Airmen live on, in story and legend

Published November 1, 1999

‘perished as though they had never been’

IN THE ENGLISH VILLAGE of Lane End, 30 miles from London, I recently dedicated the village’s new granite war memorial.

And what was I doing there?

The parish had invited me several times, but this was the first time I could accept. They invited me because John Peers, my great-great-great-grandfather, was the first vicar of Lane End, and he and his wife Martha are buried in the churchyard.

This invitation also had a special Canadian significance.

The village had not had a “real” memorial to the war dead of the 20th century. There was a wooden plaque in the entranceway to the village hall, but it was showing signs of wear.

And they wanted to add to their heroes the names of seven Canadians whom they had never met, but who died to save their lives.

Three older villagers, children during the war, told me the story as they had witnessed it.

In April 1945 an RCAF bomber set out from a Yorkshire airfield on a mission over Germany. The mission was aborted because clouds rendered the target invisible, so the crew headed home. But the bomber had been hit and, as they got closer to England, they realized they could not make it to Yorkshire.

They headed for one of the “defence of London” airfields. As they neared Booker field, close to Lane End, it became clear their plane was in serious trouble.

At about 2:45 a.m., villagers heard the sound of a plane heading straight for them. People rushed outside and saw the plane about to crash in their village. At the last minute the pilot managed to manoeuvre the plane just beyond the village and it crashed in the woods.

All seven airmen died. All were aged 19 or 20; none married, so with them died their posterity.

Lane Enders have always believed that the heroism of the airmen saved the village. And after all the years they wanted to include the RCAF names among their own offspring who died in their defence. So the memorial has three lists of names ? “1914-1918,” “1939-1945” and “RCAF.”

I thought of Ecclesiasticus 44, the great hymn in honour of the ancestors, which speaks of those who have no memorial but live on in their descendants.

These heroes have a memorial but no descendants.

They live on in the stories of people who never knew them, but feel that the village owes its life to them. And even when all who were in Lane End in 1945 have themselves died, the Canadian airmen will live on in story and legend.

Each of our lives is set in a Lane End, shaped by decisions and sacrifices of people we never knew, people whose heroism we know nothing of. Sometimes they are people we thought we knew, but whose real struggles and depths escaped us.

Lane End will look at the list of such men, known names of unknown people, for as long as the granite endures.

(On that day I also learned the full story of ancestors known to me by name only, the remarkable courage of John and Martha Peers in going to Lane End 200 years ago and of their sacrificial ministry, a story unknown to our family historians. But that’s for another time.)

Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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