Harlingen ceremony honours AJ-K crew at McDowell graveside

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Pic: Wim Govaerts

In a small Dutch graveyard last Thursday morning, a trumpeter played the Last Post and the small group gathered there – Dutch, Belgian, German, New Zealanders and British – stood in silence. As the notes faded into the warm summer air the happy voices of children in a nearby playground rang out. We remained still for two minutes, marking the loss of seven British and Canadian aircrew in the 1940s war against fascism, and around us echoed the joyous innocent sound of a generation who we thought until recently would grow up in a continent unmarked by war.

Ms Ina Sjerps, the Burgemeester (Mayor) of Harlingen, the pretty Dutch coastal town in whose graveyard a 32 year old Canadian flight sergeant and father of two, James McDowell, had been buried 79 years previously, had just delivered a remarkable speech. While writing it, she must have been thinking along similar lines. She said:

In preparing for today’s event, I studied the pictures of these young men. As a mother of two men of about the same age, I found it heartbreaking to see their young, optimistic faces. How hard it must have been for their mothers, to say goodbye to them, not knowing whether, when or how they would see their sons again. And then, learning about their fate. Six of them, never to be found again. Only one of them, James McDowell, found, and buried in a foreign country, in our town.
Their lives were not lost in vain, as they helped end the Second World War and start a long period of peace and prosperity in Europe. But as we experience today, to our great regret, this period did not last long enough. Once again, there is a war going on in Europe. A war we never expected and were unable to prevent.
Too often, the lives of men and women are sacrificed for the delusional and criminal ambitions of autocrats and dictators, supported by their indoctrinated nations. The dreams and aspirations of generations shattered for the egos of leaders.

Ms Sjerps’s speech was followed by words from Flg Off Brad Duesbury, assistant defence attaché at the British Embassy. It too was an inspiring contribution. A Flying Officer aged 23 himself, he remarked that he was the same age and rank as many of the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid.

The event had been organised by Jan and Marielle van Dalen of the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation to dedicate a memorial to the six members of the Dams Raid crew of Lancaster AJ-K whose bodies were never found after their aircraft was shot down and crashed into the Waddensee, some 35 miles from Harlingen, on 16 May 1943. A new memorial plaque commemorating all seven men is now placed on a marble plinth a few yards from McDowell’s grave.

The crew was Vernon Byers, pilot; Alastair Taylor, flight engineer; James Warner, navigator; John Wilkinson, wireless operator; Neville Whitaker, bomb aimer; Charles Jarvie, front gunner; James McDowell, rear gunner. A number of members of the Taylor family were in attendance and unveiled the memorial. Also present were community representatives from Antrobus in Cheshire, John Wilkinson’s home village.

Besides Jan and Macy there had gathered others who have become good friends of this blog over the years. These included Wim Govaerts, the Belgian photographer whose work has graced this pages on many occasions, Sander van der Hall, organiser of the AJ-S memorial at Gilze Rijen airfield, Melvin Chambers, organiser of the Les Knight memorial in Den Ham, and Volker Schürmann, of the Heimatverein Haldern in Germany, who has demonstrated his country’s determination to build new structures and move on from the tired shibboleths which still obsess too many British people. These new pan-European alliances are more and more important in the troubled times we now find ourselves.

Once again our Dutch friends, who know to their cost what it means to stand firm against an oppressive regime, have demonstrated why they are the best allies we have. Long may our mutual respect endure.

You can read Burgemeester Sjerps’s speech in full here.
Below is a YouTube video shot by local reporter CZV.

More photos by Wim Govaerts:

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Burgemeester Ina Sjerps addresses the gathering. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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Flg Off Brad Duesbury, RAF. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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L-R, Trumpeter Gerard Dijkstra, Marielle van Dalen, Jan van Dalen. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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Two fighter aircraft from the Royal Netherlands Air Force fly over in tribute. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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Andrew Anderson, nephew of Sgt Alastair Taylor. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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Memorial unveiled by Alastair Taylor and Wendy Taylor, nephew and niece of Sgt Alastair Taylor. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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Piper Niels van Telius. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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The Taylor family at the memorial. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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Grave of Flt Sgt James McDowell, decorated on the 79th anniversary of his burial in Harlingen cemetery. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

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The plaque. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]

Flt Lt Sydney Grimes


I am sad to have to report the news of the death of Flt Lt Sydney Grimes on 27 May, at the age of 100.

