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Library Reference Number: 176

Remembrance and Friendship

Gilbert A. Gray, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

A few years ago, I was privileged to come in contact with an organisation in the Netherlands whose activities reflected its appreciation of the efforts and sacrifices of Allied Airmen in particular made in releasing their country from enemy occupation during the dark period of 1939-1945.

The occasion was a visit to North Holland during which the members of 106 and 617 Squadron Association members were entertained to a lavish programme of engagements which culminated in attendance at the unveiling of a memorial in Steenbergen to Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO, DFC and his navigator Squadron Leader JB Warwick, DFC. The ceremony was performed by the frail Lord Cheshire, OM, VC, DSO, DFC - one of his last public engagements.

The Community of Bergen, North Holland, which includes the villages of Bergen and Bergen on Sea, had, since 1945, built up a tradition of remembrance of those who had lost their lives during the second World War. During the succeeding years, many events and acts of commemoration were organised and co-ordinated by a number of local communities.

These different organisations later joined together in a foundation named 'Remembrance and Friendship Bergen N.H.1938-1945' with a declared aim - 'to keep alive within Bergen and the surrounding district the memory of those who lost their lives during the second World War, 1939-1945, for the liberation of the Netherlands, and to maintain contacts and bonds of friendship in the broadest sense with all other like-minded interests'

The Foundation developed contacts and friends both within Holland and abroad, was a member of several Associations of the British Royal Air Force and had close interaction with Municipal Councils, ex-resistance groups, the Netherlands Royal Air Force and the Air Force Identification and Recovery Service.

The Foundation's activities were many: offering hospitality and guidance, especially for relatives, friends and war-time airmen, to visit the war graves; arranging hospitality for Allied ex-servicemen who visited Bergen to participate in 'Remember the Fallen' Day on May 4 each year; arranging meetings and reunions of ex-RAF aviators in Bergen.

It was a privilege to mingle with local men and women, some now very elderly, and who had bravely fought in their own way as members of resistance groups. Now, alas, as with ourselves, the years have taken their toll on our friends and on the Foundation itself though bonds still exist by letter and e-mail.

In 1945. after my demob, a little brown cardboard box arrived containing the campaign medals to which I was entitled. They lay for some 45 years unworn until May 4, 1990 when I joined in the 'Silent Walk' in Bergen. This was the culmination of the town's 'Remember the Fallen' ceremony. We had assembled in the Ruinekerk in the centre of the little town, joined in appropriate words and music, and listened to the tolling of the Carillon, the 28 bells of which carry the names of 218 of the fallen - a further bell remains silent, dedicated to 34 unknown.

The congregation filed out into the warm evening air, preceded by troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, each member carrying a posy of flowers. For the first time I wore my medals, never so proud as walking side by side with elderly men and women wearing their own little ribbons marking their service in the Resistance movements. The slow utterly silent procession grew as more and more local inhabitants joined in the silent walk to the Allied War Cemetery wherein are 252 graves - 187 British, 39 Canadian, 7 Australian, 7 New Zealand and 13 Polish. 242 of these are Royal Air Force. A tree, planted in 1945, shades 'a Place of Memory of the Resistance' The large gathering now dispersed around the Cemetery. The young people placed at each gravestone his or her posy and a brief ceremony ended with a movingly played 'The Last Post'.

In this manner, this small Dutch community remembered its release from dark days and honoured those who gave their lives in achieving it.

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