Friday, May 30, 2014

WW2 | D-Day Gravesites, 70 Years On

Map 1. Normandy Invasion. Utah-Omaha Beaches, where U.S.
troops took heavy losses. Also shows Bayeux, Caen, Honfleur.
In the week of D-Day (June 6) 1944, every available pilot was put to use.

So many RAF pilots were killed by anti-aircraft fire in their missions over France that every available pilot was put to use.

They were needed to destroy railways, bridges and roads so as to prevent Nazi troops from the south to prevent them from joining in the battles in Normandy.

My mother's younger brother, Willem van Stockum, was given a Halifax bomber to fly with six in crew.

He was an experienced pilot, with a Ph.D. in mathematics and months spent as an instructor to other pilots, way overqualified. He was 33 years old and ordinarily would have been given light duty. He was an instructor with the RCAF in Canada when he volunteered to fly for the RAF. He was posted to 10th Squadron in Melbourne. He flew six missions in the days before and after D-Day.

Monument to the crew of the plane piloted by Willem
van Stockum from the RCAF, shot down over
Entrammes, near Laval.
In a second plane  on the same mission of ten bombers was another pilot who was older than average, Thomas Henderson. He was also a Commonwealth volunteer, an Australian, Thomas Henderson. His plane and van Stockum's were shot down on June 10, 1944.

On June 7-8 2014, just prior to the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Alice and I had the pleasure of visiting memorial sites in and near Normandy, with Thomas Henderson's son Rex and his wife Deb Henderson.

It was a poignant week. We came from the United States and the Hendersons came from Australia. We were all there because  the citizens of Laval, to the south of Normandy, were about to unveil a monument to RAF airmen at Entrammes and St. Berthevin.

Monument to Thomas Henderson, the Australian pilot
of the second plane that was shot down in the early hours
of June 10, 1944, over Berthevin.
We drove north from Laval through Normandy, using routes E401 and E46. On Saturday, June 7 we went via Caen and Bayeux to Honfleur, stopping at Bayeux to see the tapestry. Honfleur is an historic gem of a port village; we stayed at la Closerie. Sunday, June 8 we went to the Normandy beaches, WW2 museum and cemetery at Omaha Beach.

June 9-10, Laval Area

Led by Jean-Louis Cholet of "Souvenir Francais" (in the Mayenne branch, the department to the south that includes Laval), Jean-Luc Peslier of the Association of the Mayenne Airmen (AMAA) and other hosts from the Town of Laval and other groups, the families of the 14 downed airmen were escorted to key spots.

The airmen were flying two Handley-Page Halifax bombers (MZ 684 and MZ 532) out of the 10th Squadron RAF station in Melbourne, Yorkshire, and were shot down over Entrammes and St. Berthevin, southeast and west of Laval, on June 10, 1944.

They are buried in a special section of the communal cemetery in Laval - photos are posted here.

(I wondered why there were 20 names listed in the cemetery, six more than the number of airmen who crashed and the number of tombstones in the cemetery in the airmen's section - Section E, Sub-section D, row 1. The answer is that five soldiers and one airman from the British Commonwealth are buried in a different part of the cemetery - in section A, sub-section A, row 28. The airman is Flying Officer Kenneth John Trask from the Royal Australian Air Force, who died November 11, 1943; grave #42500. The five soldiers are named Clark, Hunt, Morgan, Sharratt, and Stokes.)

For me it was important closure. When my mother first came to the gravesite of her brother Willem in 1954 she found that all of the other 13 airmen had gravestones. Her brother only had a wooden marker. She was deeply upset. She told me that one possible explanation was that her brother was an atheist and therefore wasn't allowed to have a Christian marker.

That, of course, was highly improbable, but my mother was a convert to Catholicism (her parents were agnostic although born to religious Dutch Reform families) and it surely reflected her state of mind. The family trip around Europe was billed as pilgrimage and we deliberately stopped at places like Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela (the end of the Camino Santiago).

In fact, the problem was that her brother died a Dutch citizen, although he was in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship - he was a young faculty member in mathematics at the University of Maryland when the war broke out. The Dutch, with many other challenges on their hands, had not yet delivered the special Dutch tombstone for Willem, whereas the RAF had managed by 1954 to get the 13 other gravestones in place.

Monday, June 9, 2014
Map 2. Normandy and Pays-de-la-Loire. Shows Laval,
Le Mans, Caen, Honfleur
10 am - Brunch in Laval at the Brasserie Chez Marcel, impasse Barbé; before the roundabout route to Le Mans on 57 RD from Laval.
12 Noon - Lunch at Le Parc Gourmand in Conlie.
1:30 pm - Visit to the WW2 Museum, guided by Mr. Roger Bellon, a self-taught wood-carver who accompanied his relics of the war with depictions of what happened.
Map 3. Shows Laval, Ernée, Entrammes, St. Berthevin.
6:30 pm - Ernée, dinner with the musicians of the Army Air Force, at Grand Cerf.
7:50 pm - Clair de Lune Hall by car or on foot. Seating in the concert hall reserved for family, AMAA and VIPs.
8:45 pm - Concert by the brass band, Music of the Paris Air Force.
10:30 pm - Drinks with the conductor and musicians.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

9 am - Laval, RV esplanade "Ch Nine" for guided tour in English of Old Laval, starting with the old castle. Guide is Helene.
Map 4. Shows Laval, Conlie, Ernée
10:30 am - Laval, Vaufleury Cemetery - Graveside Ceremony at the Airmen's Square with a brief ecumenical service, speeches, RAF Anthem and wreath-laying.
11:30 am - Laval, Official reception at City Hall.
12:30 pm -  Laval, Lunch at Relais Champetre ("Country Stage Stop"), near the Airport.

2:30 pm - Entrammes, Pear Farm (outside the village on the road to Maisoncelles ), ceremony following unveiling of the monument to Halifax bomber MZ 684. Laying of wreaths/flowers in the presence of the Mayor of Entrammes and other local officials, with anthem and flag bearers. This is the plane that was piloted by flying officer van Stockum, about whom a science-fiction novel called Time Bomber was published in 2014.
3:15 p.m. - On to the Lycée Agricole, "Chateau Blancherie", remembrance of MZ 532 with testimony and comments on the mission. For a photo of the MZ 532 crew and a British presentation in 2013 in honor of the 10th Squadron based in Melbourne, Yorks., go here: Halifax Crew MZ 532.

4:45 pm - St. Berthevin, in Pont-Alain. Unveiling of the monument to Halifax bomber MZ 532 with wreath-laying in presence of the Mayor of Berthevin and other officials, and flag-bearers.
5:45 pm - Meeting Centre of the City of St. Berthevin, northwest of Laval. Welcome and toasts in memory of the downed airmen.
7 pm - Welcome by staff of the AMAA, restaurant "Maine".
7:45 p.m. - Farewell dinner, presentation of mission maps for the nights of June 9-10, 1944 (Melbourne/Laval) and gift souvenir of the monument for families.

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