The mystery of RAF air gunner W.J.D. Carter

Wellington Mk. 1 bombers

Wellington Mk. 1 long-range medium bombers

I’m writing again about 1938 Allentown High School grad Bob Riedy, who ran off and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was killed on a training flight in England early in 1942. This time I have yet another angle.

Riedy died when the twin-engine Wellington bomber he was co-piloting crashed at a Royal Air Force base near Oxford. He and the pilot died instantly when the plane hit the ground. The only other crewman, a gunner, was seriously injured.

In the 1990s, when I started looking into Riedy’s life and death, I wondered what became of the gunner. If he survived his injuries and were still living, maybe he could tell me what he knew of Flight Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy and what happened that day.

He is listed in RAF records as Sgt. W.J.D. Carter, an air gunner with the RAF Volunteer Reserve. His job would have been to man one of the Wellington’s .303 Browning machine guns mounted in the nose, tail and waist.

According to the accident report, Flight Sgt. C.G. Wiley of the RCAF was the captain/pilot of the Wellington Mk. 1 medium bomber, serial number L4265. He, Riedy and Carter were on a training flight when the accident happened at 1:25 p.m. March 18, 1942, at Mount Farm in Oxfordshire, a satellite base for No. 15 Operational Training Unit.

The report notes L4265 “swung off runway during takeoff, attempted to become airbourne but struck stationary aircraft on edge of fire track, aircraft rose 200 ft in vertical climb, stalled and crashed.” It goes on to blame Wiley: “Pilot contrary to training instructions failed to stop aircraft and line up runway prior to takeoff.” The station commander determined that the accident was due to “swing” from side to side, pilot inexperience and error of judgment.

The Vickers-built Wellington was a “write-off.” The other plane, a Hudson light bomber of the Training Ferry Pilots Pool with serial number N7332, was “damaged but repairable.”

RAF expert Frank Gee wrote to me in 2002 that the Wellington in the crash “was a very elderly aircraft. She was built pre-war and I’m pretty sure she was on No. 9 Squadron at the outbreak of war.” That squadron, he said, sent six Wellingtons to attack German warships at Brunsbuettel, Germany, on Sept. 4, 1939, and two were shot down. “By March 1942,” he said, “L4265 was somewhat knackered.”

Gee, of Surrey, England, was skeptical of the report’s findings. “I don’t accept that Wiley should be blamed for the crash. 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 [novices] in the OTU, the heavy landings, etc. Anything could have happened to cause her to swing from side to side during the takeoff run.”

Another RAF expert in the U.K., author and researcher Ross McNeill, noted that the damaged Hudson had been among 200 aircraft flown in from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California, in 1939 and 1940. He said it was repaired and used at the No. 12 School of Technical Training before being scrapped in February 1946.

Concerning the crash, McNeill emailed me in 2000 that Wiley had been in charge of the Wellington. In RAF planes, he said, the captain was the pilot regardless of rank.

Bob Riedy in Allentown High yearbook

Robert Harvey Riedy in the 1938 Allentown High School yearbook, the Comus. He studied English and science. “Bob is a quiet, good-looking lad,” reads the text alongside the graduate’s photo. “He likes football and basketball. Since he has good common sense and good judgment, we may wager that he will succeed in anything he takes up. Because his mind is usually wandering around in the air, he is planning for a career in aviation. Besides this, he has a love for the water. It just seems that Bob isn’t adapted to land at all.”

“If the clerk who recorded the crew details was being efficient,” McNeill wrote, “then Sgt. Wiley was in the left-hand seat in the cockpit, Sgt. Riedy was in the right-hand seat. For takeoff the gunner [Carter] would have been seated close to the wing root.” That’s the part of the wing closest to the fuselage.

Carter was admitted to Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, with serious injuries, L.C. Morrison of the Air Historical Branch (RAF), Ministry of Defence, wrote to me from London in 2000.

Gee said Carter “must have survived the war because I have made inquiries at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and he is not listed as a casualty. 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.”

I asked Morrison how I could find Carter.

“The Ministry of Defence does not retain contact with former Royal Air Force personnel once they have left the service,” he said. “The RAF Personnel section at RAF Innsworth will forward a prepaid envelope on to the last known address, bearing in mind that this will now be nearly 60 years old.” He gave me the address in Gloucester.

McNeill, of Worcestershire, helped me with the process.

“The way to go about this is to draft a letter to both the serviceman and his next of kin,” he wrote. “Put these into unsealed, individual envelopes and address with the serviceman’s rank, full name and serial number. Be sure to write your address clearly on the back [with] ‘If undelivered please return to.’

“Now send both the letters in one envelope to the RAF Personnel Management Agency. Include a letter explaining why you want to contact the serviceman or his living relatives and ask that they be sent to the last known address.

“One of three things will happen.

1. “The letter is returned as ‘addressee unknown’ by the post office. Look at the postmark to see where it was returned from and write to the local paper with a contact request. They will usually print it and sometimes an aunt or uncle will reply.

2. “The letter is returned by the new occupier of the house. Try a personal letter to the new occupier asking if they still have the forwarding address of the person they bought the house from. Follow the trail until you reach the serviceman’s family.

