Last updated: 01 January 1970, 00:00
The 2006, 2018 and 2019 expeditions to Serbia
Page content contributed by Tony Summers
Dedicated to the lost aircrew of MM838
Pilot F/Lt James Summers
Navigator F/O Cecil Sanders
The story starts with Beaufighter MM838 flying from Foggia, Italy, to Yugoslavia on 31.August.1944. It was piloted by F/Lt James Summers and navigated by F/O Cecil Sanders. Primary targets were barges on the River Danube to the east of Belgrade, in what is now Serbia. It did not return from the mission. Letters were sent by the Squardon C/O Charles Stewart to the families; the one to Mrs.Summers still survives.
River barges were targets because the only crude oil that Germany was getting at that time came from Romania, transported upstream along the Danube. This action by 255 Squadron was in conjunction with heavy magnetic minelaying by both UK and US bomber squadrons.
Only later, after cessation of hostilities, was it determined that the Beaufighter had been shot down by two German gunboats moored at Ram. It crashed into sandy terrain about a mile of so north west of marker post 1080 on the north bank of the river. The bodies of the two airmen were recovered by Yugoslav partisans and were buried where they fell. Photographs of children leaving flowers on the graves were published locally and a copy was sent to the navigator's family.
In 1946 the bodies were removed from the crash site by the British Army and re-buried in the British Military Cemetery in Belgrade. The Army made a detailed sketch as to where each body had been found, which was sent to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The usual CWGC headstones were added later. Advice of their positions among the 592 graves in that cemetery was sent to the two families.
In 1966 there was a celebration at the Yugoslav Embassy in London for the families of those killed in Yugoslavia, and the wife of the pilot, Phyllis Slade (Summers) who had remarried, attended and her comments were published in national newspapers.
Visit in 2006
In 2006, Tony Summers, the son of the pilot, his wife Sybil, sister Jill Bennett and her husband John went to Belgrade to the graves in the British Cemetery and paid their respects for the first time. It had not been possible for them to go any earlier because the UK, a member of NATO, had been bombing Belgrade as recently 1999 in the Kosovo War - a part of the wider Balkan conflict.
Visit in 2018 - Planning
In August 2017 Tony Summers was looking at the 255 Squadron website and saw that a visit to the crash site in Serbia was proposed. He immediately emailed the website manager, Chris Eley, and said that he would be interested in joining the visit. This culminated in Chris asking Tony to arrange the trip in 2018, given Tony's past experience of visiting Serbia. There had already been a postponement because of political sensitivities in Vojvodina, the region on the north bank of the Danube near where the plane had gone down.
This sudden interest in the plane had arisen because Peter Kaššák had co-written a book "Gardening by Moonlight" about the bombing of the Danube river traffic, which had included reference to the whereabouts of the Beaufighter. He had translated the German Navy records, which referred to a "twin-engined bomber" being shot down at marker post 1080 on the Danube, between Ram on the south shore and Dubovac on the north. There were two German boats stationed there at the time, the "Uta", a working vessel, and the "Bechelaren", a gunship.
As no Allied bombers were lost that night, it must have been the twin engined Beaufighter that they shot down. At this stage it was not clear whether the plane had come down in the river, or on the north or south bank and at this point the Danube is over a mile wide.
It was agreed that any visit would be postponed until 2018, with April the preferred month. Tony would again go with Sybil, Jill and John Bennett, and also his cousin, Roger Summers and his partner Sybil who would come from Australia for the visit. However, at this stage it was not known if Cecil Sanders was married or had any other relatives, so Tony and Chris started some genealogical research. Tony had already done his own family tree, and so by using this knowledge, he quickly found somebody who had Cecil's parents in their tree, but there was no Cecil. He contacted the tree owner, who advised that there were two sisters, but she had no knowledge of Cecil. These sisters had been married, and it happened that one of Cecil's nephews had put his email address on a site of which she was aware.
This was David Kirby-Smith, so Tony contacted him and found there was another nephew, Peter and yet another, Michael Ricketts, from the other sister of Cecil. On 16th November 2017 Tony, David, Peter and Chris got together, and the form of the visit to Serbia was decided. By now we had been joined by the then squadron commanding officer's son, Shaun Stewart, so that made a possible party of eleven.
We all stayed at the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade in order to visit the cemetery, and then we were looking east to stay for a few days in the Kovin/Ram area. Tony had written to the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who had a translator on his staff, to find out if the church or the people of Kovin had any record of the burial, the flower placing, or, indeed, if there was anybody alive who remembered the event. He was referred on to the local bishop and thence to a local priest, but with no email advised, snail mail was brought into play. A telephone call to the priest was ineffective!
Tony thought that finding a comparison between the Cyrillic characters used in Serbia and Latin characters would be useful, but instead came across an application which could translate back and forth. He therefore wrote the letter to the priest in English, with a complete translation included. We subsequently learnt from the priest that he had received the letter.
A map provided to Chris by the Serbian Ministry of Transport clearly shows a cross, probably a plane, on the north side of the isle of Čibuklija. If this was indeed the Beaufighter, then it made more sense to charter a boat from Ram, the closest quay to the marked site.
