Heroism in the air celebrated
An emotional gathering around an old bomber engine in a field outside the Dutch town of Markelo was made possible, thanks to the determination of two Tasman men.
Bronte artist Darryl Robertson's detective work tracked down many relatives of the crews of three bombers that crashed near the town 70 years ago during World War II, including Richmond's Keith Burbridge, who has never forgotten his older brother, Ken.
Ken Burbridge was returning from his third bombing mission over Germany when his Stirling bomber was hit by flak.
The burning plane limped on until just outside the Dutch town of Markelo, where a German fighter shot off the bomber's tail. The seven crew, four New Zealanders, two Englishman and a Scotsman, died in the crash.
Ken was 22.
His plane, from the RNZAF 75 squadron, was one of three that crashed near Markelo, which was on a bombing flight path, in 1943.
There were seven airmen on each plane - 18 died near Markelo.
Burbridge's family never forgot his brother was lying in Dutch soil, but did not know where.
Eight years ago Robertson became sidetracked while researching his family's history back to Scotland.
Knowing his father's cousin, Flight Sergeant Andrew McEwin, had died in the war he tracked down the names of the other Kiwi crewman and headed for the phone book.
The first call roused Burbridge's daughter-in-law.
"I never had any information until Darryl turned up," Burbridge said.
Robertson went on to find the families of the four other Kiwis and the one Scotsman from the Stirling's crew.
Then Benny Schreurs, who chairs the Committee for The Fallen Airmen Memorial Markelo 2013, asked Robertson to help find the families of the crews of the other two other crashed aircraft.
"He said they needed help.
"They had a big commemoration planned and few families to contact.
"He said he was sure I would be successful.
"Just doing things for another reason can be very rewarding."
Over the next two or more years he traced the relatives of 20 of the 21 fliers who had been shot down near the town in 1943 as well as the family of the German pilot who had downed Ken's plane.
"It was self-motivated hunting and at times very frustrating. But people would come out of the woodwork."
When he found the families he asked if they wanted to know about their dead relative and information about the crash sites, and the 2013 commemoration.
He traced people across the world but was unable to find the family of crewman Dennis Kelly, who had come from Islington, north London.
He found the German pilot after talking to an Austrian man who walked into his Bronte gallery who turned out to know the pilot's wider family.
"Sometimes it's good to say yes to challenges. What I saw in the eyes of the relatives was special and all it involved was someone saying ‘yes'."
Meanwhile, Burbridge took five of his family members to Markelo in 2010 after years of talking about visiting the site.
Unaware of the Dutch regard for the foreign World War II airmen, the family were surprised by the welcome and the length the townsfolk went to ensure the dead crewmen were never forgotten.
The crash was one of 4000 recorded by the national Dutch aircraft recovery group.
A memorial of a bomber engine marked the crash site. The graves of the crewmen from the three planes were in a treed area of the town's cemetery.
They had been adopted by the children of the Markelos Junior School who tend the graves and light candles on them each Christmas.
"The compassion is out of this world," he said.
Last month his family joined more than 50 other relatives from around the world for the week-long commemoration which featured the unveiling of a World War II bomber propeller at the gravesite as a memorial to all the crews before a crowd of more than 400.
His children and grandchildren all now realised what friendship and devotion meant, he said.
"The Dutch worked together to overcome the trauma of war and their schoolchildren are still involved with it today."
Robertson said he was humbled by the standing ovation he received at the ceremony.
"It was very rewarding and obviously very moving for them."
- © Fairfax NZ News