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Appeal to find family of Ilford airman shot down over Germany during Second World War

PUBLISHED: 14:58 26 September 2017 | UPDATED: 15:02 26 September 2017

Photograph of a Halifax bomber. Picture: Erik Wieman

Photograph of a Halifax bomber. Picture: Erik Wieman

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Sgt Robert Thomas Harden Kearnes was just 23 when his plane was shot down.

Artefacts from the plane. Picture: Erik Wieman Artefacts from the plane. Picture: Erik Wieman

The wireless operator, son of Ilford’s Charles and Nellie May Kearnes, was one of seven airmen killed when their Halifax bomber was attacked over a German village in 1943.

The crash site seemed lost to history, but has now been discovered by a team of researchers, who hope to track down descendants of the men and honour their sacrifice with a memorial stone.

IG Heimatforschung Rheinland-Pfalz (Historical Research Community Rhineland-Palatinate) is leading the excavation in collaboration with archaeologists.

Members are volunteers and local historians dedicated to exploring the history of Rhineland-Palatinate state up to the Second World War, with their modern research centred on finding and excavating “lost or almost forgotten” crash sites, and commemorating the affected air crews.

A half crown, dating from 1937, found at the site. Picture: Erik Wieman A half crown, dating from 1937, found at the site. Picture: Erik Wieman

“We often speak to witnesses of the Second World War,” said founder Erik Wieman. “They often have crucial information that makes it easier to find these crash sites.

“In a few years it will be much more difficult to find them because there will be no more eyewitnesses left. So we try to find as many sites as possible, before they are forever forgotten.

“We are looking for the family of Sgt Kearnes to inform them about our find, and our plans to plant a memorial stone after the excavation.”

Sgt Kearnes’s crew – flying in a Handley Page Halifax MK II bomber, of 10 Squadron the Royal Air Force – were shot down by a German night fighter (specifically the Messerschmitt Bf 110) over the small village of Waldsee, on the night of September 5/6, 1943, following an air raid on Mannheim.

The field photographed full of corn, before it was ploughed. Picture: Erik Wieman The field photographed full of corn, before it was ploughed. Picture: Erik Wieman

Five of the men were from the RAF, while the other two had been serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Despite the slim chances of spotting coins and personal belongings among the wreckage at such sites, the team have made some exciting discoveries.

A “very special find” is an RAF cap badge, which Mr Wieman said must have belonged to one of the English officers – Sgt Kearnes, Sgt Astin or Sgt Cooper.

“Unfortunately it is bent,” he told the Recorder. “Maybe because of the impact, or other reasons – for example ploughing the field – but all the finds will be registered and cleaned, even restored at the archaeological services of Speyer [town in Rhineland-Palatinate] and they will return it in almost the old state.”

Exploded ammunition, of which hundreds of pieces have been discovered at the site. Picture: Erik Wieman Exploded ammunition, of which hundreds of pieces have been discovered at the site. Picture: Erik Wieman

Other finds include a half penny dating from 1924, and a half crown (1937) handed in by a man who picked it up at the time of the crash, as an 11-year-old.

The coins “still show signs of the fire” and may have fallen on the ground when the bodies of the crew were recovered.

Small and large plane parts have also been discovered, along with exploded ammunition.

“The aircraft, according to local eyewitnesses, burned all night after the crash.

A 'very special' find: an RAF officer's cap badge. It could have belonged to Sgt Kearnes. Picture: Erik Wieman A 'very special' find: an RAF officer's cap badge. It could have belonged to Sgt Kearnes. Picture: Erik Wieman

“It still had two tanks of fuel aboard for the way back to the UK, and the ammunition exploded all night.”

The excavation is only in its initial stages, with researchers carefully scouring the site with metal detectors. Blue/white hues signal the presence of aluminium aircraft parts: the metal changes colour after being in the ground too long.

It is hoped that all seven families will be found before the memorial stone is placed.

“Often descendants do not have any details about what happened and where. We want to change that,” said Mr Wieman.

How the RAF cap badge would have looked. Picture: Erik Wieman How the RAF cap badge would have looked. Picture: Erik Wieman

“We also want to make these sites public, because passers-by often do not know about the historical relevance.

“In our eyes they are not only fields. These are special fields. And we do not want their names, the names of the airmen, to be forgotten. They paid the highest price for their country.”

Relatives of the crew, and anyone who can provide assistance to the project, are urged to get in touch by emailing kontakt@ig-heimatforschung.de or filling out the contact form at ig-heimatforschung.de/kontakt.

Sgt Kearnes’s RAF service number was 913467.

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