The RAF airmen who are no longer MIA and can finally RIP

Relatives of the doomed servicemen praise Danish historian who solved a 68-year-old mystery out of “gratitude to those who fought and died for our freedom”


A Danish historian has solved a mystery that had been haunting the relatives of eight British airmen shot down during the Second World War for nearly seven decades.

The deceased servicemenÂ’s families had been informed by the British War Office in 1943 that the men had gone down in the North Sea. The assumption was based on the discovery of the body of an unidentified airman that washed up on the Dutch coast, but no wreckage was ever found.

Meanwhile, the identities of seven Allied airmen who were shot down over Halsskov on the southwestern coast of Zealand in April 1943 were never established – until now.

Anders Staarup, a retired history teacher from Randers, discovered old photos of the wreckage of the ‘seven’ airmen’s plane, together with an archived German report (from Luftgaukommando XI in Hamburg) that described the aircraft involved. Additionally, a report in Berlingske Tidende newspaper at the time detailed how the plane had off-loaded its main 1,000 lb bomb, creating a “huge” crater in a field nearby, shortly before an impact in which it was “almost completely pulverised”.

Staarup then went through the painstaking task of finding eye-witnesses to a crash that had taken place 68 years ago by placing an advert in a local newspaper, the Korsør Posten, in January.

Remarkably, several people quickly stepped forward, including D Hansen, who had walked around the crash site as a 17-year-old. “It was not a pleasant sight,” she recalled. “Parts of bodies were scattered around us. What was most macabre about it was that the soldiers were playing football with the heads of the deceased people. It was quite ghoulish, so I disappeared again very soon, but there was quite a crater.”

Thanks to several first-hand accounts, and the clear images of the planeÂ’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and undercarriage, Staarup was able to conclude that the plane was unequivocally a Halifax bomber and, after a call to the 51 Squadron History Society, that the occupants of the seven unmarked graves in Bispebjerg in north Copenhagen were those of the eight missing airmen on Halifax DT628 of the 51 Squadron.

The Germans who buried the remains of the airmen had assumed that there were only seven of them because this was the normal number for a bomber crew. However, on this occasion there had been eight airmen as the Halifax was carrying novice pilot Deryk Martin, who was poignantly making his maiden flight, as part of a 339-plane mission to destroy German munitions factories in Poland.

The seven graves will now reportedly become eight and be given headstones with the correct names on, although there has not yet been any official confirmation by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There are believed to be complications due to the mixture of body parts – sorting them correctly could be a lengthy process – and the strong possibility that the remains include those of two other airmen retrieved from the Baltic at the time of the crash.

British media claimed that the airmenÂ’s remaining relatives will next spring travel to Bispebjerg Cemetery in north Copenhagen for a remembrance ceremony. However, these claims are unfounded, claimed a source close to the cemetery.

Nevertheless, the relatives were delighted. “To hear this news after 68 years and the prospect of being able to pay homage and say goodbye to him is staggeringly wonderful.” Anthony Martin, 80, the younger brother of the novice pilot Deryk Martin, told British newspaper The Daily Mail.

“My mother held out hope that Deryk had been taken prisoner, and after the war she believed he was suffering from amnesia in a corner of Europe somewhere. Our only regret is that our mother, father and elder brother didn’t get to find out what happened to Deryk.”

The relatives acknowledged the enormous debt they owe to Staarup, who runs, a website dedicated to Allied airmen who crashed in Denmark during the Second World War. “The gratitude my father, uncles and auntie feel towards Anders is enormous,” said the novice pilot’s nephew, Nigel Martin, 49. “At last the story has come to an end and they can honour their brother properly and say a proper goodbye.”

Staarup explained that his mission to identify the occupants of the unmarked graves was his own personal tribute to the war dead. “This was my way of showing my respect and gratitude to those who fought and died for our freedom,” he told the Daily Mail. “At that time, in the middle of the war, the Allies were our friends and because of them we ended up a free nation.”

Among the other men who died that night was the rear gunner Alexander Barrie – a Scottish sergeant who one week before the fateful mission had run into a burning wreckage to rescue a US pilot who had crash-landed – and the pilot Bruce Brett, whose 86-year-old younger sister lived to hear the news.

“It was quite a shock when, after all these years, I got a phone call telling me my uncle’s grave had been found,” Barrie’s niece Catherine McGinn, 77, told Scottish newspaper The Scottish Daily Record. “I’m sure the dedication ceremony will be very emotional but it will give us some closure.”

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