A campaign by OP Richard Lyon (57-67) to identify the grave of a lost Spitfire pilot has prompted an overhaul of MoD guidelines. Now dozens more forgotten heroes could soon be named.
It was just past 7pm on July 27, 1944, when a squadron of eight Spitfires took off from RAF Predannack on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, heading for German-occupied France. The men were the ace pilots of 234 Squadron, among the best in the RAF, and fresh from D Day. They flew in formation across the English Channel, the setting sun glinting off their fuselages.
It was a so-called Rhubarb mission, harrying the German forces being pushed back through Brittany. As the Spitfires approached the Luftwaffe base of Kerlin Bastard, the squadron split into two groups of four: one, Blue Group, buzzed the airfield, the other, Red Group, headed towards the city of Lorient, a key Nazi stronghold and home to the sprawling Keroman U-boat port.
Flying Officer Ernest Russell Lyon was number three in Red Group, piloting Spitfire AR343. Only 21, he had served with 234 Squadron for over a year, his boyish good looks earning him the nickname “Ben Lyon” from his fellow pilots, after the Hollywood actor of the same name.
As they flew over Lorient, just before 8pm, the German anti-aircraft guns opened fire. Red 1, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Wally Walton, was hit by the flak but he managed to parachute out to safety. Lyon’s Spitfire was also hit – it screamed 6,000ft down into a farmer’s field and burst into flames on impact.
Wally Walton was captured that same night, Lyon was buried two days later by German troops in plot 33 in Guidel Communal Cemetery, his death simply logged as “Anglais Inconnu”. A telegram was sent by the British authorities to his father’s home in Edinburgh (his mother, Elizabeth, had died when he was 13) describing him as missing on active service. When the war ended, his grave was marked by a simple headstone inscribed with the words “An Airman of the 1939-45 War, Royal Air Force, 29th July, 1944, Known unto God”.
And so, Ernest Russell Lyon lay. His body was never officially identified, instead he became one of 20,456 men and women from the air forces of the British Empire who died during World War Two and are recorded as having no known grave. Their names are carved into the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial in Surrey.
But the week before Remembrance Day in 2006, Lyon’s nephew decided to renew the search for his body. Richard Lyon, a Cambridge architect then in his late 50s, had never met his uncle, but grew up looking at his photograph which his father Stanley always kept on his desk. With no military contacts, he decided to appeal for information on a Scottish family history website.
He typed his name, rank, the date he was shot down, and the town, Plomeur, which was closest to the crash site. Five months later, an email arrived in rudimentary English sent by the chairman of a local history group in Brittany who, in 2001, had discovered the crash site of Lyon’s Spitfire and were attempting to trace relatives of the airman.
What has followed has been a decade-long battle by Richard Lyon and the French which has gone to the very top of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to officially acknowledge the grave. They have trawled public archives from Kew to Washington DC, interviewed surviving witnesses and compiled various exhaustive reports. Now, they have secured a remarkable victory.
Not just is Ernest Russell Lyon’s name soon to finally be added to his grave, but the MoD has been persuaded to overhaul the burden of proof required by the families of those who have died serving their country to have their identities officially recognised.
It has taken, so says Richard, a lot of serendipity, perseverance and “being a bloody nuisance”. But the decision could have a major impact, with the MoD currently considering 45 similar cases to identify unknown graves. Not bad for a man whose only prior military experience was in the CCF at Pocklington School in East Yorkshire where he grew up.
“A lot of feathers have been ruffled,” he says. “There were a lot of people in the traditional bit of the MoD who didn’t want these changes. Now I hope other names will be recognised.”
Richard, who is married with four children, has pieced together his late uncle’s life in precise detail. When we meet, the living room table in his family home in Cambridge is covered in files and old photographs. At times, he says, Anne, his wife of 42 years, has worried about his sanity.
Ernest Russell Lyon volunteered to join the RAF on March 1, 1941, after he had turned 18. Following training, he was posted to the USA as a pilot instructor. By 1943, he had grown weary of his surroundings, and requested an operational posting.
“That,” says Lyon, “was his big mistake”.
He was sent to 234 Squadron, whose insignia bears a dragon rampant, flames spewing from the mouth. Its motto, Ignem mortemque despuimus, translates as “We spit fire and death”. Lyon found himself in the thick of it, flying near constant missions in the run up to D Day. On the day itself, he provided aerial support over Gold and Omaha beaches.
After that, the squadron was relocated to Cornwall, to extend their range across France. Missions such as the fateful one of July 27, 1944, were to support the allied forces in the ascendancy. The Luftwaffe was no longer a presence to be feared in the skies. Instead, the threat came from the German anti-aircraft guns.
Various witness statements obtained by the French researchers describe Lyon’s Spitfire crashing that evening. One was Joseph le Corroller, on whose land the plane hit. The farmer (who died two years ago) was the first on the scene and recalls Lyon’s body being thrown some eight metres from the fuselage. After taking out an advert in the local papers, three more witnesses stepped forward. One woman recalled a flying boot being found by her brother close to the crash site containing half a dismembered leg.
Yet despite these gory details, as well as parts of the Spitfire being dug up including the guns, propeller hub, and the exhaust from its Rolls Royce Merlin engine (which Lyon now keeps at home), the authorities insisted there was still not enough evidence. The French tried, and failed, in 2004, to appeal to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Despite the snub, they still named a mini roundabout after the fallen airman. Then, Richard Lyon decided to approach the MoD.
In 2009, after being passed between various departments, he received his final refusal from the RAF Air Historical Branch because the required burden of proof – “beyond reasonable doubt” – had not been met. “It is the same as if somebody who committed a crime and is being sent to the electric chair,” he says. “But my uncle didn’t commit a crime; he gave his life for his country.”
He was told the body in plot 33 could have been an airman who had washed up on Brittany’s beaches and was given the names of eight or nine potential casualties. Lyon then compiled a report on each individual case, ranking the probability out of 100, as well as proving from the local town hall records that no bodies had washed up nearby in the two weeks leading up to Lyon’s death.
Then, the following year, he learnt his appeal was being taken up by a senior RAF official as a test case. Such was the strength of his argument that the burden of proof has now changed from “beyond reasonable doubt” to “clear and convincing evidence”. He says he was told an appeals process for relatives of lost soldiers to have their name recognised has also now been put in place, although the MoD insist this was possible before.
Then, last October, Lyon was called to the seventh floor of the MoD building in Whitehall to present his case personally to the top military brass. “I was looking out the window and Downing Street was below. I knew this was our last chance and I wouldn’t get another in my lifetime.”
The evidence he gave worked and the announcement that his uncle’s grave was to finally be recognised came in August. Even if the MoD still refuse to say he is actually in plot 33, only “buried near this spot” in the cemetery, Lyon is hailing the result a huge success. For in the next few months, a dedication ceremony will take place at his graveside and a new headstone put in place.
Underneath his name, the family are allowed a four line dedication. It will read: “Always known unto God. Now resting here. Ex Corde Caritas (the old motto of his school George Watson’s College)”. And finally, “remembered forever”.
It has taken 70 years, but that is now what Ernest Russell Lyon will be.