United Kingdom

Final resting place of lost Dunkirk hero is found after 80 years

The final resting place of a lost hero of Dunkirk has finally been found more than 80 years later.

The body of Lieutenant Piers Edgcumbe, the son of the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, had been missing ever since he and a colleague were killed during the German Blitzkrieg in May 1940.

The Blitzkreig - which translates as 'Lightning War' - saw Adolf Hitler's forces invade Luxuembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and then France in the space of a week.

As 400,000 Allied soldiers stationed in France retreated towards the beaches of Dunkirk, the aristocratic officer, 25, and Lance Corporal Leonard Webber, 19, formed part of a forward reconnaissance unit.

Their highly-dangerous role was to make contact with the advancing enemy and report their position back to headquarters as officials sought to gauge the threat posed by Hitler's troops.

But they were both killed when their armoured car was blown up by a German 88mm shell in the town of Esquelbecq, northern France. 

The final resting place of a lost hero of Dunkirk has finally been found more than 80 years later. Lieutenant Piers Edgcumbe, the son of the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, had been missing ever since he and a colleague were killed during the German Blitzkrieg in May 1940

As 400,000 Allied soldiers retreated towards the beaches of Dunkirk, the aristocratic officer and Lance Corporal Leonard Webber were tasked with reporting the Nazis' position. But they were both killed when their armoured car was blown up by a German 88mm shell in the town of Esquelbecq, northern France

They were hastily buried in a roadside grave before being exhumed and reburied side by side in the town's cemetery 18 months later.

While Lance Corporal Webber was identified and given a marked grave, the same could not be said for Lieutenant Edgcumbe.

There was no way of identifying him and his body was placed underneath a headstone which simply listed an 'unknown officer'.

While his family were made aware of his tragic fate they didn't not know what happened to his body.

But the unmarked grave has at last been identified as that of Lieutenant Edgcumbe thanks to an amateur British military historian.

Andrew Newson set himself the task of finding out whose grave it was after visiting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Cemetery in 2003.

Over the past 17 years he has pieced together hundreds of documents from French and British archives to provide the CWGC with overwhelming proof that is it Lieutenant Edgcumbe's grave.

They were hastily buried in a roadside grave before being exhumed and reburied side by side in the town's cemetery 18 months later. While Lance Corporal Webber was identified and given a marked grave (left), the same could not be said for Lieutenant Edgcumbe. There was no way of identifying him and his body was placed in the unmarked grave with his headstone listed simply as an 'unknown officer

Andrew Newson (pictured with his son Jacob) set himself the task of finding out whose grave it was after visiting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Cemetery in 2003. Over the past 17 years he has pieced together hundreds of documents from French and British archives to provide the CWGC with overwhelming proof that is it Lieutenant Edgcumbe's grave

The commission has confirmed this and said he will be given a named headstone as soon as the Covid-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, hopefully by this summer.

Mr Newson, a former corporal in the British Army's Royal Signals, said: 'Bringing someone in from the cold like this is really quite hard to do as the CWGC require an overwhelming burden of proof especially with Dunkirk where there are 4,500 missing men from that six-week campaign.

'I am very pleased and proud to be able to say that I had played a part in this happening.

'I am really pleased that someone, and quite a prominent person as well, who has been unknown for over 80 years has now been identified.

'I go to Dunkirk every year and the next time I go I will be able to tip my hat to him and lay a poppy cross on his grave and he will have a name.'

Lieutenant Edgcumbe, whose family seat was Mount Edgcumbe House on Cornwall's Rame peninsula, served in the 12th Royal Lancers with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940. 

Documents held in the National Archives at Kew, West London, showed that Lieutenant Edgcumbe and Lance Corporal Webber were listed as missing, believed killed, on the same day at a place just down the road from where they were buried. Pictured: The remains of their armoured vehicle after it was bombed

Lance Corporal Webber, from Chelsfield, Kent, served in the 2nd Battalion Queen Victoria Rifles.

