Last month, I had the honour of seeing through a project that has been a long time in the making. It involved a lot of work, not only from a number of CWGC staff, but also a string of external organisations both in the UK and Russia.
In June last year, I visited the Rybachy Peninsula on the northern fringes of Russia, just inside the Arctic Circle. That particular journey was the outcome of a great deal of research undertaken by the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), the CWGC Records and Commemorations Team and Mikhail Oresheta, a local Russian Historian and Ethnographer.
Our main goal was to confirm the final resting place of Sub-Lieutenant Edmund Seymour Burke and Leading Airman James Beardsley DSM, of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
On 30 July 1941, they were part of an unsuccessful raid from Aircraft Carrier HMS Furious, hoping to inflict damage on merchant vessels owned by Germany and Finland. Their Fairey Fulmar II aircraft crash landed in the sea and the crew were last seen getting into a dinghy.
The dinghy was later found washed ashore on the Rybachy Peninsula by Russian authorities, who buried the men as unidentified casualties.
Sub-Lieutenant Burke and Leading Airman Beardsley, had been originally commemorated on the Lee-on-Solent Memorial in Hampshire, UK.
We were delighted after our reconnaissance visit, to finally confirm the grave site of Sub-Lieutenant Burke and Leading Airman James Beardsley, what we believe are now the most Northern war graves we are responsible for. The trip also set in motion a series of events which led to me once again enduring an 18-hour round trip through rough terrain in the back of a Russian Military Vehicle to the isolated cemetery on 3 August 2017.
The Commission has a relatively small presence in Russia and no directly employed staff. The location of the cemetery on the very northern tip of Russia, falls within a military zone under the jurisdiction of the Russian Northern Fleet. The facilitator throughout the entirety of the project was the Defence Section of the British Embassy in Moscow, who oversaw the importation and transport of the CWGC headstone to the northern city of Murmansk, and was also a crucial link for communication with the Northern Fleet.
From the outset it became clear the Northern Fleet was determined to take on the challenge of renovating Vaida Bay Military Cemetery in its entirety. This not only included delivering the CWGC headstone by helicopter and renovating the remote cemetery over the course of six weeks, but setting in place a program whereby a delegation from the UK could visit the cemetery and take part in its dedication.
We arrived in Murmansk on 2 August and were delighted to meet Andrew Furlong, a relative of Sub-Lieutenant Burke who made the journey from Dublin, Ireland, to attend the ceremony, which would consist of two short services.
On the morning of Friday 3 August, we left at 7am for the two-hour journey north by road to the small village of Titovka. Here we met the Russian Orthodox Priests, the Deputy-Governor of Murmansk and the local media team who would be joining us for the onwards journey to the Rybachy Peninsular. The off-road element of the journey then took a further five and a half hours.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that we were travelling in what our Russian companions called “Business Class” this year, we had been upgraded from the ‘Bukhanka’ to an ‘Ural’, which while not designed for comfort or speed, was certainly an improvement!
We arrived at 3:30pm and the site was barely distinguishable from the location I visited a year previously. The site was now level, a new gravel surface was framed by painted bollards, and 15 new granite headstones had been erected to commemorate not only the two British airmen, but also the graves of 14 unidentified Russian soldiers of the Great War. The graves have been set on a bed of slate to ensure they do not get completely covered during the winter snow.
The avenue leading to the entrance was lined with young servicemen of the Northern Fleet standing to attention, a bugler stood ready to initiate the ceremony, and members of the public had gathered to pay their respects.
As we arrived, the temperatures had now dipped very low and a freezing wind and drizzle blew over the cemetery from the seafront. This only added to the atmosphere surrounding the ceremony, as the conditions certainly brought to mind what it must have been like for the soldiers who served and died in this harsh region during the Second World War.
The ceremony began with keynote speeches by Rear-Adrmiral Minakov, Capt. Connolly and John Nicholls of the CWGC. The religious service was then led by Reverend Ian Wheatley, interspersed with readings and poems read by Andrew Furlong, John Nicholls and myself. This was followed by the Russian Orthodox Service and the laying of wreaths on the British grave.
The ceremony ended with the playing of both the Russian and British National Anthems and a minute’s silence, during which all one could hear was the whistle of the arctic winds and sounds of waves crashing against the shore in the background.
It was an absolute honour to see this project come to such a meaningful conclusion, and the graves of Sub-Lieutenant Burke and Leading Airman Beardsley are now stood in their final resting place. That Andrew Furlong was able to attend the ceremony, made it all the more poignant.
Not all events are so unusual or remote, and many take place without much fanfare, but our aim is always the same: “Their name will liveth for evermore”, and no grave is ever too far.