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Ontario airmen lost in Second World War bombing raid to be laid to rest

Click to play video: 'Canadian mystery solved by recovery of WWII bomber in the Netherlands' Canadian mystery solved by recovery of WWII bomber in the Netherlands
WATCH: Canadian mystery solved by recovery of WWII bomber in the Netherlands – May 7, 2021

It spent more than seven decades at the bottom of lake in the Netherlands, but a small piece of metal recovered recently from a long-lost Royal Air Force bomber is now an important part of Fiona Williams’ family history.

It’s a part of the fuselage of BK 716, a Short Sterling bomber shot down March 29, 1943. Williams’ uncle, Harry Farrington, was a member of the crew.

“It’s something that you have that’s tangible,” Williams says. “It’s something you can hold in your hand, and you know he touched it.”

Fiona Williams, niece or Harry Farrington, with a part of the fuselage of BK 716. Screengrab from video shot by Trevor Owens.

The wreckage of BK 716 was found in 2008 when it was snagged accidentally by a fisherman’s anchor. For years, investigators believed they had found a different bomber, BK 710. Forensic analysis of a part of the tail proved it was Farrington’s aircraft.

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There were seven men on the aircraft when it went down in Lake Markermeer, east of Amsterdam. There were five British airmen onboard and two Canadians.

The crew of BK 716, left to right: Sgt. Ronald Kennedy (flight engineer), Sgt. Charles Bell (bomb aimer), F/O John Michael Campbell (radio operator), F/O John Harris (pilot), F/O Harry Farrington (navigator), F/Sgt John McCaw (tail gunner), Sgt. Leonard Shrubsall (mid-upper gunner). Courtesy: Veterans Affairs Canada. Courtesy: Veterans Affairs Canada

Flight Sgt. John Francis McCaw of Belleville, Ont., was only 20 years old. He’d been in Europe as part of the war effort for less than a year. McCaw was the rear-gunner on the doomed flight.

John Francis James McCaw. Courtesy: Veterans Affairs Canada.

Flying Officer Harry Gregory Farrington grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont. He was 24 years old and worked in banking.

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“His bank manager came to the house and said, ‘Make him stay, he doesn’t have to go,'” Williams says. “He said, ‘No, all my friends are going. I need to go and do my duty.'”

Photo of Harry Gregory Farrington – Aug. 4, 1942. Courtesy: Veterans Affairs Canada.

The aircraft appears to have broken up when it crashed into the lake. Debris was spread over about 75 square meters.

The Dutch government financed the recovery over several weeks in September and October of 2020. A crane on a barge was used to grab debris and silt off the bottom and bring it to the surface. From there it was put on a conveyor belt, sprayed, and then sifted through by the recovery team.

BK 716 recovery operation in Lake Markermeer. Courtesy: Dutch Ministry of Defence.

According to the Aircraft Recovery Group, the operation recovered some of the crew’s personal effects, part of the fuselage, the landing gears and all four of the aircraft’s engines.

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It also recovered human remains.

Experts from the Royal Netherlands Army will analyze the remains in an effort to identify them. Once that’s done, they’ll be buried together as a crew in the Netherlands by the Commonwealth Graves Commission.

BK 716 recovery operation in Lake Markermeer. Courtesy: Dutch Ministry of Defence.

Edith McLeod was a teenager when her brother Harry was lost without a trace. Williams says she was happier than her mother when they found out the mystery of the disappearance had been solved. It had simply been too long.

“I don’t think she actually believed it at first,” Fiona Williams says. “She didn’t believe they had found him.”

There is no date as of yet for the burial of the crew. It has already been delayed due to COVID-19. The municipality of Almere hopes to be able to hold a memorial service with the families of the fallen soldiers in attendance in October.

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Whenever it happens, Williams says she’ll make the trip to Europe with her 95-year-old mother. Missing it isn’t an option.

“Regardless of the risk at her age, it would be worth it,” Williams says. “I think it’s something she wants to do for closure.”

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