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'Officialdom has shown a shameful disregard for the honour of these men'.

A WHILE ago Tom Dooley, of Spain, contacted Cleveland Family History Society and ourselves looking for information on relatives of Sgt Philip Crossan.

Tom's plea has now be answered and he reports that using information provided by Sgt Crossan's surviving next of kin and some of our readers, he has been able to fill in much of his missing family and RAF service.

In the current issue of the FHS's journal Tom writes: Before volunteering to join their respective air forces the 21-year-old Royal Air Force Wireless operator/observer Philip Crossan, from Middlesbrough, worked as an accountant's clerk and his 27-year-old Royal Australian Air Force pilot, Geoffrey Lennox Avern, from Cooma, New South Wales, was a teacher in Sydney.

They trained together as a Beaufighter aircrew in the RAF Coastal Command's No. 2 operational training unit, at Catfoss, Yorkshire. On completion of their training they flew several missions while with Coastal Command's 236 Squadron. Subsequently posted to the Overseas Aircraft Delivery Unit, they were killed while in transit from Cornwall to the Middle East via Gibraltar when their aircraft went down near the village of Gibraleon in Spain on April 19, 1942.

Written-off as an accident, the cause of the crash has never been determined.

When the British Assistant Air Attache in Madrid was permitted to visit the scene a few days later a Spanish Air Force Officer and a Civil Guard accompanied him. Much of the wreckage and weaponry had already been removed and he was allowed only restricted access to the evidence.

In theory the leader of a "non-belligerent" nation during the war, Franco nonetheless agreed to allow German troops to attack Gibraltar from Spain. Although this plan did not materialise it demonstrated Franco's zealous pro-Axis stance and is enough to create a suspicion that the British aircraft may have been shot down.

There are reports of British aircraft having been fired on, especially when flying in the vicinity of Gibraltar, but the truth is now unlikely ever to be established with certainty.

The crew's mutilated remains were buried by the Spanish authorities in Gibraleon's Roman Catholic cemetery but were removed in June, 1951, because the graves could not be properly maintained. They were re-interred in Huelva city's British Protestant cemetery in order, according to the then-named Imperial War Graves Commission, to "preserve" them and to "permit marking and adequate care".

Now the cemetery is in a state of ruinous abandonment. The graves are unattended and the standard pattern Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones identifying them are swamped by wild scrub.

Philip was unmarried and an only child. His next of kin, a cousin, remembers how his parents never overcame their grief, recalling how, whenever she visited her aunt and uncle, she was cautioned "not to mention Philip" because of the distress his loss still caused them. His mother died in 1973 and his father in 1981.

His grave, and that of his Australian colleague, lie in a desolate foreign cemetery forgotten by all except Dona Isabel Navior de Mendez, MBE, an aged but trim, neatly-dressed and sprightly Anglo-Spanish lady.

On each Remembrance Sunday she makes her way through the rampant undergrowth to place a single artificial tulip on each of the headstones, giving the words inscribed on Philip Crossan's tombstone a touching but biting poignancy: "For honour, liberty and truth he sacrificed his glorious youth".

Attempts to identify responsibility for maintaining the graves have been futile.

Although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Office for the Mediterranean Area in Rome said that they paid the British Consulate in Malaga to maintain them, the consulate has stated that the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain in Madrid was now responsible.

But letters addressed to the bishop have gone unanswered. Wherever the responsibility lies, officialdom has shown a shameful disregard for the honour of men who voluntarily gave their lives in defence of ideals supposedly held in high esteem by that same officialdom.

Tom can be contacted by email at


DEATH IN SPAIN: Philip Crossan, right, died when his aircraft crashed near Gibraleon in 1942. Since then there has been concern about the state of his grave, below
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Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 16, 2009
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