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Pilgrim stumbles upon graves of three Bristol Blenheim bomber crew members from RAF Watton killed in action during the Second World War

PUBLISHED: 08:15 22 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:15 22 May 2017

Bristol Blenheims from the 82 Squadron line up at RAF Watton. Picture: Archant Library

Bristol Blenheims from the 82 Squadron line up at RAF Watton. Picture: Archant Library

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While visiting a small French village Peter Walsh did not think he would find the graves of three brave servicemen who were stationed at a Norfolk airfield.

The graves of Aircraftman Alfred Sims, Flight Lieutenant George Watson (pilot) and Sergeant Francis Wootten, in a churchyard in Presles-et-Thierny, near Laon, in northern France. The men served at RAF Watton and their Blenheim Bomber was one of 11 which was brought on the way to the raid of Gembloux, Belgium, On May 17 1940. Picture: Peter WalshThe graves of Aircraftman Alfred Sims, Flight Lieutenant George Watson (pilot) and Sergeant Francis Wootten, in a churchyard in Presles-et-Thierny, near Laon, in northern France. The men served at RAF Watton and their Blenheim Bomber was one of 11 which was brought on the way to the raid of Gembloux, Belgium, On May 17 1940. Picture: Peter Walsh

Mr Walsh, from near North Walsham, was taking on the Canterbury to Rome pilgrimage Via Francigena - which he changed to include a visit to some of the battlefields - when he visited a church in Presles-et-Thierny, in northern France.

In the churchyard he saw the graves of Aircraftman Alfred Sims, Flight Lieutenant George Watson (pilot) and Sergeant Francis Wootten, who had served in the 82nd Squadron at RAF Watton during the Second World War.

The burial at Vadum near Aalborg, Denmark, of the 20 men who were killed on the Aalborg raid when 11 Blenheim Bombers from RAF Watton were shot out the sky. Picture: RAFWatton.infoThe burial at Vadum near Aalborg, Denmark, of the 20 men who were killed on the Aalborg raid when 11 Blenheim Bombers from RAF Watton were shot out the sky. Picture: RAFWatton.info

Their Bristol Blenheim bomber was one of 12 which left the airfield to attack German troops at Gembloux in Belgium as they pushed towards France. on On May 17 1940, 11 of the bombers were shot down - one returned to Watton but it was badly damaged and written off.

Around 22 men are believed to have lost their lives.

A Bristol Blenheim bomber of the 82 squadron at RAF Watton in July 1940. Picture: RAFWatton.infoA Bristol Blenheim bomber of the 82 squadron at RAF Watton in July 1940. Picture: RAFWatton.info

Mr Walsh said: “It was an amazing coincidence and poignant that these three graves were in this French village. It is very isolated and there cannot be many visitors from Norfolk I imagine.

“The RAF graves are especially poignant for me as my father flew Mosquito bombers, as a navigator, towards the end of the war.”

Blenheim Bombers UX-W at RAF Watton. This bomber was the only plane of 12 which returned from a raid on Gembloux, Belgium on May 17 1940. It was badly damaged and written-off. Picture: RAFWatton.infoBlenheim Bombers UX-W at RAF Watton. This bomber was the only plane of 12 which returned from a raid on Gembloux, Belgium on May 17 1940. It was badly damaged and written-off. Picture: RAFWatton.info

The Air Ministry wanted to disband the squadron after the incident but it was rebuilt.

However, just a few months after the Gembloux tragedy the unthinkable happened again.

On August 13 on a raid to Aalborg, Denmark, 11 of the 12 bombers from the 82nd squadron were lost. Six were taken out by German anti-aircraft guns and five by fighter planes - 20 men lost their lives.

One bomber had returned to the base after running low on fuel as it reached the Danish coast.

Julian Horn, a local historian and founder of the website RAFWatton.info, said: “There was no fighter cover. At this time of the war, before the Battle of Britain, things were pretty dire. It was a bad time.

“The Blenheim bomber suffered huge loses. It was to be referred to as the forgotten bomber. It was all the RAF had to carry the war to the enemy. To keep morale high loses were not publicised.”

He added: “I don’t know of any other squadron that this happened to. The squadron just carried on.”

To learn more about the history of RAF click here

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