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World War Two RAF pilot given military burial

RAF Warrant Officer (WO) John Henry “Harry” Coates has been laid to rest more than 70 years after he died serving his country during the Second World War.

His Spitfire crashed near the town of Cavarzere, Italy in March 1945 and remained undiscovered until 2017. Today (Wednesday 27th March 2019) he was given a ceremonial burial with full military honours at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Padua War Cemetery in Italy.

The service, organised by the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), was conducted by the Reverend (Dr) Group Captain Giles Legood, Deputy Chaplain in Chief (Operations), RAF and the coffin was carried by personnel from RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. Family members including niece Shelagh Coates from Stamford in Lincolnshire attended the graveside ceremony following a church service at the Cathedral of San Mauro in Cavarzere.

In October 2017, the crash site of what was believed to be Spitfire PT 410 was excavated and human remains found. Artefacts recovered included a Royal Air Force pilot’s wings and a Warrant Officer rank insignia. Extensive research by the JCCC proved that the only pilot/warrant officer missing who died over land was Harry Coates. Parts of his Spitfire – on which could be seen remnants of the serial number (PT 410) – provided additional evidence. Forensic samples were taken from the remains in November 2018 and the DNA was compared with a profile from a member of Harry’s family. This proved to be a match.

“It is a great privilege to be here today to see WO Coates finally laid to rest, particularly in the presence of so many of his family. I’m delighted that we have been able to identify him and bring his particular story to an end.”

Louise Dorr

The Revd Dr (Gp Capt) Giles Legood (Deputy Chaplain-in-Chief (Operations)) said;

“All of us chosen to represent the RAF have an important part to play in this significant occasion. I am honoured to be able to show, through the words of the funeral service and through our actions, that every member of the RAF is remembered and valued as a child of God”.

Shelagh Coates (on behalf of the Coates family) said;

“We are very grateful to Romagna Air Finders for finding the missing plane of our Uncle – John Henry Coates, otherwise known to family as Uncle Harry, and the remains of his body after he went missing in March 1945. It is a great honour for us to finally put him to rest in the Padua War Cemetery today. Unfortunately, the find was too late for his youngest brother, my father, Frank who died in 2015 and his sister Betty who died in 2016. But his burial has been attended by many of his relatives from great, great nephews and nieces through to immediate nephews and nieces.”

"He has now been laid to rest with dignity and honour"

Ian Hussein
CWGC Mediterranean Area Director

Ian Hussein said:

“For over 70 years, Warrant Officer Coates was commemorated on the Malta Memorial to the Missing along with over 2,000 other airmen who lost their lives during the Second World War in the Mediterranean Theatre. Thanks to the efforts of many, and in the presence of his family, he has now been laid to rest with dignity and honour in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Padua War Cemetery. We will ensure that his sacrifice, along with all those who served and fell, is remembered in perpetuity.”

Harry Coates was born in York on 15th July 1920 to John and Eliza Coates. His civilian occupation was a railway draughtsman. He enlisted into the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in March 1941 and was recommended for training as a pilot/observer. He was serving in Italy with 111 Squadron (a fighter squadron throughout the war) at the time of his death. In the early morning of 5th March 1945, he formed part of a sortie targeting 20 barges on the canal just north of Cavarzere. If successful, this raid would help to destroy the enemy’s supply chain. Historical records tell us that his aircraft was reported to have been hit by flak and exploded, causing it to disintegrate over a large area. The engine and fuselage landed in soft ground by the Adige river and the deep crater it created filled up with water, making recovery impossible. The Romagna Air Finders excavated the crash site in October 2017.