British Columbia

Canadian WWII pilot who steered crashing plane away from school will get memorial in England

A memorial is being planned in the English town of Quedgeley, after the story of a Canadian pilot who died serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War came to light.

Daughter in B.C. invited to unveiling of memorial to Robert Coventry, who died when his bomber crashed in 1940

Flight Lt. Robert Coventry, a Canadian from Oak Bay, B.C., died while flying with the British Royal Air Force in 1940. He's being honoured with a memorial near the site of the crash in Quedgeley, near Gloucester. (BBC)

It was more than 80 years ago and the Battle of Britain was underway, with pilots of the Royal Air Force fighting to repel attacks from Hitler's Luftwaffe.

Flight Lt. Robert Coventry, a Canadian born in Oak Bay, B.C., was piloting an RAF Bristol Blenheim back from a training mission when one of the bomber's engines failed.

As the story is told, Coventry managed to steer the plummeting bomber away from a busy school in Quedgeley, near Gloucester, before it crashed in a field. Coventry died in the flaming wreck.

Now, plans are underway for a new memorial stone to be unveiled near the crash site.

"I think it's an amazing and wonderful thing," said Anne Underhill, Coventry's daughter.

Underhill now lives in Oak Bay, where the father she never knew spent part of his childhood.

He was 27 when he crashed on Sept. 23, 1940. Underhill was just 10 months old.

A photo shows the wreckage of Coventry's Bristol Blenheim in a field in Quedgeley. Coventry was piloting the bomber on a training mission when the engines failed, but he managed to steer the plane away from a school, saving the children inside. (BBC)

She grew up knowing her father had died in a plane crash during the war and that locals had rushed to the crash site to help, managing to pull two other surviving crew members from the fuselage.

"Basically that was the story I had as a child," said Underhill.

But it wasn't until the BBC — which had covered the campaign to honour Coventry with the memorial — tracked her down on Vancouver Island that Underhill learned how her father had avoided crashing into Quedgeley School.

Anne Underhill stands in front of a memorial listing all the citizens of Oak Bay, B.C., who died in the Second World War, including her father, Robert Coventry. He's set to be memorialized with a plaque near the place where he died in England in 1940. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

'I owe my life to him'

Peter Hickman remembers the crash still.

He was 10 years old and attending the school at the time. He and other students rushed out, thinking they would be able to help.

"I can remember running across these fields, and of course there was the plane burning. We stood there absolutely shocked," he said in an interview with the BBC. "There were flames in the cockpit." 

Helen Tracey is among the people who called for the memorial to Coventry last fall. Her mother, Margaret Cale, was a six-year-old student at the school in 1940. 

"If the plane had hit the school on that day, mum would have died and therefore I would never have been born," Tracey told the BBC in October.

"I don't know how else to sum it up — I owe my life to him." 

'The supreme sacrifice'

Quedgeley Town Council has commissioned the memorial, with plans to hold an unveiling ceremony in September.

The plaque names Coventry and notes his RAF title.

It describes him as "a hero who made the supreme sacrifice near this place on Sept. 23, 1940, and in doing so saving the lives of many children from Quedgeley."

Coventry died when his daughter, Anne, was only 10 months old. She knew her father had died in a plane crash during the war, but didn't know he'd been hailed as a hero until she was contacted by the BBC. (Submitted by Anne Underhill)

Underhill has been invited to the ceremony, but it's unclear whether travel restrictions due to the pandemic will still be in force in September.

"It means a lot to me, and I'd love to be able to be there, but who knows," she said.

"I think it's absolutely extraordinary and wonderful and my mother must be dancing around up there, just to get the recognition," said Underhill, pointing toward the sky.

As for the heroic actions of her father to avoid striking a school, "I would have hoped that would have been the attitude for people who were flyers," she said.


Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

With files from BBC's Steve Knibbs

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