Norfolk couple want answers from inquiry into deaths of around 300 babies
PUBLISHED: 22:20 27 October 2010
A Norfolk couple who suffered the heartache of a stillborn baby on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus 40 years ago have been at the forefront of a campaign to explain the infant death - and around 300 others.
Mike and Mary Pitcher lived on the island in the 1960s when he was serving in the RAF, but it was only 26 years later when they returned to put a headstone on their baby daughter’s grave in a British military cemetery that they realised many other service families had suffered the same fate.
More than ten years of campaigning for an inquiry to look into any links and causes paid off and the results are due to be reported in the next two weeks.
Mr Pitcher, 71 from Mundesley, is hoping the outcome will provide the “simple answer” they have been battling for.
He served on the island in the transport section of the RAF from 1961 to 1963. The couple lost their baby on January 5 1962 while wife Mary, now 69, was in a military hospital in Dhekelia, one of the two sovereign bases, along with Akrotiri, which Britain retained after Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 after decades of colonial rule.
It was 26 years later, after returning to the cemetery in Dhekelia in a bid to find a place to erect a headstone for their daughter, that Mr and Mrs Pitcher realised the full horror of how many babies had died.
Mr Pitcher, whose wife subsequently had three healthy children, said: “We could not believe what we were seeing, the majority of graves were for babies who had died from one hour old up to two or three days old. There were just rows and rows of graves.”
He said he also could not contemplate the number of stillborn babies there may have been, as in the 1960s any children who were stillborn were not given proper headstones.
From then on the couple launched a campaign to get the matter investigated. In 1999 Mr Pitcher wrote a letter to the British child rights activist, Esther Rantzen and he also took the case to David Prior, former conservative MP for North Norfolk, and also Mr Prior’s successor, Norman Lamb, to push for an inquiry.
In 2009, Nathan Morley, a reporter with The Cyprus Mail, described in an article the heartbreaking scene at the British Military Cemetery in Dhekelia.
He said: “I saw the babies’ graves – row upon desperately sad row of them. In one small section of the cemetery are buried over 56 babies, aged between one day and one month who died during 1964, some on the same date.
“Further on and I noticed another row of babies’ graves from 1963, at least ten of them who died in November that year alone.
“Then, to my horror, just across the path I stumbled upon even more child graves, dozens of these marked deaths from 1965. “In September that year at least eight babies died aged between just one and three days.”
Confirmation that a belated probe was under way came in a MoD letter prepared for Mr Lamb, dated September 8 2010, it stated: “I can confirm that additional births data has now been obtained from the General Register Office which will be used to form further investigation over the child mortality rates.”
The letter added: “There had been some difficulty in locating some of the data required.”
Mr Pitcher, who also served for a year in Aden in Africa with the forces, said: “Mr Lamb has really pushed for this inquiry, we are very thankful for what he has done. There are a lot of people who want closure with this, there are an awful lot of graves out there and no one knows why they died.”
He said that although it was compulsory for British military personnel to undergo a large concoction of inoculations, maybe six or seven, for things such as yellow fever and typhoid, he could not be sure why the babies died.
He said: “I do not know the reason why this happened, all I am looking for is a layman’s answer, I do not want a load of facts and figures. I just want a simple answer.”
Mr Lamb added: “This has been a remarkable campaign by the Pitchers to get this extraordinary issue reopened. I have great admiration for them. It looks like now they may finally get some answers.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence confirmed they were investigating the matter.
She said: “As part of this investigation, we are examining the completeness and accuracy of the births and deaths registration data.”
The report is due to be handed to Mr Lamb in about a fortnight.