The Times
World News

The Times

December 03, 2005

Treasured letter of love led pilot's daughter to his final resting place
By Richard Owen

After more than 60 years divers find the wreckage of a bomber in an Italian lake. ANNE STORM was only a year old when the birthday letter from her father arrived. Written on the eve of a mission in wartime Italy, it was the last that she would ever hear from her flight officer father.

In the years to come she read it over and over, fuelling a life-long quest to trace the bomber in which he and seven comrades died. This week, after more than 60 years, that quest seems close to fulfillment with the discovery of an aircraft deep in an Italian lake.

Mrs Storm’s father, Flying Officer Bob Millar, went missing while flying in a Liberator bomber over Nazi-occupied northern Italy on October 12, 1944, to drop supplies to partisans. Six aircraft crashed in poor weather but the wreckage of five was located after the war.

Inspired to find the bomber by the tender lines written by her father, four years ago Mrs Storm visited the mountain villages where the partisans had been operating but could not find any leads. She visited Neirone and Favale di Malvaro, villages in the mountains near Genoa, where the partisans had operated. "I spoke to the old men in the village squares, but they knew nothing about the fate of the Liberator — and in any case my Italian was not fluent enough," she said.

She turned to Harry Shindler, the representative in Italy of the Star Association, an organisation for Second World War veterans who fought in the Italian campaigns. He studied the flight plan and concluded that the bomber must have disappeared in a lake. He pinpointed Lake Bolsena on the border between Lazio and Umbria and contracted a group of amateur divers to search it, resulting this week in the discovery of a "very large plane" 100m down.

Mrs Storm, 62, from Marlborough, Wiltshire, hopes that the aircraft is her father’s lost Liberator. "If it is we will be able to lay him to rest at last," she said.

Mrs Storm, who was born in Australia but now has joint British citizenship, said that her long search had been sustained by constant re-readings of the letter sent by her father in 1944 to mark her first birthday. The 28-year-old airman was serving with the South African Air Force at Celone, near Foggia in southern Italy, as part of a Commonwealth bomber crew made up of British, Australians and South Africans.

Their mission was to drop supplies to partisans in Liguria in Northern Italy as the Allies advanced up the Italian peninsula. The bomber, piloted by Major Selwyn Sanderson Urry, was one of 20 carrying out the high-risk mission on the night of October 12.

When Mr Shindler traced the route taken by the Liberators, he concluded that it had failed to drop its supplies. "It seems it did not crash in the mountains, and the Italians have no record of such a plane crashing into the sea," Mr Shindler said. He contacted Romagna Air Finders, a group of Italian enthusiasts who track down Second World War aircraft and tend the graves of airmen who died.

The group’s divers searched the lake and spotted a "very large aircraft" at a depth of 100 metres. Leo Venieri, the organisation’s head, said that they were waiting for better weather before they could continue diving.

Captain John Hollidge, naval attaché at the British Embassy in Rome, said that the Royal Navy would send a team to identify the aircraft and bring it to the surface with the help of Italian naval divers.

Captain Hollidge cautioned that there was "no proof at this stage that this is the plane we are looking for, but we are taking the find seriously".

The site had to be treated with the greatest respect since it was in effect a war grave. He said that if it was the missing Liberator, a service would be held and a plaque erected at the lakeside.

The letter inspired the author Robert Ryan to write a novel entitled After Midnight, published this year. Mr Ryan, who consulted Mrs Storm while writing the novel, said that he had changed the characters’ names. "But the missing bomber is still at the heart of it. I hope the story has a happy ending beyond the book, and that Anne discovers the fate of the real Liberator KH158."

'I'm here because despots wish to rule the world'

My Dear Daughter,

This is the first time I have written to you and although you are as yet too young to read it, perhaps mother will save it up until the time comes when you can read it for yourself.

In two days’ time it will be your first birthday anniversary — a great event for your parents. My regret is that I personally cannot be there to help you blow out your single candle, but believe me lassie I will be there in spirit.

I am writing this from a place called Italy which is far away from our fair land — a place where I would not be by choice, so far separated from a wife and daughter so dear to me.

But I am here, precious one, because there is a war on caused by certain people who wished to rule the world harshly and despotically, imperilling an intangible thing called "democracy" which your mother and I thought all decent people should fight for. You will understand as you grow up what "democracy" means for us and how it is an ideal way of life which we aspire to put into practice.

All I ask of you, Anne dear, is that you in your life stay as smart as your mother and cling tight to the subtle thing that we call Christianity, which has been the core of her way of life and her mother’s and mine. I hope that you will love and respect me as I love and respect my father.

That’s all young lady. Have a happy birthday — may they all be happy birthdays. I hope to be home again one fine day. In the meantime lots of love to you and to mother.

From Dad (Bob Millar)