Found in July 1944 by the grave of the English airman H. J. Hiscox, shot down over Kessel and found in Beesel, Limburg. The poetic rhyme is lost in the translation, the story it tells is not:
'English airman, we stand around this grave of yours in this foreign place,
Your valuable life you gave in forfeit so that we can live in freedom,
Now you lay here quietly to sleep while people in your homeland wait,
Your child maybe asks his Mother why she can't laugh with him any more.
You arrived here in our midst, fighting for a beautiful ideal,
The enemy have buried you without honour, without glory:
English airman, we will surround your grave with respect and flowers,
And ask with thanks, our good God, for your happiness in eternity.'
This beautiful and highly emotive poem was written by Ciske de Zigeuner (Ciske the Gypsy) his Resistance nick-name. He was a member of the local resistance. His real name was Frans van Marissin. He was clearly someone who valued the sacrifices made by those who fought for freedom.
Flt. Sgt. Henry John Hiscox...
... started work as a fireman in Newport, South Wales Fire Service. He saw an advert for volunteers to join the RAF at the beginning of WWII, decided to join, was accepted. He became a Flight Sergeant rear gunner in Lancaster bombers. He was eventually allocated to 75(NZ) Sqn. RAF and stationed in Mepal, Cambridgeshire. That New Zealand Sqn. of the RAF flew a higher number of wartime sorties than any other Bomber Command Sqn.- 8017 in total. Men from any country were sent to squadrons who needed replacement crew to keep flying. Henry had already made more than 35 sorties over Germany when he was offered an instructors job, but he refused. “I will not teach young lads how to go and get killed. I will finish the job I started” he said. A fatal decision ... Henry’s last flight was manned by 6 British and 1 New Zealander (the Pilot) but ended disastrously, for all except one, on the night of the 20th- 21st July 1944 over Heibloem and Kessel in Limburg, The Netherlands.
The Lancaster was on its way in the middle of the night to bomb the Fischer Tropsch oil refinery in Homberg, which was producing fuel for the German army. It was attacked by a German night fighter, badly damaged and caught fire. We assume that Neil Davidson, the young 21 year old New Zealand pilot, saw the water and took the Lancaster, losing height, across the river Maas. This is because he turned over Reuver, the village I live in, and headed back at very low level towards it. With great skill and fortitude he got the blazing bomber back to the river, the tail section with Henry in it fell off just before it hit the water. There the crew’s luck ran out completely and as the aircraft crashed in the river it careered on to hit the west bank and exploded, with the full bomb load still on board. The bomb aimer had baled out and survived to be a POW for the rest of the war, Henry died in the corn field on the opposite side of the river about 3 days later but the remains of the other five crew members were never found.
For the last 6 years of my Army service I flew a Canadian De Havilland, Beaver AL Mk1, with the Army Air Corps. I retired to The Netherlands in 1968 after 18 years service, and have lived here ever since. My wife and I used to go to a patch of water, fed by the River Maas, with our sail-board. To get to the water we had to pass through the village of Beesel, past the old grave-yard. One day I noticed that on a gate pillar was a plaque saying Commonwealth War Grave, in the singular. So I thought that I would have to go and have a look at that lone grave ‘one day’.
‘One day’ came, and I found the grave of Flt Sgt Henry Hiscox, tucked away in one corner. I noticed that the grave had a surround and was very well kept, with plants and a little candle lamp. I was thinking how nice it was that a British airman’s grave was so well looked after in a foreign land. My thoughts then went back many years to when I was in Borneo, flying with the Army Air Corps during our battles against the Indonesian Army in the 60’s. I would look at the graves of our servicemen out there and wonder, if I ended up with them, would any of my family come to visit me on the other side of the world?
