In memory of Sergeant Harry Kleiner whose Lancaster Bomber was shot down 80 years ago
By Alison Bailey
In May 1943 Esther and Joseph Kleiner of Dorset House Chesham Bois were devastated to learn that their 31-year-old son, Harry was missing in action. It was many months before Harry’s body was found washed up on the coast of northern Holland. He is buried in a Commonwealth War Grave in the Jewish Cemetery of Leeuwarden in Friesland.
Like his older brother, Mark, Harry had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve to serve his country. He was the flight engineer of Lancaster Bomber ED970 which was part of a raid on Dortmund when it was attacked by a night fighter over the North Sea. All seven crew members lost their lives. His sacrifice is commemorated on the Chesham Bois War Memorial.
Harry moved to Chesham Bois from Hampstead with his parents in 1940 when they purchased Dorset House, Long Park, Chesham Bois. The Kleiners joined the growing Jewish Community in Amersham which had left London because of the war but needed to be close enough for work and to look after their businesses. The Kleiner family business, J Kleiner & Sons, was a wholesaler and exporter of kitchen equipment, particularly enamelware, at their premises in Bishopsgate in the City of London. Mark, now managing the company, had married Phyllis Hirschfeld, and was living in Platts Lane, close to Hampstead Heath. Phyllis’s parents Tina and Alex left Hampstead in 1941 (apparently to avoid a particularly noisy anti-aircraft battery) and joined the Kleiners in Chesham Bois after moving to White Gables Copperkins Lane.
Esther and Joseph Kleiner
Esther Sonnenschein and Joseph Kleiner were born in 1886 and 1885, in the Ternopil region of Poland in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is today part of Western Ukraine. The Eastern European pogroms at the turn of the century made their lives dangerous and miserable and they came to London in search of a better future. Joseph’s mother had died when he was 2 and his father when he was 12. His brother, who was already living in London and 25 years older than him, returned to Kopychintsky in Poland to collect Joseph and bring him to England. Other relatives settled in the UK, USA and South America. In 1902, when Joseph was just 17, he established an incandescent gas light fittings company before becoming a wholesaler of kitchen utensils. Esther and Joseph knew each other as they were distantly related. They married in 1907, settled in Wandsworth and became naturalised British citizens. Mark was born in 1909 followed by Harry in 1911. The boys grew up in South London and went to Battersea Grammar School. After school Mark went straight into the business and Harry qualified as an accountant before also joining the brother in J Kleiner & Sons. By the 1920s, the business was successful enough for Joseph to purchase some land at 19 Hampstead Way and build a substantial family home. Esther and Joseph returned to Hampstead after the war but maintained business interests locally, buying woodenware from manufacturers in Chesham.
The Jewish Community in Amersham
During the war, the Kleiners were active members of Amersham’s thriving Jewish community. They welcomed Jewish servicemen into their home for Shabbat and the High Holydays and held services and celebrations at Dorset House before the Synagogue was established in August 1942. This was consecrated in a Nissan hut, on land donated by the Hirschfelds, off Woodside Road. According to Vivien and Deborah Samson’s book Rabbi in the Green Jacket, Mark remembered that his father and Alex Hirschfeld “went from door to door to establish a centre for the Jewish Community”.
Esther joined the Women’s Voluntary Service and helped Tina Hirschfeld run the British Restaurant canteen in Chesham Bois’ Pioneer Hall where children could get a good dinner for 4d, and adults for 1/-. Esther Kleiner got involved in all the committees, fundraising and contributing to the war effort in many ways, including cake baking and jam making competitions. She organised a knitting group to make balaclavas, gloves, socks and anything else the soldiers might need. Her granddaughter, Joy Meier remembers her as an expert craftswoman who would knit, crochet and embroider, filling her home with lovely quilts and decorative items that she had made herself. Esther had always had beautiful couture clothes from Paris but during the war made her own stylish clothes and accessories.
Both boys trained in the family business doing all sorts of jobs. In the 1939 Register Harry was listed as warehouse foreman. In 1940 he signed up for the RAF Voluntary Reserve with Mark. The brothers also joined AJEX, the Jewish Military Service. Harry trained as a flight engineer which meant that he was practical and had to have a deep technical knowledge of his aircraft and its engine. He was described as “a keen and efficient airman” who “had taken part in many operational flights against the enemy”. By 1943 he was serving in Bomber Command’s 57 Squadron, on Avro Lancasters. From September 1942 the 57 Squadron was based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire (later the base of the Red Arrows) and was a key part of the strategic night bombing offensive.
