Saturday, 17 November 2018

WHITIANGA WEATHER

The role of Whitianga and Tairua in a World War II memorial in the Netherlands

By Suzanne Hansen

Unbeknown to many, the Coromandel Penininsula, and Whitianga and Tairua specifically, played an important part in the establishment of a World War II memorial in the Dutch village of Bentelo.

Two New Zealanders, Sergeant Leonard Edward Moss, aged 28, from Wellington and Flight Sergeant Glen Allen Smith, aged 24, from Auckland, and their five British colleagues who made up the crew of Stirling MK.I W7624/E, were lost over the eastern part of the Netherlands on the night of the 27 August 1942. The crew were on an ill-fated bombing mission to Kassel in eastern Germany. They were part of a fleet of 306 bombers on a mission from which 33 did not return.

The body of Flight Sergeant Smith was found first. He was thought to have jumped from the plane, the victim of a parachute that didn’t open. He was interred in the cemetery in the village of Delden, along with two other unidentified crew members who were likely thrown from the plane when it crashed. The four other crew members were unaccounted for.

The plane fuselage lay mostly buried approximately four metres deep for more than 60 years, but had to be unearthed due to the danger posed by the estimated four unexploded bombs that we rumoured to be on board. The bombs, although old and crystalised, could still explode with a catastrophic outcome.  

In April 2005, a Dutch Army recovery team contracted an excavation company to carefully excavate the crash site. Hand tools were used near the estimated location of the bombs. In May 2005, three very heavy unexploded bombs were found (the fourth bomb is thought to have been dropped from the plane). Human remains, which were confirmed to be the four unaccounted airmen, were also found.

The embassy of the United Kingdom in the Netherlands and the Royal Air Force set about searching for the crew’s surviving families so that the remains could be buried with full military honours. Unfortunately exact identification of the individual remains was impossible, so the RAF decided to bury all of the airmen in one location, as was the method approved by the Geneva Convention.

Through much diligence, the families of all the crew, including the two from New Zealand, were located and it was decided to re-inter the airmen with full military honours in Delden.  The funeral was set for 31 August 2006 and would include all of the airmen’s next of kin, local and international dignitaries and invited guests. There was to be a church service followed by a re-interment service and flyover, followed by a reception. Later in the afternoon, close to the location in Bentelo where the crew’s plane went down, a memorial would be unveiled.

The idea of a memorial originated with Hans Koolhoven of the Hengelo Lions Club in the Netherlands. He suggested to the wider Lions zone of the area that they design and create a memorial for the airmen, close to the crash site. The Lions club of the nearby village of Goor took the initiative and embarked on making the memorial a reality.

They chose a site in Bentelo, within view of the crash site and adjacent to a popular bicycle route.  Approval for the memorial was granted by the relevant local authorities. After some debate, a final design by architect and member of the Goor Lions Club, Henk Veltkamp, was approved. 

Outside of New Zealander Glen Smith, all of the other crew members remained unidentified, so the memorial would be the only place in the Netherlands where the names of all seven the airmen would be found together.

The memorial design included two large stones, one from New Zealand and one from the United Kingdom, fixed to a plinth built by the Netherlands, with a plaque donated by the Royal Dutch Navy.    

Soon after finalisation of the design, Whitianga local, Gordon Barnaby, then District Governor of Lions District 202A (New Zealand and the Pacific Islands), received an email from his counterpart in the Netherlands, Ernest Plooij, asking the New Zealand Lions network to source an appropriate New Zealand stone and arrange transport of the stone to the Netherlands.

The New Zealand “rock” was organised by Lion David Hooker from Tairua Quarry, whose manager also fortuitously had connections in the Netherlands. The stone was an 822kg greywacke rock.

Transport of the stone to the Netherlands was not an easy feat. The first part of the rock’s journey to Mt Manganui was made with the help of Hopper Construction, and David Hooker. Peter Burch of the Eden-Epsom Lions Club and President of the New Zealand Air Force Association prevailed upon his brother in Mt Manganui, who is a shipping agent, to work out how they were going to get the large stone to the Netherlands. Once there the Dutch Lions would move the rock to the memorial site in Bentelo. 

Peter’s brother organised for a Zespri charter, MV Ditlev Lauritzen, which was full of kiwifruit and bound for Europe, to make room for the stone. Once the stone arrived in Zeebrugge in Belgium, the kiwifruit stevedores got it off the ship and processed it free of charge. From there the rock was transported by the Dutch Lions to the memorial site.

Essentially the strong Lions network of New Zealand and Holland got the rock to its final destination at minimal cost. Such was not the case of the rock coming from the much closer United Kingdom, which was said to have cost several thousand pounds to get to the memorial site. This is testament to the purpose and tenacity of the Lions network. 

As planned, the memorial was unveiled on 31 August 2006. Nine members of the New Zealand Moss family, along with five members of the New Zealand Smith family, together with Gordon Barnaby and his wife, Diana, attended the unveiling.

Back in New Zealand, Gordon said his he was touched by the significance of the memorial for the families of the seven airmen who were lost on the night of 27 August 1942. “For me the most amazing moment was at the unveiling of the memorial, when all the New Zealanders present spontaneously started singing the New Zealand national anthem,” he said. “Since then the anthem has meant so much more to me whenever it is played or sung.”

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