A few weeks ago I mentioned I had once looked into the World War II death of a flier from Allentown who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
It’s fairly easy to get hold of documents on people who were in the U.S. armed forces. But how do you get information on someone who signed up with another country?
I can tell you my experience starting in the early 1990s, when I got interested in the fate of Bob Riedy, a 1938 graduate of Allentown High School.
In 1992, we had a story in The Morning Call marking the 50th anniversary of Bob’s death. It quoted one of his friends as saying he heard Bob was shot down over the English Channel in his Hurricane fighter.
The friend didn’t have direct knowledge. What was the truth?
Bob was working as an aeronautical engineer in the fall of 1940 when he slipped across the Canadian border and joined the RCAF. The war was raging in Europe, but the U.S. was still neutral and Bob wanted to get into the fight. He was inspired by the gallant British fliers’ defense of their homeland.
First I wrote to the history department of Canada’s defense headquarters. Here’s the address:
Directorate of History
National Defence Headquarters
101 Colonel By Drive
A researcher wrote back and said the Canadian National Archives has Bob’s service file. But the defense office had some information on Bob, including the revelation that Bob didn’t die in combat: “It appears that he died in a flying accident while posted to No. 15 Operational Training Unit.” The researcher gave me Bob’s service number, which he said I’d need to get the service file.
So I wrote to the National Archives at this address:
Personnel Records Centre
National Archives of Canada
395 Wellington St.
Five months later, I got photocopies of Robert Harvey Riedy’s service record. They show Bob was killed when the twin-engine Wellington medium bomber he was aboard hit a twin-engine Hudson light bomber while taking off. The accident happened at 1:25 p.m. on March 18, 1942, at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire, near Oxford.
Also from the National Archives, on an inter-library loan, I got the operational record books for the Canadian training schools that Bob attended. They offer a glimpse into the way pilot trainees lived.
Next I wrote to the British, because the crash was at an RAF base:
Royal Air Force Museum
Grahame Park Way
Hendon, London NW9 5LL
A museum researcher sent me the accident card for Wellington W4265, which identifies the pilot of Bob’s plane as Sgt. C.G. Wiley of the RCAF. Wiley was killed, and a third crew member was injured. According to the card:
“W4265 swung off runway during take-off, attempted to become airbourne but struck stationary aircraft on edge of fire track, aircraft rose 200ft in vertical climb, stalled and crashed.
“Pilot contrary to training instructions failed to stop aircraft and line up runway prior to take-off. Station commander: Accident due to swing & pilot inexperience and error of judgement.”
I also got a bill for 9.23 pounds sterling, which was about $20 at the time.
The researcher suggested I write to the RAF historical branch for the Wellington’s aircraft casualty file:
Air Historical Branch (RAF)
Ministry of Defence
3-5 Great Scotland Yard
London SW1A 2HW
A researcher wrote back, saying he couldn’t add to the information I already had on the Wellington. But if I came to the U.K., I could examine the No. 15 Operations Record Books (ORBs) at the Public Records Office in Surrey. “These records detail the activities of the unit and may include details of the flights undertaken by Sgt. Riedy.” Short of a visit, I could hire a record agent to do the research for me. I chose not to take my research that far.
In search of info about the lone survivor of the three men on the Wellington, Sgt. William John Donald Carter of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, I wrote to:
Royal Air Force
Personnel Management Agency
Royal Air Force Innsworth
Gloucester GL3 1EZ
That office forwarded my letters to Carter’s last known home address and next of kin. To this day, almost 11 years later, I haven’t heard back from anyone.
I placed queries in these two publications for RAF veterans in June 2000:
Bucks HP17 8AW
The cost was 10 pounds sterling, or $21.72 at the time.
Royal Air Force Association
Unit 17, Sovereign Park
London NW10 7QP
That cost 20 pounds sterling, or $37.57 at the time.
The query in The Intercom prompted a response from Basil Moslin in Manchester, U.K., who was in the RAF Bomber Command during the war. He put me on to Frank Gee of Surrey, who had extensive reference material.
“The gunner, Sgt. W.J.D. Carter, must have survived the war because I have made enquiries at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he is not listed as a casualty,” Gee wrote to me in July 2002. “Pity we don’t know what squadron he joined after getting fit again, presuming he wasn’t grounded because of his injuries. That may have been a way of tracing him through his squadron association.”
Gee also had these thoughts on blaming C.G. Wiley, the Wellington’s pilot, for the crash:
“I don’t accept that. It is so easy to put it down to pilot error without taking into account that the Wellington was war-weary and should have been pensioned off. Just think of the punishment she took in the hands of sprog pilots in the Operational Training Unit, the heavy landings. Anything could have happened to cause her to swing from side to side during the take-off run.”
An Internet contact, Ross McNeill of Worcestershire, U.K., was very helpful. He researches the RAF bomber, fighter and coastal commands from 1939 to 1945. I quoted him in my story about Bob. Here’s his website: http://www.rafcommands.com/
What don’t I know about Bob’s service in the RCAF?
Even though he was in training, there’s evidence that flew in at least one combat mission. After his death, his parents got a letter from him that included a clipping from the Times of London headlined: “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” The photo shows Bob and five other grinning fliers.
The German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made a dash for home across the English Channel from Brest, France, on Feb. 12 and 13, 1942. A large RAF force, in an effort code-named Operation Fuller, tried to stop them. If the newspaper account is accurate, Bob was in on the chase.
“Riedy could have taken part in the attack, but it would take quite a search of the archives to prove it,” McNeill told me in an e-mail. “The records for units involved in Operation Fuller are very confused and incomplete.”
Bob Riedy was memorialized as the first Allentown serviceman to be killed in Europe during the war.
Here’s the link to my April 2, 2000, Morning Call story about him: http://articles.mcall.com/2000-04-02/news/3313740_1_bomber-wellington-takeoff