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Veteran "Overawed" by CWGC Cemetery in Bahamas

26 July 2016

Seventy-one years after helping to bury eight young Royal Air Force comrades killed during the Second World War, veteran Jack Ryall has returned to the CWGC Nassau War Cemetery in the Bahamas to pay his respects.

Mr Ryall, a 90-year-old former major and rear gunner in bombers, was delighted to find the graveyard - formerly known as the Royal Air Force Cemetery - had been restored, saying he was taken aback by how "neat and tidy" it is.

Mr Ryall praised the upkeep of the cemetery, telling The Tribune that he is "overawed" with the transformation of the Farrington Road site from previously being "just rows of empty concrete graves and a load of pink shale".

He said that when he set foot in the cemetery at the weekend for the first time in 71 years, he never expected it to be in the "marvellous" condition it is in. He said the maintenance of the war cemetery, which was built in 1944, and the plots of those buried therein makes fighting in World War II somewhat "worthwhile" and comforting to know "that there's someone to look after them". 

Mr Ryall laid a wreath at the cemetery on Sunday morning, when he paid his respects to eight of his comrades at arms who perished and were subsequently buried at the site after two planes collided and crashed at Windsor Field on the morning of February 23, 1945.

Mr Ryall said at around seven o'clock, two planes, one taking off and one landing, collided and crashed. The ten passengers aboard the plane preparing to land all survived but all those aboard the RAF plane preparing to take off perished.

One of those on board that plane was one of his roommates.

"So they were alive at seven and we buried them at 10," he said. "It was quite a shock. When you're 19 years old, you don't expect something like that to happen. You feel invincible when you're flying. 'Nothing's going to happen to me,' but of course it does."

He added: "They were the same age as me. I was 18. The others we buried were 19 and 20. It was very, very sad at the time. And everyone laughed at me because they said 'Oh you've been out in Nassau, you've not been doing anything'. A few weeks after the crash, my roommate was in another plane. I could see him in a (B-25 Mitchell bomber), and I was in the B-24, and I could see him and all of a sudden it exploded in mid-air. And there wasn't a bit left: it just went in pieces."

Mr Ryall said at the time that he buried his comrades, the Farrington Road site was in a state of disrepair, so much so that he was "ashamed" of it being the burial grounds for them. However, he said his perspective changed after visiting the site on Friday and seeing "what a wonderful place" it had become. 

"I was absolutely overawed with it, because I never expected it to be quite like that," he told The Tribune. "I knew someone had started taking care of it, because my granddaughter was down here last year and she took some pictures, but I never expected to see it like that. So neat, so tidy.

"And it's obvious it hadn't just been done because I was going. It was obvious that's how they looked after it, whoever was looking after it, which of course I didn't know at the time."

He added: "You feel maybe that that long time ago was worthwhile. That there's someone to look after (the deceased)."

The CWGC Nassau War Cemetery, previously known as the Royal Air Force Cemetery, was built in 1944 and opened by the Duke of Windsor as Governor of the Bahamas. It contains the graves of 46 British and five Canadian casualties and the Nassau Memorial, which commemorates seven British and two Canadian servicemen.

The cemetery has been under the care and maintenance of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) since 1973 following a post-Independence agreement between the Bahamian and British governments.

Despite the agreement, however, the cemetery had been neglected in recent years and had fallen into disrepair. However, with new funding from the CWGC, a major renovation project was completed in 2014. A local firm, the Installers Company, co-owned by Peter Bates and Greg Curtis, has the maintenance contract.

Responsibility for the Nassau War Cemetery was transferred from the CWGC Head Office in Maidenhead, near London, to its Canadian agency in Ottawa five years ago.

In May, CWGC representatives and former British High Commissioner to the Bahamas Peter Young told The Tribune that the organisation has reached out to the Bahamas government in hopes of having the Farrington Road cemetery officially preserved as a heritage site.

Article reproduced by kind permission of The Tribune newspaper, Nassau. First published on 19 July 2016.
All images reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF).