Relatives of four South African Air Force airmen whose plane crashed on Mount Kenya during the Second World War, have come together to attend a special ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Nanyuki War Cemetery.
The CWGC hosted the service, on March 23, to remember the lives of Lt Charles Allen, Lt “Bokkie” Lemmer, Air Sgt Lloyd Murray and Air Sgt Simon Eliastam, who were lost during a training flight on July 23, 1942.
The wreckage of Blenheim Z7763 lay undiscovered in dense bamboo forest until 2002, when it was found by the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) at an altitude of 10,000 feet. It was subsequently confirmed by experts to be the missing aircraft.
It took several years to organise a joint return operation to the remote location in 2016, and only in the last year were the surviving relatives of all four airmen tracked down.
At the request of the South African Government, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Africa and Asia Pacific Area, prepared and installed four new special headstones at CWGC Nanyuki War Cemetery, not far from where the men took off in 1942. The new commemorations recognise the fact that the casualties are no longer missing, but that they are known to be located somewhere near the airplane wreckage on Mt Kenya.
Richard Hills, the Area Director said: “The Commission has been delighted to fulfil its function on behalf of its member governments and to assist with this project. We commemorate some 1.7 Million Commonwealth World War Casualties globally and specifically, 58,000 casualties across 32 sites in the Republic of Kenya. Our African team, based in Nairobi, have been honoured to prepare the new commemorations at CWGC Nanyuki and also to have been able to meet some of the families of the casualties”.
Family members attended a dedication service at Nanyuki on the morning of Thursday March 23. Three sets of relatives flew from South Africa for the ceremony and one father and daughter flew from Boston, USA.
Following the Second World War, the names of the four men had been added to the 3,000 British and Commonwealth airmen listed as missing in action on the CWGC war memorial at El Alamein in Egypt. Now, the special commemoration headstones will be a permanent memorial to the men at CWGC Nanyuki.
Denise Murray, 71, niece of Lloyd Murray, thanked the CWGC for the headstones and said there was a sense of closure about the event.
“I wish my father was still alive. He would have been so happy to have known what happened to his brother. This all happened before I was born, but we grew up knowing Uncle Lloyd was always missing. Now, we will always have somewhere to visit to remember him.”
Agnes Hustler, 65, niece of “Bokkie” Lemmer, said it was a chance to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for their country. Agnes’ husband, Rusty Hustler, played a crucial role over the past 10 years in the campaign to finally solve the mystery of Blenheim Z7633.
“I feel sadness and also a sense of relief,” said Agnes.
“It’s good to finally know what happened and that my uncle wasn’t wandering around lost somewhere. I just wish my parents were still alive to know this.
“There’s been so much interest from other distant relatives around the world. I would love to take my grandson up to the CWGC Nanyuki War Cemetery one day. He is eight years old and is interested in the military. He needs to know about his family.”
Major General (Rtd) Gert Opperman is the Chairman of the Ebo Trust, a private trust set up to locate and repatriate the remains of members of the SA Defence Force, who had died in battle and were buried on foreign soil. The Ebo Trust played a crucial role on behalf of the South African Government, in organising the return expedition to the crash site in 2016 and also in arranging the special commemoration service at CWGC Nanyuki War Cemetery.
“This is a very important day for everyone involved. It is a fitting closure for the relatives, nearly 75 years on. It answers many questions in their lives,” said Mr Opperman.
“I would like to thank the CWGC for their co-operation in this matter. I can only pay tribute to the work of the CWGC across the globe.
“I am responsible for many commemoration services. But I feel very strongly about this one. It has been a worthwhile endeavour and now the SAAF airmen of Blenheim Z7763 will be remembered forever at Nanyuki.”
Dr Michael Eliastam flew with his daughter Monet Eliastam all the way from Boston, USA, to Kenya for the service. He said he was stunned when he was contacted last year by a CWGC employee to tell him the final resting place of his uncle, Simon Eliastam, had been found.
“Simon grew up in Johannesburg, apparently working in his father's struggling jewellery business. The family lore is that he enlisted in the SAAF to find adventure and get away from his overbearing mother, my grandmother whom I remember far too well!
“My life changed from the moment on August 4th 2016, at around 9am when I read the email from the SA War Graves Commission asking me if I was the next-of-kin person they had been searching for, and were about to give up the search.
“I started doing my own research. What did my older sister and I remember, what photos and mementoes did we have, and what friends of my parents had known Simon. From that day, I cried often, and still do, feeling the delayed mourning for Simon. Simon has been front and centre in my mind daily since that fateful day, August 4, 2016.”
Dr Eliastam emigrated from South Africa to the USA in 1967 and works as a clinical dean of a medical school. At the family’s request, his uncle, a Latvian Jew, had a Star of David engraved on his headstone.
“I grew up in the 'shadow' of Simon. My mother described him as gorgeous looking, athletic, and very kind and gentle. And of course, I could not match "Uncle Simon". It was not pathological, just an ever present hero.
“It is a form of closure, to finally have a memorial. We know what happened now and it’s no longer a mystery. I will now be able to visit the graves of Simon’s mother and father and tell them what happened to their son.”
It was on July 23, 1942, that Blenheim Z7763 took off from the Operational Training Unit base at RAF Nanyuki, in central Kenya, never to be seen again. The official finding of the board of inquiry concludes the plane encountered bad weather and flew into high ground due to poor visibility.
Just four days earlier, on July 19, 1942, the pilot, Charles Allen, had written to his younger brother Denis – a flying instructor – about the issues he had been having with the Blenheim aircraft. Part of this letter is transcribed below (and in the notes further below):
It is very mountainous and cloudy country in East Africa and not too pleasant when you are lost and no clear places for a forced landing. Some chaps have tried them, hence all the deaths I told you about in my last letter. I have made up my mind to jump for it should the occasion arise, to force land is fatal.
Charles had two brothers who were also pilots in the SAAF. Older brother Fred died in a separate flying accident in South Africa in September 1941, while Denis was transferred to “safe” transport runs over Egypt, subsequent to Charles’s death in 1942.
Charles Allen’s niece Roslyn Robertson, 70, daughter of Denis, attended the memorial service at CWGC Nanyuki War Cemetery.
“All my life, my dad never mentioned his brothers. And my father died when I was only 16, so I never really got to ask him about the war. They were such noble people to go to war and fly these aircraft with limited instruments on board.
“The letter is quite unnerving. His handwriting looks just like my father’s.
“I’m so grateful to find a sense of peace around knowing what happened to my uncle Charles. I feel like I am offloading a huge weight. Now I can honour his memory and also get to know the other relatives of the crew.”