Tony then had to write by snail mail again to the ferry company at Ram, to ask if it were possible to charter a boat for the purpose. Not only was there a positive answer, but the ferry owner, Zivorad (Zika) Sekulic, advised that he knew where the plane was, and that he believed that there was a report of the crash in the museum in the local town of Pozarevac which he would try to obtain.
The Hotel Hamburg, on the south side of the Danube near Smederevo airfied, was booked and became our centre of operations outside Belgrade, being about an hour from the capital and a similar time by road from Ram.
Two 255 Squadron wreaths had been ordered by Chris Eley from the British Legion for a service in the Belgrade cemetery, and Tony and Chris brought some British Legion crosses to leave on the graves. Shaun Stewart agreed to lead the service and the format and content was agreed.
The ferryman then advised that there had been no response from the museum, but that a local resident who was aware of the crash was still alive and was willing to meet us. He said that one of the Hercules engines from the Beaufighter was in the Military Museum in Belgrade. He also reported that the pilot and navigator were alive when pulled from the plane by fishermen from Ram Miladin and Angelina Lazic, and that it was unlikely that we could see the plane due to the height of the Danube at this time of year.
In Serbia, April 2018
With the exception of Shaun Stewart who joined us flying in from Athens, we duly flew from London Heathrow to Belgrade on 21st April 2018. On the Sunday web walked towards the Fortress in Belgrade. The intention was to get to the Military Museum early, but we found it did not open until noon, so we had ice creams and enjoyed the sunshine and the views of the Danube and Sava rivers. Although there was a fair bit of information about WW2 in the Museum, there was no Beaufighter engine on display, and it was believed that it was in the bowels underneath the museum, which could only be accessed by the staff on Tuesday, by which time we would be in Smederevo. Later we found that it was supposed to be in the Air Museum at Belgrade airport, though we did not have time to retrace our steps there during this visit.
On the Monday we went to the cemetery on the outskirts of Belgrade, meeting Lidija, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission representative with her gardeners. After photographing the two graves and the cemetery in general, we had a short service, led by Shaun Stewart, at the Cross of Sacrifice, and laid the two 255 Squadron family wreaths there. We also laid individual crosses by the graves. It was also an opportunity to see the graves many of the others crews of aircraft that had been shot down in 1944. Some of them were grouped by crew, instead of being in regimented lines that you see at larger cemeteries.
That afternoon we all drove to the Hotel Hamburg near Smederevo, and on the Wednesday morning we drove along country roads to Ram, on the Danube. Ram is really only a ruined castle, a resturant, a clutch of holiday homes and a ferry crossing operated by a very simple ferry, Before the bridge over the Danube was built near Smederevo in 1976, it would have been one of the main means of crossing the Danube east of Belgrade. Here we were met by several locals, including Zivorad (Zika) Sekulic, the ferryman who chartered a boat to us, the Deputy Mayor of the local town, two historians and Ivana Dimitrijvic, the Tourist Board representative from Veliko Gradište, the nearest large town. We also met Vladimir Markovic, who believed he has seen the airmen when he was 16; he is now 90. However, he spoke of a four-engined aircraft and three airmen recovered from the crash, which we now believe was a Liberator which also crashed in the Danube nearby.
We toured the river around the then-suspected crash site of MM838, though the river is five metres higher since a dam was installed downstream, so the land there has disappeared. What used to be an oval island is now only a horseshoe. This site is south of the kilometre marker 1081, though the marker for 1080, which is the site reported by the German Navy, does not exist any longer as it is now in the river. A short silence was had and an appropriate speech was made by Shaun Stewart.
We returned for an excellent fish lunch at the local restaurant, joined by all of those who came on the boat. We were then escorted up to see Ram Fortress, which is being rebuilt. Iliya, the manager in charge of the rebuild, had closed the work so that we could see the progress. He had been invaluable on the boat in being able to translate back and forth from Serbian. It so happened that the local schoolteacher and pupil came too for a very different sort of day for them. They shared the schoolroom with the Fortress manager, as there is now only one pupil at the Ram school, so Ilija mentioned what was happening and they came as well. These folk could not have been more helpful; it was sad to leave them. Zika the ferryman has promised to put a buoy in the river at the position where the plane was ditched, with details of the crash upon it. They will invite us all to return for the unveiling. With a total population of about 100, Ram is but a hamlet, so this event was quite something for them.
On the Thursday, we drove over the bridge that NATO had destroyed in 1999, since rebuilt, to the cemetery in Kovin, where the airmen reportedly had been buried before being transferred to Belgrade. Although there was no record of the burials in the registers there, a visit to the local church found a gardener, Zoran Munchen, who spoke good English. He contacted the priest to whom Tony had written, and the priest claimed to know where WW2 casualties been interred. We therefore returned with him to the cemetery and inspected the area. Subsequently this proved to be a false trail. Discovery of the true location of the field burials of Summers and Sanders came later.
The party returned to Smederevo for lunch followed by a visit to the Smederevo Fortress, where the Germans managed to blow up their own ammunition dump on 5th June 1941, killing 2,500 locals and injuring a further 5,500.
