Monday, 7 September 2015

223. Memorial for 2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF

I've mentioned my interest in and involvement with a local association "Les amis du réseau Comète" ("The Friends of the Comet Line") in earlier posts here. The Comet Line was a network set up during WWII by Andrée De Jongh, a 24 year old Belgian woman, with the aim of enabling Allied aircrew who had been shot down in northern Europe to be repatriated back to Britain from Gibraltar. This laudable aim was achieved via a thread of volunteer helpers that stretched from Brussels, Paris, the Pays Basque and on into Francoist Spain.

The history of Comète contains many individual stories of heroism, courage and adventure by innumerable brave souls - both civil and military. These shining examples of 'grace under pressure' were counterbalanced by many unspeakably brutal acts by an enemy whose savage deeds were a barbaric throwback to medieval times. Several books have been written on the subject and there are also many personal accounts available online.

During the course of the annual commemorative weekend, "Les amis" retrace the old routes over the Pyrenees. Before other inland routes were pioneered, the original route taken by the Comète guides and the evaders led from Ciboure (close to St-Jean-de-Luz) up into the mountains before descending to cross the Bidassoa, the river that marks the frontier between France and Spain. After crossing the river, the evaders would make their way to a safe farm where they would be fed before taking a well-deserved rest.

During the course of reading the accounts of these crossings (one of which is Peter Eisner's excellent "The Freedom Line"), I became aware that two men were tragically drowned  during their attempt to cross the wintry Bidassoa on the night of 23-24th December 1943

One was Count Antoine d'Ursel, a Belgian civilian who had formerly been the head of Comète in Belgium. The other was 2nd Lt James Frederick Burch, USAAF, a 27 year old native of Terrell, Texas, who had been shot down in his B-17F over Holland on 10th October 1943.
2nd Lt James F Burch, USAAF
(taken 4 days before being shot down)
Trying to ascertain the facts of this tragedy with any degree of reasonable certainty at this remove (70 years after the event), at a time when little or nothing was committed to paper (for obvious reasons), is made more than usually difficult by the circumstances of that night. 'After action' reports were written - but given the darkness, the language difficulties, that the river was in flood, the fact that the evaders came under fire from the Spanish side, the fear and the fatigue, it is not surprising that the accounts differ in the detail.

Count d'Ursel's widow later caused a memorial (right) to her husband to be erected on the banks of the Bidassoa and, as an example of how we can sometimes be blind to the obvious, I unthinkingly accepted the fact that there was no memorial to Jim Burch. It was only after reading more into the events of that night that caused me to ask myself "Why no memorial to Jim?".

I put this short video together to shed some light on what happened that night - best viewed in full screen:

We, in "Les Amis..", decided that even 70 years on, that Jim's sacrifice and his passing merited a memorial so that future generations may be prompted to ask who, what and why. Accordingly, we have started a project to provide a memorial on the river bank to Jim Burch, the only aviator to lose his life while in Comète's hands.

We have found a stonemason who will furnish us with a granite memorial stone, engrave a suitable inscription and set it up at the riverside. We have therefore launched an appeal for donations to finance this project. At the time of writing (25th September) we are within touching distance of the target figure. 

On behalf of the committee of the "The Friends of the Comet network" - our heartfelt thanks to all those who have donated so generously for this worthy cause.. I will post news of the project here as and when it happens.

31st May 3016. Edited to add: thanks to many generous donations we hit our target inside 2 months. We inaugurated the 2 memorials at a new location during a moving ceremony held on the banks of the Bidassoa on 16th April 2016..


Anonymous said...

Did Burch have family in The USA, over the years have any of them been in contact?

Pipérade said...

At 27 yrs old, Jim was older than the rest of his crew and unlike many others, he was also married. Jim and Olga had no children. His widow was told little other than that he went missing during the Bidassoa crossing. I've seen correspondence from a close relative and Olga never recovered from this tragedy. She had no information and no means of finding out any details.
I managed to track down a distant relative but 70 years on, the story has faded into history.
As he was the only pilot lost by Comète during the war, and the fact that the bodies were never found after the Germans had disposed of them, I'm of the view that Jim's passing should be marked at the spot by a memorial. He fought and died for the freedoms that we enjoy today.
The nearby village of Biriatou is setting up a riverside trail and one of the key points will be the site where the two men drowned. His long overdue memorial will complete the story.