He may have lost his life more than 70 years ago, but World War 2 pilot George Roney is still treasured by residents of a small Dutch town as if he was one of their own.
Originally from Oamaru, Royal New Zealand Air Force Warrant Officer Roney, attached to No 33 squadron of the Royal Air Force, was killed on October 6, 1944 when his plane was shot down near Schoondijke, a province of Zeeland in the Netherlands.
Born on January 1, 1922, George was the youngest son of George sen, a baker originally from Adelaide, and Rosannah Roney.
He was educated at Waitaki Boys’ High School, where he excelled in rugby and athletics, then started work as an apprentice mechanic for Maude Brothers, the Ford dealership in Oamaru at the time.
He joined the territorial forces in September 1940, relocating to Christchurch.
At the age of 19, George enlisted with Group V of the RNZAF on December 21, 1941, as an airman pilot. As he was under the age of 21, he required his father’s consent to enlist.
Immediately after his enlistment, George completed his basic military training, elementary and service flying training in New Zealand, piloting a Harvard for the entire duration of his training.
On October 19, 1942, he was awarded his pilot’s wings.
Two months later, George was promoted to the rank of Temporary Sergeant and started a period of special leave before he left New Zealand for Britain in January 1943, becoming an attached member of the RAF in the process.
Upon his arrival, he started his training as a Spitfire pilot at several bases across England.
Shortly afterwards, in June 1943, George was promoted to Temporary Flight Sergeant.
He continued his training for another several months, before No 33 Squadron flew missions to support Operation Switchback, which started on October 6, 1944.
The operation was designed to clear German opposition from the Breskens Pocket in the Netherlands, near the border with Belgium, in order to launch Operation Infatuate 1 and 2, the amphibious assault on Walcheren.
bout 3pm on October 6, Warrant Officer Roney took off in PV160, a Spitfire Mk IXe, part of an armed reconnaissance sortie.
During the mission, three of No 33 Squadron’s Spitfires were shot down after they encountered heavy flak.
Sadly, George’s plane was one of those, and he went down with his Spitfire over Schoondijke, unseen by his fellow squadron members.
On October 9, 1944 his family was informed he had been reported missing on air operations.
As his plane’s wreckage and his remains had not been located, it was almost a year before the RNZAF officially acknowledged that George’s death probably occurred on October 6.
Due to the extensive destruction in Zeeland, it was not until June 9, 1948 that a Dutch military salvage squad, alerted by a farmer, finally located the wreckage of George’s aircraft in the hamlet of Steenhoven.
The team was able to recover George’s remains and personal belongings, from which they traced his family in New Zealand and they informed them George had been carefully exhumed, identified, and given a proper burial in a Commonwealth grave in the Schoondijke General Cemetery.
George’s nephew, Greymouth man Rob Roney, never met his uncle and knew little about him until he started his own research, helped by those with links to No 33 Squadron.
“I obviously never met him and my father didn’t talk a lot about him. We were obviously aware of him, but not everything he did in the war. Dad found it difficult I guess because he, like George, spent considerable time overseas in the war.
“It just so happens that in the last few years the people involved in the squadron association became very interested in members they had no records for, or had really just disappeared. George was one of those.
“A guy called Dave Stuart, who is active in that association now, did a lot of the groundwork and found out about George having been shot down in Holland. He contacted New Zealand and finally got hold of the family and it sort of all went from there. He actually turned up information we didn’t have on George.”
ast year, Rob and wife Trish linked up with the squadron association and travelled to the area where George’s plane was shot down, now a cornfield on a farm.
A cross marks the site where his plane came to rest.
“We laid a wreath on the cross .. obviously it was pretty emotional. To our surprise there was a flyover of old planes, so that was pretty amazing.”
After that, the couple shared afternoon tea with the farm’s owners.
“The amazing part was the owners of the farm are the same family that owned the farm when George was shot down. Even more amazing, there were three old ladies there, all in their 90s. One of them remembered George’s plane going down. It was just incredible.”
They also visited George’s grave, which has been carefully tended for more than 70 years.
Rob said the local residents had huge admiration for people like George, who gave their lives for the cause.
“They are so appreciative of what George and the Allies did. The local people in Zeeland had such a hard time, so they are very grateful for everything that was done for them.”
From what Rob has learned, his uncle was a “pretty amazing” man who was well respected by the men in his squadron.
On Anzac Day, Rob will do what he does every year to honour his uncle.
“I’ve got George’s medals, so my intention is to go down to the local Anzac parade, as I have in previous years, and wear them there.”