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British couple seeks family of late Burnaby airman

Norman Parker and his wife, Gill, above, have been tending Norman Gillis’ grave in England, and are hoping to get into contact with the pilot’s ancestors. - Contributed photo
Norman Parker and his wife, Gill, above, have been tending Norman Gillis’ grave in England, and are hoping to get into contact with the pilot’s ancestors.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Norman Parker never knew Norman Montague Gillis, but that hasn’t stopped him from treating the Burnaby man’s war grave as if it was one of family.

Parker is a former Royal Engineer with the British army who helped found a charity,  the Allied Memorial Remembrance Ride, which commemorates fallen Allies from the First and Second World Wars.

He happened to mention their efforts to a neighbour who told him there are Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves in their local cemetery in Rushden, Northamptonshire, England.

On his first visit, he found there was only one Canadian serviceman buried there, that of Gillis, a flight engineer.

“The fact he was so young and far from home, it touched our hearts, as he gave his life for our freedom,” Parker wrote in an email.

He and his wife, Gill, have been tending the grave ever since, and leaving flowers every Remembrance Sunday—the second Sunday in November, the U.K. equivalent of Remembrance Day in Canada.

“Would it be possible through your newspaper, to let any surviving relatives know that his grave is being tended?”

Norman Montague Gillis was born Aug. 20, 1921, the son of Duncan and Florence Ethel Gillis of Burnaby.

When he was killed in action, on Dec. 17, 1943, he held the rank of sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Parker also set about researching Gillis’ military service and how he came to be buried in his town. He learned Gillis was stationed with the 138 (R.A.F.) Squadron.

“He was based at R.A.F. Tempsford on special operations, dropping weapons and equipment to the French Resistance,” he wrote. “On the night of 16/17 December returning from a mission over France, his aircraft Halifax LL115 crashed at Capel Green Suffolk whilst trying to land at R.A.F. Woodbridge in extremely foggy weather.

“On this particular night 338 Aircrew were killed because of the extreme weather conditions. None were lost to enemy action. As this would have been a propaganda coup for the enemy, it was hushed up. The British crew dead would have been claimed by their families, but Allied crew members would have to be buried here in the U.K.”

Gillis is buried almost 100 kilometres (60 miles) away from where his plane crashed, in a different county, Parker said.

“The honest answer as to why he is buried here in Rushden is still a total mystery. We just don’t know.”

While the City of Burnaby Archives has a photo and a textual record of people with the Gillis name, it is unable to determine if they were relatives.

The NewsLeader contacted a Norman Gillis currently living in Burnaby but, while he recalled knowing of the family in question, largely because of the frequent confusion of the two families during his childhood, he couldn’t recall any other details about them. Anyone with any information on the family of Norman Montague Gillis is asked to call 604-456-6354 or email wchow@burnabynewsleader.com.

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