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Historian on a mission to track down bomber pilot’s family

‘They were real people,’ says German brewer looking for surviving relatives of British airmen

04 September, 2020 — By Sam Ferguson

Photograph taken at the site of the crash in Willich, Germany, in April 1942

A GERMAN brewer-turned-amateur historian has teamed up with the former borough mayor to try and track down the family of a Second World War bomber pilot from Islington who died while on a mission above Germany.

Sergeant Pilot Peter Fitzpatrick Vane Winkle was born in 1921 and lived in Green Lanes before moving to Barnet. Little is known about his life before the war, though it’s understood his father was born and raised in Canonbury and that his mother died in 1934.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Mr Winkle signed up to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves, and survived 14 missions over occupied France and Germany.

He died along with all five members of his crew when his Wellington bomber was shot out of the sky over Willich, in Germany, on April 15, 1942.

Now, Christoph Heyes has made it his mission to track down any surviving family members, friends, or people with memories of the airmen who died in his home town.

Sgt Winkle’s grave at Reichswald Forest War Cementry

“I’ve known about this story for a long time,” he said. “I remember my grandmother, who also lived here, telling me that she could recall the funeral of five British airmen shot down during the war. The town gave them full military honours and buried them in unmarked graves as they didn’t know their names. After the war a relative came and names were put on the graves before they were moved to a bigger war cemetery.”

He added: “I run a small brewery, and during the coronavirus lockdown I started re-reading old history books. I came across the story again and was amazed to find the crash site was 500 yards from my house.

“I found this out in early April, and the crash happened on April 15 all those years ago. So I decided to write a book about it, which will eventually be published in an annual we have here in the town.”

Mr Heyes set about tracking down the graves of the five men, which were moved from the town to a larger cemetery in Reichswald Forest after the war.

He found that two of the men were from London, two from Scotland and one from Holland, and began contacting local authorities, dignitaries and veterans groups.

The plot where Sgt Winkle was first buried in the town of Willich

Incredibly, he managed to track down two surviving sisters of Kinross airman Andrew Downie, and even spoke to them on the phone.

“It was the most moving experience of my life,” he said. “I still have tears in my eyes when I think about that call. The sisters were so grateful that someone was still interested in their brother’s life.

“I’m planning to visit them when coronavirus allows, to find out more about him.”

While researching, Mr Heyes found an eyewitness account of the night the bomber crashed, which he shared with the Tribune.

It reads: “The flight alarms had become a habit by then, so we no longer always got out of our beds. It was the same way that night, but when the bedroom was lit by spotlights and the anti-aircraft gun fired loudly I went to the window and saw a Wellington circling low over Unterbruch in the spotlight. Its erratic flight behaviour showed that the aircraft had been hit.”

The account adds: “It finally went into a steep glide down and hit the ground with a massive explosion. The machine had came from Römerstrasse and exploded on impact.

“The debris flew in the direction of the flight, towards the Unterbruch road and a farm owned by Jakob Nilges.

Christoph Heyes

“The plane was on its return flight and had no bombs on board. The exploding fuel caused burning parts to fly into Nilges’s house and set it on fire. It burned to the ground. Many lighter parts lay to the left of the street in Nilges’s garden. We found oxygen cylinders 100 to 200 metres away.”

No civilians were killed in the crash.

Mr Heyes said it was important to tell both sides of the story, and hopes that people in Islington might remember something about Sgt ­Winkle or his family.

“These men had lives,” he said. “They had loves, ambitions and dreams. They were real people. I think it’s important to tell their story, and make sure they are remembered as men who lived and breathed, not just as names on a grave.”

Mr Heyes managed to get in touch with former Islington mayor and current Hillrise councillor Dave Poyser, who helped fill out a few more details about the Sgt Winkle with the help of the council’s heritage department.

He said: “Once again, the heritage department at Islington Council have done a tremendous piece of work. I hope any relatives of Peter’s can now come forward and contact the historian or perhaps visit his grave in Germany.”

The three other airmen who died were Thomas Strang from Grangemouth in Stirlingshire, Jean Jaques Gabriel Hall from S’Gravenhage in Holland, and Kenneth William Barker from Dagenham.

If you have information, please email editorial@islingtontribune.com

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