After a last dinner at the Hotel Hamburg, we rose very early on the 26th and all returned to the UK, though two of the party will be returning to Australia, from whence they came. Tony wrote to thank all concerned in Serbia.
7th May 2018
After we returned to the UK, the ferryman Zika advised that they had found that the aircrew had been shot by a group of Chetniks, in woods south of Ram. This was a shock to all concerned, implying as it did some form of war crime. Through further research at CWGC, we found definitive evidence that 255's airmen were buried in woods north of the Danube in the parish of Dubovac, as we had initially expected on the basis of the German Donauflottille report of the crash.
Visit in August 2019
Five of us, David and Peter Kirby-Smith, Michael Ricketts, Edward Waite-Roberts and Tony Summers, made a further trip to Serbia on 28th August 2019 with John and Jill Bennett joining us on 29th. The temperature was 34°C, and remained so while we were in Serbia. This visit was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the crash on 31st August, and to investigate the further information that we had found about the crash site.
On the Thursday morning we drove to the British Military Cemetery, where we met Nick Ilic, the Defence Attaché from the British Embassy, and Robin, an Anglican priest who looks after several of the Balkan countries. This time we laid the 255 Squadron wreath at the graves rather than at the cross, which seemed more personal. Robin started the service, but we included the RAF one that we used in 2018 too, with each relative of the airmen reading a paragraph or two. We then walked to a café close by, where Nick gave us an intriguing insight into the recent history of Serbia. It then took an hour to drive back to the hotel due to traffic and roadworks.
On the Friday we drove in two cars to the Hotel Hamburg, outside Smederevo. The swimming pool, which had been green in April 2018, was crystal clear and was in heavy use by locals. It was so inviting that David and Tony went to a nearby new store and bought swimming costumes - costing the local equivalent of 8 UK Pounds each. These were promptly used, joined by Michael and Peter. Dinner was in the hotel restaurant, though there was a 50th birthday celebration next door so the food was not quite as good as in 2018. The party finished in the small hours and noise continued until 4am.
After breakfast on Saturday 31st, we drove to the Serbian Orthodox church in Dubovac, where we met up with Nick Ilic, his driver, and the local priest, Father Vladimir, and his family. We picked up a local ranger, Sandor Olajos, who had already been to the site of the former graves, and all drove into the hunting forest east of Dubovac.
We were at last confident of the position of the former graves where the two airmen had been buried in 1944, as shown on a map produced by the British Army, kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and found in their archives after the 2018 visit to Serbia. This disproved the whole story of a funeral and burial at Kovin and enabled us to accurately locate the area where the plane crashed and where the airmen were first buried in the autumn of 1944. It made sense of the story of local children laying flowers on the graves. Not the children of Kovin, but the children of Dubovac. Partisan involvement explained how the personal effects of the crew reached the British Army before the 1946 exhumation took place.
Nick Ilic had been to the wood and found that the entrance to the area was via a locked gate. He therefore met the priest in Dubovac and thence the ranger responsible for the wood. The latter agreed to let us in and show us around, including the Arab style well. We decided to have a brief ceremony there and leave a cross for each of the airmen right by the well. The Serbian Orthodox priest started the service and we finished with our RAF one. We then triangulated to get to the area where Cecil Sanders had been buried, led by Nick. We reckoned that we were within a 20 yard radius of that position and took our time to contemplate the area, which was within woodland. These woods had been planted after the war for hunting purposes, with wide avenues kept clear. These were covered by old shooting positions, which did not look as if they had been recently used.
We returned to the path and diverted the 25 yards to where James Summers had been buried. This was in the cleared area, close to the woods. We had been told that any remains of the plane would definitely have been removed shortly after the war, so we did not bring metal detectors with us, as had been a possibility. As it was still very hot, the seven bottles of water taken with us almost completely disappeared.
We retraced our drive to the church, where we were provided with welcome refreshments by the priest and his wife. They, and the ranger, were most hospitable and the ranger refused the fee that had been agreed. Perhaps this event was as important to them as it was to us.
We returned to the Hotel Hamburg for a further swim. There was another event at the hotel, so we decided to try elsewhere for our evening meal. We went to restaurant "Beergarden" by the Danube where we were all beaten by the size of the dishes.
On 1st September we returned to Belgrade airport, stopping at the Air Museum close by. This comprised mainly of Russian and Yugoslav planes. The steps outside were a positive health hazard due to lack of upkeep. Edward was talking to Peter Nedeljkovic, the manager of the museum. Sitting on a tyre alongside many other planes was an airscrew, which he confirmed to be from the Liberator which crashed into the Danube near our Beaufighter. Over the last few months Tony had contacted two of the families of the crew that died in that crash, but the interest had been minimal so was not pursued. We now believe, from Kaššák's book, that only one airman was shot by the Germans.
Many thanks to all who attended and contributed to the success of this venture, and to those who were unable to attend this year. We will certainly remember their contributions to research that enabled us to be present at the crash site on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the event.
23rd September 2019
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