Flight Lieutenant Leslie R Barr, third from left, with the crew of the doomed Stirling bomber in Cam
Now, some 76 years after their Stirling bomber was shot down in flames, relatives of British airmen are engaged in a bitter fight to have their remains properly recovered from the Dutch field where they have lain since 1942.
It is a campaign born, as one relative puts it, of decency and honour. But it faces that ultimate leveller: money; and the intransigence of a Dutch local authority and monastic landowner which, despite a television documentary and increasing public pressure, say the effort and cost of recovering the wreck is not worth it.
It was a clear Thursday night when the crew of Stirling W7630 MG-M were sent to Dusseldorf, part of Germany’s industrial heartland.
As part of the fledgling Pathfinder Force – motto “We guide to strike” – the crew had been handpicked to undertake the most daring of missions: to drop the illuminating flares which would be used to guide more than 400 heavy bombers to their industrial targets.
The force’s mission was hair-raising work that required very low flying and the Short Stirling Bomber was so notoriously slow that its crew became sitting ducks for anti-aircraft fire.
Flight Engineer Sgt Maurice S Pepper, by then a 10-year RAF veteran, had been in scrapes before.
In fact, the 27-year-old had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal six months earlier after valiantly staying aboad another stricken bomber when it had been struck 15 times by enemy gunfire.
Despite gunshot wounds to the hand and leg he guided it to safety from the exposed goldfish bowl of the bomber’s glass astrodome.
With him then had been Flight Lt Leslie R Barr DFC and Bar, who had captained the aircraft. The two had formed a double-act since November 1941 and when Barr transferred to the Pathfinders, Pepper followed.
A photograph taken of the crew receiving a briefing just two weeks before the crash remains an eternal reminder of the calm with which these heroes faced death every night as they pummelled the Nazi war machine.
Relatives who ask for salvage and proper reburial of their family should be given more support
There was to be no success for the veteran crew on that night of September 10, however. The Stirling was 15 minutes from target, flying at just 14,500ft, when it was first hit by German anti-aircraft fire.
Two intense flak bursts damaged its belly and the aircraft’s wireless radio, leaving Barr unable to hear directions from his navigator and unable to know which evasive action to take.
He shouted for the aircraft’s 6,000lb bombs to be dropped. But it is thought the order wasn’t heard in the chaos and half the crew bailed out.
One, Canadian Flight Officer Philip Gustave Freberg DFC, managed to successfully make his way through enemy-held Holland and eventually escape home.
He was to die in action six months later, in April 1943. With Barr piloting, the remainder of the crew tried to limp their way home to RAF Oakington in Cambridgeshire – no doubt bitterly disappointed that they had not been able to contribute to the huge bombing campaign that night.
Flt Lt Barr with a squadron mascot
They would never know of the mission’s success; that the 475 aircraft that took part in those raids were able to destroy 39 industrial installations, losing 32 aircraft over Europe.
For as they flew over Holland, with the North Sea and safety almost in sight, they were pounced upon by a German Messerschmidt night fighter.
It was a fatal blow, and the stricken aircraft plummeted to the ground, landing in the grounds of Lilbosch monastery in the city of Echt (now Echt-Susteren), 80 miles from Antwerp, with an almighty explosion.
Pilot Officer Ernest RM Runnacles and Flight Lt Leslie R Barr DFC and Bar, thought to have been thrown clear in the impact, were identified in 1947 and buried at the Jonkerbos War Cemetery.
Four other crew members, Pilot Officer Irwin D Fountain, Sergeant John Greenwood, Flight Engineer Maurice S Pepper DFM and Sergeant Peter BP Price, were registered as Missing in Action and are still buried in that war grave, along with at least three unexploded 1,000lb bombs.
Efforts to exhume the bodies were first begun in the 1990s by local councillor Joep Jennissen. He was met with the same reply that has reverberated for more than 20 years: it was just too expensive to raise the wreckage.
The campaign has since been taken over by his daughter, Marleen. Hopes were raised again in 2006 when the Dutch Ministry of Defence agreed to bear two-thirds of the costs for exhumations of this type.