Back to reality, I wondered if any of Henry’s family visited him. Later, at home I told my wife what I was wondering and she shot the answer straight to me, "Don't wonder ..... find out" ! So I decided to do so and that was where it all began, in 2004. My search was only sporadic. It started with the RAF then the Royal British Legion. I found out from the war graves people that Henry came from Newport, South Wales, so I wrote to the Newport town hall asking them for help to find his family. That drew a blank due to privacy laws. I gave up for a while then got interested again trying to contact the New Zealand air force, as Henry was flying in an aircraft of 75 New Zealand Sqn. RAF, but that also drew a blank.
During my last searches I made contact, on their website, with the family of the Canadian Flt. Sgt. Harry Hansell, killed in action near Hannover, Germany. They asked me if I would send them a photo of Harry’s grave as it is now, they only had the old German photo with the wooden crosses. I arranged that for them via a RBL member living in the area. That got me fired up again about Henry Hiscox so my hunt started once more. After a couple of months I was beginning to give up and call it a day. As a last resort I wrote a letter to the South Wales Argus, a local South Wales newspaper. Jane Helmich, an Argus journalist, answered my letter and made up a front page article about my search. Within a week of that being published I had received information. It turned out that a neighbour of Henry’s Daughter Thelma (Lewis) recognised the name, and spoke to her about it. She was not well but her son’s wife Sandra contacted me and then it all began to happen...
I found out that the family knew he was buried in Holland but not exactly where. Later I also found out that Henry’s mother and father had visited his grave twice in the 40’s but not with the children- sadly they could not remember the location where their parents had gone to...
Talking to members of the village association for ‘Beesel and Her Future” in 2005, I was advised to visit the lady who tends Henry’s grave for more information, Mrs Tiny Claessen. I did, and was flabbergasted to find out what she had been doing since way back in 60’s. She was with her mum at the grave of her just passed away father. Mum asked her to promise that she would tend her dad’s double grave as long as she lived, because she (mum) would be in it too when she died. Then mum turned round, pointed at Henry’s badly neglected grave, and said “and do his too because no-one is coming all the way from a foreign country to tend to his”. Tiny promised and kept her promise. She is still going strong today. She told me that the association, together with the council and the school, organises the annual remembrance around Henry Hiscox on the 4th of May (Dutch Remembrance of the Dead Day, the day before Liberation Day). When I thanked her for looking after Henry’s grave- and for so long to- she smiled and said “That’s the first time anyone has thanked me...”. Talking to the chairman of the association I found out that the school curriculum included a project for children in their last term about Henry, how he came to be buried in Beesel and why. So all the children of Beesel know what the war was about and the sacrifices men made for their freedom by the time they leave school. They are taught to be grateful and most of all, not to let it happen again during their lifetime.
The First Visit to Henry’s Grave of his Daughter and Grandchildren
So it was, that after I had told the association that I had at last found Henry’s family, they decided to invite Thelma over for the next 4th of May 2006. A bed & breakfast owner in the group offered to give Thema and her close family free board and lodgings for three days. A very spontaneous and generous gesture! Thelma, her son and his wife and their son and his wife (daughter, grandson and great grandson) were overwhelmed by all of this, took up his offer and are to this day very grateful to all the people of Beesel.
I spoke to the Mayor of Beesel and told him the story. He wanted to make the Commonwealth War Graves people take over what they should have been doing all these years. However, I persuaded him not to, to enable Tiny to carry on as long as she could and would. He agreed and so did the CWG people then she got a 'Thank You' certificate from the Dutch War Graves people.
So, the family came over. That first evening, they quietly, and without anyone else, went to the grave and privately spent some time there. Thelma was not in the best of health and I was a bit worried if she could stand all the emotions which included simply being in Holland. She had never been outside the shores of England in her life but she rose to the challenge with the same spirit that her father had. The next day you can see on the YouTube video clip, the Dutch L1 TV News video. Thelma, the Daughter was in a daze, first time outside of UK, the treatment from the Dutch, first time at Dad’s grave, it was a dream for her.
