Final answers revealed to lost war hero's story

MORE than 65 years ago, seven airmen, including a flight engineer from Yorkshire, climbed aboard a Lancaster Bomber at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire to carry out a Second World War raid on a German oil refinery.

It was March 6, 1945 – just a few weeks before the end of the conflict in Europe – and 119 aircraft had been assembled by Bomber Command for the attack near the town of Salzbergen, in the north of the country.

While 118 of the aircraft returned safely, Lancaster Bomber JI-T was lost when it blew up over the target, and little was known of the fate of its crew, including Billy Watson, 20, from Elsecar, near Rotherham.

Watson's family, and those of his comrades, were told that their sons and husbands had been lost, but senior officers provided them with no further information about what had happened to their bodies.

Decades later their graves were traced through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to the nearby Reichswald Forest war cemetery, which was created when bodies of Allied servicemen were brought in from all over Germany.

After that, the trail again went cold on how the crew were found and how their bodies got to the cemetery.

But last month, an announcement from Salzbergen answered questions which had puzzled relatives for half a century.

It emerged that the people of the town had decided to erect a memorial to seven Allied airmen who had been found near the town and who were temporarily buried by the community before being moved to a war cemetery.

Billy Watson's cousin Brian Walker, who lives in South Hiendley, near Wakefield, heard about the memorial when reading about a Bomber Command Association Appeal, and said he was "stunned" when he realised what it meant.

He said: "We knew that Billy had been on the flight, and we knew that it had been blown up over the target.

"We knew that his body had finally ended up at the war cemetery. But there were huge gaps in the story of the crew.

"The family had been trying to find out what had happened to Billy after the explosion for years and I was amazed that the case had suddenly resurfaced and all the questions were answered."

Mr Walker said the residents of Salzbergen had in fact known the story of what happened to the crew of JI-T for generations, but the link had never been made between the town and the relatives of the lost men back in Britain.

Once plans were drawn up for the memorial, German community leaders decided to share the story of how the crew died.

Mr Walker said the fact that the crew had been found and given a decent burial by the Germans, who had been under attack, had moved all the families involved, and that a memorial was now planned was even more amazing.

He added that the crew included two Canadians, an Australian and three other British servicemen, and said all family members who had been contacted were delighted to finally find out what had become of their war heroes.

The 72-year-old said: "All the family could ever say about Billy was that he was killed during the war. It was just accepted that Billy had died but at first nobody knew where he was, or what happened. Now the Germans have been able to tell us everything.

"Apparently, one of the bodies fell through the roof of a barn and landed on top of a cow and the others were found near the site of the explosion. A lot of Germans were killed in the raid, but that didn't stop them treating the crew with respect."

Mr Walker, a retired art teacher, said some of the families of the men who were lost had already visited the site where the crew were first laid to rest, and said he planned to also visit the site in the near future.

Yorkshire's secret army unveiled...

THEY were the covert band of Yorkshire men and women who volunteered to fulfil Churchill's promise to "fight in the hills" in the event of a Nazi invasion.

More than half a century after they signed the Official Secrets Act, a handful have finally revealed their roles as would-be guerrillas against Hitler's armies.

Their remarkable stories has been told by retired broadcaster Ron Freethy in his book Yorkshire, The Secret War, which reveals the lengths the Government went to prepare civilians for an invasion.

It reveals how sabotage teams were organised and a covert army formed from Yorkshire miners, farmers, foresters, postmen, gamekeepers and poachers, who were to live off the land and kill Germans as and when they could.

Among them was Eric Halsall, presenter of TV's One Man and His Dog, who told the author before his death in 1996: "We all had to sign the Official Secrets Act and make two lists. The first list was of old mines which could be used to hide specially trained troops of what later became the Home Guard. The second was of young, fit miners who understood explosives."