64 Sqn Spitfire

Spitfire Mk Vb BM327

Spitfire AB910's colour scheme is based on Spitfire Mk Vb BM327, ‘SH-F’, named “PeterJohn1”, the personal aircraft of Flight Lieutenant Tony Cooper, one of the flight commanders on 64 Squadron in 1944.

Tony Cooper’s desire to become a pilot began when he had a ‘joyride’ in an aircraft of Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus, sitting on his sister’s lap at the age of five. His dreams were almost shattered when his applications to join the RAF were refused twice, because the medicals showed that he had a badly damaged ear drum. Then in late 1937, aged 21, Cooper was accepted for pilot training with the RAF Volunteer Reserve at Luton. It seemed that the RAFVR was less particular and, as he says, “There was a war coming”.

Instructor

After completing his flying training on Miles Magisters and Hawker Harts, Cooper was sent to the Central Flying School (CFS) at Upavon in July 1940 on a flying instructor’s course. There he flew the Avro Tutor biplane and the North American Harvard – the first aircraft he had experienced with a retractable undercarriage – and within the month he had qualified as a flying instructor.

Cooper spent some time instructing at No 7 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), Peterborough, on the Fairey Battle. Then, in November 1940, he was posted to No 31 FTS at Kingston, Ontario, Canada, instructing on the Fairey Battle, the North American BT-9 Yale training aircraft and, from July 1941, on the Harvard. By June 1942 he had over 1,300 hours total flying and was assessed as an above average flying instructor.

Back to UK & to the Spitfire

Whilst at Kingston, Cooper met and married a Canadian girl, but this did not stop him from continually pestering the authorities to be allowed to return to the UK on ‘ops’. Eventually, his wish was granted and he returned to England with his wife, who was moving from a land of plenty to a strange war-torn country with all its restrictions, shortages and dangers, where she knew no-one. Cooper’s parents took her in whilst he attended a Spitfire conversion course at No 61 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Rednal (and its ‘satellite’ airfield of Montford Bridge) in Shropshire, initially flying the Harvard, with which he was by now very familiar, and then Mk 1 and Mk II Spitfires. He completed the OTU course at the end of June 1943 and, although he had less than 60 hours on the Spitfire, he was assessed as an above average Spitfire pilot.

64 Squadron Spitfires

PeterJohn1 In July 1943, Tony Cooper joined No 64 Squadron, which was temporarily based at Ayr in Scotland with its Mk Vb Spitfires, undergoing a period of rest and training. He was to serve with the squadron for the next 16 months. He had yet to acquire any operational experience, but he was now a very experienced pilot with some 2,000 hours of flying under his belt as he entered the fray.

His exposure to operational flying began when 64 Squadron moved from Ayr to Friston in August 1943 and, a few days later, on to Gravesend in Kent. Many of the operations conducted by the Squadron were over occupied Europe. The pilots flew on fighter sweeps and escort missions to daylight bombing raids carried out by medium bombers, such as Martin Marauders or Lockheed Venturas. They also escorted Coastal Command Bristol Beaufighters on anti-shipping strikes off the coast of Holland.

On these sorties enemy anti-aircraft fire, ‘flak’, was, if anything, more dangerous than encounters with Luftwaffe fighters and, in his comments in his logbook, Cooper frequently wrote, “Heavy flak”. The escorting Spitfires were often hit by enemy ground fire and on many occasions Cooper witnessed one or more of the bombers they were escorting being shot down. Sometimes Cooper led a section of Spitfires down low over the Continent to strafe targets such as barges.

Deanland (“Tentland”)

At the end of April 1944, in preparation for the impending invasion of France, 64 Squadron moved to the Advanced Landing Ground at Deanland, near Lewes in Sussex, where conditions were somewhat Spartan. There was no permanent accommodation for personnel, everyone was expected to live under canvas and only four blister hangars were provided for aircraft maintenance work. For many of the Squadron, Deanland (or “Tentland” as it was sometimes known) took some getting used to. Tony Cooper recalls: “Deanland was a bit of a come-down; luckily it was summer time when we suddenly found ourselves on this hump in the middle of the Downs. We were in tents and I found myself using the same equipment my father had used in the First World War: a truckle bed made of wood and canvas and the same materials for a bath and wash stand. Food and drink did arrive fairly regularly, but where from I’m not absolutely sure. At night it was very cold, but when D-Day came along we didn’t get much sleep as we were doing up to four shows a day and were kept very busy.”

