Forgotten Battle of the Scheldt Estuary – and a final tribute to a fallen pilot

Retired RAF Squadron Leader Chris Perkins MVO, is a member of the Probus Club of Basingstoke and with an old RAF colleague, Dave Stewart, earlier this year they researched some activity of their old RAF 33 Squadron’s actions supporting the Allied Forces in their campaign to free Belgium and Holland from German occupation during WW2.

Based for many years at RAF Odiham, in Hampshire, only a few miles away, 33 Squadron is today more familiar to the residents of Basingstoke for flying the Puma troop carrying helicopter and Chinooks from other squadrons based at this station.  However, during the Second World War it operated the Supermarine Spitfire in the ground attack role in support of the army.

In the course of following the fortunes of both air and ground crews in their journey from the Normandy landings, Chris and Dave uncovered an incredible story regarding a battle, almost completely overshadowed by the tragic events occurring at that time at Arnhem.

The Battle of the Scheldt estuary was a military operation in northern Belgium and the south western Netherlands to secure the port of Antwerp, essential for allied re-supply use. The First Canadian Army was given the task of clearing the Scheldt area of German occupiers.   Believing the retreating troops to be demoralised and lacking in fight, the initial attacks in September 1944 proved otherwise. Hitler had told every member of his forces dug in around the Scheldt estuary that they had to defend their positions to the last man and bullet. Their families would be held as retribution if they failed to do so.

Battle of Scheldt from Canadian First Canadian Army was international in character.  In addition to Canadian infantry and armoured troops, it included the 1st British Corps, and the 1st Polish Armoured Division.  At various times it also included American, Belgian, and Dutch units.  The First Canadian Army in north western Europe during the final phases of the war was a powerful force. The strength of this army ranged from approximately 105,000 to 175,000 Canadian soldiers to anywhere from 200,000 to over 450,000 when including the soldiers from other nations.

The enemy opened the sea locks and flooded the whole countryside making what some historians considered to have been the most difficult battlefield of the Second World War. With flooded and muddy terrain and the tenacity of the well-fortified German defences made the Battle of the Scheldt especially gruelling and bloody. At the end of the five week offensive, the victorious First Canadian Army had taken 41,043 prisoners, but suffered 12,873 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing), 6,367 of whom were Canadians.

FS George Roney
Flight Sergeant George Roney New Zealand Air Force

And what of 33 Squadron from RAF Odiham?  At that time it was also an international unit and consisted of many volunteer pilots from around the world. The Spitfires were used to support the ground troops by attacking enemy positions.  Unfortunately many pilots lost their lives.  Chris and Dave located a number of these brave young airmen now resting in remote cemeteries. One grave was for New Zealander Warrant Officer George James Roney. He was just twenty two years old.

WO Roney in flying kit

WO George Roney took off at 15.00 on 6th October 1944 as part of a three Spitfire armed reconnaissance sortie. Good weather favoured the German air defence batteries and all three aircraft were shot down after encountering heavy flak. George went down with his Spitfire near the hamlet of Schoondjke, the plane burying itself metres deep into a muddy field. On 9th October 1944 his family received a “Missing on air operations” telegram. The aircraft was not found until 9th June 1948 and George was buried on 12 June in Schoondijke cemetery. His is the only Commonwealth War Grave and has been adopted by children from the local school.

The telegram every family dreaded

Wing Commander Dave Stewart is chairman of the 33 Squadron Association and contacted the New Zealand Genealogy Society for information on any potential family members. A number of relatives came forward and provided photographs, a log book and a number of official letters about George going missing and then about his death.

The badge of 33 Squadron

As a result of all this exchange of information about one of their own pilots from 33 Squadron who had been killed in action a moving commemorative service took place in June in the small Schoondijke cemetery in Zeeland. Ten members of the 33 Squadron Association, along with a group of serving 33 Squadron personnel, finally were able to pay tribute to Warrant Officer George James Roney RNZAF. They were joined by George Roney’s nephew, Rob, who had flown in from New Zealand with his wife, Trish, to attend this special event.

Rob Roney is the son of Stanley Roney, George’s brother, who had served in the New Zealand Army in North Africa and Italy while George had joined the RNZAF and then travelled to England to join the RAF. Rob and his wife Trish did not hesitate when it became clear that the puzzle about the life and death of his uncle could finally be completed.

“We heard that the 33 Squadron Association, the one George had served with, were going to visit Zeeland , among other sites, the place where Uncle George crashed, and that they were also going to see the grave. We had to be there. We are very grateful that we are here now”, said nephew Rob.

Rob and Trish Roney lay a wreath at the crash site

Before the commemorative service at the church, the group were able to visit the actual crash site in  a maize field near to Schoondijke.

3 vintage aircraft made a flypast

The farm is still owned by the same family, the Dekkers, and Rob Roney met the three Dekker sisters who, then aged 7, 10 and 14, had witnessed George’s crash that day. After watching a flypast by three vintage aircraft to salute his uncle. Rob Roney said,

“Yes, it means a lot to me. I did not expect this. It’s really very special. My father never talked about the war and his brother who came over here. This feels like a recognition of my family. That today we are in Zeeland makes it extra special. In some way, it feels like the old country”.

The group then drove to Schoondijke Cemetery to attend the commemorative service at the grave of Warrant Officer George James Roney RNZAF. A small gathering of approx 50 people heard short speeches and dedications from Rob Roney, Dave Stewart, Peter Cammaerts (Burgemeester of Sluis, which now 10includes the municipality of Schoondijke). Pastor Derk Blom conducted a short service before wreathes were laid by the Roneys, 33 Squadron, 33 Squadron Assocation and serving 33 Squadron personnel and the Municipality of Sluis; Probus member Chris Perkins then recited ‘For the Fallen’.

The fact that civic dignitaries were involved shows the continuing grateful attitude of the Dutch people towards the fighting forces of Great Britain and their allies in freeing their country from Nazi tyranny. National interest was secured for the occasion by Dutch TV filming the whole occasion.

Rob and Trish Roney with the Mayor
Probus member and 33 Squadron Association member Squadron Leader Chris Perkins MVO pays his respects
WO Roney’s grave, the only Commonwealth War Grave in Schoondijke cemetary, which has been adopted by the local school

Photo Credits:
All colour photos courtesy of Danielle Roubroeks, except Rob and Trish laying a wreath at Dekkar Farm, which is (c) Camile Schelstraete (Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant). B&W photos courtesy of the Roney family