Garden expert helps researchers dig up facts on mystery war hero

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His name on Sudbury war memorial has always been a mystery.

Squadron Leader John Flowerdew was the highest ranking officer among the 60 Second World War casualties remembered there.

BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time expert Bob Flowerdew ENGANL00120120805152052

BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time expert Bob Flowerdew ENGANL00120120805152052

But his link with the town was vague.

Now TV and radio gardening guru Bob Flowerdew has helped to solve the puzzle surrounding the flyer whose Halifax bomber was shot down over Holland in May 1943.

The Gardeners’ Question Time panellist, who lives near Diss, was contacted as a long shot and turned out to be a distant relative.

Researchers Shirley Smith and Valerie Herbert have spent years uncovering the stories behind the town’s war dead.

Tourist Info Centre in Sudbury town hall.
The Sudbury Museum Trust's new book No Glorious Dead: the impact of war on Sudbury. Profits will go to Royal British Legion. 

Pictured; Shirley Smith and Valerie Herbert. ANL-140430-140600001

Tourist Info Centre in Sudbury town hall. The Sudbury Museum Trust's new book No Glorious Dead: the impact of war on Sudbury. Profits will go to Royal British Legion. Pictured; Shirley Smith and Valerie Herbert. ANL-140430-140600001

But they had failed to find any information on Sqn Ldr Flowerdew’s background for either the narrative war memorial in the Town Hall, or their book No Glorious Dead published in 2009.

The breakthrough came after local historian Val decided to try again in the run-up to the anniversary of 30-year-old John Bernard Flowerdew’s death on May 5th 1943.

“Flowerdew is not a common name and I wondered if there might be a family connection between him and Bob Flowerdew,” she said.

“Bingo! They are both members of the same Norfolk family and Bob sent me a hand-drawn family tree.

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“It showed that the Squadron Leader’s father, John Lionel Flowerdew, had died in Sudbury in 1937.

“He was one of the ten sons of a Flowerdew who farmed on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. At last we had a positive link with Sudbury.

“A telephone directory from the 1930 lists Miss E M Flowerdew as living at Chilton House in Newton Road.

“Eleanor Flowerdew was John Lionel’s sister and the Squadron Leader’s aunt. It was a real breakthrough.

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“It looks as if the brother and sister were living together. They were born only a year apart in this huge family of 14 children.

“It makes sense of a newspaper report in the 1930s that as a young RAF pilot John Bernard had been up before his commanding officer for landing without permission in a field not far from Chilton House. He was obviously visiting.

“This large Victorian property stood on the corner of Alexandra Road, close to where Delphi is now, and became the offices of Melford Rural District Council before it was finally demolished.”

John Flowerdew’s Halifax bomber from 102 Squadron was shot down by a German fighter three hours after taking off from RAF Pocklington in the Yorkshire Wolds.

Its target was to have been Dortmund in the industrial Ruhr.

The aircraft crashed in pieces around the village of Westergeest not far from the North Sea coast in Friesland.

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There were no survivors, but only two bodies were ever found. John Flowerdew’s was not among them.

The villagers buried the two bodies in their churchyard and now a granite headstone records the deaths of all five members of the crew.

Every year on May 5, the anniversary of the crash, the people of Westergeest gather there to remember the flyers.

Local children still tend the graves of two wartime bomber crews who died close to their village.

Sqn Ldr Flowerdew came from a family with a proud military history.

One of his uncles, Gordon Flowerdew, was honoured with the Victoria Cross in the First World War.

Lieutenant Flowerdew had emigrated to Canada and was fighting with Lord Strathcona’s Horse when he was fatally wounded in the battle of Moreuil Ridge in 1918.

Four other Flowerdew brothers fought in the Boer War and one was killed.

Only four months before John Flowerdew’s fatal mission, the London Gazette had reported that he had been commended “for valuable services in the air”.

He was one of the RAF’s most experienced pilots with 1,400 hours in his logbook, 800 of them training young volunteers in Canada.

The citation reads: His cheerfulness and strong personality served as an inspiring example to all instructors and as Chief Flying Instructor assisted considerably in the production of satisfactory aircrew for the great tasks that lie ahead.