Sunday, 7 October 2012

Sgt John (Jack) Casson C.G.M.

By Anne Shaw

Herewith info on two very special Rhodesian's who were both the only two Rhodesians to be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying) for their bravery during WW II. John Casson was a Southern Rhodesian and  "Mike/Happy" Cowham was a Northern Rhodesian.


Sgt John (Jack) Casson C.G.M. (Royal Air Force V.R.)

Officer number 160188
NCO number 778890
Rank Pilot Officer
Died of wounds 27/5/1944 in 239 Air Wing Hospital, Italy
250 Squadron
Aircraft number Kitty Hawk MK IV FX761
Target Italy Alatri
School Plumtree, Southern Rhodesia
Buried 28/5/1944 in British Cemetery No 12 Italy
Born 20/11/1922 Sea Scale, Whitehaven, Cumberland, UK

The following was extracted from   “A Record” Plumtree School 1902 – 1945           

Compiled by K “Connie” Fleming and his wife Ellie Fleming. “Connie”. Connie was a teacher at Plumtree before being transferred to Umtali High School where he was a teacher as well as being Master-in-charge of Tait House for children with learning difficulties. He later became Headmaster of Umtali Boys High School.   
Sgt. Pilot John Casson

Taken from Operational Report.

250   (Sudan) Squadron

27th May 1944

From San Angelo, Landing Ground

The type of courage, which made possible the Fighter-Bomber offensive against Reichswehr transport in Italy was exemplified on Saturday, May 27th, by a young pilot of the Desert Ai Force. With full knowledge that the convoy he was attacking was heavily defended, the pilot twice led his section down to strafe. On the second run a shell exploded in his cockpit. He was severely wounded in all four limbs, but he succeeded in flying his Kitty-bomber safely back to his base before he died. He did not even ask for an emergency landing, and three times circled the airfield, allowing other Kitty bombers to take off on a mission without interruption before he himself touched down.

His name was John Casson. In the RAF Squadron to which he belonged he had already established a fine record. On March 3rd he had sunk a 3,000, ton ship with a direct hit forward of the funnel, and the destruction confirmed by reconnaissance. He broke an Adriatic Coast bridge with another direct hit on April 11 – both attacks being made in the face of intense machine-gun fire. The day before he died he led an armed recce of Kity- bombers, which destroyed 10 German vehicles. Casson’s, Flight-Commander, Flt. Lieut. Lucas Mc Bryde, DFC, from Adelaide, Australia was flying number two to Casson on his last sortie, because he wanted to train the young Flight-sergeant as a leader. But he saw nothing of the action, which killed him, because Mc Bryde’s own aircraft was hit in the engine and between the guns on the wings during the first strafing run. Mc Bryde was accordingly forced to return for base, crash-landing in no-man’s land. He spoke of Casson as quiet and keen. “A really fine young lad, who looked almost too slight to have that amount of pluck.”

The Squadron was attacking a convoy facing Alatri. Casson’s section bombed it first and then went up to act as top cover while a second section did their bombing and strafing. Pilots in Casson’s section heard another leader call out “loads of Ack-ack,” before Casson went into strafe. They saw in all four vehicles destroyed, one throwing flames to 300 feet. After he was hit, Casson said over the radio: “My leg’s been pretty well shot off.” Pilots who heard him say this, said that he said it so calmly they thought he meant the leg of his undercarriage.

When Casson was lifted out of the cockpit, still conscious, the M.O. found that the shell had gone through the middle of his right thigh, shattering the bone. In addition there was a deep wound in his left thigh, multiple penetrating wounds of his right arm, and paralysis of the Ulnar nerve on his left arm. The doctors who attended him said that it was a miracle of courage that a man in such condition could have flown his aircraft over enemy lines, through the mountain heights, and back to base. Three airmen on Casson’s squadron gave blood by transfusion, but it was impossible to save him. Casson has since been awarded posthumously the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Besides this fine tribute to John Casson, the Eight Army News, and many other papers have reported his last heroic flight. He was the first and only Southern Rhodesian to be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying) during WW II.

