Sadly, just a few days short of what would have been his 101st birthday, ex Flt Lt Tony Cooper has passed away.
Tony was a wonderful gentleman, always giving of his time & willing to share anecdotes of his time with 64 Squadron RAF & especially of his friendship with Flt Lt John Harder.
Tony Cooper and I met (initially phone calls & later visits) as part of the research I was doing for the Men in the Shed & especially John Worthington Harder. Tony & John flew together in 64 Squadron, each becoming Flight Commanders – Tony of “A” Flight & John of “B” Flight – though on occasions, they each also led the whole squadron on missions.
During one of their flights over Normandy, John was shot down & eventually ended up held by the Germans overnight, having spent several days evading capture, in the small wooden shed that evolved into what we have here and as part of that research, I was given Tony’s address by John Harder’s wife & our correspondence & friendship began.
We first met face to face whilst I was heading down to the RAF museum at Hendon to show them the photo albums & other documents that the Harder family had generously sent over from America for me to look through & when I rang Tony & asked if he’d like to look through them first, his answer was an emphatic “yes”. Not only did he take delight in looking through John’s memories, he was then kind enough to show my son & me the wealth of documents that he had; including the wartime photos that he had of the squadron & John Harder who he described as his very best friend – in fact he said that – he & John Harder formed (as Tony used to put it) the select membership (of two!) of the “John Harder/Tony Cooper Mutual Appreciation Society”; a friendship that lasted until Tony’s passing. You only had to visit his office at home & see all of the wartime photos of the two of them, smiling & laughing & to hear Tony talk of John to realise how strong this friendship was. On more than one occasion, Tony still referred to John as his “best friend” & I know that they remained in touch after the war until John’s early death in the 1970’s & subsequent to that, Tony was in touch with John’s family.
The reason for this friendship stemmed back to when they both flew Spitfires in 64 Squadron, RAF, flying missions over the North Sea on the lookout for German convoys, interdiction raids into France & the Low Countries and, of course, in direct support of the Allied Landings on D Day & the subsequent fighting in Normandy & thereafter. It was on one of the Normandy flights that John was shot down by German flak.
On one occasion, returning from a mission over the North Sea, the engine of John’s Spitfire blew up & he had to bail out & spent 5 hours in the North Sea! This would have been a far worse outcome had Tony not led the squadron back out, having refuelled, to look for John and, having found him, flew in circles around his location until an RAF “Crash boat” arrived to drag a rather soggy young man out of the sea…
There’s a wonderful article on the Lowestoft Journal’s website & the comments therein regarding how Tony would think of others. I saw a direct example of this a couple of years ago… Rachael, my daughter, needed to interview someone who had been involved in the war as part of one of her projects for her university course on her way to becoming a teacher & she asked me whether Tony would be prepared to be interviewed as her grandparents had both passed away & she didn’t have anyone within the family that she could ask. So, I asked Tony who, despite having been “interviewed out” for the programme that John Sergeant did on the Spitfire, said that he would be prepared to be interviewed by Rachael. On the day, she was absolutely charmed by him & I think that he also appreciated her genuine interest in his story – it was obvious that she found it much more interesting than “just” a task that needed completing for her project & on the way home was chuckling about some of the things that Tony had mentioned “off camera”.
There is a further article on the BBMF Memorial Flight club website:
I also have some wonderful memories of the few occasions that I was able to visit him at home & also speak to him over the telephone two “stand out” ones being a phone call received by me whilst in Normandy from Tony to let me know that his Legion d’Honneur from the French Government had come through; I was pleased that I was one of the people who persuaded him to apply, not just for himself, but for all of the pilots that he flew with who were no longer around. The other highlight was being asked by Tony to deliver a talk about the Men in the Shed project to his Rotary club (which he was an active member of right to the end). Being able to do so with Tony in the audience was wonderful (if not a little nerve-wracking as there was the risk that Tony could correct some of my shared information about him & John!); Tony’s “thank you” speech following my talk was full of good humour & generous as was typical of Tony.
I am proud to be able to say that I knew him.