Mr Newson, 52 and from Leeds, thought it was odd to find an officer and a soldier from two different regiments being killed on the same day - May 27, 1940 - and buried side by side.

He discovered that Lance Corporal Webber should have been fighting with his unit in Calais at the time but had been seconded for the reconnaissance missions at Dunkirk and served under Lieutenant Edgcumbe.

Documents held in the National Archives at Kew, West London, showed that Lieutenant  Edgcumbe and Lance Corporal Webber were listed as missing, believed killed, on the same day at a place just down the road from where they were buried.

Lieutenant Edgcumbe was the only officer from the reconnaissance unit listed as missing on May 27.

Lieutenant Edgcumbe was the son of the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, who is pictured above in 1956

With the help of a French historian, Mr Newson obtained an exhumation report from a local mayor's office dated November 26, 1942.

It contained a description of the dead officer which matched that of Lieutenant Edgcumbe including him having blond hair.

Mr Newson said: 'I realised that all probability the officer missing on May 27 in that area was Piers Edgcumbe and that he was in that unmarked grave.

'As the Allies were retreating so quickly bodies weren't properly buried at the time.

'After the British left and some normality returned to the area local people dug up the bodies and moved them to the cemetery because roadside graves were being turned into shrines.

'In a letter from Edgcumbe's commanding officer to the family, he stated he was there and he saw his armoured car hit by an anti-tank round and the car was burnt out with the bodies inside.'

Had he lived Lieutenant, Edgcumbe would have become the 7th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe.

Lieutenant Edgcumbe and Lance Corporal Webber were buried at Esquelbecq military cemetery 18 months after their bodies were exhumed from a makeshift roadside grave

His nephew, Piers Conolly McCausland, said: 'Piers Richard Edgcumbe's closest family are very pleased that his memory and his valour and his service for his country can be celebrated more fittingly now that his last resting place at the CWGC British military cemetry at Esquelbec, Northern France has been confirmed and his name is to be recorded on his headstone 80 years after he was killed in action alongside Lance Corporal Leonard Frank Webber, who is buried beside him.'

A spokesman for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said: 'We were presented with evidence proposing that Second Lieutenant Piers Richard Edgcumbe was buried at Esquelbecq Military Cemetery, partially identified as a British Officer.

'Further research by CWGC led to a positive adjudication by the service authorities and the grave will now be marked as Second Lieutenant Edgcumbe's final resting place.

'A CWGC headstone will be installed, and a service of rededication will be arranged by the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), once the situation allows.'

Mount Edgcumbe House was badly bombed during the war. 

After it was repaired and restored in the 1950s it was sold by the family to Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council in 1971. 

The two local authorities still own the estate today which is open to the public.

Chris Burton, Mount Edgcumbe manager, said: 'Mount Edgcumbe House is delighted that Piers is no longer missing in action and he has a known grave.

'An information panel telling his story and that of the bleak days of May1 940 can be found in the House along with a memorial chapel in his honour.'

The present holder of the Mount Edgcumbe aristocratic title is Robert Edgcumbe, 81, the eighth Earl. 

Evacuation of Dunkirk: How 338,000 Allied troops were saved in 'miracle of deliverance' after the German Blitzkreig saw Nazi forces sweep into France

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940 after Nazi Blitzkreig - 'Lightning War' - saw German forces sweep through Europe. 

 The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation - and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.

Described as a 'miracle of deliverance' by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.  

The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. 

But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.

Hitler's troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris - which they never achieved in the First World War - and moved towards the Channel.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation - and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned 

They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.

Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain. 

On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: 'The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.'

Boats of all sorts were requisitioned - from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts - and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves. 

They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action. 

When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.

Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.

As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore. 

Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.

The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.

Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,00 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.

The exact number was impossible to gauge - though 338,000 is an accepted estimate - but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued - men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.

But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, Dunkirk was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.

In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the 'miracle of Dunkirk' and resolved that Britain would fight on: 'We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!' 

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