Skip to content
Recruiting now.Explore navy careers

WW2 naval aviators finally honoured in Arctic as 76-year-old mystery is solved

17 August 2017
The graves of two naval aviators lost in one of the most disastrous air attacks in history have finally been dedicated - 76 years after the men were last seen clambering into a dinghy.

The final resting place of pilot Sub Lt Edward 'Seymour' Burke and his gunner Leading Airman James Beardsley has at last been located and now dedicated in Russia - making it the newest and most northerly Commonwealth War Graves 'cemetery' in the world.

The two men crewed a Fairey Fulmar fighter, launched from the aircraft carrier HMS Furious in one of the first efforts to help the Soviet Union after it had been invaded by Hitler's armies in the summer of 1941.

The Royal Navy dispatched a task force to strike at German forces in two key ports in Nazi-occupied Norway close to the Soviet border: Petsamo and Kirkenes.

The challenge of the restoration project undertaken by the Russian Northern Fleet and the war graves commission should not be underestimated, but the end result is that their grave is properly and honourably marked

Venerable Ian Wheatley

The attack on the latter was a rout with 13 of the 29 aircraft launched from HMS Victorious shot down and another eight damaged - with nothing accomplished.

The two-dozen aircraft launched by Furious found the harbour at Petsamo almost empty of shipping, but the attackers claimed a small steamer sunk and several jetties smashed.

One Albacore bomber and two Fulmars were lost - including Burke and Beardsley's.

Comrades in 800 Squadron watched the men ditch their damaged fighter "with smoke pouring from its engine" around half a dozen miles out to sea, then scramble into a dinghy.

More than seven decades later, the fate of the two missing men has finally been determined.

Their bodies were washed up at Vaida Bay on the Rybachy Peninsula - about 70 miles northwest of Murmansk and 30 miles from Petsamo - where they were buried by locals in an unmarked grave.

Seven decades later and the Russian military alerted the British authorities to the presence of the unidentified graves, sparking a three-year effort first to identify the two bodies, then erect a formal gravestone.

Records at the Navy's Historical Branch, including HMS Furious' log, helped the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to formally identify the bodies, allowing a headstone to be produced, installed with the help of Russia's Northern Fleet (the peninsula is a military zone, while the grave site is only accessible by road for two months a year).

The Royal Navy's senior clergyman the Venerable Ian Wheatley, Chaplain of the Fleet, headed to the tip of European Russia with CWGC officials, senior Russian Navy officers and Andrew Furlong, one of Sub Lt Burke's relatives for a service of rededication.

"There is no way of knowing how they died, but even in July, Vaida Bay is the harshest of environments," the Ven Wheatley said.

"The challenge of the restoration project undertaken by the Russian Northern Fleet and the war graves commission should not be underestimated, but the end result is that their grave is properly and honourably marked, and their sacrifice recorded, in the remote beauty of the Arctic tundra."

He led a joint ceremony with a Russian Orthodox priest who blessed the Soviet dead buried in the now-restored cemetery.

Capt Chris Connolly, Britain's Deputy Defence Attaché in Moscow, made the 150-mile round trip from Murmansk 12 months ago to inspect the graveyard - then largely overgrown - and was deeply moved by the transformation.

"We are immensely grateful to the Northern Fleet for their assistance, facilitating access to this remote site, transporting the memorial stone and refurbishing the graveyard. It is un-recognisable from our visit last year, a huge amount of work has been done in the most difficult of conditions," he said.

The names of the 24-year-old pilot and his 22-year-old gunner, holder of the Distinguished Service Medal, can also be found on the Fleet Air Arm monument in Lee-on-the-Solent, where a memorial service will be held later this year for relatives unable to make it to northern Russia.

Related articles

Navy News Magazine

We bring you the latest news, features and award-winning photographs from the front-line. Navy News has been reporting on all that happens in the Royal Navy and its wider community since 1954.