Algarve group attends ceremony to honour two airmen killed in plane crash 80 years ago
A major clean-up of two graves in the British Cemetery in Huelva, some 40 minutes from Spain’s border with Portugal, by a group of volunteers from Tavira marked the start of a memorable event on April 19.
Eighty years ago, Sergeant Geoffrey Avern, 27, of the Royal Australian Air Force and his navigator/observer 21-year-old Sergeant Philip Crossan RAF were flying from Cornwall to Gibraltar in their Bristol Beaufighter belonging to the 236 squadron of the Royal Air Force.
Having successfully flown through Portugal, they crossed into Huelva’s airspace where the plane crashed near Gibraleón, possibly having been shot down by a Spanish anti-aircraft battery.
The two young men were killed and began their eternal rest first in Gibraleón Cemetery and then in the now neglected and overgrown British Cemetery in Huelva.
Tavira resident Chris Wright and his wife Christine had planned to visit the cemetery and lay flowers on the 80th anniversary. Chris emailed the Australian Embassy in Madrid to check if they were aware of the graves.
Within a couple of hours, he received a reply from Capt Bruce Legge, Australian Defence Attaché Southern Europe, who wished to attend together with his counterpart at the British Embassy Capt Ian Clarke.
Chris Wright said: “Bruce Legge’s enthusiasm motivated me and meant action needed to be taken to tidy-up the area around the graves.”
The first point of contact was Huelva resident Gladys Mendez Naylor, whose grandfather had been buried in the cemetery. Gladys’ mother, Dona Isabel Naylor de Méndez, for many years tended the graves and was awarded the MBE by HM Queen Elizabeth II.
The ‘Tavira Twelve’, a group of volunteers, were recruited and descended on the cemetery 10 days prior to the event. After several hours of intense labour, the strimmers, pressure washer, rakes, litter pickers and secateurs had done their job.
Come the day, guests at the ceremony included the Defence Attachés of Australia and the UK; Colin Hearn, Stephen Bland and Trevor Morgan of the Royal British Legion Portugal Branch; Gabriel Cruz, Mayor of Huelva; Squadron Leader David Tucker and Sub Lt RNR Helena McFeeley, British Embassy Madrid; María Antonia Peña, rector of the University of Huelva and Consuelo Dominguez, Professor at the Huelva University and author of a book about the British cemeteries of the province of Huelva.
A bugler and drummer from Banda de Cornetas y Tambores de la Humildad were on hand to play the Last Post.
The proceedings started with Colin Hearn, Royal British Legion reading a poem, ‘The Sky’s The Limit’. The gathering of some 40 guests was then addressed by Capt Bruce Legge before Gladys Mendez Naylor spoke of the importance of maintaining the cemetery.
The Mayor of Huelva, Gabriel Cruz, said that, in conjunction with the Episcopal Anglican Church in Madrid, which has overall responsibility for the cemetery, there are plans to renovate the cemetery in 12 months’ time.
The Laying of Wreaths and flowers was followed by Capt Ian Clarke reading the Ode of Remembrance. The Last Post, a minute’s silence and the playing of the national anthems of Spain, Australia and Great Britain concluded proceedings.
Guests then had an opportunity to visit the grave of Glyndwr Michael, an integral part of Operation Mincemeat, in the adjoining, immaculate Catholic Cemetery.
Chris Wright concluded by saying: “It is hoped that in liaison with Gladys Mendez Naylor, the Huelva Council and other concerned members of the local community, we can maintain certain parts of the cemetery until such times as the renovation takes place.”