John Conybeare Landon & the Aspin Crew, Hotton, Belgium

These six gravestones for the Aspin crew can be found in Hotton Cemetery in Belgium, having been relocated from Germany after the war. (See latest Post.) 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.

Landon - graves at Hotton.jpg

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. At that stage, very little would have been known about the fate of the crew.

Landon - missing telegram

Just over one year after the aircraft crashed, a notice confirming that John Conybeare Landon was officially presumed to have been killed appeared in a newspaper. His entry is one up from the end of the column.

Landon - newspaper notice

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. (See link below.) 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.

Landon - Air Ministry letter 1

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.

Landon - Watson grave at Hotton
Ronald Sommer Watson and Paul Robert Wheeldon

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.





John Conybeare’s parents in Malaya: The Story of the Tanjong Pinang

James Desmond Aspin’s Immediate DFM, London Gazette, 23 November 1943: 

RAF Station Kelstern

625 Squadron Memorial

Major Cotterell and Pilot Officer Benting, Enschede, Holland

Despite exhaustive investigations, nothing was ever discovered to confirm the fate of the missing soldier-journalist Anthony Cotterell who had disappeared after being wounded during a war crime carried out by the SS against unarmed prisoners of war. The crime had occurred shortly after the battle of Arnhem in September 1944. Anthony was reputed to be buried at Enschede, a town close to the Dutch-German border.

For many years after the war, his family refused to accept that Anthony was dead. His brother Geoffrey, who had conducted a major search before he was demobbed from the British Army, kept up a small but persistent hope that new information might be discovered about his brother. He made periodical trips to Holland, following up on any tiny leads which cropped up, but finding nothing substantial. When former airborne soldiers began to make annual trips to Holland around the 1970s, he met several of them, but no one could add anything which helped to solve the mystery of Anthony’s disappearance.


The Unknown Grave at Enschede

In October 1945, very early in his investigations and whilst still a Major in the British Army, Geoffrey had gone to the cemetery at Enschede, and there had written down a list of the graves of the men who had been killed by the SS in the incident in which Anthony was wounded.

burial list

At the top of the list was a grave marked ‘Unknown’. If this grave contained the body of Geoffrey’s brother, the way in which Anthony had been buried did not fit in with the burial rites of the other victims of the shooting, who had all apparently had their dog tags/Army uniforms buried with them.

One of the names on the above list is R Will-Bentinck, later corrected when the cemetery records were verified as being that of Pilot Officer Alan William Benting, the flight engineer of a 619 Squadron Lancaster from Woodhall Spa.

In late January/early February 1946, the unknown body was exhumed by an American unit, attached to ETOUSA, so that the teeth could be checked. The dental chart obtained for the body did not fit with Anthony’s dental records. To make doubly sure, the chart was forwarded to Anthony’s father, Graham, a Harley Street dentist who had performed his son’s dental treatment. He found no match.

Not long afterwards, in March 1946, a far more rigorous check of the graves at Enschede was made, probably by the Control Commission’s Search Bureau Graves division. They checked nine graves altogether, the six thought to be connected with the Brummen shooting and three more, presumably to be quite certain that no other victims of the war crime were buried there. These additional three graves were for Alan William Benting, who had been buried at the same time as all but one of the Brummen victims (McNabb), and Jean Ferdinand Huard and George Stratton Purves, airborne soldiers buried in early October 1944.

Some discrepancies were sorted out by this second set of exhumations. McCracken was discovered to be in Benting’s supposed grave. It was concluded that instead Benting was in a grave with a wooden cross which bore the name of Ernest Hughes.

When Geoffrey wrote the list above, he had noted that underneath the list of names was written in English handwriting, ‘C.E.M. Graham 23/27 Sep 44’. Flying Officer Clyde Euan Miles Graham was an RAF navigator, a member of the same Lancaster crew as Benting. Like their pilot, Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey Stevenson Stout, Graham was killed on 23rd September after the crew’s Lancaster bomber crashed near Lochem. Benting, the flight engineer, suffered critical injuries and was presumably treated for them at St Joseph’s, the hospital at Enschede, before dying there on 26th September.

St.Jozef Ziekenhuis Enschede
St Jozef Ziekenhuis, Enschede.

As for Flying Officer Graham, today he is recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records as being buried at the Arnhem Oosterbeek Cemetery. The handwriting on the Enschede register is unexplained. Perhaps Graham or Benting’s families were seeking them just as Geoffrey was seeking Anthony, and someone had made the note in the register which Geoffrey referred to in his letter.

Despite the confusion with the Benting and McCracken graves, the March 1946 exhumations clearly found nothing on any of the bodies which suggested that Anthony was amongst them.

What are now numbered as Joint Graves 200-201 in the cemetery registers contain the original unknown body and that now thought to be Alan Benting’s, it not having been possible to identify which body was Benting’s. Although the March 1946 exhumation reports are closed to the public, it is clear that the body thought to be Alan Benting’s was not found with an RAF uniform because that would have made it very easy to differentiate it from a soldier’s — RAF uniforms were distinctively different in colour and design to the Army’s.

As neither body could positively be identified as being that of a man from the RAF or the Army, this suggests that there was no uniform with either body in the joint grave.

The Search Bureau clearly felt that the March 1946 exhumations had provided the definitive answer to who was in the graves at the cemetery and that Anthony was not amongst them. Kinsleigh’s report of September that year stated that no trace of Anthony’s grave could be found ‘in the cemetery of Enschede where other British PWs are buried. A very thorough search has been made, so far without result.’


The Placing of Anthony Cotterell’s Tombstone

Not long after his mother’s death in 1982, some information came in which caused Geoffrey to believe that, all along, it had been Anthony who was buried in the unknown grave at Enschede. Though this evidence was very slender and circumstantial, it seems that Geoffrey, having lost both his parents and having no family of his own, could no longer bear the thought that Anthony had no gravestone. He approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and eventually it was agreed that a gravestone should be erected over the unknown grave at Enschede. It bears Anthony’s name, together with the message ‘Buried near this spot’, reflecting the still unresolved ambiguities about whether this is Anthony’s grave. The stone also bears Geoffrey’s moving epitaph for his brother:


Remembered with Love

There is also a gravestone for Alan Benting, with his parents’ touching message:

Till we meet again, Darling

Mother and Dad