A NORTH-EAST historian will travel to Poland in the hope of exhuming a body to carry out a DNA test as he hunts for his uncle who died in a Second World War Prisoner Of War (POW) camp.

Lance Corporal John Thomas Saunders, known as Tommy, was captured by the Germans at Arras in France on May 20, 1940.

A month later he arrived at Stalag VIIIB POW camp and in 1942 was transferred to Lamsdorf, a large camp in Germany, now part of modern-day Poland.

Loading article content

On July 21, 1944, Mr Saunders, who was 25 and a member of the Tyneside Scottish Black Watch, was working in woodland with some other prisoners when an argument arose between the workers and guard.

The armed guard was unhappy with the amount of work the prisoners were doing but Mr Saunders, from Bishop Auckland, and his colleagues argued they had completed their work quota.

The guard, who felt threatened as the workers had saws and axes, shot and killed two of the men, Mr Saunders and a member of the Lothian and Borders Horses called Henry Thomson (CORR).

Mr Saunders' family received a letter explaining how he had died and, at the end of the war, a second letter was sent claiming he had been buried in a village near the woods.

Now his nephew Tom Hutchinson, from Birtley near Chester-le-Street, County Durham, wants to travel to Poland to find the grave he believes is his uncle.

He has made contact with villagers in Popielow (CORR) and according to local knowledge there are three unmarked graves that are believed to contain British troops.

The church's records, which could have confirmed who was in the graves, were destroyed in a fire in 1945.

Mr Hutchinson hopes to use DNA from his mother and surviving uncle to match that from one of the unmarked body's.

If a match is found, his uncle's body will either remain in the Popielow cemetery with a new headstone or be moved to a British war cemetery in Krakow about an hour away.

To get the exhumation Mr Hutchinson needs to convince the English War Graves Commission that there is enough evidence that one of the graves is his uncle's, but said he is relying on eye witness accounts and local knowledge in the Polish village.

He plans to travel there later this year to speak to the local authority in Popielow and get their permission to exhume the body.

He said: "It is a fascinating tale and I know the whole family would like to know if this is Tommy's grave."

He said, however, repatriating his uncle to Britain would not be possible.

A second historian from Bishop Auckland, John Dixon, who is creating an online war memorial archive, is investigating who the third grave might belong to.