Sunderland’s wartime hero of the air

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Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner today pays tribute to a fearless Wearside war hero

A BUILDER’S son who repeatedly risked his life as an air gunner during World War Two and the Cold War has died at the age of 88.

PORTRAIT PICTURE: Winston Cole pictured during the war.

PORTRAIT PICTURE: Winston Cole pictured during the war.

Winston Cole won seven Commanding Officer Commendations after showing courage far beyond the call of duty on missions around the globe.

His son, Win, said: “I can’t imagine the fear he must have faced every day, going out on patrol and not knowing what was waiting for him – or if he’d even come back.”

“And I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. He helped to save the world, in his own way, and helped maintain peace in the years after the war too. He was remarkable.”

Winston, who was born near Ashington, Northumberland, in 1925, enjoyed an idyllic childhood – spending much of his time racing motorbikes with father Harry.

“Dad often went out with Harry on building jobs too, which were sometimes ‘paid in kind’. They brought a live pig back once in the bike’s side-car, as well as several salmon,” said Win.

“My grandmother, Caroline, was a talented singer who performed all over the North East. An agent asked her to turn professional, but she had a young family by then.”

The outbreak of war in 1939 was to bring Winston’s happy childhood to an abrupt halt. Within months, his older brother Terry had volunteered for the merchant navy.

Winston’s chance to do his bit for King and Country finally arrived in 1943, when he turned 18 and immediately signed up for the RAF – alongside five local pals.

“Dad was the only survivor from that group when the war ended. The rest were all shot down,” said Win. “He lost so many friends, not just half-a-dozen, but hundreds.

“The men he ate with, the men he went swimming with on days off, the men he served alongside – so many were killed. They would go off on a mission and just never come back.” Winston was sent to an RAF Gunnery School near Morpeth for initial training, followed by a stint at an advanced school in Doncaster – practising in Anson planes.

Just three months later, in December 1943, the newly qualified air gunner was posted to Sardinia with 14 Squadron, flying missions in B26 Marauders and B17 bombers.

“On one patrol over France, dad’s plane was hit by flak. This set off the Verey pistols – the flare guns carried by the plane – and his parachute caught fire,” said Win.

“Luckily, he wasn’t wearing it at the time, as his gun turret was too small to fit it in. He was wounded in the shoulder, though, but the plane managed to limp back to base.

“Dad’s flying log from that time shows him on mission after mission. There are details of flak attacks and ack-ack fire, as well as page after page of lost comrades.”

The winter of 1944 saw Winston transferred to Pembroke Dock, in Wales, where he flew Sunderland Flying Boats with 228 Squadron on escort duties and U-boat searches.

Log book entries from December 1944 to May 1945 show him at the centre of air-to-sea fighting and bombing raids – cheating death time and again in enemy attacks.

“He finally returned home in March 1946, much to the relief of my mam, Ann. They met at local dances in 1942, and married just before dad went to Italy,” said Win.

“Little did mam know what an amazing life she was embarking upon when she married him! I was two when he came back, and didn’t really know who he was at first.”

Winston returned to work in the building trade with his father after being demobbed, but was placed on RAF Reserve and recalled to the service in 1949.

Troubles in Palestine and Egypt had sparked a need for experienced fliers and he once again found himself training for war – this time at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire.

“He was flying Avro Lincoln Bombers by now, a beefed up and more heavily armed version of the Lancaster, as part of 230 Operational Conversion Unit,” said Win.

“He spent several months training in cross-country flights, bomb drops and air firing before being sent off to serve in Egypt, at the beginning of the Suez Crisis.”

Winston went on to play a key role in several 9 Squadron missions as part of Exercise Emperor in October 1950, as well as during Operation Accent in April 1951.

He was not, however, allowed to rest on his laurels and later that year was posted to Singapore to join the Korean War – where he served on Mark V Sunderland planes.

