The Spitfire that time couldn’t bury

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IT WAS dawn on March 5, two months before VE-Day, that six RAF Spitfires of 111 Squadron took off from Rimini airfield on a bombing mission.

Their target: two dozen barges moored on a canal close to the village of Cavarzere on the outskirts of Venice.

Amid intense but inaccurate anti-aircraft fire, they dropped their payload of a dozen 250lb bombs south of the canal.

One of the Spitfires was caught by flak, hit the ground and exploded. Its pilot, Warrant Officer John Henry Coates, from York, was reported missing in action. He was 24.

His name is engraved on the Malta War Memorial, a 49ft column commemorating the 2,298 Commonwealth aircrew who lost their lives around the Mediterranean and who have no known grave.

But after 70 years, he could finally have the burial denied him.

The wreckage of an RAF Spitfire shot down in 1945 has been recovered in Italy, with remains of the pilot, W/O John Henry Coates, from York.

The wreckage of an RAF Spitfire shot down in 1945 has been recovered in Italy, with remains of the pilot, W/O John Henry Coates, from York.

His remains, alongside those of his Spitfire, have been unearthed from the crash site by aircraft enthusiasts, and an appeal launched to trace his family in Yorkshire.

“There are no words that can express that excitement of being able to give a proper burial to a soldier so that he can finally rest in peace,” said Alessandro Voltolina, a researcher in Italy.

“In this case, it’s John Henry, a 24 year-old boy who died alone in a lost field, miles away from his home and family.”

The wreckage of the Spitfire Mk IX was uncovered after a two-year investigation along the Adige river near Cavarzere.

The wreckage of an RAF Spitfire shot down in 1945 has been recovered in Italy, with remains of the pilot, W/O John Henry Coates, from York.

The wreckage of an RAF Spitfire shot down in 1945 has been recovered in Italy, with remains of the pilot, W/O John Henry Coates, from York.

Archeologists belonging to Romagna Air Finders and Air Crash Po, in the Po Valley of northern Italy, dug out parts of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, wings, fuselage, cockpit, and a cache of ammunition.

Alongside the landing gear, they found the remains of W/O Coates.

The researchers had been drawn to the area by local rumour and distant recollection, and had narrowed down the search with the help of charts and flight records from the time.

Signor Voltolina, for whom this was the last of 12 recoveries, said: “Despite my experience, the thrill and emotion I feel whenever I smell the mix of propellant, glycol and motor oil is amazing.

The wreckage of an RAF Spitfire shot down in 1945 has been recovered in Italy, with remains of the pilot, W/O John Henry Coates, from York.

The wreckage of an RAF Spitfire shot down in 1945 has been recovered in Italy, with remains of the pilot, W/O John Henry Coates, from York.

“It means that all the effort of the recovery was not useless.”

He added: “I hope that one of his relatives will get in touch.”

The researchers have offered to donate parts of the aircraft to the family as a gift.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists John Henry Coates, service number 1147865, as a Warrant Officer with the RAF Volunteer Reserve.

His parents were Eliza and John Coates, whom, the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington, York, believes, may have had six other children and connections with the Rowntree chocolate factory in the city. John Coates is thought to have been a confectionary maker who died in 1954.

George Coates, a brother of the pilot, is believed to have two grandsons - Matthew James Coates, born in 1974, and Robert John Coates, born in 1972, both in Howden.

The Spitfires of 111 Squadron had been deployed to the Mediterranean initially to support the invasions of North Africa and then Sicily.

Towards the end of the war, the “Treble One” moved through Italy with the advancing Allied ground troops. W/O Coates was its third last casualty.

By 1945 it was based at Ravenna, south of Venice, and, with few enemy aircraft left in Italy, had been converted to a fighter-bomber role.