The Reichswald Forest War Cemetery lies in a wooded area in north west Germany, near the town of Kleve and not far from a massive road bridge across the Rhine. It is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in Germany – the last resting place for 7672 men who fought with the Allied services in the Second World War. Of these, 3915 flew with the various air forces.
Amongst these lie 32 Dambusters, making this quiet spot the place on earth where there are the most Dams Raid veterans buried. Twenty-seven of the 53 who died on the Dams Raid itself are now interred here (Bill Astell and his crew, Norman Barlow and his crew, Henry Maudslay and his crew, and Warner Ottley and the six of his crew who were killed). Five more men, all by then flying in the crew of Sqn Ldr George Holden and killed on the fateful Dortmund Ems Canal raid on 17 September 1943, also lie here.
The Dambuster graves are in groups in different parts of the cemetery. Seven of them lie together in one row, not far from the edge. This is the crew of AJ-E: Norman Barlow, pilot; Leslie Whillis, flight engineer; Philip Burgess, navigator; Charlie Williams, wireless operator; Alan Gillespie, bomb aimer; Harvey Glinz, front gunner and Jack Liddell, rear gunner. And on 18 May this year it was at their graves that we first paid our respects, coming as we had from the unveiling of a new memorial at their crash site near Haldern, about 30km away.
This was an experienced crew, all of whom had served together in 61 Squadron at RAF Syerston. Three were in their 30s, and six had been commissioned as officers. Unfortunately all this experience came to nought when their aircraft, targeted with an attack on the Sorpe Dam, collided with a high tension electric pylon on the edge of a small wood, and crashed in flames. They were all killed instantly and their bodies were then taken to Dusseldorf North cemetery for burial. After the war, like many other Allied aircrew from other parts of Germany, their remains were exhumed and reinterred in Reichswald Forest.
Although the gravestones were all produced to a standardised format, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission allowed each family to choose a quotation or dedication to appear at the foot of the stone. Not all took this opportunity but when they did, it’s their words which frequently produce the lump-in-throat moment as you walk between the lines of stones.
The AJ-E men each have something added.
Harvey Glinz’s stone has the simplest dedication: “Always remembered”. Leslie Whillis and Philip Burgess have similar quotations. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” is the usually quoted version which appears in the King James Bible version of St John’s Gospel. This appears on Burgess’s stone, while Whillis’s has the variation: “Greater love hath no man than this, he gave his life for his friends.” Charlie Williams’s grave bears words which seem to encapsulate the emotions his family must have felt by the death in a faraway cold land of a country boy from an Australian sheep farm: “He gallantly died renouncing all the things that he loved”. The age of the youngest man to take part in the Dams Raid, Jack Liddell, is alluded to by his family: “ In the prime of his youth he died that we might live”. Norman Barlow, the only one to be both a husband and a father, is remembered for the former achievement, if not the latter: “ In loving memory of my husband who gave all for his country”. And Alan Gillespie’s stone reads: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them”.
These last words are, of course, taken from Laurence Binyon’s famous poem, “For the Fallen”. Its fourth stanza will be read out many times this week:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
And every time the audience or congregation repeat the last four words, we should think not just of these seven men, nor just the 53 who died on the Dams Raid, nor even of the 55,000 men of Bomber Command who died in the Second World War, but of the countless millions who have died in conflict before and since. Each of these was someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. “My subject is war and the pity of war.”
“We will remember them.”