News story

Service of commemoration for 5 WW2 Royal Air Force servicemen

A service of commemoration to honour the 5 crew members was held yesterday Wednesday 27 June at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Niederzwehren war cemetery in Hessen, Germany.

A bugler from the Band of the Queen’s Division. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved
A bugler from the Band of the Queen’s Division. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved

Crew members of Lancaster DS678, a Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber, took off on the evening of 24 March 1944 for a raid on Berlin, Germany but never returned. Sadly, nothing further was heard of their fate. A service of commemoration to honour 5 of the crew members was held yesterday, Wednesday 27 June at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Niederzwehren war cemetery in Hessen, Germany.

The service, organised by the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), part of Defence Business Services, was conducted by the Reverend Doctor (Squadron Leader) John Harrison, Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Tracey Bowers, JCCC said:

It’s a great pleasure to be here today to pay tribute to these brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice for king and country. Although the location of their actual graves has been lost over the year it’s fitting that they are commemorated by name and I’m delighted that we have some of their family from the UK, Canada and the USA here with us today.

Reverend John Harrison said:

It has been the utmost honour and privilege to conduct the service for these brave men and their families in the Royal Air Force’s centenary year; they continue to be the benchmark for our service.

Sergeant Victor Watson. Watson Family copyright, All rights reserved
Sergeant Victor Watson. Watson Family copyright, All rights reserved

The 5 crew members remembered were:

Rank and full name Year of birth Place of birth
Sergeant William Bowey 1922 Sunderland
Sergeant Victor Watson (known as Johnnie) 1924 London
Sergeant Donald Keeley 1921 Birmingham
Sergeant John Burke 1922 Merthyr, Glamorgan
Pilot Officer Leonard McCann, Royal Canadian Air Force 1921 Ottawa, Canada
Great niece Terri Griffin with two members of the family behind the headstone of Sergeant Watson. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.
Great niece Terri Griffin with two members of the family behind the headstone of Sergeant Watson. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.

Terri Griffin, on behalf of Sergeant Watson’s family, said:

It has been a fabulous event for the family, so well organised and a great tribute to uncle Johnnie.

Pilot Officer McCann’s niece Liane Benoit from Quebec, Canada reading a letter sent by one of the surviving crew members sent to the family. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.
Pilot Officer McCann’s niece Liane Benoit from Quebec, Canada reading a letter sent by one of the surviving crew members sent to the family. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.

Liane Benoit on behalf of Pilot Officer McCann family, said:

We are so grateful to the British Ministry of Defence for this honour. It was a beautiful ceremony in a generous and hospitable community and we know they will rest in peace.

Great nephew Sebastien Molgart with his mother Liane Benoit at the graveside of Pilot Officer McCann. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.
Great nephew Sebastien Molgart with his mother Liane Benoit at the graveside of Pilot Officer McCann. Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.

The 5 were killed and buried in the Prisoner of War (PoW) cemetery at Ohrdruf. After the war, the Missing, Recovery and Exhumation Services (MRES) were unable to identify the graves as the cemetery was under Soviet control and remained so until 1991. Over the years, the graves had been declared as ‘lost’. Now, more than 70 years after their deaths, a special memorial for each of the five fallen crew members has been rededicated in Hessen, Germany.

It is believed that only 2 crew members of Lancaster DS678 survived but were taken as PoWs at Ohdruf.

Mel Donnelly, CWGC said:

These special memorials allow us to commemorate the 5 members of the crew of Lancaster DS678, alongside other commonwealth war casualties in the CWGC Niederzwehren war cemetery. Even though their graves in Ohrdruf cannot now be found, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ensures that all those who served and fell are commemorated by name.

The memorials were provided by the CWGC who will now care for them in perpetuity.

Published 28 June 2018