By Mike Glaeser
At least here in the United States, the internet and its usage to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories has become a topic of heated debate. Every now and then, however, the internet can also bring people together and provide some positive magic. Last month I wrote a blog post about several photographs from WWII in my family’s collection. The goal was to try and identify a Royal Navy captain and thus find a burial of British servicemen. Thanks to some kind suggestions and the assistance of an internet forum community and researchers at a former POW camp, the identity of the captain was confirmed within 24 hours and the entire story pieced together within 48! It was a tremendous group effort and the individuals involved will be thanked at the end of this post.
The burial of RAF airmen at Bevern Cemetery, Germany in 1941- accompanied by POWs from Stalag XB Sandbostel and a Luftwaffe Guard of Honor led by Leutnant Ernst Bauer.
The following narrative is an account of the events and personnel depicted in the attached photographs.
On the night of 22 June, 1941, Hampden bombers from 83 Squadron took off from their airfield at Scampton, Lincolnshire. They were to form part of a raiding force of 45 Wellington and 25 Hampden bombers targeting German infrastructure at Bremen. Hampden AD969, code DL-X, was flown by Pilot Officer Richard John Heavens and Sergeant Walter George Price, and also include Flight Sergeant Neil Erskine Byres and Flight Sergeant Eric William Sponder. The aircraft was coned by searchlights while flying low and was shot down near the village of Bevern in the district of Bremervörde, Germany. Official documentation of the flight in the National Archives lists the crash as having occurred on 23 June. All four airmen were killed.
On the day of the burial, POWs from the nearby Stalag XB Sandbostel were brought in to take part in the ceremony. The highest-ranking officer of the internment camp was Royal Navy Captain Graham Francis Winstanley Wilson (saluting, holding wreath). He was captured after his armed boarding vessel, HMS Vandyck, was sunk by dive bombers off the coast of Andenes, Norway on the last day of the allied campaign in Norway- 10 June, 1940. In the photograph of him saluting the fallen airmen, he is accompanied by Major White of the Green Howards. He was captured while serving with his unit in France, 1940 and became the camp padre (chaplain). The German priest on the left of the image is a civilian and most likely from the congregation in nearby Bremervörde.
The airmen were accorded full military honors. Leutnant Ernst Richard Bauer led a Luftwaffe guard of honor at the burial. He was serving as a Gruppenleiter at the Munitions Depot in neighboring Hesedorf.
The burial itself took place in the village cemetery of Bevern despite there being two camp cemeteries further south (Lagerfriedhof Parnewinkel and Sandbostel). Given the crash date, the funeral must have taken place near the end of June or early July. After the war, the airmen were reburied at Becklingen on 3 October, 1946. Their graves are marked in Plot 13, Row F, Graves 1-4.
I am currently working to identify the servicemen’s next of kin so they can be given the full story and copies of the additional images from my personal collection. Thankfully, all four of the servicemen were transferred to the Becklingen War Cemetery in 1946 and their exact resting places are known. While the story unfortunately revolves around the deaths of four men, we can rest assured knowing that honor was satisfied and this little sub-plot of WWII has the happiest of endings, given the circumstances.
My utmost thanks to the following:
- Herr Schneider in Grosenbrode
- Herr Sperling in Sandbostel
- Mr Singleton of Helion & Co
- Mr King for his National Archives recommendation
- Mr Russell, author of Theirs the Strife, for his recommendation of the WW2Talk forum
- And a very special thanks to the following users of the WW2Talk forum (www.ww2talk.com):
- CL1, Tony56, Alex1975uk, timuk, Itdan, Tricky Dicky, travers1940, JimHerriot, Tullybrone, JDKR, DaveB, Harry Ree, Wobbler, Lindele.
Well done all.