- Contributed by
- People in story:
- L/Cpl Gordon Allenby Cowell, Sergeant William Chick, Sergeant GA Mason
- Location of story:
- Sandwich in Kent
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 June 2004
Gordon Allenby Cowell BEM 1941/42
A pilot's life is saved
On the morning of 7 August 1941, Lance Corporal Gordon Cowell of the 5th Royal West Kent Regiment, 12th Battalion, was putting up railing defences in Sandwich, Kent.
In the distance he could see a Spitfire coming over the Channel towards the coast, losing altitude fast. The plane had been shot up by an Me109 over France. Unable to keep the plane up any longer, the pilot crashed it through the railings, landing in a minefield and setting off a mine. The wingtips ignited.
L/cpl Cowell, followed by his sergeant, William Chick, headed towards the minefield. People were standing by the railings, shouting, 'Don't go in there, you'll get blown up,' but the only thought they had was to reach the stricken pilot and get him out.
They reached the smouldering plane, and after a struggle with the pilot's straps, got him out of the cockpit. The soldiers could see his leg was badly injured. They carried him back over the minefield and when they got back to the railings, the Spitfire blew up. They hoisted the pilot over the railings to the helpers on the other side, who laid him on the beach until the ambulance came. L/cpl Cowell and Sergeant Chick were awarded medals for their bravery.
63 years later…
One of those soldiers, Gordon Allenby Cowell, is my dad, now 85 years old. He was awarded the British Empire Medal. Dad never found out who the pilot was or if he survived his injury. Just after the crash, Dad was shipped off to North Africa. He never had answers to his questions - that is until now, 63 years later.
I could not let it rest like that, I had to somehow find the answers for Dad. 'It's impossible, you will never find him,' he said.
For months I searched the web until I came into contact with Peter, a People's War Researcher. Peter doggedly searched through his books looking for crashed Spitfires, names, dates. We had a few possibles, but they were soon discarded. The main problem was that Dad couldn't remember the exact date of the crash - he only knew that it happened in late summer, shortly before he was posted to North Africa in 1940. We could only find one candidate that seemed to fit the bill.
Then I received my father's service records from the MOD, and found out that he had been posted to North Africa not in 1940, but in 1941! We now knew the exact date of the incident - 7 August 1941.
Peter found information about the pilot in 'Fighter Command Losses 1939-1941': 'Spitfire Mk Vb, W3523, of 611 Fighter Squadron (Hornchurch): Circus 67. Shot-up by Me 109 over France, force-landed near Deal and hit a mine, badly injuring the pilot, Sgt GA Mason; aircraft written off.'
We both concluded that this was it! Or should I say, I prayed it was.
Finding Sergeant Mason
Now to find Sergeant Mason. 'You'll never find him,' Dad said, pessimistic as ever. 'Never,' he mumbled. I must admit I was beginning to wonder myself if I would.
In my search I had left numerous messages in guest books, one being at the Kent Battle of Britain MuseumAbout links. The info I left needed to be corrected as people had shown interest. Because Dad had given me the wrong year, 1940, a wrong pilot was mentioned.
That amendment triggered a one in a million chance. A few days later I had an email from the Dominican Republic. I read it in amazement. The email was from the son of Sergeant Mason, or should I say Air Commodore Mason, as he is today. David told me he had been brought up on the story of the crash. He had been searching the web for information on his father and grandfather but to no avail - until he saw my message. It couldn't be a coincidence that two men of the same name had a crash at the same time!
David told me that his dad was alive and well, aged 82. With a deep breath I phoned Air Commodore Mason. I introduced myself and asked him about his crash and how he was rescued. The answer he gave confirmed the story. Being badly injured and delirious he did not remember much, but was later told that a Corporal Chick and another soldier saved him.
'It was Sergeant Chick,' I informed him, 'and the other soldier was my dad.'
It took a while to sink in. I told him I had been searching for him. The two veterans are going to meet soon and a part of their life that was unknown will be completed. The only sad thing is, Sergeant William Chick will not be there. Unless we can find him too?
See a photograph of Sergeant George Mason in 1941, around the time of the crash.
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