In search of my maternal grandfather

Several recent press articles have been concerned with my maternal grandfather, Ernest William Cooper, who was declared missing in action during the last days of the Second World War.

My grandfather, who was known to everyone as Ernie, was born in Barnsbury, Islington, then very much a working-class district of London, on 14 February 1915, the third son of Charles Edward Cooper (1886-1918) and his wife Ellen (not Helen as given in some press articles) (1889-1980). His father was a carman on the Great Northern Railway who served as a driver in the Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery during the First World War. He was gassed in action, and although he was returned to England, died in hospital there, leaving his widow to bring up four young children.

Family memories of my grandfather indicate that he was a man of considerable charm with a talent for working with his hands. He left school as was usual in those days at the age of fourteen and four years later was working as a picture-frame maker. At the age of eighteen he married May Eveline (Lou) Withers (1915-66) and they lived at 23, Tiber Street in Islington. Most of the Withers family were then employed by the Islington brewers Whitbread. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War my grandparents had moved to Enfield in North London and lived in a flat at 15, Bicknoller Road. Their only child, my mother Evelyn, was born in 1942, at which time my grandfather was working as a moulder of bakelite goods. This was a reserved occupation, bakelite being used for a number of items needed in the war effort, and so he was not called up for war service until the following year, when he joined the ranks of the Royal Marines. He would be the last of our large extended family to be called up, and the only one not to return home at the end of the war.

My grandfather’s letters home show him to have been strongly pacifist and his loathing of the war is evident, primarily because of the separation it caused him from his wife and young daughter. He spent some of his spare time at the front engaged in making art and writing poetry that reflected his views. The photograph shows two crosses that he fashioned out of bullets, along with a badge from his service.

In 1945, 30th Battalion of the Royal Marines of the 116th Infantry Brigade, with which my grandfather was serving, was deployed on Operation Orange in The Netherlands. The objective was to liberate the Bommelerwaard region and link up with the Dutch Army’s Princess Irene Brigade. The battle was hard-fought but was abandoned on 25 April for humanitarian reasons.

My grandfather, who was then aged 30, was engaged in the attack across the River Maas on 23 April. What happened next is recounted in a letter from his fellow Marine Bill Moore to my grandmother of 22 May. Bill Moore says,

We had to make a withdraw back across a river and we came under very heavy fire when we got on the bank. Ernie and myself got on an old house-boat and returned Jerry’s fire while the others got across, when they reached the other side it became impossible to get a boat out for us and we had to swim for it, we took all our clothes off and dived in, I can’t tell you to this day how I managed it as I am a poor swimmer & the current was very strong, anyhow we managed to get out to an old barge that was laying in the middle of the river. I was about 10 yards in front of Ern and I can tell you I was nearly finished, when I saw some old shrapnel holes in the side of the barge which I clung to and got my breath back. I shouted to Ern to hold on as I was doing, while I climbed aboard to see if I could find anything that we could use to help us to keep afloat on. I climbed aboard and saw an old log which I immediately threw in and dived in after, when I came to the surface I looked around, but couldn’t see Ern anywhere. I swam over to where I saw him last and swam around looking for him for about 10 minutes, but it was of no use, we were under fire from the bank all the time and Ernie may have been hit, I couldn’t understand at all because Ern was a much better swimmer than I, I thought perhaps he may have got cramp and was carried away by the current, but then, I would have heard him shout or have seen something of him, I wasn’t out of the water more than 30 seconds. If I had heard him shout I would have gone to his assistance Lou but as it was he just disappeared. I climbed back on the barge after that Lou, and then Jerry started searching for us so I had to hide, I hid on the barge all night and managed to get back as dawn broke next morning.

Then we were taken out of the line and sent up to Germany, after we had reformed, so we didn’t get a chance to search for him.

As you say Lou, Ern was one of the best. I would have much rather gone myself if it would have spared him, but that’s how it is and we can’t alter these things.

The recent press coverage has been centred on the erroneous belief that the grave of an unnamed Marine in the military cemetery at Geldermalsen is that of my grandfather. In fact, my grandfather’s body has never been recovered, and it can only be presumed that it still lies at the bottom of the River Maas. He is commemorated at the Chatham war memorial and also, thanks to the efforts of Dutch World War II researcher Ronny van Hoften, now at the new memorial at Kerkdriel.