Woman ‘disgusted’ as uncle’s grave among those damaged in run-up to D-Day

A woman has described her fury after the grave of her war-hero uncle was one of several to be damaged in the lead up to the D-Day anniversary.

Julie Watson, 63, said the vandalism of war graves at the Hirst Wood burial ground in Shipley, Bradford, was “absolutely despicable” and had left her feeling disgusted.

Six gravestones at the cemetery, all of which are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to commemorate figures from the First and Second World Wars, were damaged in the incident, which police said took place on Monday or Tuesday.

Damaged gravestones
Damaged gravestones

Ms Watson, a nurse, said that her uncle, Peter William Bilsborough, a sergeant with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, was among those who had his gravestone damaged.

“It’s absolutely despicable, and I’m disgusted”, she said.

“It’s horrible that the people that are responsible for this are able to walk around freely, but those who died cannot because they sacrificed everything for us.

“My uncle died before I was born, but he has been in my life because I have put the time in to researching him and finding out about what he did in the Second World War.”

A gravestone found smashed in the cemetery
A gravestone found smashed in the cemetery

She described how her uncle, a rear-bomber, died aged 21 in November 1941 when the Wellington bomber he was flying in was forced to ditch following engine failure, leading him to drown at sea.

Ms Watson, from Wakefield, said: “I’m very pro-police, and I think they are going to catch whoever is responsible and bring them to justice.

“I think this must have been a targeted attack – the graves stand out because they are white, and whoever has done this clearly had some sort of equipment to help them.”

She said she was informed of the damage on Thursday – the D-Day anniversary itself.

Sad to report that a number of gravestones in Hirst Wood Cemetery have been smashed. It is mainly the Commonwealth War…

Posted by Hirst Wood Regeneration Group on Thursday, June 6, 2019

Posting about the incident via their Facebook page, the Hirst Wood Regeneration Group said: “It is impossible to understand the callous thoughtlessness of those who did this.

“Do they boast to their friends and relations that they managed to smash gravestones?

“What possible satisfaction can they get from such a mindless act?”

In a statement, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said: “We are deeply upset that someone has shown such a complete lack of respect on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a day when so many tens of thousands assembled around the world to reflect and pay deserved respect to the war dead.

“This is thoughtless vandalism and our staff have recently arrived at the cemetery to assess the full extent of the damage.

“Six of the eight war graves at this site were targeted and we will now clear away any debris and lay temporary markers.”

The spokesman added: “We will ensure all the damaged war graves at Hirst Wood are returned to a state befitting their sacrifice and continue to care for them now and always.”

The group said that the men whose graves were damaged also include Frank Whittaker, a leading aircraftman for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve who died in May 1944.

Damaged gravestones
Damaged gravestones

Others included First World War figures like Captain Crossley, of the West Yorkshire Regiment, who died in March 1919, gunner Henry Asquith Hardy, who died in January 1919, and Mr Stephenson, a sapper with the Royal Engineers.

Arthur Sheard, a driver with the Royal Field Artillery who died in May 1918 and was buried alongside his four-year-old daughter, who died two days after him, also had his grave damaged.

One woman who walks through the graveyard regularly, but did not wish to be named, said the incident was “shocking”.

She said: “It’s just awful to consider the lack of thought that has gone into this damage.

“The fact that it happened so close to D-Day is what I think has shocked people the most.

“It just makes you despair, really.”

West Yorkshire Police have said they are looking for witnesses.

Detective Inspector Amanda Middleton said: “The gravestones were destroyed in what was a mindless act of destruction and I would urge anyone with any information to come forward and speak to the police.

“High visibility reassurance patrols have been stepped up in the area whilst officers continue with their inquiries.”