Families Touched by War; IN the Final Part of Our Family History Series, TONY HENDERSON Discovers the Impact of War on One Tyneside Household

Article excerpt

Byline: TONY HENDERSON

FOR Jef Robinson, two family history trails of twists, turns and coincidences would both lead to Canada. Jef, who lives in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, uncovered the way war shaped and shattered the lives of one family, and how an orphanage shipped two of his grandfather's young sisters overseas. One line of research was into John Sillender, who was the uncle of Jef's late wife Yvonne. John, born in 1923, grew up in Scotswood, Newcastle, and served his time as an apprentice at the Vickers Armstrong factory. When the Second World War broke out, his was a reserved occupation, but he volunteered for the RAF and trained as an air gunner on Lancaster bombers. The new crew of which John was part was posted to 50 Squadron. They would not survive their first day of operations. They took off on their first operational flight at 4.30am on September 11, 1944, to bomb enemy positions around the French port of Le Havre. They returned at 9.30am. But, at 11pm, they were airborne again as part of a raid on Darmstadt in Germany. Their aircraft was shot down 35 miles from Darmstadt, with no survivors. The only other Lancaster lost by 50 Squadron in that raid was the plane which John's crew had flown on familiarisation flights five days earlier. Jef tracked down the location of the crew's graves in Germany. Continued Four years earlier, while investigating his own family tree, he had discovered a cousin 16 living in Germany. Coincidentally, his relative Tom Leonard lived only 20km from the cemetery and agreed to take and send back photographs of the graves. Jef recalls how he was touched to see that a small wooden remembrance cross had been placed on the grave of the pilot, Canadian Archie McLean. "It suggested that someone remembered him and had visited the grave. That someone, I thought, would most likely be a member of his family who might wish to know what had happened to the crew, and I decided to try to trace one of Archie's relatives," says Jef. He learned from the War Graves Commission records that Archie came from Petrolia in Ontario. Jef wrote to the local paper - the Petrolia Topic - and was contacted by Archie's boyhood friend Ken Bain, and Norman Sutherland, who had lived next door to the McLean family. They said that Archie's sisters had married and moved to London in Ontario. That prompted another letter to their local paper, the London Free Press. "It triggered the most amazing sequence of events," says Jef. …