Porthcawl author’s quest to record the memories of the WWII generation

Thursday, 7 July 2016

By GEM Staff Reporter

in Local People

Last week, The GEM announced the publication of ‘Glamorgan’s Greatest Generation’ – a new book by Malcolm Cowper of Porthcawl.

Mr Cowper, aged 70, who attended Bridgend Boys Grammar School, was aware that people with stories to tell about World War Two were shrinking in number with the passage of time, interviewed 40 people in the area, and tells their stories in the book.

Some were active during WWII, while some were the children of combatants. Malcolm was also keen to find people who could talk about wartime life for families at home during those years.

The GEM asked Malcolm to choose one story from the 40, and he selected this – about a Porthcawl man who was one of the many wartime children who never know their father – because war intervened.

Stanley Peate, originally from Sheffield but now living in Porthcawl, never knew his father, also called Stanley, because he was shot down on his first bombing raid over Germany.

However, 50 years later he received a heartwarming tribute to his father from the people of the Dutch town where his aircraft had crashed, and was given a small fragment of the wrecked bomber as a memento of the father he had never met.

RAF bomber crews suffered a staggeringly high casualty rate. A few, like Jim Griffiths, also the subject of a story in the book, were lucky and managed to complete a full tour of 30 bombing raids. Others were considerably less fortunate.

One of these was Stanley Peate, from Sheffield. On his first sortie as captain of a Halifax, aged just 20, he was shot down and killed. He left a widow and an unborn son.

Stanley was educated at Firth Park Grammar School, in Sheffield. After leaving school he worked for the Inland Revenue until he volunteered for the RAF at 19.

He began his flying tuition on August 21, 1941, in a De Havilland Tiger Moth, the standard basic trainer at the time, and his log book provides an interesting record of his progress.

On September 14, he flew his first solo, but his development thereafter was somewhat uneven. His instructor commented in his log book: “General flying very rough. Lacks control co-ordination and is heavy on controls.”

Nevertheless, on October 28 he progressed to the twin engine Airspeed Oxford, flying his first solo in that aircraft on November 2. His piloting skills must have improved, because he was assessed on December 13 as ‘above average’.

Many months of training followed, long cross-country flights during which he learned to handle the aircraft in all sorts of weather conditions and at night. Not all flights went well; his log book entry for May 7, 1942, contains the laconic entry ‘CRASHED’. However, as he was flying again on the 18th one assumes he was not injured.

By March 1943, he had logged 313 hours and was ready to progress to an operational training unit, where he would for the first time fly a real bomber, the Wellington. This had been the mainstay of Bomber Command in the early years of the war but was no longer in front line service and was now used for training.

From here he progressed on May 26 to a heavy conversion unit for the final stage of training: learning to fly the big four-engined Halifax. On May 28, he went on his first operation as second pilot in a raid on Essen.

The last entry in his log book was on June 16, when he completed his conversion course. He was then posted to 10 Squadron in Melbourne, Yorkshire, together with his crew, consisting of: Flight Sergeant Paul L Rakoczy, 22, navigator; Flying Officer Horace Pearson, 24, bomb aimer; Sergeant A Bailey, 21, air gunner; Sergeant K Pape, 22, flight engineer; Sergeant N Erikson, 27, air gunner; Sergeant Joseph G Sweeney, 22 air gunner; F/Sgt Rakoczy was from the USA, Sgt Sweeney was Canadian.

On June 28, Stanley flew his first – and, sadly, his last – mission as captain. There is no record of his target, but in the early hours of the 29th he was shot down by a German night fighter over the Dutch village of Aarle-Rixtel.

He almost managed to land his stricken aircraft, but it exploded just a few feet above the ground. All the crew were killed. Their average age was 22.

Stanley Peate’s story epitomises the utterly futile waste of war. A bright young man, not yet 21, is robbed of his life just at its prime. Constance, his pregnant young wife, is left to bring up their son, who was born a few months later and was also called Stanley, without the support and guidance of a father.

All his hopes and dreams extinguished in the flames of a crashed aeroplane in a lonely field in a foreign country.

However, there is a pleasing sequel to this story, one which brought unexpected joy to Stanley’s widow and his son. In 1995, a group of citizens of Aarle-Rixtel decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their country’s liberation from German occupation, and to express their gratitude to those who had given their lives in the cause of freedom, they decided to erect a memorial stone to the crew of Stanley Peate’s aircraft.

On the night of the crash, two teenage boys, Piet Beniers and Thieu Wich, in defiance of the curfew (and the risk of being shot), cycled to the wreck of the Halifax to see if they could render assistance, and retrieved a section of the pilot’s perspex windscreen as a souvenir.

They often made knives or key fobs out of perspex, as a gesture of defiance to the Germans, as stealing from wrecks was strictly forbidden. Over the next 50 years, Thieu kept this window, saying: “Some day I will know what to do with it.”

What he eventually did with it was present it to young Stanley (Stan), who was invited, together with his wife Linda, his uncle James (his father’s brother) and Aunt Ann, to the commemoration ceremony on May 5 in Aarle-Rixtel.

Unfortunately, Constance was unable to attend due to ill health, and, sadly, passed away just a few days before the event.

The memorial stone, erected near the crash, contained the names of the crew, and of a Spitfire pilot and six local men who were killed whilst hiding from the Germans, presumably resistance fighters.

It was largely thanks to Piet Beniers that they were able to attend this event.

From German war records, he was able to identify the aircraft that crashed in Aarle-Rixtel as Stanley’s, and then, through a letter to the Sheffield Star had made contact with his family.

Stan was by then living in Porthcawl, having moved down from Sheffield to work for British Steel in Port Talbot. Up till that time, he had known very little about his father’s war service, and was deeply moved by the efforts of the Dutch people to honour his memory.

He was particularly pleased to receive the aircraft window, as it give him a link to the father he never knew.

Interestingly, Beniers also managed to find out the name of the German pilot who shot Stanley’s aircraft down. He was Oberleutnant Gunther Radusch, who was the sixth highest night fighter ace in the German Luftwaffe during the war. He was a recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, and was credited with 65 aerial victories.

I am most grateful to Stan for providing me with this information. It was particularly moving to be able to read his father’s log book, every flight meticulously documented up till the end of his training.

The final entry is just a rubber-stamped statement ‘Death Presumed’. Stanley Peate became one of the 44,000 RAF airmen who flew on bombing raids over Germany and never returned.

Copies of the book can be obtained from the publisher, www.rowanvalebgooks.com, from amazon.co.uk and from the author malcolmcowper@gmail.com. A presentation on the book by the author can be viewed on Porthcawl U3A You Tube.

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