Interview with a mother På dansk Updated: 02 FEB 2009
Mrs. Harper about her son who rests in Skive churchyard
John D. Harper volunteered for the last dangerous mission - and the following day he was to go home on leave.
His mother and brother visit Skive in connection with the unveiling of a monument on Sunday.
Together with the rest of the crew, seven in all, John Derrick Harper, the British airman who perished with his plane over Nordsalling, had volunteered for the ill-fated mission over Danish territory.
Their aim was minelaying in the Kattegat, but as is well known they never got so far. Probably the plane came under fire as it flew over the West coast, and it only managed to carry on for a while over the Limfjord. Several eyewitnesses observed the burning plane which crashed in Skive Firth off Junget. Two crew members were saved, captured by the Germans, and released after the surrender. The rest met their deaths in the struggle against Hitler's Germany. It was not until mid June last year that John was found by a fisherman. His mortal remains rest in Skive churchyard. The four others lie buried in Himmerland.
To be short, this is the story of the English airman's destiny - as told by his mother, who together with her son Jeoffrey arrived at Skive the day before yesterday in order to attend the unveiling of the monument in Skive churchyard on Sunday.
Mrs. Harper, who is a middle-aged, almost white-haired woman, has been sorely afflicted by the war since apart from John she lost her husband, who died just six weeks before she received the message that the bomber which held her boy, had not returned.
Mr. Harper, who was a businessman at Birkenhead in the neighbourhood of Liverpool, took part in the war as an officer in a transport column under the RAF. His health couldn't stand this kind of work, and in early summer 1944 he returned home a marked man.
The couple only had two children, beside John the son Jeoffrey, who is 19 and has been called up since February 1945.
Hoped to see her son after the war
- The message that John's plane had not returned, which I received the
following morning, was a hard blow for me and Jeoffrey, says Mrs. Harper in a
conversation with us. Yet I didn't give up hope of seeing my boy again for
that reason. It wasn't certain that he had perished, and right until he was
found in June last year, well, I still hoped he might have been taken prisoner
by the Germans ... and then come back one day.
- When did you last see him?
- That was in August when he was home in order to celebrate his birthday. On 21 August 1944 he turned 21. At that time Dad was still healthy enough to celebrate the day with John's friends.
Mrs. Harper relates that John joined the RAF as a volunteer three months after he had left school in Babinton. He was then seventeen years old.
John felt he had to go...
- My boy felt he had to go, she says, and then he joined the air force. If he had chosen another branch of the fighting services, he wouldn't have had to join up until a year later. After finishing the first school in the RAF, he came to Canada where he continued the training. When he was eighteen, he came out on his first air mission, he wasn't sent out on dangerous bombing raids, however, until about D-day when the landing in Normandy took place.
- How many missions had he had before he went out on this one?
- Thirty-three over Danish and German territory. So he was familiar with the localities. By the way he was also involved in the decisive engagements fought around Caen in Normandy. John took part as second in command - that is the one who takes care of the bombs - in a bomber.
- Hadn't he had any mishaps before?
- Only a single time when he trained to be an airman. During a practice flight around Kent the plane suddenly had an engine breakdown. The crew made a successful force-landing, however. The undercarriage was crushed, but no one was hurt.
Knew that the last mission was dangerous
- Did John know that the mission between 4 and 5 October was dangerous?
- Yes, he knew, and he volunteered together with his comrades. They knew each other, and there was a fine spirit of solidarity between them from earlier bombing raids.The seven young airmen were all confident when they started that night... the next day they were all to have a sorely needed leave, you see. And the day before I had also looked forward to having John back home for a few days.
- What did your boy look like ... was he a cheerful fellow?
- Well, I wouldn't really know, she answers.
- He looked like his mother, the brother adds. And he never lacked a sense of humour.
As a boy John was very interested in sport, especially football. He also participated with great interest in the scout movement, ending up as a patrol leader.
For a time John wanted to be a clergyman.
- What would John have become if he hadn't been in the war?
- To say the truth he didn't think much about that. He was prepared to join the air force after leaving school. For a while he talked about studying divinity, but I don't know whether he would have started now after the war if he had lived.
- Have you talked to the two comrades who escaped with their lives from the last mission?
- Just after the surrender I got into touch with one of them, but he couldn't tell me anything. Nor did he know whether John had survived or not. By the way, my boy was promoted posthumously.
Experienced the war at close quarters
Mrs. Harper tells a little of life in England during the war. In the fatal days in autumn 1940 German bombing planes often flew over Birkenhead where among other things there is a large shipyard. One of the first bombs dropped over the urban area fell only sixty yards from the home of the family. So she has experienced the horrors of war at close quarters.
Mrs. Harper is very interested in Denmark - not least after her elder son was laid to rest in a Danish churchyard. She would like to go and see the spot where the bombing plane of which John was second in command had crashed - and still lies buried deep down in mud, by the way. Well, they will certainly also go to see Dr Rask who, as we know, tried to "run away" with one of the two Englishmen who survived by bailing out. Unfortunately the Germans had observed the two survivors...
She and her son would also like to see Copenhagen.
Likes Skive - and Danish eggs
During their stay at Skive John's mother and brother are the municipality's guests. They are enthusiastic about the town - and appreciate that two eggs are served at every breakfast. At home they have to make do with one egg every week. So they can just have one for lunch on Sundays.
Mrs. Harper and her son's trip is paid for by "De frie Danske" (Free Danes) in London - on the initiative of Vicar Fiig Pedersen and the "minister of finance" of De frie Danske, office head A.V. Pedersen, who lives in Salling and who has also visited Skive this summer.
As early as the 28th instant they will return to England on board the "Kronprins Frederik".
A few British officers and an English clergyman are expected for the unveiling of the monument on Sunday. The will arrive by air in the morning, at Karup airfield.