“Over the next three years dad was permanently away in Iwakuni, Japan or Okinawa. Our family moved to Singapore, to be closer to him, and had a marvellous time,” said Win.

“While the airmen risked their lives on rescue or weather forecasting patrols over the Chinese borders, their families enjoyed tea dances, dinner parties and river trips.”

The Coles finally returned to the UK in 1954, where Winston became a gunnery instructor at RAF Leconfield, near Hull – until retraining as a radar/signals technician engineer.

A series of postings followed, including Germany, Hong Kong and the Yemen/Aden Campaign, with several placements linked to Cold War nuclear missile bunkers.

“At one point dad was a key holder for atomic missiles. He had to collect secret codes every so often and had an armed body guard. It was a traumatic time for him,” said Win.

“But he was very, very good at his job, and received seven Commanding Officer Commendations over the years. To get just one in a lifetime is a huge honour.”

Winston’s final posting, to RAF Boulmer in Northumberland at 55, proved far less stressful. The idea of retirement, however, did not appeal to the high-flier.

“He and mam moved to Seaburn, to be closer to me and my family, and dad took a job as a trouble-shooter for Sunderland Council – which he loved,” said Win.

“They found it hard to settle down to civilian life, though, after years of travelling the world, and spent a lot of time taking their grandsons on holiday instead!”

Winston was widowed in 1993 but, though he struggled without Ann, he eventually threw himself back into family life. And, even in failing health, he remained chirpy.

“I knew my dad as my dad, but I didn’t know him as a man until quite recently, as his work took him away from me for most of the time,” said Win, a retired head teacher.

“He never really talked about what he had done until his final years. It was only when I became his carer that his horror tales of mission after mission came tumbling out.

“Once I started putting the jigsaw pieces of his life together, I realised he was a hero. I am so, so proud of him. He was such a humble man, but a hero too.”

•Winston died peacefully after a short illness on April 17. He leaves son Win, of Hastings Hill, grandsons Nicholas and Jonathan and great-grandson Ethan.

Winston served with Coastal Command, Strategic Air Command and the United Nations Peace Force over the years.

He was awarded a clutch of medals during his 40 years of loyal and outstanding service to his country, including:

1939-45 Star

Atlantic Star

Italy Star

The Defence War

War Medal 1939-45

General Service Medal Malaya

General Service Medal Arabia

British Korea Campaign Medal

U.N. Korea Campaign Medal

RAF Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

The Cold War Medal

Arabian Service Medal – Radfan Campaign

Hong Kong Service Medal

Restoration of Peace Medal

RAF Service Medal

British Forces Germany Medal

Snippets from Winston’s Flight Log Book:

l July 28, 1944: While on “recco patrol” over the south of France: “Fire in aircraft. Verey pistol (flare gun) went off and parachute burst into flames.”

l August 20, 1944: Again on patrol over France: “Attacked RDF station (radar station) and gun positions. Also strafed what appeared to be army camps on the beaches between Genoa and Nice. Heavy and light flak.”

l August 23, 1944: During a patrol off the south coast of France: “No enemy vessels sighted. Lots of our own shipping. It was a grand sight.”

l August 29, 1944: Winston was on duty escorting 21 landing craft tanks and 21 military vehicles to Sardinia. “No incidents except a few rounds of ack-ack fire.”

l August 31, 1944: The air gunner helped in the search for a lost crew from 272 Squadron off southern France. “Futile,” he wrote afterwards.

l September 13, 1944: No location mentioned: “Flying Officer Holme’s crew crashed into mountains. No survivors.”

l September 20, 1944: No location mentioned: “Warrant Officer Elliott and crew crashed, after hitting pylons. 
“No survivors.”

l May 11, 1945: “Rover Patrol – Irish Sea. Sighted surrendered German U-boat – U1327. Pictures taken.”

l May 8, 1945: “VE Day. Total flying hours – 435 hours, 45 minutes.”