On 6 July 1940, a flight of three Wellington Bombers including a type IC, Identification code R3236 crewed by Flying Officer Douglas Lindsay, Pilot Officer Ralph Ball, Sergeant Alexander Aitken, Sergeant Jack Waterfall DFM* and Sergeant Alexander Glen of RAF 37 Squadron took off from RAF Feltwell near Thetford in Norfolk. Their mission was a bombing raid over Bremen, Emden and Wilhelmshaven in Northern Germany. However cloud cover over the target cause the mission to be aborted. The last signal from R3236 was sent from near to Borkum (SW of the Friesland Islands). There was then radio silence and the plane did not return to base.
The families of the crew were informed of the plane’s failure to return and it was assumed that the plane had ditched over the North Sea. Five families were left to grieve over the unknown fate these young men until 1948 when a letter from the MOD confirmed that the plane had been shot down over Jever airbase and the bodies of the crew had been interred in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Sage near Oldenburg. The family of Sgt Alec Aitken did not find out until 1952 the exact circumstances of the crash as they had moved house and the letters from the Air Ministry were not forwarded.
A contemporary photo of the Wreckage of R3236 in Upjever Forest
However that is not the end of the story: A chance search by Caroline Kesseler and Jack Waterfall (relatives of Sgt Jack Waterfall), revealed that the plane had indeed crashed in the forest at Upjever as, it is thought, it was trying to land at Jever airbase (opened in May 1937, ironically the same month that 37 Squadron arrived at RAF Feltwell). The website they found contained contemporary photos of the crash site and, they were stunned to see a photo of the internment on 9th July in the Jever cemetery, of the remains of the crew, with full military honours. Their grave was marked by a tribute from the Commander of the Jever airbase with the inscription ‘To the Brave Enemy’. An anonymous entry in the town’s burial register states that the shot down aircraft was works number 51356 and belonged to the 37 Squadron. Military Chaplain Ronneberger took the service.
The funeral of the crew of R3236 in Jever Cemetery with full military honours by the German army
The remains of the crew were subsequently moved to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery just outside Sage.
Picture of the original cross marking the crew’s grave at Sage Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
Contact was made with the people of Jever and a huge interest in the story of R3236 was revealed. A friendship sprang up and over the following months, intense research led Caroline and Jack to the families of F/O Lindsay and P/O Ball.
In July 2015 ceremonies were held at Jever and at the Bomber Command Memorial at Ely Cathedral, 30 miles from RAF Feltwell, to mark the 75th anniversary of the crash. A poignant experience for the families as they remembered these young men, never to be fathers or grandfathers. Interest in the project grew and in September 2015, the families gathered at Brooklands Museum, Surrey where the only surviving Wellington Bomber on display is located. Although the plane is in a very fragile condition, Brooklands Museum allowed the families to board the plane. It was a sobering experience and brought home the depth of bravery of the young men who flew these planes.
The research by Caroline and Jack continued and, after much searching, they managed to track down the families of Sgt Aitken and Sgt Glen.
That might have been the end of the project but to mark the 80th anniversary of the Jever airbase, the German Air Force Protection Regiment contacted the families to say that they would like to install a permanent memorial to the crew of R3236. A memorial stone was commissioned and, before installation at a ceremony on 24 June, the stone will travel to various location around Great Britain, linked to members of the crew, to remember these young men. These acts of remembrance will start at Ely Cathedral on 24 April and will include a special service at Edinburgh Castle at which representatives of all five families will be present.
*Distinguished Flying Medal