Syd Grimes was born in Great Wakering, near Southend-on-Sea on 6 May 1922. After leaving school he joined the E K Cole (later Ekco) radio factory as a clerk. Sight of the damage done by bombing to the East End of London convinced him that he needed to be in a more offensive part of the war. At the age of 18 he enlisted in the RAF, partly since he could not swim, and he did not want to experience the potential horrors of trench warfare.

Volunteering for aircrew he trained as a wireless operator and joined his first crew, captained by Plt Off Clifford “Steve” Stephens at 14 Operational Training Unit at RAF Cottesmore. The crew passed on to 1654 Conversion Unit in February 1943 and was then posted to 106 Squadron for operations, shortly after Wg Cdr Guy Gibson had left to form 617 Squadron.

Syd’s first operation was a relatively easy trip against Kiel on 4 April 1943. Then the difficulties and hazards of operations began to emerge. Two trips over the Alps to Spezia saw landings away from base due to low fuel and on a long range operation to Stettin they experienced heavy flak which resulted in numerous holes in their aircraft. The night after an operation to Duisburg, where they reported “huge fires and hundreds of searchlights”, they were despatched to Pilsen, but almost immediately forced to return when their heavily laden Lancaster suffered a port outer engine failure shortly after take off. Yet, after this run of inopportune fortune, lady luck seemed to favour them as the Battle of the Ruhr drew to a close. A run of nearly a dozen operations to Ruhr and Rhineland targets, and a further trip to Italy before undertaking all three attacks comprising Operation Gomorrah – the intense onslaught against Hamburg – saw the completion of their first tour without major incident.

In September 1943, Syd was posted to become an instructor at 1668 Conversion Unit, Balderton – during which time he flew as wireless operator to Wg Cdr Leonard Cheshire, who was converting to the Lancaster prior to taking command of 617 Squadron. Despite Cheshire’s need for a crew Syd remained at Balderton and carried on in training positions until September 1944. He then began preparing to return for a second tour, and crewed up with New Zealander Flt Lt Bernard Gumbley.

Gumbley and his crew joined 617 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa on 29 September. A month’s intensive further training commenced to bring the crew to operational status and on 29 October they were ready for their first operation. It was a challenging introduction, the target being the Tirpitz, now moored at Tromso in Norway. The Squadron were unsuccessful in this attack, owing to the weather, but his second visit to Tromso on 12 November saw Tirpitz successfully despatched.

Grimes logbook Tirpitz


Further Tallboy operations followed against the Urft Dam, E-boat pens, Politz and the Dortmund Ems Canal. In February and March 1945 operations concentrated on the Bielefeld viaduct, providing one of the major rail links to the Ruhr, finally destroyed on 14 March. With the Squadron now operating the Lancaster B I (Spec), which did not carry a wireless operator or mid-upper gunner, Syd was stood down from the crew. This twist of fate was to save his life, for a week later while attacking a railway bridge near Bremen Gumbley’s aircraft received a direct hit from flak, and all aboard were killed.

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Sydney Grimes and the rest of the Bernard Gumbley crew, photographed around the time of the raid on the Tirpitz. Grimes is on the far left and Gumbley on the far right. The aircraft is DV 405 (KC-J). The rest of the crew have not been positively identified: according to the squadron Operations Record Book they are Flg Off E A Barnett, Flg Off K Gill, Flg Off J C Randon and Flt Sgt J Penswick. Further information is welcome. [Pic: Grimes family.]

Now crew-less, Syd was posted to 9 Squadron three weeks before the war ended and went on to 50 Squadron. He was finally demobbed in September 1945 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

After the war Syd trained as an accountant and re-entered the electronics industry, becoming a Financial Director. In 2014 he was awarded the Russian Naval Ushakov Medal for “courage and bravery shown during the Second World War, with the participation in the Nordic convoys.”

Like most of those who fought in the war, Syd thought that it was his “duty to make sure that subsequent generations knew what it was like”, but he was candid in saying that sometimes recalling all the details still led to him having disturbed sleep patterns, even decades later.

Syd’s death on 27 May came only three weeks after he celebrated his 100th birthday – the third of 617 Squadron’s wartime veterans to achieve this landmark.

Sydney Grimes, born 6 May 1922, died 27 May 2022.

Thanks to Robert Owen and the 617 Squadron Association for permission to use material. Hat tip also to Peter Merchant.

Interview with Sydney Grimes at the International Bomber Command Centre.

Ely Standard article about his hundredth birthday.