A war story with a happy ending

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War stories can have happy endings, as retired Oamaru detective Bob Bamber has discovered.

On Wednesday evening, TV3’s Family Secret screened a feature about Mr Bamber, 91, and his family’s quest to solve a mystery that had worried Mr Bamber since the end of World War 2.

The mystery concerned a photo showing Mr Bamber with another soldier and a small boy in a British uniform.

“I was gobsmacked,” Mr Bamber said yesterday when at last, thanks to the television programme, he found out what had happened to the boy.

“When they found him over there, it hit the papers. I’m famous in the (Belgium) papers.”

Mr Bamber’s daughter, Susan Dawson, said in Oamaru yesterday the little boy had always been part of the family, even though they did not know his name, or what happened to him.

“My partner and I had looked for him too and drew a blank.”

The story goes back to the Allied landing at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the massive Allied attack to take mainland Europe from the Nazis began.

After landing at Sword Beach on the famous day and various harrowing experiences, Mr Bamber and his Royal Engineers Port Operating Company (No 5 Beach Group) eventually reached Diksmuide, a small town in West Flanders, Belgium.

“The town had been liberated when I got there,” Mr Bamber recalled.

He and others in his unit went on sentry duty and soon noticed they would be joined by a small five-year-old boy from the town, dressed in a specially made British uniform.

Wounded British soldiers in a makeshift hospital in Diksmuide had earlier made the uniform for the boy.

“When I came on duty, he was always there and when an officer came in I’d say, ‘Salute!’ He’d do it too!”

Mr Bamber shared what food and chocolate they had with the boy, whose family and others in the town were starving. He and fellow soldier Jim Wright were also photographed with the boy.

Then Mr Bamber’s unit moved on, to Rotterdam and Hamburg.

And the mystery began: What happened to the boy?

After becoming a policeman in his hometown of Blackpool, Mr Bamber emigrated to New Zealand where he and his late wife Maude raised four children. He joined the NZ Police serving 32 years in the detective branch, with his last stint in Oamaru.

“There were a lot of sad times when you had murders,” he said. “But I liked pitting my wits against the crims who thought they were pretty good.”

Yet the photo of the small boy he kept in a tin box remained one case the detective could not solve.

Then, earlier this year, his grandaughter, Jess Dawson, 21, contacted David Lomas, of the TV show Family Secret. The hunt began and following exhaustive research by Mr Lomas they finally tracked down the small boy. His name, they learned, is Rene Stroobant and it transpired the he had grown up to become a prominent Belgian trade unionist at the Boelwerf shipyard.

With the discovery made, granddaughter Jess travelled to Belgium to meet Mr Stroobant.

“I love him (Mr Bamber) very much; I did it for him,” she said yesterday. “He had been wondering about this all his life.”

Mr Bamber has since spoken to Mr Stroobant on the phone and received a letter from him, in which Mr Stroobant wrote: “Due to the actions of you and your fellow soldiers, as a five-year-old year boy I felt like a liberator myself. For me, this was a heavenly experience. I will always remember this as the time when my dream came true.”

A bond has now been forged between the two families.

“I’d love to go over there or them come over here,” Mrs Dawson said.

And Mr Bamber is finally content. After 68 years, the mystery of the small boy in the photo has been solved.

By CHRIS TOBIN