Family of Grangemouth Spitfire squadron pilot ''extremely grateful' for memorial plaque

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A family from Belgium spoke of their pride for their heroic great uncle and of gratitude for those who worked so hard to create a lasting memorial to the fallen Spitfire pilot.

On January 29, 1943 Henri Jeanne Paul Delabastita was on a training flight from RAF Balado Bridge when his Spitfire, named Gibraltar, crashed at the south end of North Third Reservoir near Bannockburn. He was 37-years-old.

Although serving with Turnhouse 59 Operatonal Training Unit (OTU), he was stationed with Grangemouth 58 OTU Spitfire squadron at the time of his death and his name is one of the 71 which appear on the memorial wall to fallen Spitfire pilots located near Abbotsinch Road in Grangemouth.

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Now, eight decades after his death, members of Henri’s family flew over from Belgium for a special ceremony at the weekend which was also attended by Stirling Provost Douglas Dodds, Lord Lieutenant of Falkirk and Stirling Alan Simpson, RAF dignitaries, volunteers who uncovered the crash site and representatives from the charity ERSKINE.

The plaque was unveiled at an emotional ceremony at the weekendThe plaque was unveiled at an emotional ceremony at the weekend
The plaque was unveiled at an emotional ceremony at the weekend

Dirk Delabastita, the grandnephew of the late pilot said: “It is a strange and poignant experience for us to be part of this memorial event and to witness the unveiling of the plaque personally dedicated to our great-uncle.“In our lives, our great-uncle Henri has always been – very paradoxically – both a presence and an absence. A presence because both our dad and our grandad so often spoke with obvious pride, and invariably repeating the same anecdotes, about their heroic uncle and brother. This gave Henri a somewhat legendary status within our small family.

“Being here helps us as a family to imagine our great-uncle as the real person that he was – someone who walked the earth – albeit as little as possible, because he was most in his element flying high above it.

“We are extremely grateful to the Provost and Stirling Council, to the archaeologists, the builders and the artists, the sponsors, organisers and volunteers past and present who made this commemoration and monument possible. We feel honoured as a family and are moved by your generosity.”

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Henri’s tragically short, but remarkable, life saw him shot down and captured by the Germans in 1940 while flying a reconnaissance mission for the Belgian Air Force. Imprisoned in the famously “inescapable” Colditz Castle POW fortress, Henri promptly escaped and began flying again, this time for the RAF.

The plaque to Belgian Spitfire pilot Henri Jeanne Paul DelabastitaThe plaque to Belgian Spitfire pilot Henri Jeanne Paul Delabastita
The plaque to Belgian Spitfire pilot Henri Jeanne Paul Delabastita

He was on a training flight on January, 29, 1943 when it is believed his oxygen supply froze and his Spitfire crashed. His body was recovered at the time and he was temporarily interred at Grandsable Cemetery in Polmont before being removed after the war to Brussels.

The wreckage of Gibraltar – which received its name after the aircraft being paid for through a £5000 donation form the inhabitants of the island – remained submerged in the bog, undisturbed for 57 years until 2000 when the site was excavated.

Stirling-based archaeolgist Dr Murray Cook is one of the people who has worked to create the lasting memorial to Henri unveiled on Sunday.

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He said: “People have walked past the crash site every day without realising what it is. We just wanted people to think about him and remember him when they see the plaque – it seemed like a nice thing to do.”

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