Tag Archives: Robert Durham

My Mother’s First Husband Went Missing In WW2. He is Found.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog for Remembrance Day about my mother’s first marriage during World War 2.

My Mother’s War Time Love Story

Robert Durham and Mary Oxenford married on January 23, 1943 in Abington Pigotts, near Cambridge England. Just over four months later, Bob was transferred to squadron 12.  On June 12, Bob’s plane took off from the base. It was shot down over Northern Holland. Bob and the crew were reported missing.

My mother insisted that Bob came to her in a dream. He stood before her and said, “Don’t worry Mary, I’m all right.”  That was when she knew he was dead. All the crew except one died and Bob was one of the dead, his body lost in the North Sea. Bob was given a Distinguished Flying Medal, posthumously.

Shortly after my husband died in May of 2021, I received an email from Martin Visser of the Netherlands. He had read my blog and asked me if I had any more information about Robert Durham, such as a picture of the crew in front of the plane they flew. My older daughter said I shouldn’t answer back as it was probably a money scam.

My husband loved genealogy and I knew he would have been like a dog with a bone, looking for a picture and more info about Bob Durham. I answered the email.

Martin Visser told me that Bob Durham’s body had washed ashore on the coast of Holland along with parts of the plane, near a town called Egmond aan Zee and was buried in the local cemetery at Bergen. A local man, Cor Van Pel who was recommended for the job by the Germans kept a list of all the dead airmen and the Dutch residents took the bodies away to to bury.

Bob was buried under a gravestone marked for an unknown soldier. Although he was found wearing his life vest which had his name, the government of the Netherlands is very strict about putting a name on a war grave. Sometimes airmen traded life jackets so it may not have been Bob. There was also the problem that the insignia on the life jacket was not the same as Bob’s rank in the wedding picture.

Martin Visser is part of a group of Dutch men who voluntarily track down the relatives of airmen and soldiers who died in World War 2 in order to find the proof to identify them and give their grave a name. They still search 77 years after the war ended. Incredible.

I could not find a picture of Bob Durham and his plane, but I did contact the British War office and was able to get Bob’s records even though I am not biologically related. The archivist was very happy to help in following up for a missing airman. The records showed that the insignia on Bob’s life vest was correct. He had been promoted after the wedding. My cousin, through an internet search, has since found a picture of the squadron in front of a plane. Unfortunately Bob wasn’t in it although he was listed as a member. It might be enough. Unfortunately, the British government represented by the Common War Graves Comity does not allow DNA research on soldiers from World War 2.

In early September of this year, I took a river cruise along the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam. I arranged to visit Bob Durham’s grave. I took with me a bouquet of flowers purchased in a local Amsterdam supermarket. I was met at the nearby train station by Martin Visser and two of the other researchers. As well as hunting for proof of identity of fallen soldiers, they also run a small museum located in a German bunker, look after the local lighthouse and rescue those in trouble at sea. All voluntary.

They drove me to the cemetery and I, feeling very moved, placed the flowers in a vase on Bob Durham’s grave. I gave a prayer and thought about how happy my Mother would have been if she was still alive, to know that Bob had been found.

For more that 77 years after the second world war, the Dutch go above and beyond to honour war dead who died fighting to free the Netherlands and defeat the Nazis. Not only do they still hope to name the dead, they are also hoping to create a memorial with the names of the unkown at the beach in Egmond aan Zee.

Each school child has a grave that they personally look after. On Christmas Eve, the local people come to the Bergen cemetery and light a candle at each grave of the war dead. I am hoping Martin will send me some pictures this Christmas. Bob Durham is not only no longer missing, his grave is loved and cared for.

Lest We Forget.

Martin Visser and Frank Meijer
Bergen war cemetery.

My Mother’s War Time Love Story

“Who’s this in this wedding photo of your mom?” My husband sorted through old photos for his genealogy hobby. “That’s not your dad.”

My Mother and Bob Durham

My Mother and her first love, Bob Durham

“Oh, that’s Bob,” I said.

He looked as surprised as I was when I was thirteen.

My Mom, my Dad and I had returned to England for the first time since we immigrated when I was three. We drove past an old airbase.

“That’s where Bob was stationed,” my Mom said.

“Who?” I asked.

“My first husband, Bob Durham.”

I was shocked, immediately thinking my Mom was divorced and I didn’t know it. She was sure she had mentioned her first husband to me before, but I don’t think she ever did. People of her generation didn’t like to talk about the war.

My mother’s family lived in a thatched cottage in the village of Abbington Piggotts. During World War two, every Sunday, my grandmother would host teas for the “boys”  from the 57 squadron at the nearby air base. Sometimes my mother would come home from London, where she worked, for a visit. During one of those weekend visits, she met Bob Durham.

Robert Durham and Mary Oxenford married on January 23, 1943 in Cambridge, England. Just over four months later, Bob was transferred to squadron 12.  On June 12, Bob’s plane took off from the base. It was shot down over Northern Holland. Bob and the crew were reported missing.

My mother insisted that Bob came to her in a dream. He stood before her and said, “Don’t worry Mary, I’m all right.”  That was when she knew he was dead. All the crew except one died and Bob was one of the dead. Bob was given a Distinguished Flying Medal, posthumously.

My mother gave her engagement and wedding rings to Bob’s mother. She said they had been married for such a short time and his Mother was devastated to lose her son.

Seven years later, after the war was over, my mother met my father, who had also been in the air force. They had a very happy marriage for 24 years when my mother was widowed again, this time from my Dad’s death from cancer.

This is not the end of this story. My husband’s genealogy hobby occasionally throws up connections and touching moments.

This past April, he got a message from an Anne Durham researching the history of her father’s brother. Ancestry.com flags names that might be of interest to members. John had just put up Bob Durham’s name by my mother’s. She wondered if Mary’s daughter, me, knew about Bob. She didn’t want to cause distress.

Sadly, Bob’s younger brother, her father, had died when she was nine. She knew very little about his elder brother who had died in the war. Typical of the time, the children were told not to ask their Grandmother about her eldest son, as it upset her. Time and again, John has found this problem in his research. She wondered, did we know anything about how they met? Fortunately, after my thirteen year old shock, my mother had told me her first love story and I remembered. We were able to send her two pictures of the wedding and she sent us a picture of my mother and her grandmother after Bob’s death.

For the last twenty years, I have had the privilege of laying the wreath for first

Visiting Santa

My Mom in happier times with my Dad and me. Visiting Santa at Bracebridge Ont.

the public school board and now the Region of Waterloo. For me, it’s not a political thing. On Monday, I will remember my Dad and my father-in-law who survived and my husband’s uncle and Bob who did not. For many years, I thought I was the only one who remembered Bob. It’s good to know there is someone else on the other side of the ocean who remembers too.

Lest We Forget.