Willem Jacob van Stockum: A scientist in uniform

by Erwin van Loo, Royal Netherlands Air Force

published in "De Vliegende Hollander", June 2004 -- translated by Carlo Beenakker

«I didn't join the war to improve the universe» This is how Willem van Stockum started a letter in the early years of the Second World War. He went on to explain why he had given up a promising career in science to become a pilot with the Canadian armed forces. Van Stockum was born on November 20, 1910 in Hattem (The Netherlands), in a family that was out of the ordinary. His father Abraham van Stockum, first cousin of Vincent van Gogh, served with the Dutch Royal Navy and had the spirit of an inventor. In his spare time he designed and built a rice cooker, he experimented with rockets, and he developed a device to explode sea mines at a specified depth. Willem's mother, Olga Emily Boissevain, was half Irish and from a prominent family.

The Van Stockum's had two other children besides Willem: a younger brother Jan Maurits and a sister Hilda, more than two years his elder. Hilda van Stockum would become well known, mainly in Canada, as a writer and illustrator of books for children. At the end of the 1920's Willem moved from The Netherlands to Ireland, together with his mother, brother, and sister. He studied mathematics at Dublin University,Trinity College around 1930, receiving his Bachelor of Arts with a gold medal. He then moved to Edinburgh to do research for his Ph.D, before leaving for the U.S. hoping to pursue his studies with Albert Einstein in Princeton. Those were the years in which Willem van Stockum made an important contribution to Einstein's theory of relativity. His publication from 1937 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh would later form the basis for the discovery that time travel to the past is allowed in principle by Einstein's equations.

When World War II broke out, Van Stockum was a university instructor in the United States. In 1941 he decided to join the Canadian army, because he could not bear living in comfort in the U.S. while many of his friends suffered under Hitler's oppression. He chose to participate in the war in a direct and risky way as a pilot. In January 1942 he started his training on the Canadian Fleet Finch biplane at a civilian flight school at St. Catherine's airport in Ontario. On January 29 he made his first solo flight. In April 1942 he continued his training on the double-engined Avro Anson at an advanced flight school on the Hagersville airport. He received his Wings in July 1942.

Because the combination of scientist and pilot was so unusual, Van Stockem was grounded at the Test and Development Depot in Rockliffe, Ottawa. This division tested and evaluated airplanes and flight instruments for the Canadian air force. Van Stockum was assigned to this division until February 1943. Then he switched from the Canadian air force to the Dutch contingent of the RAF and left for Great Britain. After some more practice, Van Stockum and many of his future crew began their bomber pilot training at the end of 1943. In the Spring of 1944 he made his first flight on a Handley Page Halifax. When the young scientist and his crew were thoroughly familiar with this four-engine bomber, they were transferred to the No. 10 Squadron of the RAF Bomber Command, stationed on the airport of Melbourne in Yorkshire. Flying Officer Van Stockum was the only Dutch to serve in this squadron.

In the night of 19/20 May, Willem flew his first bombing mission as second pilot. This was the usual practice. The flight went to the French Boulogne, to disable the railway facilities of this city in preparation of the landing of the Allied Forces. On D-Day itself the RAF executed heavy bombardments on the German positions in Normandy, several hours before the troops would storm the coast. Van Stockum and his crew dropped their explosives on the German cannons at Mont Fleury. The following night they carried out their fifth bombing mission to a target in the vicinity of Saint Lô.

On June 10, 1944, shortly after midnight, the Halifax of Willem van Stockum took off again from the airfield of Melbourne. It was one of the more than 400 bombers targeted at airfields south of the front line. Close to his target the plane piloted by the 33-year old Van Stockum was hit by German anti-aircraft fire and crashed near the village of Entrammes. All seven crew members lost their life. Willem and his crew rest at the cimetière de Vaufleury of Laval.

Back to the W.J. van Stockum web page.