Air Force family remembers fallen uncle

News Article / September 12, 2016

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Sergeant Ronald Zimmer and all his crewmates in Lancaster LQ-K, Royal Air Force serial number JB280
lost their lives on a bombing mission on January 2, 1944.

By Ross Lees

8 Wing Trenton, Ontario’s connection to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) is even more firmly established through the story of Major Marty Zimmer’s uncle.

Major Zimmer is the commanding officer of the Canadian Forces Aircrew Selection Centre at 8 Wing Trenton. His uncle, Sergeant Ronald Zimmer, was an air gunner with 405 (City of Vancouver) Squadron, flying Lancaster bombers in England with Pathfinder Force (No. 8 Group) during the Second World War.

Ronald Zimmer was born on December 10, 1923, in Viscount, Saskatchewan. His parents, Rudolph and Mary, arrived in Canada from Russia in September 1923, with two children in tow and a third on the way – Ronald, who would be the first member of the family born in Canada. In all, he had six siblings, one a sister who died in early childhood.

When he was 15, Ronald worked as a farm labourer in Saskatchewan; at 17, he travelled to Northern Ontario to work at a bush camp. By 18, he was an aircraft fitter working at Canada Car & Foundry in Fort William, Ontario (now part of Thunder Bay). A year later, on August 20, 1942, the 19-year-old enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

He attended No. 7 Bombing and Gunnery School in Paulson, Manitoba, and then No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery School in Mont Joli, Québec, which were established as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.                                                                                  

He graduated on July 9, 1943, and arrived in England just one month and two days later, where he was posted to 1659 Heavy Conversion Unit at Royal Air Force (RAF) Topcliffe, North Yorkshire. He moved through 429 Squadron at RAF Leeming to 405 (City of Vancouver) Squadron at RAF Gransden Lodge, in Cambridgeshire.

Six weeks after receiving his Air Gunner's badge, and three weeks after his 20th birthday, Sergeant Zimmer was killed in action.

“Ronald graduated No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery School in Mont Joli with a grand total of 2.35 hours spent arming, loading and harmonizing turrets, and 21.53 flying hours. His rank in his graduating class was 19th of 119 students,” says Major Zimmer’s wife, Sharon. “Not a lot of experience to be sent off to war with.”

On the morning of January 2, 1944, Sergeant Zimmer and six fellow crewmembers – Flying Officer Tom Donnelly, a veteran pilot on his second tour of operations; bomb aimer Flight Sergeant William Clark; navigator Flying Officer Jerry Salaba; flight engineer Sergeant Leslie Miller; radio operator Sergeant Brian West; and air gunner Sergeant Ron Watts – took off from Gransden Lodge at 23 minutes after midnight with 11 other Lancaster bombers. The 12 aircraft were on a mission that involved 421 Lancasters, all tasked to bomb Berlin. Sergeant Zimmer’s aircraft, serial number JB280, never returned.       

For the longest time, little more than that was known of the aircraft and crew’s final resting place.

New information

Recently, Mrs. Zimmer came in contact with Rob Wethly, a Dutch military history enthusiast in Schoonbeck, Netherlands. Mr. Wethly, through his own research, had full details of the actual mission and the subsequent crash which had occurred in the little town 72 years ago.

“The details he provided revealed that the crew never made it to their target, but were shot down by a German night fighter with their full bomb load as they reached the Netherlands/Germany border,” Major Zimmer says.

Mr. Wethly proved to be a fount of information for the Zimmers. He provided historic photographs of the actual crash site taken 72 years ago, along with details including the coroner’s report. Information supplied by Mr. Wethly has helped the Zimmers locate Sergeant Zimmer’s gravesite, and fill in many details that have helped them get to know the sergeant better. Mrs. Zimmer provided Mr. Wethly with a portrait of Sergeant Zimmer, which he has placed in a standard beside the grave.

A special memorial service was held on May 4, 2016, the Netherlands’ Remembrance Day. While the Zimmers would have liked to attend the commemoration and view their uncle’s grave now that it has a face to go with it, they were unable to make travel plans that quickly. However, they plan on travelling there in the future.

