Spitfire pilot laid to rest at last

After 52 years, the mystery of a flyer's death is solved, report Graham Ball and Julie Wheelwright
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The Independent Online
To The melancholy sound of the Last Post, played on a bugle, Squadron Leader George Reid was buried with full military honours in Belgium on Friday. Senior officers and representatives of two governments witnessed the burial of the Spitfire pilot who died in the closing stages of the Second World War - and the end of a remarkable wartime mystery.

For, 30 miles away, another grave had always been thought of as the resting place of Sqn Ldr Reid by his family. The tombstone was marked with his name. Last year an investigation began which proved that the airman who was buried more than 50 years ago was not Sqn Ldr Reid at all.

The chain of events that led to Friday's funeral in the Canadian military cemetery in Adegen, north Belgium, began last year in the neighbouring Flemish town of Maldegem.

A local newspaper recalled the crash of a Spitfire in late 1944, just as the town was being liberated. People thought the pilot had baled out and been captured by the Germans. Local historian Frank Raeman was contacted by the farmer who owned the field where the plane was thought to have come down and asked to investigate. Mr Raeman and a friend found fragments of the wrecked fighter plane. They returned with a mechanical digger and recovered parts of the fuselage and most of the cockpit, intact. It was then that they made the grim discovery.

"As soon as I saw the remains of the pilot still strapped into his seat, I called the local police and undertaker," said Mr Raeman. "We were all extremely upset." Once the body, which had no "dog tag", had been unearthed, the RAF became involved in trying to establish who the dead man was.

The first clue they had to work on was his rank, squadron leader, which was discernible from insignia on his uniform.

Sgt Philip Bush, assistant to the British military attache in Brussels, said: "We knew we were dealing with a Mk IX Spitfire. When the engine was recovered, we were able to read the manufacturer's plate and check with Rolls-Royce which batch it belonged to."

From a possible group of 600 Spitfires, Sgt Bush began a three-month trawl through RAF archives in an attempt to identify the plane and with it, the pilot. Meanwhile, as the fragments of the Spitfire were painstakingly re-assembled, so too was the personality of the man who died in its wreckage.

"We were very moved when one of my team discovered the squadron leader's personal washing kit stowed in the cockpit. It contained some pills to prevent drowsiness and his razor, complete with a blade," said Mr Raeman.

Eventually Sgt Bush narrowed the probable identity of the Spitfire down to one of three planes. "We kept coming across the name Sqn Ldr George Reid, but were forced to discount it because checks with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission revealed that he had been buried 30 miles away, in the village churchyard in Slipje, near Ostend." The search team seemed to have run up against insurmountable difficulties, when good fortune took a hand. A mangled panel covering the Spitfire's fuel tank was found to have a pencil-written note still attached.

"A rigger had written that this piece of the plane belonged to MK453 [the airframe serial number]. That identified the plane as belonging to 91 Squadron. We had found Sqn Ldr Reid's plane. There could be no doubt about it."

Examination of the squadron's operational records reveal that on the day of his death, October 28 , the 26 year-old had taken off from Biggin Hill, Kent, to escort bombers on a raid against the heavily defended Walcherea Island off the Belgian coast. The squadron returned without loss at 12.30pm. The Canadian-born officer was scrambled again at 2.50pm to join the escort of 250 bombers in an attack on Cologne.

All went well until they approached the Dutch/Belgian border. It then appears that George Reid, flying at a height of 200ft, flew into thick cloud and experienced some sort of instrument failure.

Sgt Bush said: "The operational log said 'entered low cloud and lost Sqn Ldr Reid due to some dicey cloud flying'."

The Spitfire crashed in marshy land. A ground crew recovery team, believing the pilot had baled out, bulldozed over the site. Subsequently another RAF pilot, who had crashed a few miles away at about the same time, was recovered, wrongly identified and buried as George Reid.

"This is a very unusual case,"said Gp Capt David Hencken, defence attache at the Belgian Embassy. "It is not appropriate to apportion any blame in this instance. You have to remember that 11,000 Allied planes came down over the low countries during the war. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission takes tremendous pains to establish correct identities, but it appears that in the fog of war, the co-ordinates recording the crash site became slightly mixed."

Last week the Ministry of Defence paid to fly Sqn Ldr Reid's only surviving relative, his brother John, 74, from California to attend the funeral.

"I found the ceremony extremely moving," he said. "It all happened so long ago, but standing next to the grave brought things I'd long forgotten back to my mind."

"When I first heard of this I was sure there had been a mistake, but now I'm satisfied that the right thing has been done.

"George was a thoughtful sort of person, totally dedicated to the RAF. It has been such a long time. I'm quite overwhelmed by the effect this seems to have had on so many people and the work that has gone in to establishing the truth. George would have liked that."

But while one mystery has been resolved, another remains: who is the dead airman in Slipje cemetery?

Frank Raeman said: "We think we may be able to discover who this other man is. These things are important. There are too many graves of unknown men in Belgium."