are also important for reminding us that it is only with co-operation, compassion and a shared dedication to a just and peaceful world, bound together by common rules and values, that we can avoid a repeat of those horrors and ensure the sacrifices of Les Knight and others were not in vain.’

The following day, the local Pastor, Rev Tijs Nieuwenhuis, spoke at a packed service in the town’s church. He recalled how his father, a devout man, had told him how during the war years he would hear Allied bombers passing overhead during the night and pray for their safe return. He was convinced that a tyrannical regime based on ‘injustice, hate, nihilism, race discrimination and mass murder’ would ultimately be destroyed. Les Knight was himself a devout Christian, the Pastor said, and he went on to give up his own life so that others might live. ‘We may be thankful that our generation has been spared the need to discover whether we could match the impossible sacrifices that [he and others] made,’ he concluded.

During the weekend, I was asked several times just why the UK was about to leave the common enterprise which had begun with the express intention to defend the peace which had arrived in 1945. Why would the British people, who had fought so valiantly for victory, not want to be part of this project, for all of its faults? A Europe which had pledged that there should be no more wars, where Dutch, German and people from many other nations could come together on an early autumn day in 2018 to commemorate a young Australian who had travelled thousands of miles from his homeland to die fighting for peace and justice, and who had thereby saved the lives of many others.

I had no answer to this. All I can hope is that, somehow, somewhere a solution will be found and the madness will cease. One of the things I have learnt from the ten years I have devoted to this blog is just how much our Dutch, German and other European friends value our contribution to the shared peace which has existed in Europe for over seventy years.

And on that note, may I wish all the readers of this blog the compliments of the season and a very happy and peaceful New Year.

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A seasonal reminder: The Complete Dambusters

A gentle reminder that this is the perfect seasonal present for the Dambusters aficionado in your life. The only book ever published with a biography of each of the 133 men who took part in the Dams Raid, each illustrated with a photograph.

Published by the History Press in May 2018, ISBN 978 0 7509 8808, and available from your favourite bookshop or online bookseller.

If you would like a signed copy mailed to you before Christmas, please contact me before Sunday 16 December to get instructions on payment and I will send one to you.
Email me on charlesjfoster@gmail.com

Pointing the way to the Haldern memorial

The memorial to the crew of Dams Raid Lancaster AJ-E, which crashed on 16 May 1943 killing all the crew, is a few hundred yards off a quiet country road near a quiet country village in a quiet corner of Germany – and therefore a little hard to find. So the local history society, the Heimatverein Haldern, has now erected three signs to help the increasing number of tourists who are now coming to the area.

Many people have travelled to the area since the memorial was built in 2015, coming from as far as Australia, Canada and the USA and also several European countries. In August a large group of tourist came in a car cavalcade organised by the European Driving Tours group, as seen below.

Credit once again to Volker Schürmann and his colleagues in the Heimatverein Haldern. It was their initiative to build the memorial and they should be commended for all they continue to do to commemorate the seven men from other nations, the 617 Squadron crew who died in their neighbourhood and who remain buried on German soil.

Pics: Volker Schürmann

Remembrance Day tribute to Lewis Burpee at old school

Lewis Burpee Jr lays a wreath at a Remembrance Day ceremony at his father’s old school, Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, on 9 November. 

[Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

Dams Raid pilot Lewis Johnstone Burpee was born in Ottawa on 5 March 1918. He graduated from Lisgar Collegiate Institute in 1937 and went on to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and after completing pilot training was posted to 106 Squadron, then under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson. He completed some 30 operations in the squadron, was awarded the DFM and received a commission. In March 1943 Gibson set up the new 617 Squadron to undertake the Dams Raid and Burpee and his crew came over to RAF Scampton to join him. He was the only one of the three pilots who had served under Gibson in 106 Squadron to bring his full crew with him.

Burpee and his crew never returned from the mission on the night of 16-17 May 1943. They were shot down over Holland en route to the dams, and all crew members aboard their Lancaster bomber perished.

For several years, Robert Tang, a maths teacher at Lisgar with a strong interest in history, has been using the mathematics underpinning the innovative “bouncing bomb” that was developed by engineer Barnes Wallis to destroy the dams, saying that applying mathematics—especially trigonometry and algebra—to a real situation brings the subject to life for his students. The students even take a field trip to the nearby Canada Aviation and Space Museum, where they carry out experiments, fly a simulator and see a Lancaster bomber.

However, it wasn’t until earlier this year that Mr Tang discovered that Lewis Burpee had been a pupil at his school. He then found that Burpee’s son, also called Lewis Burpee, still lived in the city and made contact with him.

In another moment of serendipity Drew Fraser-Leach, this year’s co-president of the Lisgar Student Council, was in Mr Tang’s class last year. He knew his grandfather had been a Lisgar student at the time, so he went home and found his grandfather’s 1937 yearbook. “He flipped through it and found Plt Off Burpee’s signature,” explained Mr Tang. “That was a sign that we really had to make this our focus for the Remembrance Day ceremony.”

Lewis Burpee’s signature in a copy of Lisgar’s 1937 yearbook. [Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

The guests at the Lisgar Collegiate Institute also included Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, commander-in-chief of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “We are grateful for the sacrifices of people like Lewis Burpee, and we share the sorrow of their families and loved ones,” Lt Gen Meinzinger said in his speech during the ceremony. “I am also grateful that you, the students and staff of Lisgar Collegiate Institute, for showing our fallen—and in particular Plt Off Burpee—the same respect.”

“Plt Off Burpee, who fought and sacrificed his life for all of us, is just one example of the many brave soldiers who have fought for our peace and freedom,” said Emily He, a student and editor of Lisgar’s yearbook. “We must remember that it was their sacrifices that have led our country to where it is today, and most of all, we must remember that the freedom that all of us enjoy came at an extremely high cost.”


Second from left, Lieutenant-General Alexander Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and third from left Lewis Burpee Jr, with cadets and RCAF personnel at the Remembrance Day ceremony held at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, Ontario on 9 November 2018. [

Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

“I would like to thank everyone who was involved in this today – not only Mr Tang but the whole Lisgar team,” said Mr Burpee. “I never knew my Dad; I was born after he died. For decades he was kind of a shadowy figure in my past.” This year’s series of commemorations to mark the raid’s 75th anniversary had allowed him to reconnect better, he added.

“It’s worth pointing out that for all the names on the plaques [in Lisgar’s Memorial Hall], for every airman, every soldier who didn’t come back, they are equally worthy of remembrance.”

Lieutenant-General Alexander Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Mr Robert Tang. [Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]