An entry in Cooper’s logbook against 5th May 1944 – a day when he flew a dawn patrol for 1 hour and 55 minutes – proudly notes the birth of his son, Peter John. On 22nd May, he records that he took over a new personal aircraft, Spitfire Mk Vb BM327, coded ‘SH-F’, which was named “PeterJohn 1” after his newly-born son, who he was not able to see until the baby’s christening some weeks later.

D-Day

On D-Day, 6th June 1944, Cooper’s logbook shows that he flew twice. No 64 Squadron was tasked with providing ‘Low Beach Cover’ over the American assault. The Squadron ORB records that Cooper was allocated his personal Spitfire BM327, ‘SH-F’, for both sorties. He took off at 0430 hours (before dawn) for his first sortie of the day, as part of a 13-aircraft formation, providing “Fighter Cover for Utah Beach” and landed back after a total of 2 hours and 40 minutes airborne (the first hour recorded as night flying). The naval barrage was so intense that it was not safe to be over the coast and the Wing Leader withdrew the formation to a safer distance. Cooper’s remarks in his logbook give an interesting picture of the confusion that reigned and suggest that the invasion stripes, so painstakingly painted on by the ground crew, were not entirely effective: “Navy shelling coast defences – first landing [by the invading troops - Ed] made at 0620 hours. Nearly shot down by a Thunderbolt – Spitfire in front actually was – Another Spit hit by naval shell and blew up – General Brock’s benefit!”

D-Day from Tony Cooper cockpit Remarkably, Tony Cooper carried his camera with him in the cockpit and took a photograph over the invasion-striped wing of his Spitfire just after dawn broke on D-Day, looking towards another of the Squadron’s Spitfires in tactical formation. The thousands of Allied ships in the Channel are not really visible in the photograph, but they were to the pilots.

On the evening of 6th June Cooper flew his aircraft on another sortie over the invasion beaches, taking off at 2200 hours, this time tasked with, “Fighter Cover for Omaha Beach”. His comments in his logbook against this sortie read, “Hun bombers attacked invasion fleet – tremendous return fire from ships – one bomber destroyed.” He landed back at ten minutes past midnight – almost 18 hours after his first take-off that day – logging two hours and five minutes of night flying. When asked about night landings in the Spitfire on the short, temporary runways at Deanland, which were lit only by ‘goose-neck’ flares, Tony says, “I remember them well, with reasonably controlled terror, especially when it was raining!”

D-Day+1

On 7th June (D-Day +1) Tony Cooper flew three fighter cover patrols over Utah and Omaha beaches; two of them in his personal aircraft “PeterJohn 1”. In all, Cooper was airborne for a total of 7 hours 25 minutes that day. The Spitfires’ freedom of movement was severely restricted by the low cloud base and the many anti-aircraft balloons being flown from the Allied ships involved in supporting the landings; this led to a much increased risk of collision. The last operation of the day took place in the late evening, with Cooper leading a section of 4 Spitfires flying in formation on him in the dark, with no lights showing. This sortie provided ample evidence that it was possible to be nearly as frightened by your own side as by the enemy, as Cooper recorded in his logbook: “Very bad visibility – no attacks – sent forty miles out to sea on return owing to reciprocal homing vectors – very shaky experience – brought in eventually by rockets”. By the time Cooper’s section landed, it was completely dark and his No 4 ran out of fuel as he was taxying back to dispersal. Cooper recorded 2 hours and 35 minutes of night flying in his logbook for the sortie.

June 1944

The intense flying rate continued: on 10th June, Cooper flew three times, then once on 11th, twice on 12th and three times on 13th. As was typical of many other units, June 1944 was the busiest month of the war for No 64 Squadron; its total flying hours amounted to a staggering 1150 hours – the bulk of which were flown in the two-week period after D-Day. Everyone was stretched to the limit, especially the ground crews who had to work long hours to keep the Squadron’s Spitfires in the air. Meanwhile, the pilots had to endure the strain of continuous operations. Cooper’s experience was typical and his personal flying total for the month was 75 hours of which 71 were operational and 25 were flown in the dark.

