Pathfinder Funerals at Cambridge City Cemetery, December 1943

bessent twins funeral 2

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 photograph above apparently shows 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 photograph is taken.  (With thanks to William Francis Bessent and Jane Pilling-Cormick.)

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.

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 small group of three civilian mourners to the right of the clergyman in black, in the picture below, are Tony Lawrence’s mother, Peggy, and his grandparents Pang and Mabel Burroughes.


The extraordinarily moving photographs of the graves come from the book of 97 Squadron memorabilia collected by Flight Lieutenant 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.”

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.