The Stratford Herald journalist’s reporting of Bill Cooper’s death makes far better reading than mine. If I had found it before I started, I wouldn’t have bothered writing my own version! But I was very moved by Bill’s nephew’s account and by the additional information I had found about the crew of the other Stirling involved, so decided to publish all the same.
However, what strikes me about this and other similar stories is the difference in the way that we now regard the loss of life among our fighting men and women. Today, every single member of the British forces killed in Pakistan or Afghanistan is mentioned in the TV news and the whole nation is made aware of who that person is. He or she is mourned not only by his or her fellow combatants and family but also by all the people of Wootton Bassett when the body is brought back for burial. A fitting tribute to men and women who have given their lives for their country. Apart from the fact that there was no TV news at the time, this would not have been possible in past wars mainly owing to the sheer numbers involved
During the First World War, almost a hundred years ago, men were cannon fodder. Hundreds of thousands were killed, senselessly and indiscriminately. Nameless heroes. Travel across France and Belgium, and you cannot fail to notice the military cemeteries. Some of these also commemorate men from the Second World War. Military casualties were not quite so high, but the attitude was still “death or glory”.
Bill Cooper and the 25-year-old rear gunner Sgt Harry Leister Burt of the Royal New Zealand Air Force killed in the collision near Chedburgh were mourned, but their deaths – due to a tragic accident and not directly to enemy action – were considered part and parcel of war. Agreed, their situation was more hazardous than today’s flyers: they were flying in the dark, on a foggy, icy night and without the benefit of the instruments a modern air force plane would carry. Crashes happened. Today, there would be a public outcry at such an accident, possibly with the families of the victims suing for damages.
WWII recruiting posters targeted young men between 17½ and 30 years of age, hinting at glory and glamour. The statistics of 214 Squadron make sobering reading: this Squadron suffered the highest percentage losses in 3 Group, losing more than 50 Stirlings on operations and in crashes during its fourteen months at Chedburgh. Each plane had a crew of 9 men – not all were lost every time, but the implications of these figures should give us pause for thought:
TOTAL LOSSES FOR 214 SQUADRON DURING WWII:
Fortresses – 1225 sorties, at least 17 aircraft lost
Harrows – Unknown
Stirlings – 1432 sorties, 54 aircraft lost (29 Stirlings lost in crashes)
Wellingtons – 1532 sorties, 45 aircraft lost
There is a monument to the members of 214 in the National Memorial Arboretum near the Staffordshire village of Alrewas. Not far away from it, a long wall bears the names of more than 15,000 killed on active service since the end of WWII. Names are still being added each year as a result of man’s inhumanity to man. It seems we cannot live without war.
And still they kill
And still you die
And we in helpless guilt survive
While they deny.
In all the earth
The suffering seasons come and go:
The tides of death and birth
Still ebb and flow.
The sun and moon
Will still shine bright
Though all our day
Has turned to night.