Spitfire Mk IXs

Tony Cooper In late June 1944, No 64 Squadron was moved to Harrowbeer, in Devon, to become part of the Harrowbeer Spitfire Wing with No 129 Squadron, with Wing Commander ‘Birdie’ Bird-Wilson as the Wing Leader. No 129 Squadron was commanded by Cooper’s good friend, Squadron Leader Johnny Plagis, who was godfather to Cooper’s son Peter John. BBMF Spitfire Mk IX MK356 is now painted as Plagis’ aircraft at that time. His story features on page 28 of this magazine.

A few days later 64 Squadron was re-equipped with Mk IXB Spitfires with which it flew fighter sweeps over France. It continued to take losses. Sometimes pilots were able to bring a flak-damaged aircraft safely home to base, sometimes they force-landed, sometimes they had to bale out and all too frequently a pilot was killed. Many sorties now involved strafe attacks against ground targets such as locomotives, vehicles and barges; inevitably there was enemy flak to contend with and on almost every sortie at least one of the Spitfires was hit. It was, therefore, an event worthy of note when Cooper wrote in his logbook against one bomber escort sortie, “No aircraft hit! All returned”.

On 5th August, after escorting 15 Lancasters of 617 Squadron, which dropped 12,000lb ‘Tallboy’ bombs on the U-boat pens at Brest, Cooper led his section of four Spitfires in a strafe attack on flak positions. He says that as they dived on their target, “It was the worst flak I’ve ever seen in my life”. The No 3 in Cooper’s section was killed during the attack; his No 4 was also hit and forced to bale out only 2 miles off the enemy coastline. The pilot climbed into his dinghy and was picked up by an Air-Sea-Rescue Walrus seaplane, in a courageous rescue, and he was back at base within three hours

September 1944

In September 1944, 64 Squadron and Tony Cooper flew sorties in support of Operation ‘MARKET GARDEN’, the Arnhem Para-landings. Then, on 27th September, during an escort mission for 130 Halifax bombers on a daylight raid against the synthetic oil plants at Bottrop, in Germany, the engine of Tony’s Spitfire Mk IX failed when he was almost halfway across the sea between Belgium and England, having apparently been hit by flak over the target. With the Belgian coast being the nearest, he turned around and glided through 12,000 feet of cloud, breaking out at only 1,000 feet, to crash-land, wheels-up, near Moerbek, Belgium, an area that, as it turned out, was just 4 miles inside the Allied lines and which had been in enemy hands only 36 hours earlier! Tony managed to ‘hitch a lift’ in an aircraft back to Thruxton the next morning and he was flying again that afternoon. His comment in his logbook simply reads: “Engine failed – crash landed – PITY!”

Off ‘Ops’

In November 1944 Tony Cooper was posted off ‘ops’ and back to instructing. In his 16 months with 64 Squadron he had flown some 600 hours, the vast majority of it operational flying and had twice been ‘mentioned in despatches’. He had seen much action, including being involved in the D-Day operations; he had made a significant contribution and was very lucky to be alive. Many of his fellow pilots on the Squadron – his friends and colleagues – had not been so fortunate.

Instructor at 53 OTU

During his time as an instructor at No 53 Spitfire Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Kirton Lindsey and Hibaldstow, Tony Cooper once flew Spitfire Mk Vb AB910 (on 19th November 1944), which is now, of course, part of the BBMF fleet of Spitfires. Remarkably, he also witnessed the infamous ‘girl on the tail’ incident with AB910 at Hibaldstow on 14th February 1945, when Flt Lt Neill Cox DFC* inadvertently took off with WAAF Margaret Horton on the tail of the Spitfire. Tony Cooper’s last sortie in the RAF was flown on 18th June 1945. He now had over 3,200 hours total flying; he had flown some 160 operational sorties and had survived 5 forced landings, two of them at night, two on fire and one as a result of being hit by enemy fire.

Images:

Header Image: 64 Sqn Spitfire Vb 'SH-B' (BL734) in D-Day markings.

Image 1: Tony Cooper's Spitfire Vb - 'PeterJohn 1' - May 44.

Image 2: D-Day from the cockpit, by Tony Cooper.

Image 3: Flt Lt Tony Cooper, 64 Squadron.

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