Additional information:-
Reference the Roll of Honour held by the National Archives of (Southern Rhodesia) now Zimbabwe:-
Lists John Casson under the heading – Died of Wounds in Action, and lists him as 160186 Pilot Officer, it therefore can be assumed that John’s commission came through at about the time or after his death.

The London Gazette of the 23rd June records the following:-

Citation for the award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying) to 778890 F/Sgt John Casson, 250 Sedan Squadron.

One morning in May 1944, this airman took part in an attack on mechanical transport on the Alatri-Frosionone road. Despite intense opposing fire, F/Sgt Casson pressed home his attacks with great determination. Whilst making a second run over the target his aircraft, was hit by a shell. F/Sgt Casson was badly wounded in the thigh. Although faint through loss of blood and shock, this valiant pilot flew his damaged aircraft to base. He was unable to operate one rudder bar owing to his exhausted condition. Nevertheless he effected a safe landing. As he was lifted from the controls F/Sgt Casson collapsed. This airman displayed courage, fortitude and devotion to duty of the highest order.

Extracts from “In Action with the Enemy” by Alan Cooper

Fighter Bomber Pilot.

“These were the only CGM’s given for specific actions in the Middle East. It was to be another year before anyone of the Desert Air Force received another by which time it was operating in Italy.”
“He was recommended the same day by his CO, Major J.R.R. Wells DFC, but sadly he succumbed to his wounds.”

“John Casson was buried on 28th May in the British Cemetery No 12. His action came at the height of the Battle for Rome and apart fro Casson, the squadron got quite a mauling on this operation. Wingman to Casson, Sergeant Barrow, did not get home. Flight Lieutenant Mc Bryde, an Australian, had to force land but luckily, inside Allied lines. Four other aircraft came back with holes shot through them. At the time of his death, Casson had flown ninety-eight sorties, and had 496 flying hours in his log book.”

Short extracts and snippets taken from various sources:-

“First C.G.M.” taken from a Rhodesian (news paper cutting).

“The first Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to a Southern Rhodesian in this war (WW II) has been awarded to the late Flt/Sgt John Casson, whose feat in flying back a Kitty-bomber in Italy to its base after his right leg had been shattered by anti-aircraft fire, his right arm crippled by shrapnel, and his left arm and leg hit by anti-aircraft fire, was described by his doctor as a “miracle of courage.”

“Flt/Sgt Casson died after his leg had been amputated. His parents Mr and Mrs H Casson, have recently taken over the Rhodes Inyanga (now Nyanga) Hotel at Inyanga (now Nyanga).”

“Salute to Courage”

“He was 21 – small, slight and fair. He had blue-grey eyes that twinkled and lit up his whole face when he laughed. He was always playing pranks. But he was intent on his job. Nothing deflected him from the task assigned to him and the job of bringing his aircraft back. It was so that he died.”

“His voice was nonchalantly over the radio and the whole squadron heard him say: “My leg has been pretty well shot off.” Etc.  Knowing the pilot for what he was, knowing his skill with aircraft, his youth and his daring, they thought: “Oh well, when he comes to landing, Casson will be OK.”
“And so the squadron headed for home, their job done and the destruction of their targets completed. And with him flying his plane steadily and accurately, went Flight Sergeant Casson.”

“But it was not the leg of the aircraft that was shattered. It was his, own leg. And as he sat there flying his machine Flight Sergeant Casson bled to death.” Casson was the leader of the squadron. He was 21 years old. He led them into battle and he led them home again.”

“The job had been like many others around that time – strafing enemy transport columns during the battle for Rome. A job that Kitty-bombers have done so often.”

“They’d found the column and Casson‘s section had bombed it. And immediately they’d gone above to act as top cover while a second strike did their bombing.”

“And then the Flight Sergeant, the leader of the squadron went down again to do some more strafing. He made the run perfectly. He made it without a tremor.”

“Nobody saw him get hit and nobody had a hint that his plane had run into trouble. Only later came his voice over the RT, that calm, natural voice “My leg …………”.

”But in the plane the pilot bled to death. Etc. …………”

“For fifteen minutes they flew over enemy lines and away south across the mountains until they could see their own airfield.”

