A young air gunner from Lambeth, Eric Kirby, was among the crew of a Lancaster bomber shot down by the Germans after a raid on a railway yard in June 1944. All seven on board the plane died as it crashed into a French field. Also among the crew was Sergeant A D Hawkins, whose best friend’s son, PAUL STRONG, has spent decades trying to find any of Eric Kirby’s family – because they are the last link in a chain which regularly marks the sacrifice of that crew. Here, Paul also appeals to anyone who can help track the family down Eric’s family.
On the night of June 22-23, 1944, a Lancaster bomber was returning from bombing the Rheims railway yards in occupied France – its 10th mission.
But it would never make it back to base. It was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire over the small village of Belloy to the west of Paris.
All seven crew of LM102 UM-Z2 of 626 Squadron, which was based at RAF Wickenby, Lincolnshire, were killed.
They lie buried in a communal Commonwealth War Grave in the village churchyard.
Their average age was 21, the pilot just 20 and the flight engineer A D Hawkins was my father’s best friend.
In recognition of the sacrifice of these brave men, the Mayor and villagers of Belloy hold an annual service of remembrance. Over time, as the villagers have discovered and contacted the relatives of the crew, the families still attend the annual memorials, 75 years after that tragic crash.
But until now, only six of the families of the seven crew have been able to share their pride in the sacrifice of their relations with their ever thankful French compatriots.
The memorials culminated in an impressive and emotional 75th Memorial commemoration and reception in 2019. Among those at that ceremony was Lucille, aged 94 who, as a girl, watched the flaming aircraft circle to avoid hitting her village, crash and blow up into her father’s field.
The trauma of finding the remains of the dead airmen still haunts her to this day. But, to our continuing frustration and sadness one of the crew remains to be remembered and his relations located, despite exhaustive research by both French and English parts of the story.
There is scant information on the life and family of the one remaining crew member whose relatives have not been traced, so that they can attend the next memorial.
Eric Raymond Sidney Kirby – a sergeant and air gunner, whose identity number was RAFVR (1860956). Unlike the rest of the crew there is but scant information on Sergeant Kirby.
The little that is known is that he was 21, born in Lambeth in 1923 and that, from at least 1939 and possibly earlier, he lived with his parents in Milton Road, Lambeth.
His uncle, Henry Kirby, lived next door and there may have been another occupant, a Charles Sydney Niven.
The other information is from his death citation, which reads: “Son of Sydney and Elizabeth (nee: Paxton) Kirby of Herne Hill.”
It is notable that all the members of the crew were sergeants.
It was 1944 and the RAF were rapidly running out of men. Apparently RAF Bomber Command rules dictated that only officers could be pilots or sit in the right seat, for the flight engineer.
The staff told Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who was through most of the war Air Officer Commander-in-Chief. To which he replied rather testily: “Well make them all damn officers then!”
The most poignant of these photos is the one of Sgt Woolley, the pilot – he was 20 years old, exuberant, happy and full of life. Cut short all too soon. What a bloody waste.
Although it is over 75 years ago and but a dim memory perhaps there is a friend, neighbour or even next of kin in the area of Herne Hill who has some memory of Eric Kirby or his family.
Everyone connected with the memory of this tragic event would be overjoyed if this brave but as yet forgotten man, ‘the final link in the chain’, could be recognized and acknowledged.
One irony is that the RAF Military Records/Disclosures department do have the details which would lead to contacts with Sergeant Kirby relatives but because of the Data Protection Act they are prohibited from releasing these to other than next of kin – yet these are the very people who I am trying to contact.
A Catch-22 situation. These seven heroes, who gave their life in defence of our freedoms, lie together in a French war grave and it would complete their memory to be able to unite all their relatives and descendants together in joint remembrance.
I am making this appeal that if, by chance there is anyone in the Herne Hill area who may have any information, however small, I would be most grateful if they would contact me on 0167 3 82 8911 or 07984 309 592 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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