[This article is based on material sent by Dr Jimmy Whittaker, February 2018.]
When I retired in 2002, I began to carry out small plumbing jobs under the guise of “The Friendly Plumber” to supplement my pension. On several occasions, I was called to the Coates’ house in The Forge to do a series of plumbing jobs and was greeted by a very tall man with a slight stoop who reminded me of a giraffe. He was so tall that he didn’t need a ladder or steps to remove the loft space trapdoor so that I could investigate the dysfunctional ball cock.
Little did I know until I wrote and researched this article that during WW2 he was known as Camel by his Aussie Pals. (See below for further details).
During conversation over a cup of tea on his back lawn which backed onto the River Dun, I learnt that Mr. Coates had been a very keen trout angler during his younger days, more of which below.
John Arthur Gordon Coates, known as Jack, was born on 28th September 1920 at Rugby, Leicestershire and was the son of George H. Coates and Stella Morcom. His father George was a bank manager.
He was educated at Wellington College, a public school near Crowthorne, Berkshire and in 1938 continued his education at Trinity College, Cambridge where he read mechanical sciences. It was during his time at Cambridge that he learned to fly having joined the university’s air squadron. These squadrons were training units of the Royal Air Force which provided basic flying training, force development and adventurous training to undergraduate students at British universities.
Jack learned to fly at RAF aerodrome Duxford which had been built years earlier by German prisoners of war. Interestingly, one of his earlier contemporaries from the Cambridge University air squadrons was Frank Whittle who later went on the develop the jet turbine engine. Effectively, this led to the production of Britain’s first operational jet fighter in 1943, the Gloster Meteor. Duxford was also the home of the first Spitfire Station.
In 1939, Jack Coates was living with his parents at High Field House, near Petersfield. His father must have been quite a wealthy man since he employed a house maid, a cook, a parlour maid and a kitchen maid. In the summer of that year, Jack was called up and completed his pilot training on the first wartime course to be held at RAF Cranwell. In August the next year he joined No 608 Squadron to fly Ansons, gaining a great deal of experience of flying in all weathers on convoy escorts over the North Sea.
In 1941, he was promoted to Squadron Leader and in May of that year he converted to fly Blenheims. He and his crew were one of 10 sent to the south of England to ferry the aircraft to Gibraltar; there they were briefed to rendezvous with two aircraft carriers which were carrying Hurricane fighters to reinforce the beleaguered island of Malta. After the 44 fighters had taken off from the carriers, Jack and his fellow crews shepherded them on the long transit flights to Malta.
Many of his operations were reconnaissance sorties over the Aegean Sea. During September and October, his squadron provided support for the ill-fated attempts to occupy the islands of Kos and Samos in the Dodecanese.
In December there were more than 75 sightings of enemy shipping, and coded reports were sent to the Beaufighters which were following 30 minutes behind. They attacked the shipping with great effect.
Three months later Jack flew a dangerous operation to photograph the new German early warning radar Freya, named after the Norse goddess, that had been installed on Crete. He was mentioned in despatches.
One of his roles was locating shot down aircraft – an activity known as "sweeping the desert" – and it inspired the colourful cartoon of "Camel" Coates which he always treasured.
In June 1942, he was rested and joined the air operations staff in Alexandria, where one of his tasks was to help devise the air plan for the invasion of Sicily.
In 1943 while only 23, he was sent to command a Royal Australian Air Force bomber squadron (No 454) operating from landing grounds in the North African desert. This time he would be flying the American-built Baltimore medium bomber. His new navigator wondered how this tall, gangling Englishman would cope with some very rugged Australian air and ground crews. Standing 6ft 6in in height, Coates displayed his steel from the start.
The squadron moved to forward landing grounds, as far as the fluctuating battles allowed, in order to search for enemy ships and submarines in the eastern Mediterranean and to protect the convoys sailing from Alexandria to Malta. Jack also shadowed the occasional forays of the Italian Fleet.
On one occasion he followed the enemy fleet as it was escorting a large convoy, and remained on the task despite the presence of enemy fighters and an acute shortage of fuel. By very skilful flying, he remained in contact to provide position reports before coming down at an advanced landing ground. For the inspiring example he set, he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
The DFC was established on 3rd June 1918, shortly after the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF). It was originally awarded to RAF commissioned and warrant officers. During the Second World War, it was also awarded to Royal Artillery officers serving on attachment to the RAF as pilots-cum-artillery observers. Since the Second World War, the award has been open to army and naval aviation officers, and to other ranks since 1993, when the Distinguished Flying Medal was discontinued. Recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross are entitled to use the post-nominal letters "DFC". A bar is added to the ribbon for holders of the DFC who received a second award.
Jack’s association with the RAF was renewed in 1950 when he joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and became the CO of No 2608 (North Riding) light anti-aircraft squadron charged with the protection of the RAF's airfields in north-east England, a post he held for two years.
For many years he remained in close contact with his men, sometimes joining them in Australia and marching with the survivors on Anzac Day. After being demobbed from the RAF in 1946, Jack enrolled at Imperial College, London University to study personnel management. On completion of his studies he worked for ICI and rose to the position of general manager and at the same time became president of the Institute of Personnel Management* and a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)**.
In 1980, he was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to industry. To put the CBE honour into context, it sits above both MBE and OBE awards and just below that of a knighthood.
Beyond his professional interests, Jack Coates was a dedicated naturalist and as a keen fisherman, he was chairman of the Salmon and Trout Association from 1989 to 1991. This organisation was set up in 1903 to protect fisheries, fish stocks and the wider aquatic environment on behalf of salmon and trout fisheries. During Jack’s tenure it was granted charitable status in recognition that the organisation benefitted more people that just its own membership.
Today in the 21st century, the association’s objectives are threefold:
• Management and conservation of salmon, trout and all other fish species of UK origin
• Management and conservation of ecosystems necessary for them to thrive
• Scientific research to underpin this work
Jack Coates married Barbara Butler and they had three children, Susan, Simon and Jenny. After Barbara’s death in 1985, he married Mary (Pat) Cossart in 1993.
Prior to living at the Forge, Hungerford, Jack Coates lived at High Ridge House in Shalbourne.
He died on 16th July 2009, aged 88 years.
*The Institute of Personnel Management (now The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) is an organisation concerned with the management of people within an organisation with a focus on a company’s policies and objectives.
**The ILO is a tripartite United Nations agency, which aims to bring together governments, employers and workers from 187 member States, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.