Pathfinder Funerals at Cambridge City Cemetery, December 1943

After Black Thursday, 16/17 December 1943, the bodies of those who had been killed were either escorted back to their home for burial, or interred at Cambridge City Cemetery where there was a special war graves section. All the dead Dominion aircrew were buried there, it not being possible to send them home. Photographs were taken of the funeral and of the coffins, to send back to the relatives and show them that the dead had been buried with full military honours.

The multiple coffins were brought into the cemetery in solemn procession, each squadron having its own ceremony. The photographs below apparently show the arrival of the funeral procession for members of 405 Squadron, which was based at Gransden Lodge, very close to Bourn. One of those being buried was Bob Bessent, a Canadian, and it is from his family’s collection that the two photographs below are taken.  (With thanks to William Francis Bessent and Jane Pilling-Cormick. Their account of Bob Bessent’s life will be added to the website shortly.)

In a letter dated 24 December 1943, sent to Bob Bessent’s parents, Group Captain Fauquier described the funeral in some detail.  The coffins, covered with a Union Jack, were carried by fellow airmen, accompanied by a firing party.  As the coffins were lowered, the Last Post was sounded.  Wreaths were sent from the officers of the Squadron, the senior NCOs and the airmen.  Temporary wooden crosses were erected and permanent gravestones were to be set up at a later time.

The coffins of Tony Lawrence and Sandy Grant
from the Thackway crew

A number of British families elected to have their relative buried at Cambridge City Cemetery at the same time. In the case of 97 Squadron, this included Squadron Leader Duncan Forbes Mackenzie and Robert Anthony Lawrence, the mid-upper gunner on the Thackway crew, who was laid to rest next to his crew mate, Leslie Kenneth Alexander Grant, who came from Canada.

The extraordinarily moving photographs of the graves come from the book of 97 Squadron memorabilia collected by by F/Lt (later to become S/Ldr) Hind who was Adjutant for 97 squadron from 1941 to 1945.

On Wednesday, 22nd December 1943, 97 Squadron’s ORB noted of the funeral of its men: “Today S/L Mackenzie, Sgt Lawrence and six dominion aircrew who were killed on the 17th December were buried at CAMBRIDGE, the Station Commander, Squadron Commander, some officers and aircrew NCOs attended. The twenty other personnel were conveyed to their various home towns for burial, a representative of the Squadron was in attendance in each case.”

The small group of three civilian mourners in one of the photographs are Tony Lawrence’s mother, Peggy, and his grandparents Pang and Mabel Burroughes.

Tony Lawrence’s mother, Peggy,
with his grandparents who brought him up, standing before his coffin

A larger-scale photograph of the massed coffins gives a better idea of the tragic extent of the losses incurred on Black Thursday. The names on the coffins nearest to the viewer, at the bottom of the first photograph, can be read as that of Sandy (L.K.A., Leslie Kenneth Alexander) Grant and Tony (R.A. Robert Anthony) Lawrence. Beyond them is the coffin of F/S Scott, who died with all his crew at Graveley.

It appears that 97 Squadron held their service ahead of 405 Squadron because the photograph of the mass grave is empty beyond the 97 Squadron coffins, leaving room for those which followed from 405 Squadron. The flowers on Tony Lawrence’s coffin were almost certainly brought by his family.

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