SOME COR­NER OF AN ENGLISH FIELD

Pamela Wade vis­its a vil­lage in ru­ral Eng­land and finds the war-time deaths of her air­man un­cle and his two Kiwi mates have not been for­got­ten.

North & South - - In This Issue -

It’s just an ordinary field, deep in ru­ral Buck­ing­hamshire. Rusty iron gate, hedges, net­tles, knee- high grass, a quiet coun­try road run­ning along­side. On a Thurs­day af­ter­noon, all I can hear are sheep, sky­larks, a bee buzzing over the bram­ble flow­ers. There’s ab­so­lutely noth­ing re­mark­able about it what­so­ever.

But this is where, a luck­ier per­son’s life­time ago, my Un­cle Mike died at 21, along with two other Kiwi boys and three English lads, all of them aged be­tween 19 and 23.

It was a frozen night in early Jan­uary, 1945; they were on a train­ing flight in a Welling­ton bomber, HE740. Mike was

at the con­trols, and some­thing went wrong. No one knows the cause, or will ever know – ice on the wings is the ed­u­cated guess – but the plane banked, fell from a height of 5000ft, and crashed into this field, burst­ing into flames and in­stantly killing all on board.

The plane is still there un­der the soil, and when the lush sum­mer grass is nib­bled short, the un­mis­tak­able shape of the in­den­ta­tion can still be seen, but the three Ki­wis are buried 50km away, side by side in the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Ceme­tery at Bot­ley, Ox­ford. Two of their English crew-mates are at rest there, too, the third buried at home in Kent. Up be­yond this green field, though, in the quiet, pretty vil­lage of North Marston, peo­ple still re­mem­ber the boys who died in the flames that lit up that dark night, and in 2015 they did a won­der­ful thing.

Vil­lager Chris Holden had al­ways been sad there was no lo­cal memo­rial to the boys whose fiery deaths he and his neigh­bours had wit­nessed, and he talked of it of­ten. When in 2013 he too died, his daugh­ter Jayne Springer took a col­lec­tion at his fu­neral, and in his hon­our donated the pro­ceeds to­wards the cost of an en­graved stone plaque to be erected in the vil­lage church. The North Marston His­tory Club em­braced the cause with en­thu­si­asm, en­cour­ag­ing lo­cal con­trib­u­tors to top up the fund. Two years later, Holden’s wish was granted.

On the sunny spring morn­ing of An­zac Day 2015, 70 years af­ter the crash, a pro­ces­sion through the vil­lage up to the lovely and an­cient St Mary’s church in­cluded mem­bers of the RAF and RNZAF, the Army, the Royal Bri­tish Le­gion, the lo­cal Scout group, a lieu­tenant colonel, a wing com­man­der, two vil­lagers who had wit­nessed the crash, and rel­a­tives of the dead men – seven of them from New Zealand. Af­ter a solemn cer­e­mony of hymns and prayers, po­ems and read­ings, the memo­rial plaque was un­veiled by Air Mar­shal Sir Colin Terry, KBE.

And here it is on the back wall of the church, the mar­ble clean and bright, be­neath the grey and aged stone plaque to an­other air­man, a vil­lager killed in 1943. There’s my un­cle’s name, Michael Reece, and his Kiwi com­pa­tri­ots Alexan­der Bol­ger from In­ver­cargill and Don­ald Mclen­nan from Whangarei, along with three mem­bers of the RAF Vol­un­teer Re­serve: Ian Smith, Regi­nald Price and John Wen­ham, the last two aged only 19.

They’d all met in Oc­to­ber 1944 at RAF West­cott, an Op­er­a­tional Train­ing Unit just 6km away as the Welling­ton flies. Af­ter ini­tial train­ing for the New Zealan­ders in Canada en route, this was their in­tro­duc­tion to fly­ing twinengined bombers be­fore trans­fer­ring to Lan­cast­ers for ac­tive ser­vice.

The for­ma­tion of crews was a ca­sual af­fair, the young men mix­ing freely in the op­er­a­tions room and de­cid­ing for them­selves who would make up their crew of six: pi­lot, nav­i­ga­tor, wire­less op­er­a­tor, air bomber and two air gun­ners.

In Vick­ers Welling­tons, nick­named “Wimpys”, for seven weeks Mike and his team built up their hours, prac­tis­ing cross-coun­try nav­i­ga­tion, bomb­ing raids, fighter sup­port and all the spe­cific skills each crew mem­ber needed to mas­ter. Night fly­ing was an es­sen­tial part of the process; at about 7.20pm on Jan­uary 4, a freez­ing, pitch-dark night, HE740 took off with full fuel tanks for yet an­other nav­i­ga­tion ex­er­cise.

Ten min­utes later, it was all over. North Marston vil­lagers ran through the dark to­wards the fire­ball that had ex­ploded so close to their homes, but there was noth­ing they could do. They watched, hor­ri­fied and help­less, as the wrecked Welling­ton be­came a fu­neral pyre for six young men whose hopes, ambitions and fu­tures swirled up into the sky along with the acrid black smoke.

Back home in Mosgiel, Mike’s mem­ory was kept qui­etly. In the small farm­house at Wylies Cross­ing, the framed let­ter of con­do­lence with King Ge­orge’s sig­na­ture hung above my grand­mother’s bed. “The Queen and I of­fer you our heart­felt sym­pa­thy in your great sor­row,” it be­gins; but Nan kept that sor­row to her­self, and rarely spoke of Michael, the youngest of her four sons. Nei­ther did my fa­ther. He had learned of his brother’s death by read­ing a re­port of the crash in a back copy of the Auck­land Weekly News, which he picked up by chance four months later at the Grand Ho­tel in Brighton. He was be­ing bil­leted there on his re­turn from four years as a prisoner of war, af­ter his bomber was shot down over north­ern France. He didn’t talk about that, ei­ther. They didn’t need to; it was part of who they were.

That bright morn­ing in April, when St Mary’s was filled with peo­ple, Michael’s great-niece Tina was one of only a few there di­rectly re­lated to the Kiwi boys who had died so far from home.

It didn’t mat­ter. Their mem­ory will al­ways live on with their fam­i­lies here in New Zealand, and in North Marston, the plaque en­graved with their names is now part of the fab­ric of a church that has stood since the 12th cen­tury.

Sue Chap­lin, one of the driv­ing forces be­hind the memo­rial project, looks at the plaque proudly.

She turns to me, smil­ing, and says, “They’re all our boys now.” +

Michael Reece in his flight gear.

The memo­rial plaque to Michael and his crew in­side St Mary’s (above) and a news­pa­per re­port on his death (right).

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