Tiny was very emotional at meeting the daughter of the man she had become to see as a brother.Thelma was so thankful to Tiny for the way she had tended her Dad’s grave for so many years. Also, in the clip, you see Tiny getting her (Dutch War Graves Commission) framed ‘Thank You’ certificate from the Mayor, and hugging Thelma. She cried more than Thelma, I think !
On that 4th of May, I discovered another stunning thing... A TV camera man was talking to Sef Willems, an elderly gentleman, at the ceremony, who although he was an undercover Dutch resistance fighter, had been sent out by the farmer he was laying low with, to cut the corn on that day in July 1944. He had found Henry’s body and had alerted the authorities. He took us all to the field and showed Thelma exactly where he had found her dad. That was a stunning moment for all of us! He also put an end to the myth that the Germans had behaved badly regarding Henry’s body. He told the story of how ordinary soldiers with 2 local funeral parlour men carrying a simple coffin, put Henry into it, and made it available for the villagers to see in the town hall before burying him with a simple cross. However, the grave digger and villagers were not allowed to put flowers on Henry’s grave on penalty of being shot ! Apparently, in the still of that night, under cover of the dark, some local people crept up behind the wall of the cemetery to as close as they could get to Henry’s grave and threw flowers over the wall onto it ! Sef also showed us where the young New Zealand pilot (21) had put his aircraft down in the river and told the story of how it had careered on into the bank and exploded.
For me it was an enormous achievement, from that simple thought years before came such a powerful mixture of happiness and sorrow, that I chose to stay in the background on that day when Thelma was stood with her hand on her Dad’s headstone for the first time. Like her I was overwhelmed as well on that May day. Back in 2004 I didn’t realise what an amazing story I was about to uncover- which eight years later still has a ‘knock-on’ effect...
My thanks to the people of Beesel, Jane Helmich of the S.W. Argus, the bed & breakfast owner, the schoolchildren, the pipers and bugler and all the other people who helped give me the answer to my ‘thought’...
It all went off really well and I thought, a great wonderful ending to my thought of “I wonder if ...” ! So I considered my goal was achieved, it took from 2004 to 2006 ...... end of story ......... wrong !
The Birth of the Kessel Remembrance Plaque...
I live on the East side of The Netherlands about 2 miles away from the German border, between Roermond and Venlo in a village called Offenbeek. It is part of a three village council area known as Beesel (because it is the oldest of the three) - Beesel, Reuver & Offenbeek. And is on the East side of the River Maas opposite Kessel (about 2 miles away from where Herny's Lancaster crashed). My house is 1.5 miles, as the crow flies, from the Kessel memorial plaque.
Charles Walbran lived in Ovezaande, in the province of Zeeland which is just below Rotterdam and very near the coast, 2 hours 30 minutes drive from me. Chaz had been in the RAF as a driver. Originally he came from Horncastle, Lincolnshire. He was an RAF man through and through, and was very aware of what the Bomber Boys had done in WWII. He was angry at the disgraceful way their valuable effort has been frowned upon and degraded by the 'PC brigade'. It is almost certain, that without the bombing raids on German refineries, weapon and munitions factories etc, we would have lost the war.
Sadly Chaz died in a Rotterdam hospital just 11 days before seeing his goal achieved...
In 2009 I put my story on a Mod Oracle Internet forum, through which Charles got in touch with me. He had read my forum messages and wanted to meet Tiny to thank her personally, and to meet me. He was curious as to why an Army Air Corps man would take on a job that should have been done by the RAF. Tiny received us happily with tea and cakes and was thankful that Chaz could speak fluent Dutch. She took him to Henry’s grave and had a photo taken with him. He was shocked to learn that the RAF had never thanked Tiny for all those years of tending Henry’s grave every week on a Saturday. So he sent my story to MoD RAF and to the RAF Bomber Command Association. That resulted in Tiny receiving a personal letter of thanks from Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff. Before Chaz left for home he asked me what had been done for the rest of Henry’s crew. I said to him “Nothing!”. With a commanding look on his face, he pointed a finger at me and said “We are going to put that right, one way or another ... OK!”.