But still local burghers said no. Instead, a small area has been set aside on the arable field with the site marked by a makeshift plaque.
In 2014, the Court of the Mayor and Aldermen of Echt-Susteren conducted a cost-benefit analysis into the potential salvage of the crash site.
it concluded that estimated costs of 617,000 euros were too high in light of a limited safety risk.
Memorial: The only clue to the mass grave
A recent council statement shifts the responsibility on to the landowners, the Trappist Lilbosch Abbey, saying: “The City of EchtSusteren is not the owner of the ground of the crash site, this is the Monastery Abdij Lilbosch.
“Research on the crash site has been conducted in 2013 and the conclusion was that there’s no direct danger for public safety. This means that we can’t give the order to salvage the Stirling Bomber.”
In a recent statement Abbot Dom Malachias said: “If it had been shortly after the crash, when the bodies would still have been genuinely inanimate, then the situation would have been different. Now it’s more than 70 years ago and we judge it more respectful to let that already far-advanced process happen in rest and peace.”
Campaigners reject the arguments. “There are at least three unexploded thousand-pound bomb in situ. I would say that was a safety issue,” says Evander Broekman, of specialist firm Leemans Speciaalwerken.
“We have the expertise and equipment to carry out a true appraisal and we feel it would be considerably less than the high figures being bandied about currently.”
Last year the company recovered crew members of an Avro Lancaster that had crashed into a Dutch lake during a night bombing run from the UK to Bremen, Germany, in 1942.
“The operation in Echt-Susteren should be considerably easier than the one in Alde Feanen,” he adds.
And pressure is mounting. Last month the Dutch public broadcaster NPO aired an investigation into how local authorities in the Netherlands are divided on the issue of funding for salvages.
Liever Dood Dan Vermist (Better Dead Than Missing) featured the RAF Stirling W7630 as a case study. In the wake of the documentary, three MPs in the Dutch Parliament called for a review into the national funding of salvages.
This includes Wybren van Haga, who represents the largest party in the coalition government, the VVD.
Sgt. Peter Price with sister-in-law Tryphene Price, 1942
“It is our moral obligation to ensure that these young men who fought and died for our freedom are treated with respect,“ he says.
“The current formula to spread the cost of salvage leads to a very uncomfortable result in the sense that it often ends in no salvage at all due to obstruction from local authorities.
“Relatives who ask for salvage and proper reburial of their family should be given more support and I really hope we can change the circular which stipulates the 30/70 split. If a rule proves counterproductive we should try our best to change the rule. Especially on a sensitive issue like the recovery of human remains of war heroes.”
Crucially, the ministers for defence, the interior and the department of health, welfare and sport have decreed that municipalities give greater sway to the views of relatives.
In the meantime, it is for the community to carry this burden. Echt-Susteren, though officially a city, has only 30,000 residents and, of course, as campaigners concede, every penny counts.But there’s more at stake than just euros.
“The local authority says the costs are too high, despite not having undertaken a proper costing, and that there are no safety risks,” says Marleen Jennissen, chairman of the foundation Stichting Berging Stirling W7630.
“When we pointed out the risks with the unexploded bombs they changed their argument and said it should remain as a war grave.
“They’ve put a small monument there. In the meantime the very soil where people are lying is being spread with manure and used to grow crops. That’s hardly a sacred use of a burial site.
”None feel it more than relatives such as Maurice Pepper’s niece, Rebecca Dutton.
“As the flight engineer my uncle would have been one of the last to bail out, as his job was to stay and help steer the plane to safety,” says Mrs Dutton, 64, from her home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.
“It’s what he did just six months before he died, though heavily injured, and for which he was awarded the DSM by King George.
“Most Pathfinders knew they were unlikely to make it home. These men were the epitome of decency. They put their lives at deliberate risk and died for us.
“I want to give him and the others the same decency; to give them a proper burial and proper resting place. They deserve more than a war grave in a crop field.”