October 12, 2022. Recently, Douwe Drijver, a researcher at the Stichting Missing Airmen Memorial Foundation, a non-profit volunteer organization based in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, asked if Pieter could help find family of a WWII airman from Prince Edward Island. (For more information – in Dutch – on the Foundation, see www.luchtoorlogfriesland.nl )
This organization organized the unveiling of a memorial panel in Wons, The Netherlands to honour WWII pilot Elmer Bagnall MUTTART of Cape Traverse, Prince Edward Island, who is buried in Harlingen General Cemetery, and the crew of Halifax L9561. (See https://onthewarmemorialtrail.com/2019/10/06/unveiling-of-the-memorial-panel-for-downed-ww2-plane-halifax-l9561-in-wons/)
Douwe asked if Pieter could find family of Rowan Charles FITZGERALD “….who was born in Charlottetown on July 12, 1915 and has been missing since June 28, 1942….” The plane he was on, “… Halifax W1175 of the 405th Vancouver Squadron RCAF came down in the Wadden Sea at 03:00 that morning. Only one crew member has a known grave….”
Then Douwe surprised us by saying that the crew member with a known grave, Murray Ralph KLEISDORFF of Australia, “…. found his final resting place in Harlingen….” His grave is between 3 unknown graves, one of which may just contain the remains of Rowan Charles FitzGerald. All four graves are in the row right behind Elmer Muttart!
…We meet family of Rowan Charles ‘Bunky’ FitzGerald….
Shortly after this request came in, retired music teacher Rowan FitzGerald got in contact, explaining that Rowan Charles, known in the family as ‘Bunky’, was his uncle. Rowan’s sister Janet was visiting from Alberta and the two of them would like to meet to share photos and stories of their uncle.
Pieter, left, with Janet FitzGerald and her brother Rowan FitzGerald. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)
… ‘Bunky’ was born in Charlottetown….
Janet had prepared a summary of her uncle’s life. “…Rowan Charles FitzGerald was the middle son of Geoffrey David FitzGerald and Flora Hope Wiggins. He was born on July 12, 1915 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where he attended West Kent School and Prince of Wales College. Rowan was active in sports. He played football, was a competitive speed skater, and played hockey with the Charlottetown Abbies and with a farm team in Colorado…..”
Bunky played hockey before enlistment. (Photo courtesy of the FitzGerald Family)
… Bunky’s true character shone through in an anecdote….
In addition to hockey, Bunky was a keen speed skater. Janet shared an anecdote that showed the true character of her uncle. “…The FitzGerald family loved competitive sports, but winning was never the most important thing. I remember our father, T. L. ‘Babs’ FitzGerald, illustrating this with a story about his brother Bunky. He was in a speed skating championship race. He and one other contender were way out in front of the pack, neck in neck, as they rounded the turn beginning their last lap.
The other man fell, and instead of skating on to victory, Uncle Bunky stopped, waited for his opponent to get back up on his skates, and then raced him to the finish line, winning by only a few strides. When asked why he stopped when his opponent fell, he replied that he wanted to win fairly because he was the faster skater, not because his competition had an accident….”
… Bunky enlisted with the RCAF in 1940….
From 1934 to 1935, Bunky was a signaller with the 8th Medium Battery Militia in Charlottetown. He later moved to Ontario, where he worked as a prospector for Kirkland Hudson Bay Mining in New Liskeard, an area rich in cobalt.
On July 1, 1940, Bunky enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in Toronto, Ontario. Janet noted that he “….began training in July 1940 ...”
From January 5, 1941 to March 31, 1941 he attended an Air Observers course in Malton, Ontario.
Bunky beside an Avro Anson plane in Malton, Ontario while attending an Air Observers course in 1941. (Photo courtesy of the FitzGerald Family)
Once the Air Observers course was completed, Bunky was sent to the No. 1 Bombing and Gunnery School in Jarvis, Ontario where he took the AB Initio Bombing and AB Initio Gunnery courses. Both were completed on May 12, 1941.
From Jarvis, Bunky went to the No. 1 Air Navigation School in Rivers, Manitoba for an Air Observers Advanced Navigation Course, which he completed on June 9, 1941.
Bunky in uniform after receiving his Air Observer wings. (Photo courtesy of the FitzGerald Family. Photo colourization by Pieter Valkenburg)
… Bunky was sent overseas and joined the RAF pool….
On June 29, 1941 Bunky left for the United Kingdom, and was ‘attached to the RAF from the RCAF’ as of July 28, 1941. (RAF referred to Royal Air Force.)
Janet recorded that Bunky was “…first with the 77th Squadron and in March 1942 was assigned to the 405 Squadron at Pocklington Air Force Base near York, England…”
… Bunky’s father and brother also served ….
