A WWII Picture Mystery – SOLVED!

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.

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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.

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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.

Fallschirmjäger! A collection of first-hand accounts and diaries by German Paratrooper veterans from the Second World War

By Greg Way

I have been interested in the Second World War from an early age. I grew up surrounded by people who experienced the war, family members, family friends and neighbours. My child play involved toy soldiers, military vehicles and planes. My books were amongst others, Action Annual and Commando comic books. Wartime films and documentaries were regularly on the TV. In my picture books Germans were often portrayed as faceless enemies. At an early age I wondered why I never heard or read war stories from the German point of view.

Oberfeldwebel Redhammer from Fallschirmjäger Regiment.2 was a well decorated Senior NCO and a veteran of the Crete campaign. This Regiment features heavily in the book.

I was a child when I first heard the words ‘German Paratrooper’ in ‘Dad’s Army’, a 1970s British TV sitcom about a Home Guard unit defending a coastal town in southern England against a possible German invasion during WW2. I thought nothing more about them!

I first read the words ‘German Paratrooper’ as a youngster in a 1970s Commando comic book story but thought nothing more about them. I first saw a ‘German Paratrooper’ as a child but he was 5cm tall, made of plastic and part of my toy soldier collection. I never knew what he was and thought nothing more about it. These and many other insignificant references to ‘German Paratroopers during my childhood probably influenced my interest in the future.

Fast forward to the 1990s and I chanced upon a twenty-year-old modelling magazine featuring a long article about ‘German Paratroopers’ and for the first time I read about their exploits at places such as Eben Emael in 1940, Crete in 1941 and Monte Cassino in 1944. This was the first time I read the word ‘Fallschirmjäger’! I was thoroughly intrigued by these airborne operations and ground campaigns, the courageous offensive feats and tenacious defensive actions, some of which have gone down in the annals of military history. I wanted to learn more about the men of this elite formation!

Volker Stutzer with his copy of the book. He was a late war conscript who fought in Pomerania in February 1945

The internet at that time was in its embryonic stage with only a handful of military forums and web pages but it allowed like-minded enthusiasts from all over the world to communicate their interests. One fellow enthusiast asked if I would like to write to a German Paratrooper veteran. He provided me with an address in Germany and I wrote a letter asking if he would share his experiences during the war. Not only did the veteran send me reports from his wartime service but he also put me in touch with other veterans, who were willing to share their experiences of training, combat, capture and captivity. Within a few months I had collated quite a few personal reports, with a personal perspective of many battles and campaigns.

With this growing collection of first-hand accounts, I toyed with the idea of a book as a permanent record of these personal wartime experiences, an idea welcomed by the veterans. I hoped this book would appeal to the professional historian, military enthusiast and the casual reader alike.

Erich Beine, Fallschirmjäger officer and recipient of the Knights Cross from the Luftlande-Sturmregiment, a formation that features in the book.

Fast forward to 2018 and after almost twenty years the book was accepted by Helion and Company who were excited about its historical value and potential appeal to the military history community.

The book does not cover the tactical level or military leadership but the written experiences of 19 Fallschirmjäger veterans from their perspective and in their own words. They are first-hand accounts of bravery, determination and adversity and describe the horror and inhumanity of war but also moments of humanity and the light-hearted moments experienced by soldiers the world over in times of war.

Oral histories like these now belong to an ever-decreasing number of elderly veterans but they create an important historical record of their military service during the Second World War.

You can buy the book now here.