Sunday, 9 November 2014

Roberta's War

Today, when we remember all those people who served their county in times of war to ensure future peace, I’m writing the first of three articles on transgender war veterans from three different conflicts. Almost a year ago I wrote about a transgender pioneer called Roberta Cowell. To mark today’s Remembrance Sunday I’ll going into more detail about her war service.

Robert Cowell was born in 1918, seven months before the Armistice we commemorate next week. She was baptised Robert and spent the first part of her life up to the 1950s as a man. In 1935 she entered the RAF.

During several summer holidays during and after her schooldays Roberta travelled around Germany. This was shortly after the rise of the Nazi regime, and in 1934 Roberta was arrested for filming Nazi soldiers. She was released a few hours later after persuading the police that she had destroyed the film (she hadn’t). So when war broke out in 1939 Roberta had already experienced Nazi imprisonment.

As I mentioned in my previous article on Roberta her war service got off to a shaky start. Eager to become a fighter pilot Roberta soon discovered that she got airsick. Undeterred she pursued her flying career and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps. Her expertise with engines and mechanics led to his first posting being as officer commanding the Heavy Repair Shops – in Iceland.

After a few months she managed to be transferred to the RAF. She was assigned to an aerial reconnaissance squadron. There were several occasions where Roberta could easily have been killed before encountering any Nazi planes.

Just a couple of days before the D-Day landings in June 1944 Roberta was making a high level sortie over the French-Belgian coast. Before she could attempt an attack she noticed her oxygen supply was getting dangerously low. Descending from 31,000 feet to a safer height she experienced anoxia – the bends – and lost consciousness.

Quite remarkably Roberta’s plane flew for about an hour unpiloted, being shot at by anti-aircraft posts near Zeebrugge. The RAF radar station at Kingsley tracked the plane’s movement over the English Channel, puzzled that no radio contact could be established. Eventually Roberta recovered enough to recognise the radio calls and responded. She was totally disorientated and unaware of what had happened in the past hour and was guided back safely to the ground. It was a lucky escape.

After Paris was liberated following the successful D-Day landings Roberta and several fellow pilots went to the city to join the celebrations. They were feted as heroes, a stark contrast to the reception Roberta got a few months later from the Germans. The end of the war seemed to be in sight but for Roberta the hardest part was yet to come. But before that there was an encounter with a Messerschmitt that shook her up badly.

On 6th November (70 years ago this week) Roberta was in her Spitfire at 36,000 feet over Hengold. She was surprised by an unexpected attack from above. Usually the Nazis would attack Spitfires from below, but this time Roberta encountered a twin-enginned jet Messerschmitt diving towards her, guns blazing. Roberta swerved and tried to climb away.

The Messerschmitt was faster and more agile than Roberta’s Spitfire and there seemed to be no escape as the German plane swooped again and again firing all its guns as Roberta desperately tried to find cover. Fortunately she found a bank of cloud through which she dived. When she emerged from the other side there was no sign of the Messerschmitt. It had broken off the attack. It was another lucky escape.

On 18th November Roberta was back in the air making a low-level sortie with another plane piloted by Flight Lt. Draper. They attacked several targets, coming under heavy fire from the Nazis. Roberta’s engine took a direct hit and cut out. Another shell punched its way through her port wing.

Unable to pilot her plane and too low to use a parachute Roberta believed that her time was up, that she was going down in a “blaze of glory” like so many other young fighter pilots before her (she was 26 years old). As the plane dived Roberta “felt an absolutely certain conviction that this would be the very last thing I should ever know” (from “An Autobiography: Roberta Cowell’s Story”, published by Heinemann 1954).

The plane was almost out of control – almost. Roberta pulled the plane out f its dive just before hitting the ground to make a crash-landing into a German field. Nazi soldiers arrived within moments, but not before Roberta managed to radio to Flight Lt. Draper that she was alive. She now found herself a prisoner of war.

She realised that the best chance she had to escape was to do it sooner rather than later. Before she arrived at the interrogation centre in Frankfurt Roberta had made two attempts to escape. After being held for three weeks in solitary confinement (as punishment for her escape attempts, she assumed) Roberta found herself on a train with 150 other POWs heading for Stalag Luft I.

The period of her incarceration is gone into in some detail in her autobiography. Roberta describes in particular the lack of adequate food, and mentions that at one point the prisoners resorted to eating cats – raw! She did, however, find her expertise with engines a useful means of keeping sane by being a mechanics tutor to other prisoners.

In April 1945 the Red Army advanced towards Stalag Luft I. The Nazis intended to evacuate the camp, transferring the prisoners to another one. The POWs refused to leave. Several days later the Germans agreed to abandon the camp and the POWs welcomed the liberating Red Army on May 5th. The first thing the ex-POWs wanted was food, but their stomachs had shrunk so much during their lack of nourishment under the Nazi command that most of them could only manage soup. Roberta recounted in her autobiography that some men even forced themselves to eat more, which ruptured their stomachs and, sadly, caused their deaths.

After demobilisation Roberta started several businesses, which are mentioned in my previous article about her.

On Armistice Day, the day after tomorrow, I’ll write about the life of a transgender veteran from a completely different conflict.

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