Sgt. Paul Martin Couturier

An appreciation by John Behague

Paul Martin Couturier did not receive any awards, nor did his obituary ever appear in the national papers. He was a Sergeant Wireless Op/Air Gunner with RAF 114 Squadron, and his body lies at the Caserta War Cemetery in Italy. He died on May 22, 1944, on his way back from a mission to bomb roads north-east of Rome. His aircraft was a Boston Mark 3A piloted by Pilot Officer Zadborny and one of a squadron of ten bombers. It was a successful operation, from which one aircraft failed to return - Zadborny 's. It ran into an electrical storm quite close to base and crashed in flames with the loss of all on board.

Paul Martin Couturier was my best friend. We volunteered for the RAF together early in the war and were placed in the Volunteer Reserve and promptly sent home. The fact was that there weren't enough instructors or aircraft to go round! When the call came several months later Paul was selected as a Wop/Ag aircrew and I as a Wop groundcrew. My poor eyesight undoubtedly saved my life!

Paul was half-French and had a turbulent, restless, inquisitive nature. He was great fun to be with but often embarked on idiotic dares that might have ended in his downfall had he been less agile. On one occasion he was dared to approach the policeman who directed traffic in Corporation Street, one of Birmingham's busiest thoroughfares and tickle him. He did just that. The officer was enraged. The traffic came to a halt, and Paul was chased down an alleyway but escaped.

We worked together on the old Birmingham Evening Despatch as very junior journalists, and during lulls in our duties he would devise his merry pranks. He would stand on the flat roof of Newspaper House overlooking Corporation Street and pour blobs of salad cream from a bottle "borrowed" from the canteen on to the heads of the passers by to see how many hits he could score. Phoning people with funny names like Smellie or Winterbottom would occupy some of his time, and he once had me designing paper aircraft which were also launched from the roof. On one occasion he thought it was getting too tame and put a match to one of the gliders before hurling it into space. It's sad to reflect on his own tragic end.

Paul had his serious side and was constantly alerting me to the dangers of Nazism. There was a young woman in the office who wore a swastika badge and was a member of The Link, an Anglo-German organisation, and Paul would remonstrate with her in angry tones that brought sharp reproofs from his seniors. He once absented himself from the office for two weeks and went on his own reccy to Germany to find out what was going on. This was in 1938, and he came back with stories of repression, persecution and a vast army ready to move. Such were his feelings that he wrote numerous pamphlets which I helped him to duplicate, and every now and then he would go out on what he called a "bombing run" and throw copies of his missives from the tops of tram cars as they passed the headquarters of the local Fascist group in Dale End. They made the wrong choice when they selected Couturier as a Wop/Ag. He should have been a pilot or bomb-aimer!

We did our foot slogging together in Blackpool and then he took off for flight training and I left for specialised instruction in DF - aerial Direction Finding. We spent several leaves together and indulged in long walks and longer discussions. I noted that with every meeting his natural ebullience and carefree spirit had become clouded. On my last leave before I left Britain on overseas service he was filled with gloom and pessimism. He was critical of RAF leadership, concerned about "clapped out" aircraft and was outraged at the constant wastage of men and materials. He believed that his number was up and his fate sealed. He would never see me again, he insisted. I wrote but he didn't reply. When I was in India I received a small newspaper clipping from the paper we had worked for together recording his death in action "somewhere in Europe".

After the war I tried to discover the circumstances of his death but failed. The RAF records office was adamant that the matter was "confidential:" and it could not divulge details. This puzzled me somewhat, but even friends within the RAF were unable to come up with any information. It was not until the year 1996, when I had turned 75, and Paul would have been the same age, that I finally gained the truth. It came via the son of a Liberator pilot who had been delving into the records at Kew. He found details of a mission I'd flown from the Cocos Keeling Islands with 356 Squadron, and also a file containing the Couturier records. It had been a sad ending, but not unexpected.

Why do I include Paul Martin Couturier's name alongside those of the illustrious few? Because he was the salt of the earth, knew what the enemy was like and had chosen to give his life if necessary to keep freedom alive. Towards the end, like so very many of his comrades, he knew he would die, probably quite terribly, but he carried on. Despite his doubts and despairs about the way the air war was being conducted, he knew the fight was right and he never regretted his part in it.

They were all heroes those wartime airmen. The losses were tremendous. You had to be very lucky indeed to survive one tour of ops. To survive two was something of a miracle. In Britain, these men would set out from their warm beds in cosy billets, close to pleasant, peaceful villages, and often within an hour or so were plunged into a nightmare of exploding flak, cannon fire from pursuing German fighters and blinding searchlights attempting to lock on to them. Through all this they had to attend to their intricate tasks and the needs of their aircraft, be on constant alert, ready to take evasive action at any moment, and find their way through both man made and natural storms to their targets.

It was this constant confrontation with heaven and hell that was so hard for many to take. At one hand lay comfort and security and the other death and destruction. They often returned to find familiar faces missing from their messes and new crews moving in. They often witnessed attacks on friendly aircraft flying alongside them and watched horrified as planes exploded in flames and men tumbled out into space to their deaths thousands of feet below, but still they pressed on.

Some were braver than others. There were those who loved flying and considered themselves fortunate to have been selected as aircrew. They appeared to revel in it, refused to be rested at the end of tours, and had a zest for it that was infectious. You were in good hands if you had one such as the skipper of a four-engined bomber or as a fighter commander..

There were those who hated every minute of it but refused to betray their fears. There were those who were physically sick before each mission, those who had to fight tremendous mental battles to keep in line. There were those who after many missions finally broke down in cold, shaking traumas, and instead of being thanked and sent home were demoted to the ranks and the letters LMF were printed on their documents. During the Great War there were many such nervous breakdowns. It was called cowardice and the penalty was summary execution.

I did not see a single coward during my time in the RAF, but towards the end of the war I met several airmen who had stretched their nerves and senses to the uttermost and then found it impossible to carry on. They were brave. too. There were also the bold and brash types who appeared to welcome every trip, and went out of their way to demonstrate their invincibility, but even the boldest and greatest were later to confess that they had often been scared to their roots. A lot depended on your mental makeup. It was often thought that the more sensitive a chap you were, the more likely you were to crack up. The steady plodders made the best bomber pilots, and the sports loving, fast movers, the fighter boys. The right selection, however, was often a doubtful and sometimes class-ridden procedure which today still evokes caustic comment.

In honouring these men and wondering at their steadfast courage, the complex skills they had so quickly acquired and their resolution in the face of impossible odds, you have at the same time to question the motives and intentions of those who directed them. There was crass stupidity behind the planning of some operations and many young lives were lost unnecessarily.

There were those who knew they were due for the chop, those who never doubted they'd survive. Paul Martin Couturier, bright spark though he was, did not live long enough to taste the fruits of victory. He was perhaps lucky to have survived a good many trips. Some men were not allowed time to unpack their belongings. Their operational life came to an abrupt end. sometimes after only one mission. Others survived two full tours of ops only to perish on their "last" flight. Such was the story of life - and death - in the air force during the war.


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