I had come to Berlin to pay my respects to a man who I had never met and didn’t know much about, but who had indirectly had a profound influence on my life. That man was Sergeant Harry Nutt Unwin. Harry was an Observer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. He was also my uncle.
Harry, along with around eighty percent of those buried in the Berlin 1939–1945 War Cemetery, was in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. These men, whose average age was just twenty-two years old, played a major role in the strategic bombing campaign against Germany that contributed to the Allied victory in the Second World War.
Harry had flown over Germany many times and was one month short of his twenty-third birthday, so the odds were against him that fateful night of 2nd September 1941 when his plane failed to return and the crew of four was posted as missing. Four lives were taken and four families devastated with just one word … ‘missing’. All four crew members from this ill-fated sortie are buried next to each other.
As I sat in the cemetery, on a bench in the shade of an old horse chestnut tree, and contemplated the futility of war, I realised that the graves of the dead servicemen and women all around me represented only the tip of the iceberg of grief. For every person who died there were many more whose lives were shattered, and the pain incurred then continues to echo down through the generations.
Harry was ‘missing in action’ for over a year before his death was confirmed. Harry’s mother, my grandmother, was unable to stand the grief of losing her first-born and the uncertainty surrounding his death. She died in February 1943 aged 57.
My father once told me, “My mother said she was glad she’d had two boys and two girls in case anything happened to one of the pair. But she was heartbroken by Harry’s death. I believe that the length of time it took for confirmation of his death was the cause of her death.”
My father was the youngest of the four children and still living at home when his mother died. The experience of losing first his big brother, and then his mother and the security of a loving home in his teens had an enormous effect on him – and thus on his future family. In that peaceful cemetery, a piece of the jigsaw of my father’s life fell into place for me, and I understood that he was a product of his circumstances and, like everyone, had done the best he could in life with his resources at the time.
Despite never knowing my uncle, I found the visit to his grave a very emotional experience. It saddened me that Harry’s final resting place is so far from his home and on foreign soil – ironically in the country he was fighting against. The tyranny of distance, and the inaccessibility of Berlin for many years because of the Berlin Wall, made it difficult for Harry’s relatives to visit. I am the first to have made the journey.
I just wish I had known how to locate Harry’s grave before my father died so we could have paid our respects to his brother together. Perhaps, if he had made that journey, it would have given my father an opportunity to make peace with his past.
NOTE: This post is an excerpt from one of my published articles. You can read the full article in the March 2015 edition of ‘Your Family Tree’.