RAF dead not forgotten in Spain's African outpost

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The Independent Online
FOR NEARLY half a century people in the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the North African coast have lovingly tended the graves of 10 RAF men, killed 49 years ago today.

In all that time, no relatives were known to have reached the graves of the servicemen, killed when their Catalina flying boat crashed in a thunderstorm while hunting a German U-boat.

Last month, the British military attache in Madrid visited Melilla on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. When he returned to the Spanish capital with photographs of the flyers' marble tombstone, an embassy colleague, the press attache, Roy Osborne, realised that one of the crew - Harry Roy Keen - was the uncle after whom he had been named. Mr Osborne's mother, Jean Osborne now of Cumnor, Oxford, had often told him that her brother, then 19, had died near Melilla and was buried there.

When news of a living connection with the RAF men got back to the Spanish enclave, it was greeted with great joy. The flyers were buried in 1944 with full military honours by sympathetic members of the Spanish air force. Their funeral turned into a dramatic though silent gesture of defiance against the pro-Hitler Franco regime in Madrid. The entire population of Melilla turned out in mourning but declined to join civic dignitaries in the fascist salute.

A local Melilla shop owner, and part-time war historian, Manuel Cuenca, invited Mr Osborne, his mother and his aunt to a memorial ceremony at Melilla's Cemetery of the Immaculate Conception and took them to visit the site of the crash, just across the border in Morocco. A retired Spanish serviceman, Domingo Martinez, described how he had helped to retrieve the bodies despite exploding ordnance.

When Mrs Osborne arrived for the Melilla service, a woman rushed up and embraced her. She was Maria Isabel Garcaran de la Pena, whose family had looked after the tomb through three generations.

The Spanish Legion, based nearby, provided a guard of honour as local civil and church authorities, and the Spanish army, navy and air force paid homage to the airmen. A volley of shots was fired over their graves and the Union flag, with those of Melilla and Spain, was given to the Osborne family.

Harry Keen's family have been unable to find relatives of the other eight Britons and one New Zealander who died. But the authorities and people of Melilla have offered to hold further memorial services.