These six gravestones for the Aspin crew can be found in Hotton Cemetery in Belgium, having been relocated from Germany after the war. They are connected not only with a terrible sequence of tragedies which struck the family of the bomb aimer, John Conybeare Landon, but also the selfless act of a Frenchman, a forced labourer in Germany, who witnessed the crash which killed the crew.
The Aspin crew of 625 Squadron took off from RAF Station Kelstern in Linconshire half an hour before midnight on 19 February 1944. Within a couple of hours, the aircraft had been shot down over Germany with all its bombs on board.
The crew were:
Pilot: James Desmond Aspin
Flight Engineer: Paul Robert Wheeldon
Navigator: William Edward Riley
Bomber Aimer: John Conybeare Landon
Wireless Operator: George Harry Eastwood
M/U Gunner: Patrick Sylvester Skebo, RCAF
Rear Gunner: Ronald Sommer Watson
John Conybeare Landon was married to a Canadian girl called Virginia. She sent the news that he was missing to a friend or relative who lived in Australia.
Note added 24 October 2018, information from Brenda Curtis: I just wanted to add a couple of points of clarification. John was married to Virginia Collins Quigley and she sent the telegram about John being missing to John’s sister Thyra Munro Godber (nee Landon) who was living in Australia at the time. Apparently she and her daughter lived on a sheep station not far from Sydney during the war.
At that stage, very little would have been known about the fate of the crew.
Just over one year after the aircraft crashed, a notice confirming that John Conybeare Landon was officially presumed killed in action appeared in an unknown newspaper.
In late 1945, the Casualty Branch of the Air Ministry, which was located at 73-77 Oxford Street in London, wrote to John’s uncle who lived in Gloucestershire. John’s family had suffered a triple tragedy, some details of which were revealed in the newspaper notice above. His mother and father had lived in Malaya, where his father managed the Cluny Estate rubber plantation at Slim River, Perak, Malaya. The Japanese invaded in December 1941, and both parents subsequently lost their lives. The father, James Munro Palmer Landon, ‘Jim’, survived captivity but died soon after the war as a result of the harshness of his internment. The mother, ‘Pen’, died only three months after the Japanese invasion. She had been involved in war work in Malaya with the Medical Auxiliary Service and later in Singapore at First Air Posts. She was evacuated on the ship SS Kuala, which was sunk by the Japanese, but she survived and helped to nurse survivors on the beach at Pom Pom Island. A couple of days later, she and other evacuees were taken aboard the SS Tandjong Pinang, but this was also sunk, off Bangka Island, Indonesia, on the 17th Feb 1942. Pen did not survive this second sinking.
John’s two younger sisters, who had fortunately been evacuated to Australia before the Japanese invasion, thus endured the loss of virtually their entire family.
John’s uncle must have been acting as next-of-kin pending news of what had happened to John’s parents. The Air Ministry letter to him gave very substantial details about what had happened to the Aspin crew. It referred to captured German documents and to the difficulties the Germans had experienced in identifying the crew, or even establishing the number of bodies, due to the force of the explosion on impact.
The MRES later managed to establish the identity of five of the crew, but two – Ronald Sommer Watson and Paul Robert Wheeldon – lie in a joint grave.
The Air Ministry letter included details of testimony which had been received from a Monsieur Henri Delcles of Illies in Northern France, who had been a forced labourer in Germany at the time of the crash. Delcles stated that the aircraft had exploded on contact with the ground, and said that after the Germans had left the scene he had gone to search in the vicinity of the wreckage and there had discovered two photographs which were believed to be those of William Edward Riley, the navigator.
Delcles sent this information (and presumably the two photographs) to the British Red Cross Society, who forwarded it to the Air Ministry. Delcles’s action is very moving. Even as a slave of the Germans, he did his best to preserve the memory of the crew who had been killed, and once freed, after five years of captivity, he made sure that what he knew of their fate was passed on to the British.
Countless similar acts of remembrance were carried out by the peoples of Occupied Europe.
ALL DOCUMENTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS KINDLY SUPPLIED BY DAVID WINGATE, THE NEPHEW OF JOHN CONYBEARE LANDON.
John Conybeare’s parents in Malaya: The Story of the Tanjong Pinang
James Desmond Aspin’s Immediate DFM, London Gazette, 23 November 1943: