Have you seen the film The Great Escape? Perhaps only Eskimos, aborigines and people under 30 haven't seen it. It immortalised the Stalag Luft III German prisoner-of-war camp. One prisoner was Dick Starkey who was captured by the Nazi’s. He was one of the last surviving Lancaster bomber pilots who flew on 22 missions before being shot down. Here I am at Ardsley Crematorium near Barnsley where a patina of Dick's ashes must have floated up the chimney to the great abyss.
As a young man he was working at a coal pit in Sheffield when he witnessed two nights of blitz strikes across South Yorkshire. This decided him on being a pilot and it wasn't long before he was flying the same Lancaster bomber on sorties. It became his favourite and was named Queenie. Sadly Queenie was shot down on 30th March 1944 during the Nuremberg Raid - the RAF’s bloodiest night killing 700 British aircrew. There was a full moon, an ill sign for bombers who preferred black velvet darkness. Of the night Dick said, “The tracers flashed past the cockpit window. The whole wing set alight, there was no way I was going to save it so I gave the order to bail out." He said an oxygen bottled exploded and shot by him like a cork. He managed to attach a parachute just before the plane exploded, it's bombs and fuel colouring the sky orange. The force of the blast knocked Dick unconscious but it also forced his parachute open. Coming down he regained consciousness and wrestled with the parachute to facilitate a safe landing. He found himself with two broken ankles and about 100m from Konisberg near Nuremberg. In a way he was lucky: that night 795 aircraft had flown to Nuremberg and about 100 carrying 700 men didn't return.
How Dick survived is beyond great odds as the crash killed nearly every member of his crew. He was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III but this didn’t guarantee safety. Shortly before his arrival 50 officers had been shot for their failed Great Escape bid through the famous "Tom, Dick and Harry" tunnels. He only left when he was repatriated after German guards feared the advancing Russian army would soon be upon them. He was force marched with the other prisoners for seven days in snow and ice. Eventually he made it back home.
In 2001 he returned to the site where his beloved Lancaster bomber Queenie had crashed. Here he was introduced to Martin Becker who was the Messerschmitt pilot who'd shot him down (along with another 7 bombers that night.) An odd friendship ensued buttressed by respect and they swapped Christmas cards until Martin's death. Dick was also given a hero’s welcome by the people of Konigsberg where his plane had crashed and they’d salvaged some of Queenie, presenting him with parts from the cockpit (which he brought back home to Yorkshire.) He died peacefully in hospital from a stroke after a fall at home aged 91. His wife had died many years ago and he left two daughters.
There wasn’t a single living person at the crematorium that Sunday afternoon. I had a stroll around and did some hearty salutes as starlings and sparrows looked on. It’s a bit of a miracle Dick survived World War Two as the death rate for bomber aircrews was 46% (57,205 crew were killed in WW2) and if you survived getting shot down you were likely to be injured or taken prisoner. He was proper Boys Own brave this bloke was - outwitting the Luftwaffe in bullet-riddled skies, dropping bombs (he dropped a total of 200 tons of bombs during the Battle Of Berlin) and never sure if he'd returned home.
I went round to the rear of the crematorium as I like to see the industrious bit of these buildings where the burning is done. I talk out loud sometimes and said something like, "Good work Dick" as I saluted. Just then a god-like spread of clouds made a ready embrace over the chimney. It was a little strange - like something reaching down and I caught it on camera.
Later I sat in the car and enjoyed a coffee and a peanut butter sandwich. I lobbed some crusts out of the window for the birds. Peanut butter is dry and I noticed one pigeon with its beak pointing up and struggling get a bit of bread down its gullet. Nearby was an outside water tap so I ran some water off creating a wee stream. The pigeon hopped into it and had a good drink. I took one last look at the chimney, saluted and left. Good work, Dick.
Outside the crematorium...
An oil painting based on Dick on the night he was shot down...
Queenie, Dick's bomber...