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Wreath-laying project: a reflection

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

I was immensely impressed and proud when in 2018 a team of 10 St Anselm Hall

students volunteered to undertake a project to research each of the 23 Anselmians who

died in the two World Wars. After much detailed ground work they published a well

documented and beautiful book on the subject, entitled “Floreat - The Fallen”.

This was then followed by another project to lay a wreath at each of the graves of the 23

Anselmians, wherever the graves were located around the world. Both projects were led

by Fr Hugh Bearn who had served in the RAF.

I also served in the RAF and, living in Berkshire, was asked to lay wreaths at the graves of two RAF Officers buried in West London, which I was honoured to do, albeit that I was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, Pilot Officer William Thomas James O’Brien, the Royal Air Force. He was killed on December 3rd 1944 at the age of 21 flying a Hawker Typhoon as part of 184 Squadron, a Fighter Bomber Squadron. He went to school in Islington and is buried in the Hendon Cemetery. This cemetery is vast but with the assistance of the staff we located William’s grave and on their advice I drove my car to it. It was on the far side of the cemetery in a quiet corner so I laid my wreath on his grave there on behalf of St Anselm Hall. It was heading towards dusk on a winter’s evening with the sun setting behind some adjacent trees, and it was all very quiet.

Second, Flying Officer David Lillington, the Royal Air Force. He was killed on June 9th

1944 at the age of 20 flying a Handley Page Bomber as part of 102 Squadron, a Bomber

Squadron. He is buried in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Ruislip, his hometown.

It took me two attempts to find David’s grave because whereas Service men and woman

killed in action mainly have Commonwealth Wargrave Commission Headstones, David’s

family had chosen to erect a family headstone. Once I had discovered it with the help of

the Vicar, I found the grave and headstone to be in good order and in a quiet spot, so I

laid my wreath there on behalf of St Anselm Hall. This time it was a pleasant sunny

afternoon in early spring and the birds were chirping away.

These two young men died so young and so close to the end of the Second World War

the following April 1945. I served in the Royal Air Force for 30 years and lost a number of

my friends so laying these two wreaths was poignant for me. Also in the course of my

time in the RAF I had the privilege of serving with some outstanding German officers.

Now retired and standing before these two graves I felt a great sense of sadness at the

unnecessary loss of young life, and the need always to differentiate between patriotism

and nationalism. I stood briefly to attention, thanked William and David for their sacrifice,

and turned away.

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