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Thursday 20 August, 2015
I first heard the incredible story of Robert (Bob) Barson Cowper, DFC and Bar, OAM, Legion of Honour (Fr) in 2006 and welcomed the opportunity to write his biography. Born in Broken Hill in June 1922, from an early age Bob enjoyed a semi-rural upbringing north of Adelaide, where his father, Henry Cowper, worked at Roseworthy Agricultural College. Bob’s Father, himself a veteran of World War 1, was one of thousands who suffered horrendous gas burns on the Western Front, and was no doubt an inspiration to the young Bob Cowper.
On the day of his eighteenth birthday, Bob cycled from the family home north of Adelaide to North Terrace in Adelaide City, signalling his intentions to enlist at Number 5 Recruiting Depot of the RAAF. He was accepted for basic air force training in December 1940 alongside other South Australian volunteers who would ultimately contribute to Australia’s reinforcement of the RAF.
Before his nineteenth birthday, Bob graduated from EATS (Empire Air Training Scheme) which he undertook in Western Australia and Canada, and with the extra bonus of a commission (Pilot Officer) was on his way to Scotland for further assessment and ultimately for training as a night fighter.
Apart from his ace status, gained with his fifth victory during the Normandy invasion (another of which would follow), Bob Cowper had the fairly unique distinction of belonging to all three of the RAF’s ‘clubs’ – The Goldfish Club (escape by use of emergency dinghy), The Late Arrivals Club (for returning to his squadron on foot after abandoning his aircraft due to enemy engagement) and The Caterpillar Club (for having saved his life by using a parachute).
Decades later, he describes this Atlantic crossing as one of the most harrowing experiences of his eventful wartime career, with freezing weather, overcrowding and the constant fear of attack from German U-boats.
From 1941 – 1945, Bob predominantly flew Beaufighter and Mosquito aircraft in three World War Two operational tours in Northern Ireland, Malta and the UK.
Prior to his Malta secondment, whilst enroute to Malta from Gibraltar, Bob was forced to ditch his Beaufighter when he ran out of fuel over the Sahara Desert. He and his navigator were subsequently harrassed by desert natives whose reputations for rough justice at the end of their lengthy swords raised fear in the hearts of all airmen. Fortunately this crowd were more anti-German than English and the pair survived, albeit with more ‘adventure’ to come shortly afterwards.
During a contact with a German Junkers 88, Bob managed to cripple the enemy aircraft which subsequently exploded in front of his (new) Beaufighter, with terminal damage sending it into a spiral. Sadly his navigator would not survive the subsequent impact into the ocean, though somewhat miraculously Cowper was able to exit the plane and scramble into the dinghy that accompanied his parachute before being picked up by a hospital ship the following morning.
At the war’s conclusion, Bob had risen to the rank of Squadron Leader in command of 456 Squadron, Australia’s only night fighter squadron. In this position, the old head on young shoulders was committed to the task of tempering the enthusiasm of the newly arrived younger pilots who had witnessed men become household names during the war’s lengthy duration. Such greats as Bader, Gibson, Cunningham, Finucane… some living, some dead – these were just some of the wartime pilots these young men were anxious to emulate; too brash, or in many cases in too much of a hurry to listen to the pitfalls of air warfare before joining the hundreds whose final resting place became that watery grave – the English Channel.
Bob’s desire to survive was no doubt motivated by his WWI veteran father who had posed the simple question to Bob, prior to his departure overseas, “what if they win?”
“In hindsight, it would have been unthinkable,” maintains Bob.
Bob doesn’t consider himself a hero, far from it. Despite all that he has managed to survive, in his view he is just an ordinary bloke who was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. It’s a sobering reminder of how ordinary men are forced to do extraordinary things in war. Throughout the Anzac Centenary we are reminded of all the ‘ordinary’ men who in our eyes are heroes, but who in their eyes, like Bob, claim they ‘didn’t do anything other than what was required of them at the time’.