Mary honoured for more than six decades tending German war graves in Sunderland cemetery
Ninety-three-year-old Mary Reid has received the German War Graves commission’s highest honour - the Gold Cross of Honour.
Military Attache of the German Embassy in London, Col Jörg Rütten, and Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany, Mrs Manuela Wendler. visited the city to present Mary with her medal at Sunderland Civic Centre.
The presentation was proceeded by an emotional ceremony at Castletown Cemetery, where Mary has tended the graves of 11 German servicemen and laid wreaths from their families.
Mary, who served in the Royal Ordnance Corps and was chairwoman of the Castletown section of the Royal British Legion, regularly visited the graves and memorial.
Among the Allied and Commonwealth war graves there are ten German war graves, containing the remains of ten aircrew and a serviceman from the German navy.
The aircrews were from German bombers which came down in or near Sunderland during Luftwaffe raids and patrols in the Second World War.
Four of them - Hans Werner Schröder, Franz Reitz, Rudolf Marten and Josef Wich - died in the destruction of the only enemy plane confirmed to have been shot down by Sunderland’s anti-aircraft batteries on September 5, 1940.
The Heinkel Bomber crashed in Suffolk Street, Hendon, close to the present day Deerness Park Medical Centre and the crew were buried with full military honours.
A bomb from the plane sparked the evacuation of dozens of homes when it was uncovered during excavation work for an extension to the medical practice in 2002.
Sunderland’s shipyards were regularly targeted as a vital part of the Allied Forces war effort with hundreds of bombs dropped on the city.
The families of two fallen airmen, Dieter Andersen who died on November 15, 1942, and Josef Wich, sent parcels to Mary for decades containing wreaths and flowers which she put on the graves every year.
“I was always happy to do it,” she said.
“I served in the forces and my husband was a veteran of Dunkirk who returned safely home to his family so we were among the lucky ones.
“When I was demobbed from the army I joined the Royal British Legion. We met every week and joined branches from across the region every year for the Remembrance Parade, marching behind the Colliery Band through the village to church and then the cemetery to lay crosses on all 90 graves of our fallen comrades.
“The German graves have their own little plot in the same section of the cemetery, and we paid our respects.
“I’ve never met the relatives of those buried there, but with a family of my own appreciate their loss so have done what I can.
“I’m pleased that the German government have recognised my efforts and those of the whole Castletown community, in remembering all those who lost their lives during the war.
“I did not expect anything like this. I was a bit flabbergasted,” she said.
“I never thought anything about putting the wreaths on the graves because I was in the forces myself and I was representing the Royal British Legion.
“The families in Germany would sent the money to headquarters and headquarters would send me the wreaths. I never thought twice about it because I was an officer of the Legion.
“I just want to thank the people of Castletown for all the help they have given me with the British Legion over the years.”
Col Rütten said: “Today, together we have paid tribute to Mrs Mary Reid who has devoted more than six decades of her life to caring for the graves of German servicemen she had never known personally.
“She illustrates to us all the need for reconciliation, peace and above all ‘not forgetting’ and remembrance.”
He paid tribute to Mary and the work of the Royal British Legion: “It is important that people are not forgotten just because they are far away from home,” he said.
“They lost their lives for what they thought was right and, even though history shows it was wrong, they should not be forgotten.
“The Royal British Legion is doing a fantastic job.
“This is the highest honour the German War Graves Commission can give and I am very pleased to be here to present it to Mary.”
The 48 war burials in Castletown cemetery include three British soldiers and 13 servicemen from RAF, nine airmen from the Royal Canadian Airforce, four from the Royal Australian Air Force, one sailor from the Royal New Zealand Navy, an airman from the Royal New Zealand Air Force and six airmen from the Polish Air Force.
At the south-western end of the cemetery nearby lie the graves of a serviceman from the German Navy and ten airmen from the Luftwaffe - one unidentified.
Mayor of Sunderland Coun Doris MacKnight said: “This was a very emotional occasion for us all, Mary is a credit to us all, her community and the city and it was very good of the German people to honour her in this way.
“This medal presentation is an illustration of the close links between our two countries with Essen a twin city since 1949.”
Stephen Liversage, North of England Regional Manager for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which responsible for 2,200 sites containing 45,000 war graves, added: “It was an honour for me to be there today to see a lady like Mary recognised for her work in the community.
“She has spent so many years as our ‘ears and eyes’ on the ground looking making sure our war graves are looked after and I’m proud people like her still do this.”