Tiny was also invited to meet veteran bomber aircrew at Soesterberg Dutch Air Force Museum in May during their visit to The Netherlands. I didn’t tell her what was planned because she is a bit nervous of official events. But once there, she was thanked by all the Veterans (many times), and presented with a beautiful photo of a Lancaster bomber in flight, signed by all the Verterans amid loud applause. The presentation was done by three men who did the same job as Henry Hiscox, ‘rear gunners’. Another very emotional happening with a foursome hug and tears by all... On our way home she told me that that was the highest point of her life, never to be forgotten. We sent the story of Tiny to a UK news centre in May which resulted in articles, with a photo of her, being published by The Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Times, on the 14th May 2010. She was (still is) flabbergasted that the story of what she had been doing for over 45 years was being spread over the whole of UK. That led to the Dutch newspapers publishing the article but what has really touched her heart is the number of total strangers who have sent her letters of thanks and Christmas cards. We have to thank the Dutch postal service because the nearest to Tiny’s address that was mentioned in the newspaper articles was “Tiny Claessen, Beesel in Holland” ! All this has motivated Tiny to take English language lessons, in her 80th year !
Due to the contact with the veterans and their Association’s project to have a memorial built for those 55,573 bomber crew who died during WWII, we became involved in helping to raise funds for it, in a small way but helping nevertheless ! Charles had the idea to have wristbands made advertising the memorial project and I suggested offering them free to people who made a donation of 2 pounds or more. Our first attempt to collect donations was at a concert given by Robin Gibb (of the BeeGees) in the Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam on 22 October 2010. It was a great success! Robin was very active in the effort to raise the needed funds- and is sorely missed. We collected 450 Euros in donations for 145 wristbands that evening. I have a gmail address for people to order direct to me and I send their orders off, by post, as soon as their donation is seen on the bank account. I also have some outlets, mostly in the Lincolnshire area but Dean Sumner, an ex RAF man working at The Shoreham Aviation Museum near Sevenoaks has far exceeded all my other outlets put together, in his efforts with the wristbands.
At the same time as the wristband project was started, Chaz and I decided to have a marble plaque put up for the whole crew.Chaz, living on the other side of Holland frequently phoned me to ask how far I was with contacting the Kessel’s council for permission to erect a plaque in their area. I started in September 2010 but even after two visits to them, I was getting nowhere. Then a friend of mine who had worked for that council got things moving in March 2011. I ordered a marble plaque, with engraving, and started to collect donations to pay for it, having no idea how this venture would turn out. A Dutch friend of mine heard what I was doing and gave me 10 Euros to make a start. Then two other Dutchmen, listened to me telling my story in a pub, laid 50 Euros each on the table and really gave my collection a boost. The total cost was almost 1000 Euros. The Kessel council donated 500 Euros and within two months, local people had donated nearly 500 as well.
I was helped by Cpl. Denise Boneham RAF (a member of Friends of 75 (NZ) Sqn Association UK) and Peter and Judith Winckles immensely, in finding the families of 4 more of the crew. One was living in Australia and couldn’t come here, three were in UK- Sloman, Goddard and Hiscox- and wanted to come over. The brother and sister of the pilot, New Zealand Air Force Flt Sgt. Neil Davidson (later promoted to Pilot Officer) are still alive in New Zealand were very keen to attend the unveiling and did so. You see them lifting the flag off the plaque in the DVD and hear the emotional speech by Neil’s sister. Altogether about 250 people were present. We only expected 20, tops 25 !
After a meeting with the Mayoress of Kessel, four men from Kessel formed a working group with me to organise the erecting of the plaque and to sort out the many other jobs that would have to be done. The group consisted of a school teacher, a councillor, the boss of the hall where the speeches etc would be held and the man who organises the annual remembrance day event in Kessel. So I had a good team and that enabled us to make a memorable day.
