- Contributed by
- Gray's Museum
- People in story:
- Squadron Leader H.D.H. (Douglas) Cooper
- Location of story:
- RAF, Europe
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 February 2005
Awarded the DFC in 1940
Strabane Air Ace a WW2 Prisoner in Stalag Luft 111
The Story of Squadron Leader H.D.H. (Douglas) Cooper DFC in WW2
Herbert Douglas Haig Cooper 1917 — 2004
Inserted by Gray’s Museum, with the approval of the Cooper family
Herbert Douglas Haig Cooper was born in Strabane in 1917 and attended the local Church of Ireland school in Strabane before moving on to the Prior in Lifford for his secondary education. He moved from there to Portora Royal in Enniskillen as a boarder in 1934. It had been hoped that the young Douglas would pursue a career in banking but already his interest was deeply embedded in aviation and he managed to flunk the entrance examination for the bank. Despite reservations his father, Herbert, accepted the young Douglas’ wish to join the Air Force and he signed up in late 1936. After periods of training at Brough and Sealand, Douglas was awarded his Wings in June 1937 and assigned to RAF Station Waddington in Lincolnshire in October of that year.
On the outbreak of war in September 1939, Douglas Cooper was busy training new crews for the expected aerial war with the Germans and it was not until January 1940 that he was involved in actual combat when attached over the North Sea by German planes, managing to make it safely back to base. In February he volunteered to help bring twelve Bristol Blenheim Mk 1’s to Finland to unofficially help in the war against the Russians. This entailed clandestine flights to Norway and landing on a frozen lake near Helsinki, to a rapturous welcome from the Finnish forces. After being feted for two days Cooper and his aircrews were brought to Sweden and eventually brought from there back to Scotland. Douglas was later to receive the Finnish Medal of Winter War 1940 for his part in the delivery of the aircraft.
In the late spring of 1940 much of Cooper’s time was spent on reconnaissance work but it was becoming increasingly clear that the German advance on western Europe was a major threat. In May Douglas was part of a bombing expedition to Maastricht to halt the German advance there and they managed to inflict continued damage on German positions along the Dutch and Belgian coasts during the British army’s retreat to Dunkirk as well as moving inland to attack enemy positions in occupied northern France. By June he and his crew had completed 30 operations and were entitled to a well earned rest. Douglas then assigned as instructor in training new pilots in the Blenheims and he was to remain at this task until February 1941 when he was recalled to operational duty at Watton in Norfolk, where his immediate superior was a fellow Ulsterman from Ramelton in Donegal, Miles Villiers Denlap. A period of bombing raids on northern Germany followed and by April 1941 they had begun attacking German shipping in the North Sea. Numerous close shaves occurred, with German fighter planes out to destroy these bombers and Cooper’s log entries for May 0f 1941 showed attacks on Bremerhaven, Heligoland and on an oil refinery. Many of the bombing raids were night attacks while June entries suggested that they had switched again to daytime attacks. But nemesis was just around the corner and on July 1 the long expected disaster happened.
The mission that day was to bomb and sink shipping in the Kiel Canal and they had expected cloud cover for the operation. Nearing the target the fighters were informed that there would be no cover over the target area and the main squadron decided to abort the mission. Cooper and crew, however, decided to venture further, being sceptical of met forecasts, and found that were exposed to heavy German anti aircraft fire from one of the bridges that they had attempted to bomb. The plane was badly hit and Douglas gave the order to bale out. Two of his crew were killed on the descent while Cooper landed on the bank of the canal where the Germans were awaiting his arrival. He had been wounded in the attack and was forced to accept first aid from his captors but refused the offer of food, being put off by the sight of German sausage and sour kraut. Following treatment he was taken to hospital in Hamburg where he was well provided for in comparison to some of the other patients who had collapsed while on forced labour on German roads. From Hamburg Cooper was taken to a reception centre for prisoners of war at Dulag Luft in Oberusel. He was soon moved on fro m there to a prisoner of war camp at Lubeck where food was very scarce and of inferior quality. The Red Cross parcels were eagerly looked forward to by the starving prisoners, and everything utilized to make life easier.
From Lubeck Douglas was taken to POW camp Oflag VIB Kassel near Frankfurt, where he met many longer term prisoners from the Dunkirk engagement and also about 600 RAF prisoners. Here he met the famous Wing commander, Douglas Bader, and also came into contact with fellow Tyrone man, Flight Lieutenant Robert James McConnell from Omagh. A major preoccupation of the inmates was the digging of tunnels and attempts to outwit the German guards and Douglas Cooper’s hut was selected as the entry point for a daring escape plan that incorporated a dummy tunnel leading to the real thing. A wet summer destroyed the plans, however, with the collapse of the tunnels and the German discovery of the attempted escape. Weather could be an enemy of the pilots whether they were in the air or on the ground.
From Kassel Douglas was moved to Stublin Oflag in Poland and there he first met the Gestapo, following an escape from the camp by Polish and Czech prisoners and within a short period he was moved again, this time to the purpose built Stalag Luft III outside the town of Sagan. This centre was designed for Air Force prisoners and was to be the setting for numerous escape bids and daring escapades. It was the scene for the famous Wooden Horse escape and while Douglas was not part of the actual escape he contributed to the planning and the building. Anything that weakened the morale of the Germans was considered worthwhile and Douglas tells of an episode when a high ranking German officer’s papers were removed from a car and only returned under threat a few hours later, having been mutilated by the British prisoners.
Boredom and increasing food shortages were serious problems as the war neared its end and in the early weeks of 1945 the prisoners were moved from Stalag towards Lubeck on a forced march. The eastward movement resulted in many hardships for the prisoners and probably also for their guards and much of their food was obtained from scrounging the countryside that they were passing through. Even the guards had accepted that Germany was facing defeat and by the late spring were prepared to await the inevitable surrender. Events happened quickly near the end and Douglas Cooper can only remember fleeting moments of their liberation and return home. He was in Brussels for VE day and remembers how some of the troops that eventually found their prison camp had previously come across a number of the concentration camps and were in no mood to be charitable towards the defeated Germans. Douglas was flown back to RAF station Cardington in early July of 1945 and found that his period of incarceration had not helped his career prospects much. He refused the offer of a desk job and applied for demobbing. This was quickly granted and Douglas returned home to start live over again as a civilian. His personal effects which had been taken from him on his capture were all safely returned and Douglas Cooper settled down in civilian life as manager of his father’s thriving cinema business.
A final little episode from the war days is worth adding. In one of his earliest combat actions in January 1940 Douglas had only just managed to escape from an attack by six German ME IIOs, when two of his squadron planes had been badly damaged and one shot down. In 1993 Douglas received a letter from Wolfgang Falck, asking to meet him and alluding to their previous abortive engagement in January 1940, when they had been trying to kill each other in aerial combat. They met up at St Ullrich in Austria in the summer of that year and continued meeting up until recently. Wartime enemies had become firm friends and each had many memories to share with the other. Sadly Douglas Cooper died in September 2004 and with his departure goes one of the last surviving local links to the war period.
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