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Mt Kenya plane wrecks and heroes with no place to rest

By XN Iraki | April 2nd 2017 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

On Thursday March 2, 2017, I visited Nanyuki, a fast-growing town nestled on the foothills of Mt Kenya. A drive though this old town leaves no doubt of its vibrancy. It boasts of leading supermarkets and banks.

A golf course nearby adds to  its coolness. Nanyuki, like Gilgil, is a garrison town propped up economically by the presence of a military base. The town’s economy is spiced up further by the presence of British soldiers who train around there. In full uniform, the soldiers dot the town, attracting little curiosity from the citizens who appear used to them.

I was tempted to drive on towards Meru, Lewa downs or to Isiolo, another garrison town.

The beauty of this old town is, however, spoilt by billboards of political contestants. In Ghana, they advertise the death of a prominent person through such billboards.

My destination was the Commonwealth Cemetery just on the outskirts of the town. I was here to attend a moving ceremony to bring to a closure the death of four South African young men who died in Kenya 75 years ago. Their plane, a Blenheim Bomber no Z7763, crashed in Mt Kenya on July 23, 1942 during a training mission. For 60 years, it lay in thick bamboo until it was found in 2002.

Booking complete unit

The four men in the ill-fated flight were Charles Albert Allen, the pilot who was 27 when the plane crashed,  Hendrik Jacobus Petrus Lemmer, a 23-year-old navigator/observer, Lloyd Murray, a 25-year-old wireless operator/air gunner, and another wireless operator/air gunner, Simon Eliastam, 21, who was of Latvian origin. The four have been listed as missing in action on a war memorial at El Alamein in Egypt since 1942.

They had enlisted with the British, who were looking for pilots from any source to fight in World War II.

The search for the missing South African crew in Kenya was greatly supported by Ebo Trust, headed by South African retired Major General Gert Opperman. The trust is named after a village in Angola where four South African soldiers were killed in 1975 and their remains repatriated to SA in 2012. Tom Lawrence, a history enthusiast, was one the key players in re-finding the plane and bringing to a closure the 75-year-old matter.

Mr Lawrence said this of Lemmer: “The parents of HJP Lemmer were so distressed with the death of their only son that before they died, just in case he was found, they bought an extra grave plot next to theirs, which to this day remains empty. They also wrote a letter and made sure that there were some funds set aside for him which were kept in a bank vault, just in case he suddenly turned up at home after they died.”

Now, 75 years later, the family can finally find closure. They now know what happened to their son.

Representatives of the families of each of the four attended the service, laying the wreaths and receiving their medals. A 75-year journey came to a close at noon. Thereafter, we had a walk around the Commonwealth Cemetery, well manicured and maintained. There are graves for Kenyans, and a number of East Africans who died defending the world against evil, to quote Rev Jamieson who led the memorial service.

With the closure of the Mt Kenya plane wreckage, attention shifted to another plane that crashed in Aberdares around the same time on July 4, 1942. It was a Blenheim too, made by Bristol Aeroplane Company. In October last year, we identified where it went down, about two kilometres from Satima Peak, just near the source of Malewa River. The wreckage is scattered over a space of about 100m by 500m on a sloppy ground.

Booking complete unit

On March 23, 2017 we returned to investigate the site further. Everything has a blessing; a fire in the Aberdares moorlands had cleared the site around the site. We could not believe our eyes. We found the two engines of the plane about 100 metres from where we found the landing gear and the fuselage. One engine was intact with all the nine pistons. The engine block is made of aluminium with pistons around.

The engine number and make were clearly marked. It’s a Mercury XV. Using that, we can now look at the records and identify the plane and its crew. We found no remains but it is believed the plane had a crew of three. We got even more than we bargained for; one of the plane’s guns, a .303 Browning machine gun. It was rusty but would make a great museum piece. Why didn’t Mau Mau fighters take the gun yet their caves are a walking distance from the wreckage?

If we could identify the plane as V6192, we can take the next step of looking for the remains of the crew. There is an unsubstantiated claim that three skulls were found there around 1985. But where are they? The crews of the plane are most likely listed as missing in action. Identifying this plane and their remains would bring to a closure another 75-year wait. We could contact their relatives and with a memorial service bring the long wait to an end.

The memorial service of three young men stirred my emotions. Where are Kenyan war heroes buried? Why don’t we have a national cemetery? On the road to inauguration, US President Donald Trump laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The UK buries its heroes at Westminster Abbey. Where is our equivalent? Do we fear the dead?

Commonwealth graveyards like those in Nanyuki, Ngong and Makaburini near Railway Golf Course in Nairobi are managed by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The graves and memorials that commemorate every soldier that died during WWI and WWII, regardless of who they were and where they died, are taken care of by the commission.

Some Kenyan soldiers are buried abroad and their graves are immaculately kept. The Commonwealth Grave Commission website has a database with the names and places of commemoration of the 1.7 million men and women of the British and Commonwealth forces who died during the two world wars. Examples include Robert Keter, a Lance Corporal with Highland Light Infantry, who died in 1916 and is buried at Vermelles British cemetery.

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