Thugs smash up British war graves of fallen heroes

The graves of fallen British war heroes were deliberately smashed in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Those damaged include a headstone commemorating 21-year-old rear gunner Sgt Peter William Bilsborough, who drowned when his plane caught fire and fell into the sea while returning from a 1941 mission.

Sgt Bilsborough’s niece 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.

Ms Watson, a nurse, 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.’

She described how Sgt Bilsborough died in November 1941 when his Wellington bomber was forced to ditch following engine failure, leading him to drown at sea.

The grave of First World War driver Arthur Sheard, who died at the Somme, was also damaged at Hirst Wood burial ground.

Mr Sheard, from Saltaire, died aged 30 on May 22, 1918, at Morton Banks Military Hospital in Keighley after being injured in the field.

He was buried with full military honours alongside his four-year-old daughter Hilda Sheard, who died the day after her father. Mr Sheard’s headstone has been smashed into four pieces.

Memorials to leading aircraftman Frank Whittaker and soldier James Grimshaw Crossley, were also damaged.

Mr Crossley died in 1916, aged 61, having played a key role in the training of the Shipley Volunteer Corps and the Bradford Pals 1st Battalion following an extensive career in the mounted infantry.

Leading Aircraftman Frank Whittaker died on May 25, 1944, aged 40. His gravestone was smashed to pieces.

Graves to gunner Henry Asquith Hardy, who died in January 1919, and a Royal Engineers sapper were also broken.

West Yorkshire police are investigating the vandalism, which is thought to have been carried out on Monday or Tuesday this week, but discovered yesterday.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is responsible for looking after the graves, said they were ‘deeply upset’ by the damage.

Ms Watson, from Wakefield, added: ‘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.

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?’

Horrified members of the local community have reacted with anger.

Pauline Bradley-Sharp, secretary of Hirst Wood Regeneration Group, said: ‘Some people have got no respect for families’ feelings.

‘It hurts my heart to see this, it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s a disgrace.

‘I haven’t got anyone in the burial ground but we are all affected by this, and it must be horrible for the families who have got their heroes buried there.

D-Day is a very important day for us all and it is just dreadful what they have done.

‘If I could get hold of the people responsible I would give them a good smack round the ear.’

Richard Coomber, who is also a member of the group, added: ‘It is disgusting; it’s hard to think of suitable words to describe these people.

‘On this day of all days, you have to presume this was deliberate timing.’

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission said in a statement: ‘We are deeply upset that someone has shown such a complete lack of respect this close to 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 now assessed the full extent of the damage.

‘Six of the eight war graves at this site were targeted and we have cleared away the debris and laid temporary markers.

‘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.

‘Our thoughts are with the relatives and comrades of those whose war graves have been desecrated.’

Carole Ver, 75, from Nab Wood, walks her dog around the burial ground two or three times a week.

She said: ‘I’m really upset because I’d just been watching the commemoration of D-Day on the television and then I walk round to see that. It’s appalling.

‘It’s the war graves that have been singled out – I would say at least seven or eight of them. They’re the white ones and they’ve been smashed to pieces. It’s devastating.’

Another 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.’

Councillor Martin Love said the damage was ‘beyond comprehension’.

He said: ‘It’s shocking any gravestones can be vandalised in this way, and it’s particularly shocking they are war graves on a day like today.

‘This is a totally unnecessary crime, it is quite sickening really.

‘What on earth makes someone want to do that? It is beyond comprehension.’

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.’