Bob Cowper, WWII Pilot, Racehorse Trainer and Family Man Remembered

Bob Cowper, one of Australia’s most decorated WWII pilots
Source: Stephen Lewis
Bob Cowper, one of Australia’s most decorated WWII pilots Source: Stephen Lewis

In 2007, ‘Chasing Shadows’, the biography of Bob Cowper, was published detailing the exploits of one of Australia’s most decorated WWII pilots.  Bob Cowper was born in Broken Hill in 1922 and on his 18th birthday in 1940 he enlisted with the RAAF.

He completed his pilot training and during the war, he flew different types of aircraft such as Mosquitoes, Beaufighters, and Defiants. He was the Squadron Leader of 456 RAAF Night Fighters, and his war service record was littered with amazing feats of courage and the resultant awards for bravery. His medals included the Distinguished Flying Cross (with bar) for gallantry and the French Legion of Honour. The Legion of Honour was awarded for his flying during the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944.

In his biography, he recalled, “I remember on the first night of D-Day (June 6) the squadron shot down four aircraft near Normandy. Altogether, I think we shot down about 35 aircraft over the beach and our squadron was proud to have been part of the entire operation that created history and helped end the war in Europe.”

There are many tales told of his exploits during the war. These included a time that he fired on an enemy plane causing it to explode, pushing his plane into a spiral forcing him to bail out. As he bailed out, he lost consciousness, recovering his wits just in time to pull the ripcord and splash down safely in the sea.

Another close shave happened when he crashed in the Sahara Desert in a fighter carrying radar which at that time was considered top secret. Fortunately, his guardian angel was again on duty, and he was rescued by local tribesmen.

Bob Cowper married his sweetheart, Katherine, and they were married for 70 years until she passed away in 2014. They had four daughters, one of whom married the distinguished racehorse trainer Peter Jolly. Their son David has racing colours designed by Bob Cowper. These have a white background with the distinctive blue and red roundel of the RAF in homage to the exploits of his maternal grandfather.

Bob was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2012. He was living in a nursing home when he passed away quietly a few days before his 94th birthday. He was honoured with a flypast at his funeral service, attended by several dignitaries; that was held at the Morphettville Racecourse in Adelaide.

In 2012 Bob Cowper said, “Most of the ones that we killed, shooting down in their aircraft, were young fellows doing what they were told by monsters.” This statement gives a clear indication of the sadness that he felt at the lives taken during the war. He did his job, loved his flying but took no pleasure in the killing of the enemy pilots. A fascinating man, compassionate and family-oriented; a man who loved his wife dearly all their married life.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE