Every family has that someone special. The one who is held close to the family heart. The one whom stories are told about to generations of children. The one who was lost. The one who is always remembered.
That place in my family is held by my great uncle, Alvan Rodney WECKER.
My grandmother, Beatrice Anna SCHOLEFIELD nee WECKER, always intended to write down the family stories, but, as is often the case, she died before she started. Everyone always thinks they have more time than they do.
So, our little branch of the family lost many of the early stories of her childhood.
But recently, as often happens in family history research, I met a wonderful new cousin via DNA research from another distant branch of the WECKER family tree. He put me on to a little gem of a book called “Searching for the Hudson Bombers: Lads, Love and Death in World War II” by James R. Stevens. Mr Stevens wanted to write about his uncle who was killed in Algeria but, after a great deal of research, decided to expand his range and wrote two books about Hudson flyers in the RAF Coastal Command.
One of the flyers he chose to write about was my great uncle, Alvan Rodney WECKER, brother to my grandmother, Beatrice.
This wonderful book not only tells the story about Rodney’s experiences during the war, but also stories about his childhood and his family going back to his grandparents. These stories were contributed by another of his sisters, Mabel GREAVES nee WECKER.
Stories are also recounted about Rodney from people who he met during the war. Here is a snippet from Joyce Luckwell, the wife of Dick Luckwell who was Rodney’s pilot when he was in No. 59 Squadron RAF:
Rodney Wecker made a deep impression on me…He was very charming and handsome. He was so tall and very fair-haired. His German parentage was obvious to me but he was so special, with that wonderful Australian lilt to his voice.1
This “deep impression” Rodney made was such that Joyce and Dick named their second son in his memory.
Rodney and Toowoomba
Rodney, or Roddy as he was known, was born on 17 November 1919 in Toowoomba to Frederick WECKER and Anna Dorothea WECKER nee SPIES. Rodney’s grandparents were immigrants from Germany and Denmark who mainly became farmers in and around Toowoomba.
Rodney was the youngest of 13 children – nine girls and four boys. Rodney’s oldest brother, Frederick Charles WECKER, fought at Gallipoli and in France in WWI and deserves a post all of his own.
But Rodney was always the special one. Maybe because he died before he had a chance to fulfil all the promise and potential of his youth. Youth that was emphasised because he was the baby of the family. Frederick, older than Rodney by 24 years, would only have met his little brother for the first time after he came back safely from the horrors of WWI – a brother who was just a baby sleeping in a crib. What a contrast that must have been for Frederick.The year Rodney was born was famous as the year the Spanish Influenza arrived in Australia on the coattails of the end of WWI. Returning soldiers were said to have brought it back home with them from Europe.In May 1919, about a quarter of Toowoomba’s population was laid low, including most of the doctors.2 In the same month, the first death was reported in Toowoomba.3 Eventually around 15,000 Australians were to die from this virulent strain of influenza, with estimates ranging from 50 to 100 million worldwide. Ironically, only about 13 million people died from the conflict in WWI.4
Luckily, Rodney was born around the time the influenza was waning and appears to have been born happy and healthy into a large and loving family.
At the time Rodney was born, Australia was still a growing country. While Toowoomba’s population was only about 21,000, it was still the bustling commercial centre of the large rural area of Queensland known as the Darling Downs.5
Rodney’s parents, like his grandparents, were also farmers just outside of town but they eventually sold the farm and moved into Toowoomba proper. Rodney’s father, Frederick, began a well drilling business to support the family.
The Depression years hit this rural area hard. The poor economy and a drought led to the failure of Frederick’s business. There were some very lean times for the family, with threadbare clothing and a shortage of food. Everyone was doing it tough. However, despite these very bleak times, the family pulled together and eventually managed to rebuild the business.Such lean times would have left their mark on Rodney but it didn’t crush him. Rodney’s home was full of music and he became an accomplished pianist along with his sisters. My grandmother, for example, could also play the piano accordion while Rodney’s father was an organist.
Rodney was also an enthusiastic sportsman who loved footy and cricket, and was deeply involved in his church. My grandmother told us that Rodney was very intelligent becoming a fully-fledged accountant at 18 years old; however, he was too young to practice and joined the Lands Department instead.
Rodney’s obituary gives a picture of a bright young man with an even brighter future…
…Flying Officer Wecker, who was 23 years of age, was educated at the East State School and the Toowoomba Technical College and at the age of 18 years passed his accountancy examinations with brilliant results. He was keenly interested in sport and played football with the Valley Union Football Club and cricket with the Raff Street Methodist Cricket Club. He was also an active member of the Raff Street Methodist Church and was associated with the Sunday School and Order of Knights…6
Joining Up and Training
On 8 November 1940, just a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Rodney followed in his older brother’s footsteps and signed up to defend his country. However, while Frederick had joined the AIF in WWI, Rodney, who wanted to be a pilot, instead enlisted in the RAAF.
