Epitaphs on war graves often connect the modern day visitor to a life that was lost in the fight for freedom. This article will uncover a special story behind one such epitaph that can be found at Doetinchem (Loolaan) General Cemetery. The story is that of Warrant Officer Peter Thorne, Royal Air Force.
Peter Thorne died of wounds on 2nd February 1945 in St. Jozef Hospital, Doetinchem, The Netherlands. He was born to Thomas and Elsie Lilian Thorne in 1924, in Kingston Hill, Surrey and was a pupil of Mill Hill School in London between 1933-1940. By the time he left school the Second World War had started and he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). After his initial training, partly conducted in the United States, he was assigned to 102 Squadron, RAF. Based at Pocklington in Yorkshire, he became a crew member on a Halifax heavy bomber.
On the evening of 27th July 1943, Halifax JB864 was sent out to bomb the German port of Hamburg. Peter Thorne was one of the crew members, as navigator. Shortly before the mission the aircraft was repaired after being damaged on two previous operations, (9th – 10th June on a raid to Gelsenkirchen and 11th – 12th June against Düsseldorf). During the night attack of 27th - 28th July the Halifax was part of a bombing raid that consisted of 786 aeroplanes. That night Hamburg was attacked by 353 Lancaster bombers, 243 Halifaxes, 116 Stirlings and 74 Wellingtons.
The crew of Halifax JB864 consisted of:
Bomb aimer F/O.E.W.Slipp
Wireless op / Air gunner Sgt.C.A.Bailey
Air gunner Sgt.D.Harrison
Air gunner P/O.W.J.Slater
Halifax JB864 took off for Hamburg at 10.44pm (English time) and was shot down at about 2am on 28th July, near the German port. Three crew members bailed out by parachute; Slater, Slipp and Thorne. The four remaining crew were unable to escape and died as the Halifax bomber crashed near the village of Sasel, on the outskirts of Hamburg.
Thorne, Slater and Slipp were rounded up by members of a German flak unit and held captive at Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel airfield. From here they were sent to Durchgangslager Luft (Dulag Luft) prison camp in Oberursel, near Frankfurt am Main. After interrogation the men were separated and transported to different prisoner of war (PoW) camps in Germany. Peter Thorne was put in Stammlager (Stalag) Luft IV-B in Mϋhlberg. This was a large PoW camp that held men from many different countries, among them 5500 Dutch. One of these was Dick van Maarseveen and by chance he had the opportunity to take photographs during the time he stayed in the camp, between 1943-1945. These pictures give insight into daily life during the time that Peter Thorne was held there.
In early May 1944 Peter and three other PoWs escaped from the camp and hid in a wood nearby. After four previous failed attempts, Peter had succeeded in getting away. In the hideout two other fugitives joined them; P/O Brandford and Sgt Warren. The men planned to escape by train to Switzerland. The only problem they faced was the lack of trains to Switzerland from this part of Germany. Luckily, with the help of some French PoWs working outside the camp, the British got on a freight train to The Netherlands. After a five day journey westwards, the group sneaked out of the train after crossing the German-Dutch border in Hengelo. During these five nerve-wracking days they had lived off a few biscuits and water.
After leaving the train the party split in two, Peter joining one group, Brandford and Warren the other. A local Dutch resistance unit by the name of “Haeck” helped Peter into hiding. He was shifted from farm to farm in order to keep the risk of discovery as small as possible. The farm of a local resistance leader named Koeslag, near the village of Laren, would be his last place of hiding.
In November 1944 Thorne and the other Allied soldiers hidden at the farm were betrayed by a local neighbour. When the Landwacht (a paramilitary unit made up of Dutch collaborators) came to round them up the men fled into the surrounding fields, but soon discovered that they were outnumbered and decided to surrender. Shortly before surrendering Thorne kicked away a pistol, which had been kept by the men as weapon of defence, but which was unfortunately useless under the circumstances.
The prisoners were taken to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) prison in Deventer. Here Peter Thorne and Sgt Warren were reunited after the latter had also been rounded up in a raid. Fourteen prisoners were cramped into a prison cell of 2 by 3 metres. In one corner they found a tin to use as a toilet. Exercise in fresh air was denied to them. Fairly soon the prisoners were moved to another SD prison, the “Oxerhof” just south of Deventer. A few weeks later another transfer took place. On 14th December several prisoners, Thorne and Warren among them, moved from Oxerhof to SD prison “De Kruisberg” in Doetinchem.