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Ron’s vivid memory of bravery & tragedy in the night skies

Published: 17 Sep 2014

In most cases, war leaves an indelible mark on people who have experienced its horrors. Even in peace, memories of faces, places and experiences from conflict can sometimes become so vivid that it is like they are being relived. It is an agony and a contrary ecstasy that affects thousands of former soldiers, sailors and aviators.

Ron Cooper, a former Royal Australian Air Force navigator, was troubled by those memories for almost 70 years until, at the age of 93, he recently returned to the scene where war cast its biggest shadow on his life as others around him lost theirs.

Initially, the thought of that pilgrimage was forbidding. But he ultimately agreed, and the return to a famous air force station in England where he was based in World War ll actually had a happy ending for the Frewville grandfather.

Age has not diminished Ron’s accurate recall and his handshake is as strong as a 21-year-old. He keeps well and active with support from Life Care at Home and, at last, he sleeps better having visited the grave of one of the closest mates he lost in action during the war.

This modest man has spoken little about his war experiences until now, and it is a story of remarkable bravery and tragedy, and one in which sheer luck spared some and deserted many.

Ron specialised in astronavigation, the ability to use the sun, moon, planets and stars to navigate and fix positions. With this skill set, he was posted to the British Coastal Command 172 Squadron based in Devon.

The British Vickers Wellington twin-engine aircraft of 172 Squadron were fitted with Leigh Lights, powerful searchlights used to spot German submarines on the surface of the sea at night.

These so-called U-Boats, based on the French coast, left their moorings at night using darkness to steam undetected on the surface across the Bay of Biscay to the Atlantic where they would dive at daybreak and wreak havoc on allied shipping.

The pilots, navigators and gunners of 172 Squadron had the treacherous task of flying at night to detect the U-Boats and dive to within 30 metres of the sea surface to illuminate and attack the enemy vessels.

Ron was attached to the squadron for about 18 months flying 51 missions in all sorts of weather and sea conditions. His crew had their share of success, but on a few occasions their aircraft was damaged by cannon and machine gun fire from the U-Boats, fortunately not badly enough to bring them down.

Others were not so lucky. The squadron lost aircraft and many men on those frightening night missions before the influence of the U-Boats was overcome.

Early after arrival in England, Ron was posted to the operational training station at Cranwell, the legendary RAF base in Lincolnshire where he had some of his most horrific experiences of the war.
Pilots and navigators from various countries, including England, Australia and Canada, lived closely together in huts at the station and they were tasked with conversion training on aircraft from RAF Bomber Command on exercise flights across land and sea.

Ron believed that some of the aircraft were not even airworthy, yet they took off many times in the most extreme weather conditions including hail, snow and sleet. 

“Dreadful things happened among that group of men,” he said. “On one occasion, the aircraft on which my close Australian friend, Dave Lyon, was navigator, emerged from thick cloud and was fired upon and shot down by the light aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.”

“Because the aircraft was off course and lost due to the shocking weather, it had appeared without warning from the cloud and the HMS Ark Royal fired to repel what appeared to be an enemy attack. All crewmen on the plane were killed.”

Ron saw another of the ageing aircraft explode on landing at Cranwell killing all aboard, including an Australian colleague. Quietly, he reflects on the tragic twists of fate that over a number of months took the lives of 24 men based at Cranwell.

“We should never have been flying questionable aircraft in the appalling weather conditions with which we had to contend almost daily,” he said. “Most of the men died in accidents they could not avoid.”

After VE Day, Ron tried to stay in the RAAF, but he was discharged in Australia in 1946 at the age of 25. He spent the next 10 years as an acting architect for the State Bank, but his mind was constantly in search of the skies. Eventually he went into his own successful business as a designer builder, marrying and having two children.

But the worst memories of the war never really departed until Ron’s step son-in-law, Michael Reymond, a former Wing Commander in the RAAF, offered to take him on a nostalgic journey back to England in July 2014.

“At 93 I felt I was too old to make the trip,” he said. “But in the end, I decided to go because I wanted to return to Cranwell, where I lost so many of my mates.”

When news of his visit broke, the Commandant of the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, Air Commodore Chris Luck, wrote to Ron saying:

“I am touched by your stories of your lost comrades and your subsequent distinguished service. I would be pleased to extend an invitation to you and your son-in-law to visit the station.”

What awaited them was “red carpet treatment” including a comprehensive tour of the college by the curator and the commandant’s Personal Staff Officer, Squadron Leader Geoff Hall.

The successful search for the grave of Ron’s mate Dave Lyon at Cranwell village was also a poignant and emotional occasion.

“When we went to Cranwell the weather was beautiful and so different to the horrific conditions we experienced during the war seventy two years earlier,” he said. “And it was so important for me when my son-in-law found Dave’s final resting place.”

“The trip gave me new things to think about. At the age of 93, you could say it belatedly changed my life. But, in fact, it was something I had to do, and I feel better for it.”

This is just a snapshot into the life and times of this remarkable man who has such a crisp recall of all that happened in his chapter of a huge war story. But he now reflects on that period in more comfort, balancing sadness with pride and with great memories of mateship and bravery.

“In the end, it was about luck and bad luck – the best years of my life and perhaps the worst,” Ron said. 

“I am one of the lucky ones, but I will never forget the camaraderie, the commitment to uniform and the mates with whom I served.”

“I would also add that I am lucky at my age to have the wonderful support of Life Care at Home. It has helped to make many things possible for me."