I managed to get representatives of the New Zealand Embassy, the British Embassy, the RAF , the local priest, the school children and others to attend. A Sgt. in the RNZAF came from New Zealand. Not forgetting the Dutch Air Force Honour Guard who put on an excellent and much appreciated show including a bugler. They also brought the Chief Commodore of the Dutch air Force with them ! My good friend, a Scottish Bagpiper provided the music.
While all this organising was going on, poor Charles was rapidly getting very ill, so I really was glad that I had the help of the men from Kessel. The program gives short details of who and what happened on the 21st July 2011. The representative of the British Embassy, Sqn. Ldr. Lofts came with an RAF SAC, not Sqn. Ldr. Bearstow as in the program, a (too) late change after the program was printed. Sadly, on the 10th of July, Charles Walbran died in hospital in Rotterdam, his funeral was Friday 15th July, just 6 days before the unveiling of what was his idea originally. I organised it but without him it would not have happened.
So, with family members of Sloman, Hiscox, Goddard and Davidson the ceremony became a remarkable day to be remembered and that can only be conveyed to others by looking at the DVD. We did not expect that so many people would attend - so many also simply came to watch. Having the Mayoress of a German town (Grevenbroich, twinned with Kessel) was also unexpected to say the least! The crowning point was when, with the help of two local school children, the brother and sister of the pilot actually unveiled the plaque. The day before, the brother had asked me what had happened to the aircraft. He had only been told ‘Missing in action believed dead’. I described its path as well as I could. Then he asked where had it actually crashed. I pointed to the spot, about 50 yards away from the plaque where we were standing. He then burst into tears, sobbing on the railings of the terrace for 10 – 15 minutes with his sister and wife on either side of him. He came to me when he had calmed down and told me that that had been caged up inside him for 67 years but now he knew how and where his brother had died the emotions had come out. That alone made it all well worth while doing !
Two noteworthy but inexplicable things happened during the flower laying and scattering... I had scattered about four handfuls of flowers on the river when all of a sudden there was a rolling clap of thunder. No lightening, no rain, clouds but no storm anywhere near us, bright and warm ! It made the hairs stand up on arms, many people commented to me afterwards that it was eerie. Then Cpl. Boneham scattered seven RBL crosses with poppies on into the river, each one had the name of a crew member on it, as she dropped them in the water, they bobbed away, floating as you would expect. Then the last one hit the water and shot straight down, point first, to the bottom of the river ! I thought it had caught in a weed but it hadn’t- no weeds ! So I stepped in. The edge of the river is shallow, so I pulled it out and threw it further out but again it shot straight down, this time out of my reach ! All the crosses were made of the same wood, came from the same box ! The only difference was that the one that sank had the name of the pilot on it ! The New Zealand Airforce Sgt turned to me and said “He wants to go home”!
Like I said, a day to remember !
Note: I contacted close friends of Tommy Little, he has no family left alive and himself died in 1990. The family of Corris are living in Australia and couldn’t come, leaving only the family of Lang who we were unable to find. If ever I do find them I will send them all the details, which is the least I can do.
Every year, the children leaving Beesel’s school (‘T Spick) know about Henry and Bomber Command, 40-45 !
In the lead up to 4th May 2009 I was asked for the first time to give the local school children in their final year, a talk as part of their “Flt. Sgt. Hiscox” project. It’s become a fixture every year since. 45 minutes was planned the first time, but questions were still being asked 75 minutes later. I now get more time !
Notably the boys were most interested in the aircraft, it’s weapons and the attacks it could carry out. The girls, however, were asking much deeper questions- why the crews did it, how did they feel, were they afraid, did they have to do it or were they volunteers, why did their Mothers let them do such dangerous work? ! I always round up the talk with a message to them. I tell them: “You are the future, you will have the future of the world in your hands, it will soon be your turn, so don’t allow war to happen ... Negotiate, if you can”. They give me a standing ovation as I leave the classroom ! These have been my only public speeches ever and those children make me feel so humble, every time !
You can understand how I feel about what resulted from my simple ‘thought’. Unbelievable - and it’s still going on !