Pilot Officer Cecil William Simmons, RCAF, 1941

The North Carolina Room provides a wide variety of services beyond genealogy. We are often called upon to provide information and pictures for many types of projects. Several of those in recent times have involved war memorials, including the Viet Nam wall and a number of cemeteries in Europe.

Early this week we got a request from René Bosma in Oosterwolde, the Netherlands, who is gathering information about World War II pilots from Britain, Canada, Australia, France and the United States who flew over and sometimes crashed near his village who are buried nearby in the Nieuwe Ooster cemetery on the fringe of Amsterdam. He was asking about a young native of the Twin City, Cecil William Simmons, a Pilot Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Here is what I found:

Cecil William Simmons was born at City Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem on October 15, 1920. His father, Clarence was a sub foreman at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. His mother, Bess, was a housewife. Three years later she gave birth to Bill’s sister, Helen.

We know nothing about Bill’s early years except that the Simmons originally lived on Bon Air Avenue, moving to 604 Fenimore Street in Ardmore around 1930.

A good source for pictures and information about people who grew up in Winston-Salem is the online high school annuals at Digital NC:  So I searched there for Bill from 1935-1940 with no luck. I thought that at least I might find a picture of his sister Helen, so searched for her from 1938-1943…still nothing. But in  1943, I found a memorial page in the Black & Gold listing graduates who had died so far in the war. Among them was Cecile William Simmons, class of 1940.


Memorial Page, Black & Gold, 1943

So I went to the cage and took out our physical copy of the annual, turned to the Reynolds High School section and there they were, not just Bill but also his sister Helen, side by side. But this raised a question; why did Bill not graduate from high school until he was almost twenty years old? The city directories show him from age 17 living with his parents with no occupation listed. Then, suddenly, in 1940, his occupation is shown as aviator. That gave me a flash of insight.


Tom Davis, the founder of Piedmont Aviation (1938) and Piedmont Airlines (1948) once told me that he was probably the worst student in the history of Reynolds High School. “My only interest,” he said “Was getting there early so I could get a seat by the window, just in case an airplane flew over.”

So my guess is that Bill Simmons, struck by the same bug, dropped out of school as soon as he could and got a job at the airport, Miller Field. But there, Tom Davis, the self-proclaimed worst student, would have told him that he did not hire pilots who did not have a high school diploma. So back to school.

Bill played a little football, baseball and tennis and ran on the track team. He was briefly a member of the Travel and Etiquette Clubs, but there was only one extracurricular activity that he remained involved with for all four years…the Aeronautical Club.


Aeronautical Club, RJ Reynolds HS, 1937. My guess is that Bill Simmons is the last one to the right on the next to last row…I might be wrong.

Meanwhile, he was taking flying lessons. On Friday the 13th, October, 1939, two days before his 19th birthday, he made his first solo flight. He soon became the third youngest licensed pilot in North Carolina.

Four months after graduating from Reynold High School, on October 19, 1940, Bill joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. In early winter he began his pilot training, often flying from frozen airstrips. The class began with 276 aspirants. Only twelve were still there on May 16, 1941 when Bill and the other eleven received their wings.

In June, 1941, Bill arrived in England and joined the 149 Squadron RAF, a heady bomber outfit, and immediately began making night bombing runs, mostly to the Ruhr, Berlin and northern Italian industrial sites in a Vickers Wellington MK IC. In November the squadron began the transition to the Short Stirling MKI, the first four engine British bombers. That transition was completed on November 26.


Vickers Wellington MK IC

From the start in 1937, 149 had been stationed at Mildenhall, in East Anglia, but in April, 1942, they moved to a new airfield nearby, Lakenheath, which was still under construction. On May 30-31, 149 contributed 21 aircraft to the first “thousand bomber” raid, on Cologne. Bill flew OJ-H, aircraft serial number BF310.


Three days after the return from the first “thousand bomber” mission to Cologne, all the members of 149 Squadron RAF gathered in front of Stirling OJ-A for a photograph. Bill Simmons is in there somewhere.

Bill had already experienced a number of close calls. On one mission, enemy anti-aircraft fire destroyed one of his engines, but he was able to land in England with barely three minutes of fuel remaining. On another mission, OJ-H was riddled with over 80 bullet holes, killing both machine gunners. But before he died, one of the gunners managed to shoot down a Messerschmidt which was right on their tail, allowing Bill to get the plane home safely.


Bombs being loaded into OJ-N. OJ-T is in background.

On the evening of June 29, 1942, OJ-H took off for a run on Bremen. Anti-aircraft fire over the city was heavy and the plane was seriously damaged. Bill got her as far as Holland, but a few seconds after midnight OJ-H plunged into the Ijsselmeer, a lake near the small Dutch town of Oosterwolde.


OJ-H battened down for the night. The quality of the image is too low to allow us to read the aircraft serial number, located at the base of the tail, so we cannot be certain if this was Bill Simmons’ BF310 or R.H. Middleton’s BF372, but the configuration is appropriate for a Stirling from May 1942 through the end of the year.

A few days later, Clarence and Bess Simmons received a telegram at their new home at 637 Holly Avenue: “Regret to inform you advice has been received from the Royal Canadian Air Force casualties officer, overseas, that your son, Pilot Officer Cecil William Simmons, is reported missing as the result of air operations on June 29, 1942. Letter follows.” It was signed by the chief of air staff at Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.



By the time the letter arrived, the bodies of Bill Simmons and his six crew members had been recovered from the lake. They were buried at the Nieuwe Ooster cemetery near Amsterdam, where they remain to this day.

Bill had completed 26 bombing missions, just four short of the thirty needed to get a long furlough and reassignment as an instructor. He was 21 years old.


After Bill Simmons’ death, Flight-Sergeant R.H. Middleton, an Englishman, was assigned the OJ-H code (aircraft serial #BF372). On November 28, 1942, he led a raid on the Fiat works at Turin, which involved a flight over the Alps. As the low level bomb run unfolded, Middleton was severely wounded, losing his right eye. He and his co-pilot, also seriously wounded, managed to fly OJ-H back to England. With fuel running out, Middleton flew OJ-H along the coast, ordering his crew to bail out, then flew the plane back out over the English Channel and attempted an emergency water landing. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.