BOMBER crews of the Second World War had a notoriously short life expectancy, taking their heavy, lumbering machines right into the heart of enemy territory night after night, lighting up the sky with their presence and then hightailing it all the way back, chased out by swift, heavily armed fighters.
Even when a bomber made it home, all too often the gunners would have been picked off by enemy fire, and the survial rate for those men was unenviable. But one air gunner who survived those long odds is still with us today, and celebrated his 90th birthday this week.
Cliff Cooper was born in Darlaston in 1924, and his son Adam has given us a taste of the harrowing adventure that Cliff lived through.
"He was born at 77 Hill Street Darlaston, to George Cooper and Mary-Ann (nee Walford)" Adam said.
"He was the youngest of three children, the other two being Horatio and Frazer, and he attended Kings Hill School.
"In 1942 after his 18th birthday, he was called up, and he applied to join the RAF. He started training as an air gunner at RAF Morpeth, gunnery school, flying in twin engine Blackburn B26 Bothas, then later on in Wellington bombers at Saltby, finally moving on to Lancasters at Winthorpe, Newark.
"On 26th August 1943 he was transferred to Bottesford, near Grantham, where he joined 467 squadron, which was a Royal Australian Air Force squadron."
Cliff barely had time to get used to his new surroundings before he was called into action. Four days later, on August 30, he was airborne and bound for the enemy's back yard, on a raid over the German town of Gladbach.
On two occasions in the following months, Cliff and his colleagues put their luck to the test, being hit once by anti-aircraft fire, and on another raid being peppered with lead from a German fighter. Both times an engine was hit and caught fire, and both times the pilot had to do the only thing he could do in those days – climb high, then dive steeply until the screaming wind put out the flames, and hope the remaining engines would hold out long enough to get them home.
"Then on the January 1, 1944 came a twist of fate," says Adam. "My father was grounded with flu so he was unable to go on his next operation later that night. At 23.24 hours the rest of his crew, with a replacement gunner, took off for a bombing raid to Berlin.
"As the Lancaster crew headed towards their intended target it was attacked by a German fighter plane and shot down near a village called Altmerdingsen, Germany. All on board were killed.
"The German pilot that claimed to have shot down my father's crew was Prinz Zu Say-Wittgebstein who was himself shot down and killed later in the war.
Cliff still has photographs of his lost colleagues and the plane he had shared with them so many times. His plane and crew now gone, he was transferred to a new squadron, the 582 Pathfinders based at Little Staughton near Bedford. With them his luck held, and he went on to complete 56 operations, flying until the end of the war, and taking part in raids over Berlin, Munich, Leipzing, Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
One of Cliff's fondest memories of the war was one night when he and another member of his crew decided to go to the dance hall in Bedford, as Adam explains:
"When he walked in he spotted his mother and her friend Mrs Birch sitting at a table, they never called each other by their first names, instead referring to each other as Mrs Cooper and Mrs Birch. They had both come down on a train from Darlaston to see her son. They stayed for a few drinks then at the end of the night they both travelled back on the train to Darlaston. After the war my father met my mother, May Smith from Cross Street, Wednesbury, who was the daughter of William Smith (known as 'Railway' Smith) and Nellie Smith. On 3rd September 1949 they got married at St Bartholomew's church on Church Hill, Wednesbury.
They both still live in Wednesbury, and my father celebrated his 90th birthday on May 16 this year."
We're sure every Bugle reader would like to join us in wishing Cliff Cooper our very best birthday wishes.
If you have a war story to tell, whether its your own or that of a relative, we'd like to hear it. Write to us, pay us a visit, give us a call, or email gjones@black countrybugle.co.uk.