Winter 2024 | Features

Rotary Crosses Borders To Honour War-Time Heroes

Rotary Crosses Borders To Honour War-Time Heroes

Wolverhampton Rotarian, Richard Green, was recently welcomed to Belgium by a local Rotary club to pay tribute to his would-have-been father in law.

On February 14, 1943, 23-yearold Flight Lieutenant Billy Kirk took off from RAF Leconfield en route to Cologne, piloting a Wellington bomber with his crew of five.

The bomber was attacked by a Luftwaffe night fighter flown by Ofw Hermann Schonthier two kilometres south of Meerhout, near Antwerp, Belgium. One Flight Sergeant was killed instantly, three other members of the crew managed to bail out and spent the rest of the war at a camp in Poland.

However, Billy Kirk and Pilot Officer Mason were unable to bail out as their parachutes had been burned in a fire that extended from the main wing spar to the tail.

As the local people watched, the plane circled, trying to avoid housing, but both airmen perished in the crash.

Listen to this article

A German army recovery group arrived to claim the wreckage, but an argument developed with the nearby Luftwaffe unit, led by Ofw Schonthier, who also claimed the wreckage as ‘theirs.’

Neither of them found the tailplane of the aircraft because a farmer had already hidden it. In 1985 it was recovered and placed on a pedestal as a memorial which carries the names of all six members of the crew.

The memorial is mistakenly called ‘The Wing’ because that was what locals thought it to be; however, when the error was realised, it was decided to keep the name ‘Wing’ because it has become so well known.

Billy Kirk and Pilot Officer Mason are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Antwerp.

Had he survived, Billy Kirk would have been father-in-law to Wolverhampton Rotarian, Richard Green, and grandfather to his son Jeffrey and daughter Kathryn.

On a recent visit to Belgium, the Rotary Club of Tessenderlo welcomed the family with an excellent example of fellowship and remembrance of an outstanding hero.

Richard Green, Jeffrey ad Kathryn got to meet the Mayor of Meerhout, Nele Geudens, at the local town hall.

Every year, on the anniversary of the crash, the local Association of Belgian Military Veterans hold a parade at the ‘Wing’ to pay tribute to the crew and give thanks for all the service personnel who gave their lives in seeking to liberate their country.

Richard explained: “Jeffrey, Kathryn and I arranged to visit Meerhout to pay our respects and this was when the local Rotary Club of Tessenderlo, under the leadership of President Andre Oeyen, stepped in to make our visit so memorable.

“We went to a specially arranged meeting of the club that was also attended by the Rotary Club of Geel to hear a fascinating talk by local historian Andre Van Genechten.

“The next day, we met at the Town Hall where we signed the ‘Golden Book’ in the presence of the Mayor, Nele Geudens. The book commemorates memorable events in the town.

“We then went to ‘The Wing’ accompanied by the Mayor, where a special parade by the Belgian Association of Military Veterans was staged in our honour followed by the playing of national anthems, short speeches and the laying of a wreath by Kathryn.”

During the ceremony, the family were introduced to 85-year-old Melanie Eyskens – who witnessed the crash and saw the remains of Billy Kirk and Mason in the wreckage before being told to go away by the Germans.

Richard added: “It was an emotional visit made memorable by the fellowship of Rotary across borders.”


Our magazine covers a wide range of fascinating features, exclusive interviews and inspiring human interest stories from across the world of Rotary.

Listen in audio format Download full digital edition

Rotary Magazine