Almost 80 years after the end of the Second World War, some of those who died in the conflict are still being laid to rest. DAVID HANNANT reports on one such tragic case

At 9.30pm on the evening of March 29, 1943, a Stirling bomber with seven young men aboard thundered down the runway of RAF Downham Market and into the dark skies above.

The aircraft and its crew, with an average age of 26, were never to return.

The bomber - with the identification number BK716 - was part of an armada of 329 aircraft on a mission to carry out a raid over the very heart of the Third Reich, the German capital Berlin.

It reached its objective but vanished somewhere over occupied Europe on its way back to Norfolk.

Its fate remained a mystery for decades.

But now, 79 years on, its British and Canadian crew have been laid to rest, after the aircraft was found submerged in a Dutch lake, their remains still on board.

Eastern Daily Press: 28 September 2022 the crew of Stirling BK716 No 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron RAF was buried in the Jonkerbos War Cemetery.28 September 2022 the crew of Stirling BK716 No 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron RAF was buried in the Jonkerbos War Cemetery. (Image: Sgt Samantha Crowe)

On Wednesday, representatives of the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, the British embassy in the Netherlands and local dignitaries attended a special military burial ceremony for the men.

Their family members also attended the ceremony and gave readings - with relatives travelling from Ontario, Canada and Auckland, New Zealand to pay their respects.

Tracey Bowers, from the Ministry of Defence's Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, said: "It was lovely to see so many families to witness the burial.

"We thank all the crew for their bravery in defending our freedom and allowing us to live our lives as we do today."

The ceremony was conducted by the Rev Josephine Critchley, chaplain at RAF Honington.

She said: "In life, we know not what happens when we die. As we have paid tribute to the fearlessness of the BK716 crew, what we do know is that they are at rest and at peace, in the safety of God's love, gathered safely home."

Barbara Bradbury, the niece of RAF flying officer John Campbell, one of the crew, said: "This ceremony has provided a lot of resolution for our family: I'm very moved by it.

"I grew up with the grief of knowing his plane had gone down but nothing else.

"I was the first person in the family to be contacted by a researcher looking for relatives and it was quite exciting to be involved - and it was outstanding to hear the plan had been discovered.

"John was a very creative man who did a lot of writing and made cinefilms - and we now have gone on to learn more about the other crew members of BK716."

The burials were the final act of a long project, which began in 2008 with the discovery of the aircraft at the bottom of Lake Markermeer, north of Amsterdam.

During the war the area formed part of the larger Lake IJsselmeer and was an important flight route.

Pilots often chose to fly over the Ijsselmeer on their return from bombing missions, as the route heightened their chance of survival if their plane crashed. Dykes in the area also served as helpful navigational aids.

Eastern Daily Press: A memorial has been held for the crew of the Stirling BK716A memorial has been held for the crew of the Stirling BK716 (Image: Sgt Samantha Crowe)

Following the discovery, a project was launched by the National World War 2 Aircraft Recovery Programme of the Netherlands, to find out more about the aircraft and its fate.

They initially believed the aircraft was another lost Stirling, BK710.

But further investigations suggested it might have been BK716. It was only after the aircraft was raised from the murky depths, in 2020, that the serial numbers on its four engines revealed its identity.

Researchers also pieced together the last moments of its final flight. They believe that as the crew flew over the area, a German night fighter piloted by Lieutenant Werner Rapp sighted the BK716 and shot it down at about 4.50am on March 30.

While the salvaged wreckage did contain some human remains, it was not possible to assign them to individual crew members, so this week's ceremony was dedicated to all seven members.

Eastern Daily Press: The crew of the BK716, which left Downham Market never to return in 1943The crew of the BK716, which left Downham Market never to return in 1943 (Image: Crown Copyright)

They were:

  • Sgt Charles Armstrong Bell, 29, from Langley Park, County Durham
  • Pilot Officer John Michael Campbell, 30, from Golders Green, north London
  • Flying Officer Harry Gregory Farrington, 24, from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
  • Flying Officer John Frederick Harris, 29, from Swindon, Wiltshire
  • Sgt Ronald Kennedy, 22, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne
  • Sgt John Francis James McCaw, 20, from Belleville, Ontario, Canada
  • Sgt Leonard Richard James Shrubsall, 30, from Iwade, Kent

Margot McLeod, the niece of Flight Officer Farrington, said: "It is so important for us, and for our mother - Harry was all the family she had, so she now knows where he is.

"He got married before he died and his wife was my godmother, so she used to talk to me about Harry - I feel like we knew him.

"Mom has always talked about him too and his picture hangs in her house.

"She keeps him so close in her heart and is so thankful that she now knows the story of what happened to him and that he has a resting place."

Eastern Daily Press: A memorial for the crew of Stirling BK716A memorial for the crew of Stirling BK716 (Image: Sgt Samantha Crow)

Geert Bekaert, of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: "It is a privilege for us to care for the lasting resting place, at Jonkerbos War Cemetery, of those who gave their lives in March 1943.

"While it has not been possible to individually recover and identify them, the names of all seven crew members of RAF Stirling BK716 are engraved on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, honoured there in perpetuity."


Dutch divers exploring Lake Markemeer found a small wooden elephant at the bottom.

The BK716 was part of the No. 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron.

The British Gold Coast, now Ghana, was a British colony at the time.

The flag of the Gold Coast had a picture of an elephant on it.

Many of the crew members of aircraft belonging to the No. 218 Squadron carried a small elephant as a personal mascot.