3. “The letter is answered by the serviceman or his next of kin. Bingo!”

I did as McNeill suggested in April 2000 and got this reply from P.L. Stafford of the RAF Personnel Management Agency, who provided the former sergeant’s full name – William John Donald Carter.

Stafford wrote, in part: “I have forwarded your two enclosures to the last known home address and next-of-kin address still held on record after 54 years, as requested, in the hope that a favourable response will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. I will inform you should either letter be returned to me for whatever reason.”

But there was a fourth possible outcome that McNeill hadn’t mentioned: that I would never hear anything. And that’s the way it went. I got no response at all. My letter was never returned, and I didn’t hear back from the RAF’s Stafford.

McNeill had also suggested I write to the Royal British Legion, which he described as “the U.K. equivalent of the VA.” I did that but never got a reply.

Morrison, at the Ministry of Defence, had suggested I place ads in two publications for RAF veterans – Air Mail, the magazine of the Royal Air Forces Association, and Intercom, the magazine of the Aircrew Association. I paid 10 pounds sterling ($21.72) for the following item in the Information Wanted section of Intercom’s autumn 2000 edition:

Ex-Sgt. W.J.D. Carter RAFVR, Air Gunner. He was injured 18 March 1942 when a Wellington Mk. 1 of 15 OTU crashed on takeoff at RAF Mount Farm, Oxfordshire. I wish to contact him or anyone who knows his whereabouts.

For 20 pounds sterling, I put a similar notice in Air Mail.

Nothing came of either inquiry. No one has ever contacted me with any information about Carter.

His fate remains a mystery.

12 responses to “The mystery of RAF air gunner W.J.D. Carter

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    I can understand why you are so persistent.

  2. William John Donald Carter
    Born 11th December 1921, Southampton registration district
    Died July 1997, Southampton registration district
    Two possible marriages:
    1943 to Nancy M Hughes, Caernarvon, Wales registration district
    1956 to Edith Walton, Holderness, Yorkshire district
    If he had had a close shave with death in 1942, I favour the 1943 marriage
    But there are no children from either marriages, so there is no immediate family to trace
    Hope this helps

    Andrew

    • Andrew,
      I’ve always hoped someone would see that blog and have the answer. Thanks for jumping in.
      Where did you get the info? How did you know where to look? Who and where are you, what’s your full name, and what do you do that makes you such a good sleuth?
      Would like to know because I want to write a follow-up blog on Carter and credit you.
      David

      • David,
        One of my hobbies is researching my family history so I have a subscription to the Ancestry website and was able to look at births, deaths, and marriages. There were a few possible births, but the death was easily distinguished so I was able to work from that.
        I live in Bracknell and am trying to identify a Canadian airman killed in a plane crash over the town during WW2, starting from the Commonwealth War Graves website, and then doing a Google search on the names there. It was while researching Robert Harvey Riedy that I came across your query.

        If I ever get any spare time(!), I could look for Carter’s siblings and see if there are any other relatives still alive.
        Andrew Radgick

      • Glad to “meet” you, Andrew.

        I should’ve known Ancestry was the source. I only have the U.S. subscription. Thanks to you, I can now write an update on Carter.

        It would be great if you could look for any of his relatives. But only if and when you have time. I appreciate the offer. As you can see from my blog, I could never find any of his kin.

        About your Canadian airman, when I was doing my research on Bob Riedy back in the ’90s, I had good luck with these sources:

        Directorate of History
        National Defence Headquarters
        101 Colonel By Drive
        Ottawa, Canada
        K1A 0K2

        Personnel Records Center
        National Archives of Canada
        Tunney’s Pasture
        Ottawa, Canada
        K1A 0N3

        Ministry of Defence
        3-5 Great Scotland Yard
        London, England
        SW1A 2HW

        Good hunting!

      • David,
        Thanks for the sources. Actually, Ancestry comes up trumps again as there are Service Records for all Canadian WW2 casualties on the website

  3. David,
    Right, I’ve compiled Carter’s family tree. Fortunately they continue to live in the Southampton area as the name Carter would otherwise be difficult to trace as it is so common.
    There are two nephews, Peter (born 1945) and David (born 1950). David had a daughter, Jacqueline, who married Jason Churcher in 1997, and has a son Jack who is now a teenager
    Regards,
    Andrew

  4. Wow, that’s really something! Thanks for the legwork.
    How can I get the nephews’ addresses?
    As for the service records’ being on Ancestry, guess I need to step into the 21st century. Back when I was looking into Bob Riedy’s death, I did it all by snail mail. Things sure have changed since the ’90s.
    Cheers,
    David

    • Telephone directories and voters’ lists offer the best hope of getting an address. Or they might be on Facebook.
      Failing that, there is a local social media website nextdoor.co.uk. if it covers Southampton, you could post on there to try and make contact.
      Regards,
      Andrew

  5. Thanks, Andrew. You’ve been most helpful.
    David

  6. Andrew, I sent Facebook messages to two men in Southampton who I thought could be Carter’s nephews. I haven’t heard from either, and that was weeks ago. I’d like to go ahead and post a blog saying you gave me the info that Carter survived the war and lived into the ’90s. OK if I use your name?

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