On Thursday the 7th of May 2015 the Wings Museum had the pleasure in meeting a team of researchers and representatives from the community of Viroinval in Belgium.
The purpose of our visit was to present a memorial plaque in remembrance to the crew of Short Stirling BF513 prior to ceremonies taking place the following day.
The story of Stirling BF513 and her gallant crew
On Wednesday April 14th 1943 at RAF Newmarket in Suffolk the crew of BF513 AA-E of 75 Squadron New Zealand Sqaudron are preparing for that nights operation. Donald McCaskill who arrived on the squadron a month previously was to be the pilot and skipper on this nights operations to Stuttgart in Germany. Stirling BF513 was only delivered to the squadron on 8th April.
McCaskill a New Zealander was to be joined with 2 other countrymen including the navigator P.O. James Grainger and gunner Sgt. Ronald Smith, the other crew members being British. The raid would be a risky one, with heavy flak defences and the 460 aircraft having to cross the “Kammhuber” a radar network which monitors the aircraft and guides German nightfighters onto their prey.
At approximately 9pm the crew of BF513 board their bomber and begin to take up their crew positions performing checks to ensure everything was ok so they could perform their duties to the best of their ability knowing the rest of the crew were depending on them. On board were:
Pilot – P.O. Donald McCaskill
Bomb Aimer – Sgt. Bertram Elwell
Mid Upper Air Gunner – Sgt. Ernest Cook
Navigator – P.O. James Grainger
Flight Engineeer – Sgt. Angus McVicar
Tail Air Gunner – Sgt. Ronald Smith|
Wireless Operator – Sgt. Reginald Green at 27 he is the oldest of this crew
Just after 9.32 pm BF513 and her crew joined up with a force of 462 aircraft including 83 Stirlings, 98 Lancasters, 146 Wellingtons and 135 Halifaxes. The target military industrial complex of Stuttgart.
At around 00.00 Night Fighters from I/NJG4 take off to begin their orbits to await further instructions onto their prey. ?00.30 The wave of bombers arrives at the target area where the flak begins to burst all around but for some reason this night the flak was not very effective, but enemy fighters are active and 9 night fighter formations attack 24 bombers with 5 being shot down.
Between 00.50 and 01.10 blinded by the glow of the fires and smoke, Bertram Elwell drops his bombs the best he can. Donald McKaskill steers the mighty bomber away from the target area and sets course for home.
At about 02.15 in the Southern Region of Florenees in Belgium an Me 110 3C + FB led by Olt. Graeff is guided by ground radar cell 7B in Villers-deux-Eglises or 7c Scourmont (Chimay) to intercept a British bomber, this bomber is BF513. 10 minutes later tragedy ensues when BF513 is shot down in flames and crashes in Nismes Wood close to the hamlet of Regniessart. BF513 becomes Olt. Graeff’s fourth victory. The aircraft broke up before impact and the entire crew lost their lives.
On April 15th 1943 the CO of 75 Squadron closed the logbook of Donald McCaskill by the fateful words “Failed to Return”. Many months later news arrives to the families from the International Red Cross that their loved ones had been killed. They are today buried in the communal cemetery of Florennes – they are still there forming a crew forever.
Memorial 8th May 2015
Finally on the 8th May 2015 70 years after VE Day, a memorial was unveiled at the crash site close to where the Stirling and her crew had fallen over 70 years ago. Over two days of poignant acts of remembrance which was organised by Guy Lapaille and representatives from the community of Viroinval and Florennes, with a frame work of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War and 70 since the end of World War Two.
For the families of the seven airmen and other guests from New Zealand, Eire and the United Kingdom the programme began early on the evening of 7th May with a reception and meal in Nismes. A special visit was arranged to the graves of the crew at Florennes.
A day of unforgettable ceremonies
Friday 8th May was a day of many ceremonies starting with a service in Saint-Gangulphe Church in Florennes. From there a brass band led a procession of VIP’s, flag bearers of the FNAPG – Federation of Nationale des Anciens Prisoners de Guerre and many local school children and representatives from the communites along the streets of Florennes to the War Memorial for a short ceremony for all those who had fallen in both World Wars. The Procession then walked a short distance to the communal cemetery for a service to honour the seven crew members of Stirling BF513.
After lunch in Nismes, a coach took the families of the crew together with VIP guests to the crash site for the unveiling of memorial plaque. At least a hundred assembled in a clearing beside the road side close to where the Stirling had crashed to earth in the hamlet of Regniessart. Visitors were joined by local residents, school children, a brass band, a squad of soldiers and sensior air force represntatives. The buzz of conversation fell silient as the sound of distant bagpipes fills the air from the crash site deep within the trees. Gradually the sound gets louder and louder when four pipers in full ceremonial dress emerges from the undergrowth making their way to an open area playing “Scotland the brave” continued with “Amazing Grace”. When the pipes fell silient speeches were given by the mayor of Viroinval, Jean-Marc Delizée also by James Cooper representing Alison Rose HM Ambassador to Belgium, Andrew Gillespie for Paula Wilson NZ Ambassador to Belgium, Mide Cannon NZ DF Attaché in London, Russell Mathieson, relative of Donald McCaskill spoke on behalf of the families of the airmen and Glen Turner representing 75 Squadron Association of New Zealand. Seven children from the local school each held up a large placard with the name and where possible a photo of the airmen, as each name was read out.
Following this floral tributes were placed at the monument by the families and by representatives from the air arm of the Begian Armed Forces and the RAF. The lines of “For the Fallen” were read by Cpl Denise Boneham, Treasurer of Friends of 75 Sqn. Association UK. After the ceremony, a chance for everyone to look at the memorial and the detailed information board close by. Then a friend ship drink in a hunting lodge close by with some enchanting singing by a small choir, before the return journey to Nismes. Formal events of the day concluded with a ceremony at Nismes war memorial to remember those lives lost in two world wars.
The evening began with the inaugural viewing of an exhibition on the crew of Stirling BF513 and memorbilia, photos and documents. Included in the display was a incredibly detailed model of BF513 which had been skill fully modeled by Sylvain Hottiaux. Finally guests, participants and organisers made our way to Maison de la Laicité for a superb dinner after an amazing day.
The commemorative events for the crew of BF513 are culmination of two years of intensive work by former Virovinal Town Clerk Guy Lapaille, whose research, planning and organisation made this memorial the most amazing experience for all those who took part.
The Wings Museum would like to thank Guy Lapaille, the Mayor of Viroinval – Jean-Marc Delizée, Glen Turner, Nicolas Cinaz, Philippe Meurant and of course the families of the crew of Stirling BF513. There now stands a lasting fitting tribute to those men who gave their lives in fight for freedom in the skies over Western Europe.