Thursday, July 03, 2008

'His Wartime Missions'

On September 3rd 1939 Britain and France declared declared war with Germany. Neville Chamberlain's non-aggression pact, signalling 'Peace in Our Time' which he and Adolf Hitler signed a year previously, had come to nought. Hitler derisively called the pact 'a scrap of paper' and German forces proceeded to invade Poland.

The following day, September 4th, with the war barely 24 hours old 19 year old Ted Cowling joined the Royal Air Force. This young man wanted to fly, to be a pilot and to serve his country.

He was undoubtedly brave, an immensely skilled pilot and probably an incredibly lucky man. His earliest missions as a crew member in the underpowered and technically primitive Fairey Battle should, statistically have finished him off. These little planes were euphemistically called 'Flying Coffins' - the death toll of the pilots and crew that flew them was appallingly high.

Ted survived and went on to train as a pilot and fly Wellingtons and Sunderland Flying Boats. His final tour of duty was in Air/Sea Rescue; his bravery in saving the lives of his crew on one of these rescue missions earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. In a touch worthy of Mills and Boon he married the young WAAF controller who 'talked him down' after his plane's starboard propeller shredded. He and Joy recently celebrated their Diamond Wedding anniversary and in 2003 had the dubious pleasure of being named Britain's most romantic couple. One might conclude he has led a charmed life....

Last evening Ted Cowling, now in his 88th year, recounted some of his memories to us. He was this month's speaker at Marton WI. It was one of the many speaking engagements he undertakes to raise money for Severn Hospice; a charity close to his heart following the death of both his daughters from cancer. Only recently he presented the Hospice with a cheque to £26,000 raised by sales of his book and from speaking to groups such as ours. Well done that man, I think.

His talk, 'My Wartime Missions' based on his book 'The Journey', had particular significance to those of our members now in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Heads nodded in agreement at the memories stirred of those once familiar dark days. I am certain many a grey haired head went home to dreams blessed with the hum of passing Spitfires and the fleeting kisses of lovers sent to war.

Ted evoked the engines' roar, the path of tracer bullets in the darkness of the night, the destructive maelstrom of a depth charge meeting its target in the icy black depths of the seas around our island. And always the camaraderie of the crew, the teamwork, the shared dreams and fears too, no doubt, that this might be the time they wouldn't make it....

I don't think Ted's talk was about heroics (or even if he would describe himself as a hero), it was about young people - and they were for the most part incredibly and distressingly young - doing a job that had to be done where heroics happened to happen. Maybe adrenalin got them through. Maybe they just had oodles of that mysterious substance - 'moral fibre'.

I'm no fan of military history and the technical data of most things leaves me cold. Engines, yawn. Fire power? Pah! Dog-fights, heroics and the trappings of warfare are not for me either, prefering in a girly sort of way more human stuff.

It was though such a privilege to hear first-hand from one who was there - not a second hand account - but from a living breathing WWII Pilot - about life, and death in the skies over Europe between 1939 and '45. This I would not have missed.

And there's the rub. Our man is in his late 80s, as are many of his comrades. With them will go another link with the past. Catch them - or certainly Ted Cowling - while you can.


Frances said...

This is a very well-written tribute to your speaker and his comrades.

I would hope that there could have been some young, very young folks attending. Does he ever go to address school groups?


elizabethm said...

Sounds fascinating. A friend of ours who died recently became in his old age increasingly guilty at the fact that most of his school friends had joined the RAF at the outbreak of war and had not survived. He failed the medical and lived on. They were clearly very real to him still - the swot, the naughty boy, the charmer with all the girlfriends - all gone by nineteen.

lampworkbeader said...

I'd have loved to have heard that talk.


Somewhere are my fathers wings just like the ones on your blog. As a child I would wear his old flying Jacket and goggles and fly spitfires around the cellar. He rarely talked about his rahter sticky war but what he did say was memorable.I would have like to hear your fellow talk.He might like to know that the French still remember the RAF's efforts with gratitude and teach thier chidlren that without the British Pilots in the war as without them France would have been lost

mountainear said...

UPL - I think our man would have liked to have heard that. It was surprising how many people needed to connect to him in some way, however tenuous the link.

Cait O'Connor said...

Well done that man indeed. How sad that he should lose both of his daughters. I have a borrower of the same age - an ex RAF man who recounts war stories to me, Sadly he is seriously ill and had an op on Tuesday.

A lovely blog.

Withy Brook said...

What a beautifully written account. I just wish he lived up here and could address our WI. If my hair were grey, it would have been nodding in response to (some) of what he had to say - not the lovers departing, I was only 15 when the war ended!

Exmoorjane said...

Lovely post, Mountaineer - and a great tribute. I'll show it to Adrian as he is fascinated by military history and the true tales of bravery.

Zoƫ said...

my Father and Father in Law were both in the RAF, heres to them all:

To the RAF

Never since English ships went out
To singe the beard of Spain,
Or English sea-dogs hunted death
Along the Spanish Main,
Never since Drake and Raleigh won
Our freedom of the seas,
Have sons of Britain dared and done
More valiantly than these.

Whether at midnight or at noon,
Through mist or open sky,
Eagles of freedom, all our hearts
Are up with you on high;
While Britain's mighty ghosts look down
From realms beyond the sun
And whisper, as their record pales,
Their breathless, deep, Well Done!

Alfred Noyes.

Nikki-ann said...

Dad & his friends had Ted give then a talk at the vintage bike club a bit back. I didn't go, but was assured it was very interesting.

I was up your way yesterday!