In August 2019, I met with Angela Caughey (nee Wilson), who shared with me the story of her brother Sub Lieutenant Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson. For seventy-two years all the Wilson family had known was that Ian was “Missing on Operations” until someone reached out to Angela via Online Cenotaph.
Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson was born on the 13th of June 1920, in Auckland, New Zealand. He was the second son of Warwick St George Ruxton Wilson and Merthyr Tydvil Winfred Wilson (nee Lewis). Ian was educated alongside his brothers at Kings College, a member of Town House, 1934-1935, and later enrolled for law classes at Auckland University College (now University of Auckland).
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ian initially volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force but was placed on a waiting list for flight training, and advised of the option to join the Fleet Air Arm. In May 1941, he joined the 28 Pilots course at HMS St. Vincent, the Fleet Air Arm pre-flight training establishment at Gosport in England. In November 1941, he left for Canada for the service flight training course flying Harvards, in Kingston, Ontario, where he gained his pilot's flying wings and was commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant with the Fleet Air Arm in March 1942.
Ian's two brothers and a sister also served during the Second World War. Warwick St. George Ruxton Wilson Junior, known as Pete, was a Flight Sergeant with the Royal New Zealand Air Force; Keith Noel Ruxton Wilson was a Second Lieutenant with the New Zealand Artillery, and Elizabeth Ann Ruxton Wilson was a clerk with the Women's Auxilary Air Force.
Ian's youngest sister, Angela Mary Ruxton Wilson (now Caughey), was still in school when her older brothers embarked overseas. In 2016, Angela received an email inviting her to lay a poppy on Online Cenotaph, and whilst looking at Ian's Online Cenotaph record, she left a touching message for her beloved brother:
Dear Ian, I miss you and Pete more every year when Anzac Day poppies are around. When I first went to see your names on the Auckland Museum walls a few years ago a shaft of sunshine was illuminating them. It was a breath-taking moment I shall treasure all the rest of my life…
A few months after leaving the note, Angela was contacted by Leslie Hayward, who had seen the note left on Ian's Online Cenotaph record. Leslie is the nephew of his namesake, Sub-Lieutenant Leslie Frank Hayward. Leslie and Ian were both part of Fleet Air Arm, 838 Squadron and were killed, along with seven others, on the night of the 30th April/1st May 1944.
It was the second loss for the family after Ian's older brother, Pete Wilson, was killed during a bombing raid over Hamburg in the early morning of the 18th April 1942. After Ian was reported missing, his younger brother Keith, who was serving as a Second Lieutenant with the New Zealand Artillery, 5th Field Regiment in Italy, was sent home on compassionate grounds.
Leslie Hayward was able to give Angela more information on how Ian had died. Ian and Leslie were both in the 838 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm when they went missing. Tony Wiles, Les Hayward's great-nephew, had been researching the 30th April/1st May 1944, 838 Squadron losses from his home in the United Kingdom. Together the pair were able to give Angela more information on the tragedy, finally illuminating for her how her brother had died.
When Angela shared the news with her family, her children immediately volunteered to accompany her overseas. In late August 2018, Angela and her elder daughter Liz and her husband Tony accompanied Angela to England, the beginning of their journey to visit Ian's final resting place. One of the first stops Angela made was to the Royal Air Force base at Harrowbeer, near Plymouth. The airfield no-longer exists, but Angela was shown around by Harrowbeer archivist Michael Hayes.
The 838 Squadron had arrived at Harrowbeer in April 1944, where they were to assist with anti-submarine operations in the English Channel in the lead up to the Normandy invasion. Hayes pointed out many of the places steeped in history, including the local pub where many of the airmen would grab a pint and relax.
Angela then met her son Philip and his wife Momoko in Hamburg, where they visited Pete's grave at the Kiel War Cemetery, in Schleswig-Holstien Germany. Pete enlisted with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in November 1940, and received his pilot's wings in March 1941, he was promoted to Sergeant in May 1941, and embarked for the United Kingdom. Pete was serving with the 57th Squadron, when he was killed during a raid on Hamburg in the early morning hours of the 18th April 1942.
After visiting Pete's grave, the family met up with Liz and Tony and Angela's youngest daughter Jen and together they made their way to the French town of Plouguerneau. The Îll de Vierge is off the coast of Plouguerneau, and where the 838 Squadron was heading on the night of the 30th April/1st May. The Squadron left from their base at Harrowbeer for Îll de Vierge but they were redirected to Aber Wrac'h, where a German mine layer had been beached by two Canadian destroyers the previous night. The German destroyer was well defended, and its anti-aircraft weapons shot down NE906 and NE923 both of which crashed in France whilst the NE946 was badly damaged and ditched in the sea. All nine people in the three crews were killed.
Ian Wilson was piloting NE906 which is believed to be the first plane to have crashed beside the beach at Kerazan Vras. Also on board were navigator observer Sub-Lieutenant Edward Thompson Clark and Petty Officer airman Albert Rockley, the crew's telegraphist and tail gunner. Those on board the NE923 were pilot Sub-Lieutenant Leslie Frank Hayward, observer and Sub-Lieutenant David Hanson, and Leading Airman and machine-gunner Brian Lambert Rowntree. The crew on board the NE946 were pilot Sub-Lieutenant Stanley Frederick Such, observer and telegraphist Lieutenant Benjamin Cook, and machine-gunner, Petty Officer Richard Crawford Grapes. The crew of NE946 were buried at the Brest (Kerfautras) Cemetery in Finistere, France.
Seventy-three years later, on the 8th September 2017, the town of Plouguerneau gathered for an unveiling ceremony at the local cemetery where four of the airmen are buried. Gildas Saouzanet, a local historian, was able to find in the Plouguerneau municipal archives a photograph identifying the provisional graves of the four airmen, the first of which is identified in the photograph as being that of PLP Wilson — wrong initials but the correct family name.
Before travelling to France, Angela had four identical bronze plaques made to place on the graves. Commemorating her brother Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson and those in his crew, Edward Thompson Clark and Albert Rockley, and a fourth body known only to God. Angela and her family were able to lay these plaques in front of the headstones during the ceremony.
The whole town of Plouguerneau was invited to the ceremony. It began at 11am on the dot with a flyover by a jet from the French equivalent of the Fleet Air Arm, the French Naval Aviation. Local school children had flowers to lay on the graves, the national anthems of France, New Zealand and the United Kingdom were sung, and the flags flown. The First Deputy of Plouguerneau, Andrew Lincoln made a very moving speech, about the events of that night. Angela was then asked to unveil a plaque which details the events of that fateful night, and the names of the nine airmen who died.
Through the heartfelt act of leaving a note on a loved one's Online Cenotaph record, connections were made, and information, experiences and memories were shared between two strangers. These connections inspired a 20,000-kilometre journey from New Zealand to the coast of France, where Angela and her family were able to visit the final resting place of her long-lost brother.
If you have a loved one on Online Cenotaph, please leave a note or lay a poppy on their Online Cenotaph record and share your memories of them.
Thank you to Angela Caughey for sharing her family's story and precious photographs with us.
Photographs of the Wilson Family
 Allison, David., (2009). Fleet Navy: New Zealanders who flew in the Fleet Air Arm. Western Springs, New Zealand: Fleet Air Arm Museum New Zealand, p. 182-3.
 Royal Naval Air Squadrons. (n.d.) A History of 838 Naval Air Squadron.
 Martyn, Errol W. (1999). For Your Tomorrow: Volume One. Christchurch New Zealand: Volplane Press, p. 198.
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Cite this article
Ian Lewis Ruxton Wilson. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 3 September 2019. Updated: 15 April 2020.