Among the treasures that Janet shared were letters that Bunky’s mother had saved. In a May 9, 1942 letter written from Pocklington, Bunky wrote about a reunion with his father and brother Babs, who were both in the army and in England at the time.
“… Dear Mother,
As you probably guessed from our telegram the three of us have finally gotten together. In my last letter I told you about missing them when I was on leave. Well, they got leave when they came back from their maneuvers and came up to see me. I parked them in York and got to see them for the last three nights. They left for London this morning. We had a lot of fun. It was sure good to get together again…”
Unfortunately, it was the last time they met.
… The last flight of Halifax W1175 LQ-Q ….
Janet’s account noted that “…On June 27, 1942, flight W1175 LQ-Q left RAF Pocklington, piloted by Canadian F/Sgt William Field, at 23:32 hours on a mission to Bremen, Germany. Rowan FitzGerald was the navigator on the flight….”
As the plane was returning from Bremen in the morning of June 28, 1942, it was hit by shellfire (flak) and crashed into a sandbank called ‘De Waard’ in the Wadden Sea, off the Dutch coast between the Island of Texel and the mainland, 15.5 km from Harlingen, in the province of Friesland. There were no survivors.
The crew members were 3 Canadians, 1 Australian, and 3 British:
- RCAF Flt Sgt W E N FIELD Captain (Pilot) – Canadian
- RAF Sgt R F ANSELL (Flight Engineer) – British
- RCAF Rowan Charles FITZGERALD (Navigator) – Canadian
- RAAF Flt Sgt Murray Ralph KLEISDORFF (Air Bomber) – Australian
- RAF Sgt E O SMITH (Wireless Air Gunner) – British
- RCAF Flt Sgt J D AILEY (Air Gunner) – Canadian
- RAF Sgt A DANBY (Air Gunner) – British
Douwe Drijver had explained in his request that only one crew member had been identified – Murray Ralph Kleisdorff of Australia. For the next part of the story we had to look at records in the National Archives of Australia.
….Four bodies were buried in Harlingen General Cemetery…
The trail had run out for the information in Bunky’s service file, but reports related to the Australian crew member were available at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. The reports were not digitized, but when we asked Phillip Shovk of Sydney for help, he contacted Rod Covell, who lived in Canberra. Rod and his wife Kaylene agreed to look into the files.
An investigation into the crash, based on German records, verified that a Halifax bomber matching the serial number of the plane used by W1175 crashed into the Wadden Sea on the night of June 27 into June 28, 1942. “…Two days later, 4 corpses were recovered and as they possessed no identity, they were buried as unknown in Harlingen General Cemetery, Plot E, Row 1, Graves 3, 4, 5, 6...”
After the war, the four graves were opened. A December 29, 1948 report stated that “…only one of these could be identified….The six remaining crew members were therefore either lost at sea or at Harlingen as unidentified airmen in graves 3, 5, and 6….”
What about Grave 4? A June 22, 1948 report noted that “…the presence of RAAF dark blue material in Grave 4 indicates that ….Sgt M. R. Kleisdorff is buried there….” Murray Kleisdorff’s headstone was amended. The other 3 burials remain unknown. Perhaps one holds Bunky’s remains?
Harlingen General Cemetery in Harlingen, The Netherlands. Murray Ralph Kleisdorff is second from the left in the front row. The other 3 headstones are unmarked graves of airmen believed to be from the same flight. (Photo credit: Remco de Jong)
The 6 men with no known grave are listed on the Runnymede Memorial, situated at Englefield Green, near Egham, 32 kms west of London, England. The memorial lists 20,450 members of the Air Forces of the British Commonwealth with no known grave. (See https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/second-world-war/england/runnymede)
Janet ended her summary about her uncle’s life with “…Rowan Charles FitzGerald died 2 weeks prior to his 27th birthday. His descendants still hope to gain closure by locating his final resting place and ensuring his memory is preserved…”
A few weeks after we met, Janet wrote us to say “…Rowan and I are so very grateful for your interest and time spent in piecing together Uncle Bunky’s story. Thank you for all you are doing for our fallen boys and ensuring they are never forgotten….”
Thank you to Rowan FitzGerald and Janet FitzGerald for sharing photos and information on their uncle, Remco de Jong for the photo from Harlingen General Cemetery, Angela Walker for contacting the FitzGerald family, Don Smith for identifying the Avro Anson plane in the photo of Bunky in Malton, Phillip Shovk for contacting Rod Covell, and Rod and Kaylene Covell for researching the crash report in the National Archives in Canberra, Australia.
If you have a story to tell, please let Pieter know. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, comment on the blog, or send a tweet to @researchmemori1.
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