After a couple of months spent in initial flight training at No 8 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School) RAAF at Narrandera, New South Wales, Rodney was sent to Canada for further training at Camp Borden, Ontario.7 In a letter to his sister, Beatrice, he wrote,
However, much to Rodney’s disappointment, he did not pass the pilot’s course and instead undertook further training as an observer. In the same letter to Beatrice, Rodney wrote:
…You know, Bee, how much I wanted to be a pilot. That is now ‘off’ – at least until I get another ‘go’ at it, which I shall have later on… My squadron leader and instructor at the flying school decided that my flying was not quite up to standard. That is, my flying would not be put to the standard required by the service by the time I finished my course (of 120 or 130 hours). Given more hours, my flying might have reached the required standard – but that is impossible at the present time…
Initially, Rodney was sent to the Composite Training School at Trenton, Ontario in June 1941 and then, a month later, to No 9 Air Observers School at St Johns, Quebec9. In his letter to Beatrice, he continued:
…Having done fairly well in all my subjects in ground school work here and in Australia, they decided I should do an observers course. So here I am, at an observer’s school and doing plenty of hard studying… The observer as you probably know, does the navigation in the big bombers. It may please you a little to know that it is probably a safer job than that of a fighter pilot. However, it is a much harder course that that of a pilot’s, in that there is so much studying to be done.
At this school where I am stationed, we study such subjects as dead reckoning navigation (plotting courses, wind velocities, map reading etc), mathematics, maps and map projections, meteorology and a stack of other subjects. It is all frightfully interesting, and, I think, suits me, because I like maths…
Understandably, the observer’s course is much longer than that of a fighter pilot, and it wasn’t until the end of 1941 that Rodney graduated as an observer and was sent to England to join his first squadron.
Training Over – First SquadronRodney arrived in England on Boxing Day 1942. Two weeks later, he joined his first squadron, RAF No. 59 Squadron attached to Coastal Command where he was to fly the Lockheed Hudson bombers. Rodney completed his first flight on 14 February 1942.By the end of April, Rodney was assigned to RAF pilot Dick Luckwell’s crew with whom he flew until he was eventually assigned to a new squadron.
Dick and Rodney would become good friends, with Dick often taking Rodney home on leave where he was to make such a favourable impression on the future Mrs Joyce Luckwell.10,11
On the night of 25/26 June 1942, Rodney and his crew flew their Hudson in Operation Millennium II, one of the “Thousand Force” raids, targeting U-boat yards at Deshimag (Deutsche Schiff und Maschinenbau AG) in Bremen.
In August, the crew members were re-assigned, with Dick being posted to West Africa and Rodney to North Africa.12
Rodney’s DeathAt the time of his death, Rodney was an RAAF Observer in RAF No. 608 Squadron stationed at Blida, Algeria. Many years ago, my mother and I obtained a copy of his military record but it was unclear how exactly he had died. All we knew was there had been a plane crash on the 5th April 1943 at the Blida Aerodrome in Algeria but none of the details.
Family myth has it that the family found out some details of Rodney’s death at the time via the Red Cross which included something about sabotage being involved in the cause of the crash.
Family myth also said that the date of 10th of April has something of a curse within the family with bad things traditionally happening on this date. The 10th of April is said to be the date that Rodney’s mother, Anna Dorothea WECKER, was informed of his death. Only a year before, on 19 April 1942, her husband, Frederick WECKER, had passed away. The news of Rodney’s death, so close to the first anniversary of her husband’s passing, was a devastating blow to her.
More recently, I obtained a copy of Rodney’s casualty file from the National Archives of Australia. There are some heartrending letters from family members trying to find out more details on how Rodney died. In one letter, his sister, Audrey LEO nee WECKER, wrote to the Air Force:
Would it be possible for me to obtain further information regarding the death of my late brother? The advice received was that he “lost his life as a result of air operations”. Does that mean that he was wounded or that his plane crashed or what happened? If you could please let me know any details I should be grateful.13
Tellingly, she added:
The report of the crash of the Hudson Mark VI within the casualty file is actually quite detailed:
The Accident was witnessed by the Officer 1/c Flying, who was approximately a mile and a half from the point of impact, and by two anti-aircraft gunners who were on duty very near the scene of the crash. Their evidence is that the aircraft made a normal take-off, and that when at a height of approximately 50 feet the starboard engine burst into flames which enveloped the whole engine nacelle. The aircraft then lost height rapidly, hit the ground, and ran along about 100 yards towards a row of trees, and then turned over and burnt up. All depth charges and bombs were later recovered intact.14
The report goes on to say that it was “a dark clear night with good visibility” and that the pilot was very experienced in that type of aircraft. In fact, the pilot, Sgt.E.P.O. Watson, had previously won the Distinguished Flying Cross. There were two other members of the crew, F/S Norm Sherriff and F/S J.F. Garbutt.
