The Channel Dash and a Yank in the RCAF

Bob Riedy in photo that ran in Times of London, 1942

This photo ran in The Times of London and shows Bob Riedy at far right. It ran under the heading, “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.”

It’s time to put to rest whether Bob Riedy saw combat before a training accident killed him.

I say he did.

The evidence is convincing, and it’s been out there since 1942, but I always hedged about it because I hadn’t checked one last authoritative source.

Recently, I did that, capping a search I began 25 years ago.

I’ve written before about Bob Riedy, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II. He learned to fly and was sent to England, where he was killed on a training flight at a Royal Air Force base near Oxford.

Almost a month after Riedy’s death, his parents received what The Morning Call of Allentown called a “voice from the dead” – a letter their son had penned. In the envelope, Riedy had enclosed a clipping of a photo from The Times of London that shows him and five other airmen standing in front of a British bomber and grinning broadly. They are not named. Over the photo, a line reads: “They swept into battle against the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau.” Beneath it is a caption titled “Breather” with text saying the men were among fliers who desperately tried to prevent the two German battleships from fleeing Brest on the French coast to reach German ports. The action on Feb. 12-13, 1942, was called the Channel Dash but formally was Operation Fuller. It pitted the RAF against 250 Luftwaffe aircraft, with the British losing 40 planes, the Germans, 17, and the battleships escaping largely intact.

Riedy, a 20-year-old sergeant-pilot, was killed the next month, on March 18. His parents were told only that he died in action. A boyhood friend from Allentown, Paul L. Fritz Jr., was serving with the RAF and found Riedy’s grave at a cemetery in Brentwood, Surrey, and cabled Riedy’s mother he had planted flowers there. For a 1992 article in The Morning Call, Fritz said he remembered hearing that Riedy was shot down over the English Channel in his Hurricane fighter.

Though Robert Harvey Riedy had wanted to fly fighters, he was assigned to bombers. The details of his death came out later in 1992 after I obtained RCAF and RAF records. They show he died at the RAF’s Mount Farm airfield in Oxfordshire on a practice flight when his twin-engine Wellington bomber clipped a parked bomber on takeoff, rose 200 feet and plummeted to the ground. Riedy was in the co-pilot’s seat. Both he and the pilot died, and the only other crewman on board, a gunner, was badly injured but survived.

Riedy had died in an accident, not in a blaze of glory over the channel.

The Morning Call published the The Times photo on April 16, 1942. The accompanying story doesn’t mention what Riedy said in the letter to his parents, the fourth one they received from him after his death. Evidently, his parents didn’t share with the newspaper the contents of any of their son’s last letters, and it’s not clear whether they still exist. His mother, Eva, died in 1968, and his father, Harvey, a Democratic leader in Lehigh County, died the next year. They had no other children.

The clipping Riedy sent his parents in 1942 points to his role in combat. But at the time of the Channel Dash, he was still in training, assigned to No. 15 Operational Training Unit, part of RAF Bomber Command’s No. 6 Group. That OTU trained night crews on the Vickers Wellington, the RAF’s main medium bomber early in the war. It had a crew of five or six, the capacity for 4,500 pounds of bombs, and machine guns in the nose and tail turrets and at the waist.

My question was: Were trainees pressed into the fight against Germany?

Early in 2000, I got help on this from an expert in England – Ross McNeill of Bewdley, Worcestershire. He had been a glider instructor in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was an author and researcher into Allied aircraft losses of 1939-45.

“OTUs were the final training stage for an operational crew and included operational sorties,” McNeill emailed. “As the crew neared the end of OTU training, the pilot was detached to an operational squadron to fly two sorties as a second pilot or ‘second dickey.’ The operational crews detested this duty, as they believed that it used up their quota of luck. Many aircrews were shot down, and the loss of the pilot meant that the ‘headless’ crew at OTU had to disband … and repeat the training with a new pilot.

“Once the second-dickey trips had been completed, the crew were required to graduate by taking part in an operational sortie in an OTU aircraft as either mine-laying or leaflet-dropping. After this trip, the crew would be posted to an operational squadron. OTUs were also used as diversions for main-force raids by flying navigation exercises close to the enemy coast, then returning.”

After arriving in England in the fall of 1941, Riedy was first posted to the 20th OTU at the Scottish port of Lossiemouth, which also trained night bombing crews flying the Wellington. He reported to the 15th OTU at Harwell on Feb. 3, 1942.

