‘My father won the Croix de Guerre aged 16’
Readers reveal a gem from their family tree From boy soldier to secret agent, Pat Hews’ father Dick Cooper lived an amazing life, serving in two World Wars
It’s May 1915, exactly 100 years ago, and the terrifying global conflict of the First World War is raging. On the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Ottoman Empire, Allied forces are trying to secure the Dardanelles, a strait that provides a vital sea route to Russia. The enemy has already repelled a naval attack and the invasion force is now engaged in a fierce land campaign against the Turks that has seen soaring casualties and plummeting morale.
Things were looking desperate. “It was the turn of the French to force a breakthrough and like the other Allied troops before them the task was proving impossible,” says Pat Hews. “Legionnaire after legionnaire fell with a bullet in his head while attempting to go over the ridge.” Amid the chaos, a boy soldier – in a brave but reckless move – broke away from the French ranks.
“Having watched his comrades fall, my father dropped as low as he could and took a head-first dive into the ravine. Managing to get to safety, he immediately commenced covering fire while shouting to the others, ‘some jump, some dive’. Many survived the assault. Who knows just how many people owed their lives to my father’s quick wits.”
For his actions that day, the boy, Adolphus Richard Cooper (Dick Cooper to his friends) received the Croix de Guerre, reputedly the first ever awarded to a Legionnaire, and the first of many medals he would receive.
Remarkably, Dick saw action in both World Wars and his story of heroism is an unusual one. It wasn’t until Pat was aged 31, thanks to her brother’s research, that she finally discovered the true nature of her father’s heroism.
Dick was born in Baghdad in 1899. The son of the British consul, he spentpent his early years in the Middle East and picked up many languages including French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Spanish and Arabic.
At the start of the First World War, eager for adventure, he joined the French Foreign Legion. Only a few months later, he was to lead the Allied assault over what became known among the French as the ‘Ravine of Death’ at Gallipoli. As most of us will know, the Turkish were eventually victorious after protracted and bloody fighting, with Australian and New Zealand forces suffering particularly heavy losses. But, says Pat, “It seems that many people are not aware that the French had far greater losses at Gallipoli than the Anzacs.
“British by birth, my father went on to fight with the British army in France.” He also spent brief spells working as a merchant seaman and as an Italian interpreter for the British, later rejoining the French Foreign Legion, fighting the Moroccan Berbers in the Rif Campaign in the Atlas Mountains.
According to Pat: “The horrors of the First World War stayed with him for the rest of his life, yet when war broke out for the second time, he bravely volunteered as a secret agent, despite being over 40, knowing that the eight languages he spoke fluently and his extensive travels and knowledge would be invaluable to the Allied cause.”
As part of the Special Operations Executive, Dick was the only secret agent to be sent to North Africa. The rest of his story is like something out of a wartime thriller. “He was betrayed by his contact and taken prisoner of war. Moved to prison in France by the Vichy French, he was then unexpectedly freed just as thethe GestapoGestapo were about to kill him. He escaped with the help of the French Resistance and was smuggled over the Pyrenees and back to Britain. After medical treatment, he was back in the field again, undercover, fighting in Sicily and Italy.” During this time he was granted the honorary rank of Captain.
The Second World War over, Dick settled into family life working as a civil servant, lecturer and broadcaster. He wrote several books about his wartime experiences including Adventures of a Secret Agent and Born to Fight.
But how does Pat remember her father? “As a fascinating, inspiring, and very honourable man who had a very wicked sense of humour.
“His wartime contemporaries held him in very high esteem and most stayed in touch for the rest of his life. This was also true of his fellow PoWs, who never seemed to tire of recounting his pranks and contributions to the Escape Committee.
“Though he had experienced the horrors of war, I remember him as an ordinary man, who loved growing roses and was truly, completely and utterly contented!”
Legionnaire after Legionnaire fell with a bullet in his head
Captain Dick Cooper served as a spy in the Second World War