The fate of an RAF airman who was lost in a Second World War bombing raid has been uncovered in an aircraft excavation in Belgium 71 years later.
Flying Officer Holman Gordon Stanley Kerr, from Lurgan, was one of a crew of seven who all perished when their Lancaster aircraft was shot down in Belgium on its return from a bombing raid on Germany in March 1945. Several bodies were recovered from the downed aircraft at the time and buried in a communal grave with seven headstones at Heverlee War Cemetery, but the remains of Flying Officer Kerr were never identified.
Earlier this year, a special team scanned the area to identify the exact location of the Lancaster and this weekend they excavated the aircraft from the soft ground where it had crashed, under the strict guidance of the RAF, Royal Australian Air Force and the Belgian Air Force.
History Hub Ulster member Gavin Bamford was at the dig in a personal capacity to ensure that the remaining crew are buried with dignity and full RAF honours in Heverlee cemetery.
He said the team have uncovered the remains of three of the crew and judging by their position in the aircraft, they were probably the Australian, Jamaican and one of the English crew members.
This throws new light on the burials carried out in 1945, suggesting that four bodies were retrieved but not identified, including that of Flying Officer Kerr. All four were buried in Heverlee cemetery in a group grave.
The bodies recovered over the weekend will now be buried with full RAF honours in the same cemetery.
“Locals in Bunsbeek, Belgium, have known about this ‘shot down’ aircraft for the past 71 years and all are excited over the project to excavate it from the ground,” Mr Bamford said.
“All seven crew on the plane perished, including the Lurgan born pilot, Holman Gordon S Kerr, son of Mr and Mrs J Kerr, Lurgan.
“Gordon Kerr was formerly a junior official with the Belfast Banking Company and served in Rathfriland branch. The Belfast Banking Company merged with Northern Bank in 1970 and now trades as Danske Bank.”
Gordon Kerr was educated at Lurgan College from September 3, 1934 until July 31, 1940.
Soon after leaving school, he joined the Belfast Banking Company and worked in its Rathfriland branch.
During the war, he was stationed at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridge. On the night of March 5, 1945, the crew flew their Lancaster bomber aircraft on an operation to Gelsenkirchen, a benzol plant, and it was shot down over Belgium.
Witnesses of the crash said the plane disappeared nose down into soggy ground. But years later it was still possible to see marks in the meadow, indicating the last resting place of the huge plane, which had a length of 21 metres, height of six metres and wingspan of 31 metres.
Experts believed the wet ground may have preserved the craft over the last 70 years and the bombs it carried may still lie in the subsoil.
In the search for the craft, they used sonar technology to scan to a depth of eight metres. Mr Bamford said that the weekend excavation of the RAF Lancaster went well, although the aircraft was buried in fuel-soaked clay and this has made the excavation conditions difficult.
“The locals were very respectful of the job they were doing and at all times treated the remains with much dignity. My photos show the small coffins draped with the Australian and United Kingdom flags,” he said.
“This exercise has helped to show that the remains of Pilot Officer Gordon Kerr were discovered at the time of the crash, but were unidentifiable.”
The seven crew were F/O Holman Gordon Stanley Kerr, Sgt. William Marsden, F/Sgt. Sidney Smith, F/O Frank Clarke, F/Sgt. Allan Olsen, Sgt. Christopher George Hogg and Sgt. Herbert Percival Thomas.
The excavation was attended by the British and Australian ambassadors to Belgium and the excavation was carried out by Plane Hunters Recovery Team, assisted by many groups and volunteers.