“This means that he was at OTUs for four months, … about right for the 30 hours’ OTU training and the additional ‘pilot in command’ hours required by a change in training requirements,” McNeill wrote. “I suspect that the posting to No. 15 OTU was due to the crew nearing the end of training and being moved down to a base closer to the occupied coast for their graduation operation, and were engaged in circuit/area familiarization flying.”

No. 15 OTU went on seven operational missions the year Riedy was in it. Was the Channel Dash one of them?

“The records for units involved in Operation Fuller are very confused and incomplete,” McNeill said. “In essence, Bomber Command flew 472 sorties and used every available aircraft, with the exception of Whitleys on the 12th February 1942 …. The RAF was initially not aware that the [German battleships] had sailed, and most RAF aircraft were intercepted before reaching the ships.

“So in summary, Riedy could have taken part in the attack, but it would take quite a search of the archives to prove it.”

He said all RAF units had to keep Operations Record Books, which came in two basic types, Forms 540 and 541. “One was the day-to-day war diary of the unit and consisted of aircraft serials, time up, time down, crews, mission details, etc. The other was the monthly summary of the unit missions and normally included postings in/out, casualties and social events. These ORBs still exist in the Public Records Office at Kew, London. The problem is that they vary in content from unit to unit and clerk to clerk.”

I wanted to keep looking, but the Public Records Office would not do the research for me, and short of visiting the place, which wasn’t practical, I’d have to hire a “record agent” who would do the work for an agreed fee. This would involve pulling the books, finding the entries, copying them and presenting the results.

That was the end of it. I dropped my search.

Recently, while going through my file on Riedy, I remembered that I hadn’t ever pursued a Public Records Office inquiry. Seventeen years had passed. Would I now be able to search online for the information? It was worth a try.

Sure enough, I found help on the website for the National Archives of the U.K. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. I set up an account online at no cost and went hunting. Navigating the site might have been difficult if I hadn’t come across a key reference code in a letter I’d saved in my Riedy file. The January 1994 letter concerned my search for information on the fatal training accident at Oxfordshire. It was from S.H. Clarke at the Air Historical Branch (RAF), Ministry of Defence in London. He said I could find the operations records for No. 15 OTU at the Public Records Office under catalog reference “Air 29/654.” I entered that code on the website and got a hit, but not what I was hoping for. Instead there was a line saying those records weren’t available online. Still, I had an inexpensive option: For 8.24 pounds, or $10.38, I could request a “page check” by the office staff. They would let me know if they found anything.

This was the last authoritative source I needed to tap, and I was finally getting around to it. Do the records show Riedy had gone up against the Germans in the Channel Dash, or anywhere?

No, they don’t. Not even close.

Here’s the National Archives’ response, sent by email two weeks after my inquiry: “Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to locate any evidence for a Sergeant Riedy participating in a combined RAF and RCAF effort 12-13 February 1942 to stop the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst from reaching German ports after fleeing Brest, France. There is only the evidence for the unit carrying out the ferrying of aircraft to the Middle East.”

Disappointing, but conclusive? Was this an example of confused and incomplete records?

In the end, it all goes back to The Times clipping that Riedy sent his parents early in 1942. I’ve often wondered what he said, if anything, about the Channel Dash in his letter. Maybe it was something like, “This picture was taken after we returned to our base. The Germans gave us a hard time, but I got home OK.” I also considered that maybe he hadn’t been in pursuit of the enemy battleships and had written: “Mom and Dad, the paper was wrong about this. We were in our planes but didn’t get near the action.” If that were the case, though, I can’t believe his parents would have shared the clipping with The Morning Call without clarifying the circumstances. Or that the newspaper would have withheld that information, deliberately deceiving its readers about Riedy’s role.

No, this proud young man, a 1938 graduate of Allentown High School and former aircraft engineer eager to do his part for freedom, wanted his family to know he was not just in training anymore. He had gotten into the air war against the Nazis and hoped to have another crack at them.

6 responses to “The Channel Dash and a Yank in the RCAF

  1. Very interesting. I knew some Americans served with the RCAF after war was declared in Europe, but you rarely hear about them here – I suppose because we weren’t in the war yet?

  2. David, another great story. You certainly went to the extreme to validate the story of Bob Riedy. Your not only a great writer but a great journalist as well. There aren’t that many great journalists out there anymore. Loved this story.

  3. “The Channel Dash and a Yank in the RCAF” is about a soldiers death. The newspapers, and the author of the story are unsure of how the soldier died. There is some contradiction as to whether he died in a training accident, or whether he was actually facing the enemy. I am sorry for the soldiers family’s loss. Rest in peace, Bob Riedy, and I thank you for your service.

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