“But the flight was not over yet. On that airfield below were more Kitty-bombers lined up for take off on a mission. It meant staying up until they were away.”

“Casson waited. He watched those planes take off. He might have asked for an emergency landing. But he did not. He circled the airfield three times.”

“Permission came at last for him to go in, as he touched down his aircraft slewed violently round across the runway.”

“The aircrew got Casson out from the plane. They had run hard towards it for they knew something was wrong. They found Casson unconscious.”

“In the operating tent they took his leg off. They gave three blood transfusions. But Casson died within hours.

“A Hero to Remember.”

“John Casson was quite a man, although he looked no more than a boy, and never reached his 22nd birthday.”

“But his name should be remembered and saluted along with other Rhodesian heroes when wreaths are laid at Cenotaphs, including the one in Whitehall, on Remembrance Day.”

“From Penhalonga, John Casson – “Jack” to his pals – attended Plumtree School, worked for a tobacco company for a while, then when still a lad of 18 joined the RAF and learned to fly in Rhodesia.”

“In January 1943 he was posted to the Middle East where he became a Sergeant – Pilot with 250 (Sedan) Squadron flying fighter-bombers.”


**Quote “Also stationed at San Angelo there was an Intelligence officer with 260 Squadron named Christopher Lee, who is now a film star. His squadron was in the same wing as 250 and was operating closely with it, and he was one of the officers who recommended John Casson for a Victoria Cross.”

“But he got the Conspicuous Gllantry Medal instead. He was one of the few to be awarded it posthumously, and was the first if not the only Southern Rhodesian of Hitler’s war to get that medal.”**

778385 Sgt William Henry (Bill) Casson
Killed 11/12/1942
102 Squadron
WOP Air-Gunner
Aircraft number Halifax W 79333
Killed in Action
On return from the raid the aircraft crashed when it flew into the side of a hill in poor visibility at Lowthwaite Farm near Swerby, Yorkshire. Turin being the target on the night of 11/12/1942.

Buried Goshforth, (St Mary’s) Churchyard, Sea Scale, Cumberland.

Born 24/6/1921 Sea Scale, Whitehaven, Cumberland.
Attended Plumtree School, Southern Rhodesia.

Military Funeral (from a news paper cutting)

A Popular Flight Sergeant
William Harry Casson

Within a few days of spending leave with his grandfather, Mr Harry Boys, Seascale, 21 year old, Flight Sergeant William Harry Casson was killed during an operational flight with the RAF. The news received with ver deep regret by the many friends he had met during his stay at Seascale.

The son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry W Casson, who were particularly well known and popular in West Cumberland, and who are now living in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Flight Sergeant Casson came to this country about 18 months ago with the The Rhodesian Air Force (should read RAF VR) during his service in Britain he made many friends and was popular with the ranks in his squadron.

At the church at Gosforth Church yesterday a RAF firing party acted as bearers and guard of honour. The service at St Cuthbert’s Church, Seascale, was conducted by Cannon J W Akam and was attended by a large number of sympathizers, including many old friends of Mr. and Mrs. Casson. The service was fully choral and the cartage passed into church to the salute to the dead, which was given by the firing party lining the path from the gate to the church door. At Gosforth Churchyard, where the internment took place, Cannon Akam was assisted; by the Rev T O Sturkey. The three volleys were fired over the grave and the “Last Post” and “Reveille”; were sounded by an RAF bugler.
Amongst the floral tributes were wreaths from the Commanding Officer and officers of Sergeant. Casson’s, unit and from his colleagues in the Sergeant’s and senior NCO’s mess. The squadron; was represented at the funeral by Sergeant. H Simpson, a colleague of the dead airman.


