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:
Burgemeester Ina Sjerps addresses the gathering. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
Flg Off Brad Duesbury, RAF. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
L-R, Trumpeter Gerard Dijkstra, Marielle van Dalen, Jan van Dalen. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
Two fighter aircraft from the Royal Netherlands Air Force fly over in tribute. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
Andrew Anderson, nephew of Sgt Alastair Taylor. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
Memorial unveiled by Alastair Taylor and Wendy Taylor, nephew and niece of Sgt Alastair Taylor. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
Piper Niels van Telius. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
The Taylor family at the memorial. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
Grave of Flt Sgt James McDowell, decorated on the 79th anniversary of his burial in Harlingen cemetery. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]
The plaque. [Pic: Wim Govaerts]