At 31, Harry was one of the oldest members of Lancaster ED970’s seven-man crew. The pilot, Sergeant Alan Leslie from Aberdeen was just 20, the navigator, Pilot Officer John Robert Morton from Bedford Park in London was 22, the same age as the wireless operator Sergeant Alexander Henderson from Dundee.
Lancaster ED970 took off at 22:35 on 23 May 1943 from RAF Scampton with 24 other Lancasters from 57 Squadron detailed to attack Dortmund. The Wing Commander believed that it was the largest number of four engine aircraft flown by one squadron at that time. They were part of a total of 826 aircraft targeting Germany’s oil supplies, during the preparations for D Day. According to the Wing Commander, 23 Lancasters returned from “a very successful raid” 24 May, but Flight Officer Chiver’s Lancaster ED707 and Sergeant Leslie’s ED970 were reported missing.
Lancaster ED970 was homebound when it was intercepted over the North Sea and shot down by Major Helmut Lent. It was the 70th of his 110 victories before he was killed in a training accident in 1944. ED970 crashed into the sea approximately 40 km west of the Dutch coastal town of Egmond aan Zee in North Holland. All 7 crew members were killed.
It must have been an agonising wait for the Kleiners before they discovered what had happened to their son. Two of his crew members, air gunners Sergeant Walter Bennett and Sergeant Peter Daly, washed ashore on Terschelling and Ameland islands in the northern Netherlands at the end of June 1943. Harry Kleiner’s body finally came ashore 10 August 1943 and was buried in St. Jacobiparochie, northwest Friesland.
The family were not informed until 4 November and placed this notice in the Daily Telegraph 8 November 1943: “Kleiner – Reported missing, May 1943, now reported killed in action. Harry, Sgt Flt Engr., deeply grieved by his heartbroken parents, his only brother and his sister-in-law”. His parents placed a similar notice in the Daily Telegraph every year on the anniversary of Harry’s death.
It was only after the war that the family discovered where Harry was buried. They had been informed that the grave was in St Jacobiparochie but had no idea where this was. A chance meeting with a Dutch sea captain whilst on holiday in Cornwall led them to finding his grave. As they were unable to repatriate his body, they decided to have him moved to the Jewish Cemetery in Leeuwarden, the capital of in Friesland. Nearly all Leeuwarden’s Jewish population were murdered in Nazi death camps, but it had been an important centre of Jewish culture and learning. The Jewish Cemetery dates from 1833 and is on the northern outskirts of the town on Spanjaardslaan Road. Harry’s grave is in the southeastern part of the cemetery, close to the graves of Dutch Jewish resistance fighters. The Kleiners had a private memorial erected at the grave and today it is recognised as the only Commonwealth War Grave in the cemetery. The Kleiners visited the grave every year and became close friends with the custodians of the cemetery, Jewish survivors who had been successfully hidden during the war. Today, Elske Dusselaar Van Kammen has adopted the grave as part of the Dutch War Graves Foundation, Oorlogs Graven Stichting. With this scheme, volunteers adopt individual war graves, keeping the site clean and maintaining the individual memorials. They ensure that flowers adorn their adopted grave and that the name and deeds of the service personnel interred there are never forgotten.
Whilst the airgunners, Sgts Bennett and Daly were laid to rest on the islands where they came ashore, the remaining crew members were never recovered. Sgt Hemmingway (the bomb aimer), Sgt Leslie, Sgt Henderson and P/O Morton are commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede.
11 November 1943 a memorial service was held at Woodside Hall conducted by Dr Rapaport the minister of the synagogue who “delivered a beautifully worded address of appreciation”. He said that “Harry was the son of loving and devoted parents, and his kindly disposition had endeared him to all who had the privilege of knowing him. His passing was the passing of a noble soul, the soul of a man of few years, but of many virtues. He had gladly undertaken the most hazardous duties, and had made the supreme sacrifice in the cause of right and freedom and for his suffering brethren who had been persecuted by a foul enemy. He had gone to his death heroically and it could be truly said that his life had not been in vain”.
The Rabbi in the Green Jacket: Memories of Jewish Buckinghamshire 1939-1945 by Vivien and Deborah Samson
Roger Cook Chesham Bois War Memorial – Amersham Museum
British Newspaper Archive
The National Archives
Commonwealth War Graves Commission