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A Spitfire Pilot and a Brave Soldier: The Story of a Questicon for Recommended story

by triciacowell

Contributed by 
triciacowell
People in story: 
L/Cpl Gordon Allenby Cowell, Sergeant William Chick, Sergeant GA Mason
Location of story: 
Sandwich in Kent
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2784963
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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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 27 June 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

The long search began here A2224531. Tricia told the story of her father's bravery and said "I would love to find out who that pilot was and if he survived, was he English? ... Dad is 85 and still going strong, he only gives me bits of info, he hates talking about it ... can you help or point me in the right direction about the pilot?". Tricia's request caught my eye and I messaged her "If you can give me the date of the crash and the location I might be able to work out which Spitfire it was and who the pilot was." Tricia's reply wasn't very encouraging: "He cannot remember the day but it was summer [in 1940]", but it was a start. Other clues pointed to late summer.

I then told Tricia about a highly detailed book I have "Spitfire - The History" by Eric B. Morgan and Edward Shacklady (Key Publishing, 1987) which lists all Spitfire serial numbers and a short service history and the fate of each pilot of every Spitfire. Unfortunately, without the plane's serial number it meant examining thousands of tiny print records. I also advised getting Sgt Cowell's medal citation, which would give the date of the incident. Tricia found a copy of the book in her local library and we both examined hundred's of records, Tricia coming up with one or two possible candidates.

Tricia became quite an expert and sent me me this: "What I do not know about Spitfires, is not worth knowing, I see them in my sleep!!!.A lot of the planes that went down in 1940 just say over Kent or near Dover, Deal,ect. I have found one that came down at Sandwich, but not sure if it was destroyed.", and so we ploughed on. After consulting this and several other works the only candidate that fitted late summer 1940 was this one:

"Sunday, 25 August 1940 Spitfire P9451 of 610 Squadron, Biggin Hill, at 7.33 pm crashed at Sandwich after combat with Bf109s over Dover. Pilot Officer F. T. Gardiner was wounded and admitted to Waldershore Hospital. The Spitfire was destroyed.

I added "I've found a little more about the pilot of Spitfire P9451. He was Frederick Thomas Gardiner, born on 24 September 1917; so he was just 22 when he crashed. He was awarded the DFC on 10 March 1944; he left the RAF as a Squadron Leader in 1946. He died at the grand old age of 86. There is an account of his life here: [Broken link removed by Moderator] There may be some slight errors in the obituary, for example all official records show that he crash-landed (i.e., didn't parachute down) at Sandwich (not Deal). It mentions 'two' soldiers saving him, but again this may be an error." [This turned out to be the wrong Spitfire, as you will see, but I have recounted it as a tribute to this valorous pilot].

And there the matter rested for several weeks until Tricia posted this "Gordon Cowell BEM ( THE WRONG YEAR!!! )" here F1667054?thread=429310 Finally Tricia's father's service record had arrived which dated the incident precisely: 7 August 1941. By a fluke we had arrived at the correct month and a remarkably similar incident but were a year out! 1941, not 1940.

Back to the drawing board, but with a difference. Having the exact date I was able to consult "Fighter Command Losses 1939-1941" and, after a false start, find the plane listed amongst fifteen other fighter losses on that date: "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 G. A. Mason; aircraft written off."

At long last we had found it!

 

Message 2 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 29 June 2004 by triciacowell

Hi Peter,you have written that very well,have another one on me. Do you think mine needs improving in any way? suggestions most appreciated.Have you seen the photo of my daddy? he was a handsome fellow.

Tricia :)

 

Message 3 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 29 June 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Very handsome indeed Tricia, we are apt to forget that these brave soldiers were so young, teenagers in many cases.

As to your story, just a few typos:

his sargent = his 'sergeant'
the strickened pilot = the 'stricken' pilot
awarded medals for there bravery = awarded medals for 'their' bravery.

<disco> Peter <disco>

 

Message 4 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 29 June 2004 by triciacowell

Thankyou,@'.'@ my spelling is awffal ;-)

 

Message 5 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 30 June 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

LOL
Peter :-)==O<tomato>

 

Message 6 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 30 June 2004 by triciacowell

:-)==0<wah> oh dear!!!

 

Message 7 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 17 July 2004 by David-M

Hi Tricia, Peter and all,

I posted this in reply to Deborah on another thread that, whilst it is linked to this story, doesn't seem to be easily reachable to the casual reader. Thus I will reproduce it here, as I believe it does have a bearing on the story :

Quote :

Hi Deborah, Tricia, and Peter,

Thanks for putting the photo up, Deborah, it is nice to see the old boy's
dubious mugshot attached to the story.

For Tricia, Peter and all, I have just learned, extraordinarily, that this was my father's first operational sortie ! I had always been under the impression that there had been many active sorties before this one. He wrote
an account of the mission a while back, a copy of which only came to my
attention in the very early hours of this morning. I intend to ask my father's permission to reproduce it here, it makes quite a read. In short he
was part of a massive support wing of 200 fighters, and when the action
started to get 'heated' he suddenly found himself 199 fighters short ! Six
Me 109's were breathing down his tailpipe with apparent glee at the
prospect of despatching this 'rookie' to an early, and permanent, 'time-out'. There is more, but that will have to wait for the said permission.

He did go on to carry out over 200 sorties that involved crossing the
English Channel, and was later shot down and taken prisoner by the German
forces. He served time in various camps, including the famous/infamous
Stalag Luft III of 'The Great Escape' story.

I will add more as, and if, and when, my father authorises.

David

 

Message 8 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 16 January 2006 by watchfulRosie4u

Thank you so much - David, Tricia and Peter for your fascinating contributions to the WW2 Peoples war website.
I am relatively new to family history research, but my family links in with Air Commodore George Anthony Mason's mother and sister, and I first heard of his war-time experiences from family sources.
Having only had very brief details of his time as a prisoner of war, I would be extremely interested to hear of his time in Stalag Luft III especially, as I am sure many other people would too.
Thank you once again for giving me a much clearer picture of his time as a spitfire pilot.

Rosie

 

Message 9 - A Spitfire pilot and a brave soldier "A story of a quest"

Posted on: 29 January 2006 by illsma

may I be so bold as to point out that the pilot on the left in the photo is most certainly not a "sargent" that is of course, unless he had borrowed an officers hat ??

Terry Mills

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This story has been placed in the following categories.

British Army Category
Royal Air Force Category
Postwar Years Category
Kent Category
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