The description of the crash site paints a dire picture:
…the aircraft struck the ground approximately 900 yards beyond the perimeter and in a straight line with the flare path. It then ran forward along the ground about 100 yards leaving pieces of debris on the ground, some of which was burnt…The cause of the accident, which was probably a mechanical defect, is still obscure.
And yet, there is an additional, very interesting comment from G/Capt, W.V. Strungell of the RAF Station, Blida:
I can’t imagine what the mechanical defect was – if any.
A partial answer is possibly supplied by Stevens’ book. Apparently the Hudson Bombers were rather “touchy” to fly, leading to their nickname by pilots – Hudswine.15 Stats are quoted saying that of the 1,833 RAF Hudson aircraft,
…592 were sent out of commission, or struck off strength post-war; consequently, 32% of them survived warfare. Most of the remaining 68% of the Hudson crashed for all manner of reasons – weather, hitting a donkey, pranging other air craft, catching fire in the air, and the largest cause being swinging out on take-offs and landings.16
I think it very unlikely that sabotage was involved and there is certainly no reference to such a possibility in the military files – except maybe that ambiguous note by the G/Capt. Even the accident report is titled, “Report of Flying Accident or Forced Landing Not Attributable to Enemy Action”.
Philosophy and Memory
I knew little of my late grandmother’s early life so I am very grateful for the stories told by my great aunt Mabel in this book which have given me a chance to see Rodney’s young life in context of his family. They have fleshed out the very few verbal stories that made it down to me.
I am also grateful that I have two of the letters Rodney sent to my grandmother – to see a glimpse of the real man in those letters…a thoughtful, intelligent, curious and kind young man.
At the beginning of one of Rodney’s letters to his sister, Beatrice, he wrote:
…Such a lot of things happen in a lifetime, don’t they, and we seem to develop a sort of philosophy that just takes them all in their stride, and they all amount, when all is said and done, to nothing more than commonplace incidents, and of no more importance. But, that, I suppose is the secret of the value of experience.17
We will remember Rodney. But I would much rather have known him.
Title Picture: Portrait of Alvan Rodney WECKER. Portrait held in family personal collection. There are numerous versions of this same portrait spread amongst the Wecker family.
1 Stevens, J. R. (2004). Searching for the Hudson Bombers: lads, love & death in World War Two, p. 184. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.
2 TOOWOOMBA. (1919, May 21). Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld. : 1860 – 1947), p. 3. Retrieved May 20, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article151033589
3 THE INFLUENZA. (1919, May 26). Darling Downs Gazette (Qld. : 1881 – 1922), p. 5. Retrieved May 20, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article171282960
4 Curson, P., & McCracken, K. (2006). An Australian perspective of the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. New South Wales Public Health Bulletin, 17(8), pps 103-107. Retrieved June 2, 2017, from http://www.phrp.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NB06025.pdf
5Toowoomba’s Population. (1921, October 22). Warwick Daily News (Qld. : 1919 -1954), p. 5. Retrieved June 24, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article175754700
6 PERSONAL [Microform]. (1943, April 16). Toowoomba Chronicle (Qld. : 1937 – 1968), p. 2. Retrieved 12 May 2017 from National Library of Australia, Queensland Newspaper Microform collection, mfm NX 260.
7 National Archives of Australia: Department of Air, Central Office; A9300, Paper files and documents; RAAF Officers Personnel files, 1921-1948; WECKER A R, Service No: 404676.
8 Wecker, R., F/O. (1941, July 21). [Letter to Beatrice Scholefield]. No 9 Air Observers School, St Johns, Quebec, Canada; held in my personal collection.
9 NAA: A9300, WECKER A R.
11 Stevens, J. R.:Searching for the Hudson Bombers: lads, love & death in World War Two, p. 106-109
13 National Archives of Australia: Department of Air, Central Office; A705, Correspondence files, multiple number (Melbourne) series (Primary numbers 1-323); 166/43/143, Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Hudson; Place – Blida Algeria; Date – 5 April 1943; WECKER, Alvin Rodney – (Pilot Officer); Service Number – 404676.
15 Stevens, J. R.:Searching for the Hudson Bombers: lads, love & death in World War Two, p. 50,61.
16 Stevens, J. R.:Searching for the Hudson Bombers: lads, love & death in World War Two, p. 61-2.
17 Wecker, R., F/O. (1941, July 21). [Letter to Beatrice Scholefield]. No 9 Air Observers School, St Johns, Quebec, Canada; held in my personal collection.