ANAVETS Shoulder to Shoulder

March 2014

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T here are two Canadian war graves in Vorselaar, and one of them is empty. It happened like this: It was September 1944, and RCAF 430 "City of Sudbury" Squadron was starting to convert to Spitfires. But J10304 Flight-Lieutenant John Wesley Cowling was still flying his Mark I P51 Mustang, code number AM 201-S, said by some after the war to have been the finest type of single- engined reconnaissance (recce) fighter in the allied service. On 20 September the weather around Diest, near Louvain, Belgium, the squadron's new home, was threatening. And towards the north, towards where the hard-bitten allied armies were still having trouble rolling up Hitler's Atlantic Wall after their 6 June landings in Normandy, it looked as though a successful recce mission was not in the cards. But the 29-year-old Cowling had joined the squadron only a bare month before and was anxious to get on with the job. His fellow pilot, later a brigadier-general and a well-known Canadian writer, Richard Romer, had this to say about his experience as a recce pilot with 430 squadron flying through flak on D-Day, which he recreated in a novel: "Suddenly it was as if the whole world had turned into a formidable display of horrifying fireworks.... An almost solid wall of white, burning balls were arcing comet-like towards him, enveloping his hurtling aircraft in a checkerboard of exploding light." Mustang AM 201-S had been handed over to the squadron on 6 June, D-Day, and had led a charmed existence on many missions. For by the end of hostilities the three squadrons of 39 Wing were to lose 19 pilots killed in action, three while training and three as prisoners of war. Despite the weather, Squadron Leader "Chesty" Cheaters ordered a tactical recce mission on Arnhem, Holland, now well-known for the heroic paratroop drop and gallant defence portrayed in the film A Bridge Too Far, and Cowling took off. The now surrounded British 1st Parachute Division and 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade were in day-four of their nine-day ordeal of vicious fighting. Operation Market Garden, the bold initiative to seize the bridge over the Rhine spurred on by Field Marshal Montgomery, was turning into a disaster. Intelligence of what was going on was vital and the cameras of AM 201-S would collect that intelligence. When Cowling was somewhere over Belgium, with the weather getting fouler by the minute, his wingman Flying Officer Gilmor, who though junior in rank must have been the flight leader, ordered him to abort the mission and return to base. Cowling acknowledged... and was never heard from again, though Gilmor made repeated attempts to contact him. Cowling was listed as "missing." The wreckage of AM 201-S and Cowling's body were found in a field by the citizens of the town of Vorselaar, Belgium. He's buried there in a grave recognized by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and equipped with the standard maple leaf headstone. Not far away stands another headstone dedicated to a fallen Canadian; the grave is empty. 22 SHoUldEr To SHoUldEr THE EMPTY graVE: aN aPPoINTMENT IN VorSElaar By Terence Cottrell

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