710111 Flt Sgt Walter Humphrey 'Mike' COWHAM RAFVR 57 Squadron. Northern Rhodesian. Air Gunner

Typed up from Bomber Command Report August 1943
Sergeant Walter Humphrey (Mike) Cowham was a Rhodesian from Fort Jameson, Northern Rhodesia. He joined 57 Squadron as an air gunner on 7th October, 1948 note this date is wrong I think it should read 1942, from No 1660 Conversion Unit, and was quickly into the fray of bomber operations. By the 18th he had flown five raids, and on the Battle for Hanover that night. His pilot, Flight Sergeant Grimbly, from Pert in Western Australia lifted off their Lancaster from East Kirby, Yorkshire (EE197) and headed towards Germany.
Hanover was a hot target, and they could expect a good reception by the German flak gunners and from the night-fighters - as they were soon to find. Sitting in the rear turret, cut off from the rest of the crew, Walter Cowham kept vigil. It was even stranger for him as this was the first time he had flown with this crew. Gunners would often fly as spare crewmen and fit into other crews whenever needed, if injury or illness depleted another crew. Being a spare gunner in any unit was not the best of situations.
However, they reached Hanover, made the approach and the bomb-aimer, Sergeant Firth, put their bombs down on target. It was now time to get away and home as quickly as possible as the fighters would soon appear amongst them along the bomber stream now that the target was known. When only a few minutes off target, Cowham reported a Me 109 trying to make an interception. In the words of Flight Sergeant Grimbly:
We had just closed the bomb doors when two fighters came in and attacked us. First the mid-upper, Sergeant Fox, who hailed from Yarmouth, shouted, 'Fighter on the port quarter!', then Sergeant Cowham called, 'I have got him covered, Skipper'.
He then sung his turret to starboard to have a last look in that direction when he shouted' Another on the starboard!' He had seen a Me 109 coming in to attack at a distance of about 100 feet.
We were a sitting shot for the enemy fighter at that distance and he raked us with cannon and machine gun fire from one end of the aircraft to the other. Though he was hit by the first shell, Sergeant Cowham replied with his guns and saw hits on the fighter. It dived straight down underneath our tail and vanished from sight. As this fighter broke away another came in on the opposite side, and when the mid-upper fired at it this also went into a dive and was lost to the view.
Sergeant Cowham had in fact been blinded in his left eye by a splinter from a cannon shell which burst inside his turret. He refused, however, to leave his post. Another shell had gone through the radiator on the starboard side outer engine which quickly seized up and caught fire. Yet another cannon shell hit one of the fuel tanks on the port side and one hundred and twenty gallons of petrol had been lost, while a fourth shell went through the starboard tail plane, Grimbly continues:
We had other hits at various places along the fuselage and the windscreen in the nose was riddled with holes made by machine-gun bullets. One of these went ripping past my leg so close I felt its movement. A piece of cannon shell also went through our dinghy, although we did not know it until afterwards. It was fortunate for us we did not have to ditch.
About 25 five minutes later  a Me 109 came in on the starboard side and fired at us. We dived and got away from that one, then again, near the Dutch coast another Me 109 came in on from astern. Sergeant Cowham fired at this and drove it off before it came near enough to fire and possibly hit it. Over the Dutch coast I asked the engineer, Sergeant English, if we had enough petrol to reach East Kirby. He said no, and so I set course for the nearest aerodrome and landed safely.

When we got Sergeant Cowham out of the turret, apart from his eye wound a bullet had passed through his flying suit and taken skin off his shoulder. We also found that Sergeant Fox had been hit in the foot. 'Mike', as Cowham was known to his friends, had lost a lot of blood but despite all our pleading with him he would not vacate the turret until we landed.
In Rhodesia he had been keen on big game hunting and when he was seen in hospital visited by the crew he told them - 'I wont have to squint my eye now when I go lion shooting again'. His CGM was gazetted on 19th November 1942

Walter Humphrey "Happy" COWHAM 
Born in Fort Jameson on 12 May l923.
He died (in the UK?) in 1991.
He was an RAF Sergeant Air Gunner in 657 Squadron and was awarded the CGM for action over Hanover on l8/19 October 1943.
He attested into the NRP as an Asst. Insp on 26 January 1946 and was promoted Asst Supt in 1954.
He transferred to the Judicial Department as a Master Interpreter on 4 December l956.
Was called to the bar at Gray's Inn in 1961.
Was Resident Magistrate, Lusaka, in 1962.
Was a Legal Assistant with Customs and Excise, UK, in 1978.
His wife's name was Molly and sadly I have no record of her life history.

Thanks to Anne for sharing her images and information with ORAFs.

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