Mr. Wethly recently made an explosive discovery to bring the story into the 21st century. “Earlier this year, while using a metal detector to look for metal objects in the vicinity of the actual crash site,” Major Zimmer says, “Mr. Wethly found a large object which turned out to be a live 1,000-pound [453.6-kilogram] bomb that had not exploded during the crash.”

“The bomb was far enough from houses and farm buildings and not a real threat for people in this remote farm land,” Mr. Wethly says. “Because I was able to tell the police the whole story about Lancaster JB280, they asked me to send my reports and documents to the Army bomb disposal group.”

The Army bomb disposal group excavated the bomb and, because of its remote location, decided to explode it where it was. It was covered with 450 cubic metres of sand. “The landowner was asked to push the button,” Mr. Wethly said, “and [he] detonated the bomb on his land. And what an explosion it was!"

Mr. Wethly also worked with Vintage Wings Canada’s Dave O’Malley to co-author an article, “Blast from the Past”, which, according to Major Zimmer, brings this story to life. To read “Blast from the Past”, check out “Related Links” on this page. 

An emotional experience

Major Marty Zimmer was Chief of Staff of Operations for the Quinte International Air Show (QIAS) 2016, held on June 25 and 26 at 8 Wing Trenton. He confirmed he had an emotional attachment to this air show commemorating the BCATP.

“QIAS will be extra-special for us as a family, as I am hoping to have the opportunity to get up close with the CWHM [Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum] Lancaster, where I can witness first-hand where my uncle, 20-year-old Air Gunner Ronald Zimmer, was positioned when he gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he wrote in a brief before the air show. “With both of our two sons being serving members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, this whole story has brought us all closer to our RCAF history, and has reinforced our connection to the Royal Canadian Air Force.”

Major Zimmer took a private tour of the CWHM Lancaster before the air show, and he was in the B-25 bomber while it was flying in formation with the Lancaster. “I think it's safe to say it was an exciting as well as emotional experience,” Mrs. Zimmer confirmed.

Major Zimmer brought the war – and the crash – home on a very personal level as he eloquently described flying in the B-25, looking across a bit of sky at the Lancaster.

“As we moved into formation beside the Lancaster bomber, my feelings of emotion quickly changed from that of being an aviation enthusiast lucky enough to be given the rare opportunity to enjoy a flight in a Second World War classic B-25 Mitchell aircraft, to one of going back in time to 1944. I tried to imagine myself sitting there, looking out the same window and seeing not one but several hundred other similar bomber aircraft surrounding me in close formation. Although I was on a headset, nothing was heard but the drone of engines vibrating through the whole airframe as I could see the engine cowlings shaking in position as we tucked up next to the Lancaster.

“I quickly realized how important the job of the air gunner would have been, to be vigilant to any threats of attack by German fighter aircraft. I can't even begin to imagine how it would have felt to the crews to see aircraft right next to you, many of them your buddies, being shot up and fall from the formation.

“With the majority of these aircrew in their early 20s, my sons’ ages, and in many cases only having several hours of experience before being thrown into combat, it must have been a frightening experience, particularly knowing that their chances of survival were decreasing on each mission. I expect that the only thing that kept the crews going was the tight camaraderie that they shared amongst each other as a crew. This is something that I am thankful to have experienced myself throughout my flying career within the RCAF.

“I would be lying if I did not say that I had to wipe my eyes several times as this emotional event took place.

“Once we landed back in Trenton, I climbed through the B-25’s small access hatch at the bottom of the aircraft to reach the concrete ramp. As I stood up and saw the C-17 [CC-177 Globemaster III] sitting there in the distance, with all of its advanced technology and capability, it became apparent how far we have come as an Air Force, and the significant number of lives that have been given to get us here.

“This whole experience has made me feel that much prouder to wear the uniform.”

Ross Lees is the editor of 8 Wing Trenton’s base newspaper, The Contact, where this article, in slightly different form, was originally published.

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