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Ceremony for World War 2 airman identified 83 years after fatal flight

A ceremony has been held for an RAF pilot from Clapham, London, more than 80 years after he was killed in action aged just 20 over the beaches of Northern France.

Robert Alan West with his younger sister Sheila in 1938 (kind permission of the West family)

The service for Pilot Officer (Plt Off) Robert Alan West was held at Dunkirk Town Cemetery, France, on Wednesday 24 May, and organised by the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), also known as the ‘MOD War Detectives’.

The ceremony saw his additional remains laid to rest in a grave which, until today, was marked only as that of an unknown airman. The plot has now been confirmed as containing previously unidentified remains of the young pilot which were recovered shortly after his death.

JCCC’s Tracey Bowers said:

This has been a case that combines both burial and rededication of a headstone. The assistance given by the RAF Air Historical Branch (AHB) was vital to help solve this. It is a sad fact that following an air crash, complete casualty remains may not be recovered at the time. But we have now been able to rectify this and hold a ceremony to rededicate the final resting place of this brave, young pilot in the presence of his family.

Ten members of Plt Off West’s family, representatives of the RAF, the British Embassy in France, and dignitaries from Dunkirk also attended.

The family of Robert Alan West at the service

Shelia Davenport, Plt Off West’s niece said:

The family knew very little about Uncle Bob until we were contacted; we now know so much about him and his life. We are grateful for the closure this ceremony has given the family.

The additional remains were discovered alongside aircraft parts in the Zuydcoote area, around 6 miles east of Dunkirk. Following investigation by the RAF AHB and the RAF Museum the aircraft was confirmed as that of a Hurricane Mk.1. Personal artefacts at the scene gave clues about the casualty’s identity.

The RAF AHB then examined 74 Hurricane casualty files from the 1940-42 period and managed to rule all but nine out. Plt Off West remained of interest: according to his casualty file he took off from RAF Hawkinge in Hurricane N2709 on 1 June 1940 for a patrol off Dunkirk. Seven aircraft of No. 245 Squadron were part of a formation with 43 and 145 squadrons. Plt Off West was in the rear most section of the formation when a German Messerschmitt’s 215 aircraft attacked them. He was not seen to crash, but was recorded as missing on the squadron’s return.

After the RAF AHB’s work, DNA testing confirmed the additional remains recovered belonged to Plt Off West.

Finally, further research found there was clear and convincing evidence that earlier remains of Plt Off West had been recovered and buried in this unknown plot at Dunkirk Town shortly after he died.

The service was led by Reverend (Flight Lieutenant) Robert Hadfield, Chaplain at RAF Lossiemouth. He said:

The courage of those like Pilot Officer Robert West, whose actions in support of the evacuation of Dunkirk allowed hundreds of thousands of lives to be saved, should forever be remembered. I am humbled to have been involved in this ceremony, commemorating Robert’s legacy, and honouring the sacrifice he and others like him made, giving their all for the benefit of others.

An RAF Trumpeter sounds The Last Post at the service

Mel Donnelly, CWGC Head of Commemorations said:

“It is a privilege to be able to finally mark the last resting place of Pilot Officer Robert Alan West with a headstone which now bears his name. It is especially resonating that we can join with his family to rededicate his grave in War Graves Week, when CWGC asks everyone to remember the service and sacrifice of those Commonwealth servicemen and women who we commemorate around the world in perpetuity.”

Published 25 May 2023