VITAL seconds are left and RAF pilot Bill Cooper makes one of the most important decisions of his life—he skilfully steers his crippled Second World War Stirling bomber away from a village to save lives and crash lands in a farmer’s field where the ensuing explosion kills him.
Bill was the only crew member left at the controls of the plane which had just returned from a bombing raid over Berlin. The time is 2am and it’s a foggy and icy night in March 1943.
Almost 69 years on from that fateful flight, Bill’s nephew, Bill Shaw, who lives near Wootton Wawen, will make an emotional and personal pilgrimage to the crash site in March this year, to try and unravel and indeed unearth any clues or crash debris connected with flight EF632 of 214 Squadron, as he tries to piece together the last minutes of a wartime aircrash which killed his uncle.
Of the seven-man crew who took off that night before only Bill remains in the cockpit having ordered his men to bail out and save their lives somewhere over the Suffolk countryside. He struggles valiantly to keep control of the mammoth aircraft but despite his desperate efforts to nurse the plane back to base, the 29-year-old knows he’s too low and it’s too late for him to bail out of the plane now. He also knows there’s a village beneath him so he flies away from the sleeping villagers in an effort to save lives.
The plane, now in its final moments, is still 15 miles from its base at RAF Chedburgh in Suffolk where it took off five hours earlier. Bill has no choice but to crash land in a farmer’s field near to the village of Semer, in Suffolk, and the explosion scatters wreckage across the field and nearby coppice. The last person to see Bill alive was the plane’s engineer Fred Smith, from Liverpool, who, before he bailed out, shouted to his fellow crewman and friend: “Are you coming, skipper?’ Bill replied: “I’m right behind you.” But he wasn’t with Fred and he stayed with his plane to the very end.
Bill Shaw and his wife have permission from the landowners of the crash site field to excavate the area and use metal detectors and scanners to find out what exactly happened to the Stirling bomber as it hurtled towards the ground in 1943.
Bill Shaw already has some items that were salvaged from the wreckage shortly after the crash and in a surreal tribute to his uncle’s memory one of the items so far retrieved is an RAF wooden badge which bears the famous RAF winged eagle and which was attached to Bill Cooper’s flight bag.
Despite the plane’s burning wreckage, the item emerged virtually unscathed from the fireball. It now sits peacefully in a glass cabinet in Bill Shaw’s living room along with other Stirling bomber memorabilia.
“I want to go back and look around a field which is now called Cooper’s Meadow in tribute to his memory. I’ve met villagers in their eighties who lived nearby when the plane crashed and although they never met my uncle they have described him as a very brave man and are grateful for the sacrifice he made,”says Bill.
The last flight of Bill Cooper’s Stirling bomber had been beset with problems from the start. Ahead of the crew lay a dangerous mission known as a ‘Big Run’—so called because it involved wave after wave of allied bombers attacking the German capital at night.
Shortly after take off, engineer Fred Smith advised Bill that the plane had engine trouble but the crew flew on to their rendezvous point with 50 other allied bombers over the English Channel.
By this stage of the war, Stirling bombers were frequently used as path-finders before a bombing raid, which meant they would fly ahead and drop incendiary bombs on the target, to cause massive fires which would act as a beacon to the main wave of bombers flying ten minutes behind.
Once the Stirlings completed their task they would re-group and then join the tail end of the main wave of bombers to drop further bombs on the target—in this case, Berlin.
Having survived German anti-aircraft guns and night-time fighters, what was left of the bombing group returned home to England. In addition, to flying with a faulty engine, Bill Cooper’s crew then suffered the cruellest twist of fate when a fellow Stirling bomber—also on its way back to base— collided with Bill’s plane in the dead of night. The impact stripped 6ft off the wing of the Stirling but Bill and his crew still managed to fly the plane safely over the English coastline and back to Suffolk, where it would ultimately crash.
For Bill Shaw the visit to the crash site in March will also offer some sort of closure to a quest which has been with him all his life, a quest to find out more about his brave Uncle Bill, after whom he was named. Bill was also present at a special ceremony in Lincolnshire last November and cut the ribbon which signalled the opening of four new eco homes in Cooper’s Close, Brampton. The road was named after his uncle who was stationed in the village during the war.
The last remaining Second World War blister hangar at Wellesbourne Airfield was demolished this week. The hangars were used to house planes and would have provided vital protection and storage space to the Wellington bombing crews stationed at Wellesbourne Mountford airfield during the war.
THE son of a crew member from a Stirling bomber which crashed in the Second World War has made contact with a Wootton man trying to piece together the last moments of the doomed aircraft.
Jeremy Kearns of Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, read of the stricken Stirling’s plight as he browsed through the Stratford Herald website which carries an article about the bomber, originally featured in the Herald newspaper on 19th January.
Jeremy’s father - Bob - was a flight sergeant on the plane and is pictured with other members of the Stirling’s crew in a black and white wartime photograph taken in front of the bomber.
Bill Shaw from Wootton Wawen is the nephew of the plane’s pilot, Bill Cooper, who is also in the same photograph. Bill Shaw has for some years been trying to find out more about the Stirling which having completed a bombing raid over Berlin in 1943 crashed on its return, close to a village in Suffolk.
Although the crew bailed out of the Stirling, Bill Cooper tried to save the plane but did not survive the ensuing crash.
Jeremy remembers his father telling the story of that ill-fated night and decided to contact the Herald, who in turn put him in contact with Bill Shaw. The two have spoken on the telephone and have agreed to meet up later in the year.
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