We will always remember – Stirling BK716

In October 2021 a monument was unveiled in Almere, The Netherlands. This monument has been erected to commemorate the crew of Short Stirling BK716, the bomber that was recovered from the Markermeer last year. Having been discovered by accident already in 2008, when part of a landing gear became attached to the anchor of a ship, it wasn’t until 2018 when the recovery became a real possibility.

In that year, the Dutch government decides to fund a ‘National Program Salvage Aircraft Wrecks’ with the intention to recover aircraft wrecks that possibly still hold missing crew members.

Stirling BK716 is shot down in March 1943 when returning home from a bombing mission to Berlin. Nobody is able to escape. The crew of seven consisted of:

  • Flying Officer John Frederick Harris (GB, pilot, 29)
  • Sergeant Ronald Kennedy (GB, flight engineer, 22)
  • Flying Officer Harry Gregory Farrington (Canada, observer, 24)
  • Sergeant Charles Armstrong Bell (GB, wireless operator/air gunner, 29)
  • Flying Officer John Michael Campbell (GB, air bomber, 30)
  • Sergeant Leonard Richard James Shrubsall (GB, air gunner, 30)
  • Flying Sergeant John Francis James McCaw (Canada, air gunner, 20)

In the autumn of 2020, BK716 is the second aircraft that is recovered and many larger and smaller parts of the aircraft are found. However, more importantly during the recovery also human remains are recovered. Based on DNA three crew members have been positively identified, but based on the amount of bones found within the complete age range of 20 to 30 years (the age range of the crew), it is almost certain all crew members have been accounted for.

The relatives of the crew that were present at the ceremony

Originally the unveiling of the monument had been planned for March 2021, but due to Covid 19 this had to be postponed. Now, with restrictions easing up, it was possible to fly in no less than 21 relatives from the United Kingdom and Canada. For them a three day programme had been planned, including a visit to the actual crash site and of course the unveiling of the monument as main items.

Mayor Franc Weerwind

The mayor of Almere, Franc Weerwind, was the first to give a short speech. For him the ultimate goal of this monument is “to remember events like this must never happen again!” He was followed by the commissioner of the king Leen Verbeek, who recalls: “the sound of the planes over The Netherlands gave us hope of liberty, of restoring freedom. The Stirling was one of those planes”.

Pupil Stella van Velzen reciting her poem ‘Trapped’

And finally councillor Hilde van Garderen said “the artwork is an invitation to the young generation to stop and reflect”. To emphasise the importance of involving youth, 11 year old local pupil Stella van Velzen recited a self-written poem called ‘Trapped’. Next the unveiling was done by the mayor and Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet of The Netherlands, who was actually born during World War II in Canada while the royal family was in exile.

Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet of The Netherlands, flanked by mayor Weerwind and the Canadian ambassador.

Also present were the ambassadors of the UK and Canada, the military attaché of Canada in The Netherlands plus numerous Dutch veterans and active serving military.

British delegation laying a wreath
Canadian ambassador and military attaché laying their wreath

British artist Laura o’Neill, who lives in Almere, used one of the original Bristol engines of the Stirling as basis for her art work called ‘Rise’. The crew member sitting on it has features of all seven members of the BK716 crew. While working on it, o’Neill was surrounded by pictures of the crew members, and the piece developed during the building.

Artist o’Neill flanked by two Dutch veterans in front of ‘Rise’

The monument is placed in the ‘Bos der Onverzettelijken’ or ‘Forest of the Unyielding’, next to the tree which commemorates Anne Frank and where the statue seems to be staring at. The final result is very much appreciated by the relatives. As the niece of John Campbell put it: “It is a beautiful piece of work! Not such a modern thing where you actually have to tell everybody what it means”. All families got a miniature version of the monument.

All relatives felt overwhelmed by the way they were treated. During the three days everybody spent together, a lot of insights and experiences were shared. As Richard McCaw, nephew of Flying Sergeant John McCaw, the Canadian air gunner of the crew, said: “This is really something. We never knew what happened to the bomber and its crew. And now there suddenly is a Dutch connection between us”.

Fiona Williams having a moment of reflection at the monument

Edith McLeod, the 94 year old sister of Harry Farrington, couldn’t make it all the way from Canada, but she was represented by her daughter Fiona Williams. McLeod however followed the ceremony via a livestream and was very happy: “I think it is marvellous. I didn’t think it would ever happen. […] We basically knew he was shot down. And that was all we knew.” Some of the relatives had already been in contact in the past, but these emotional three days and the closure they finally got form a strong bond between all of them.

In October 2022 the remains of the crew will be buried at the Jonkerbos War Cemetery near Nijmegen. It is hoped many relatives can be present there again.

This article was also published in Aviation News Journal.

Our article on the recovery of BK716 can be found here.

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