Squadron Leader Bob Cowper, who has died aged 93, is thought to have been the last surviving Australian fighter “ace” of the Second World War; flying night fighters, he was credited with destroying at least six enemy aircraft.
During the air operations to support the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944, Cowper and his colleagues of No 456 Squadron RAAF, mounted standing patrols over the beachhead and in a few days accounted for 35 enemy aircraft. On the night of June 9/10 Cowper and his navigator, Flying Officer William Watson, were on patrol near Cherbourg when they attacked a Heinkel 177 bomber and damaged it so severely it was forced to crash land. Later in the sortie, they intercepted a Dornier Do 217 bomber and destroyed it near Beaumont.
A few days later Watson picked up a contact on his radar and homed their Mosquito on to a Junkers 88 bomber. He opened fire and hit the port engine, which soon caught fire, forcing the crew to bale out. The Cowper/Watson team achieved their fourth success on the night of July 4/5. They identified a Heinkel 177 attacking enemy shipping south of Selsey Bill and shot it down into the sea.
Later in July the squadron was tasked to attack incoming V-1 flying bombs launched from the Pas de Calais region and claimed the destruction of 24 of them. Cowper claimed one but it was later credited to an anti-aircraft battery. In February 1945 he was awarded a Bar to an earlier DFC and Watson was awarded the DFC.
Robert Barson Cowper was born on June 24 1922 at Broken Hill, NSW, before his family moved to South Australia. He attended Queen’s College in Adelaide before working as an engineering draughtsman. In 1940, on his 18th birthday, he joined the RAAF.
He completed his training in Canada and arrived in Scotland in September 1941. He trained as a night fighter pilot and in November joined No 153 Squadron in Northern Ireland. The squadron was replacing its old Defiant aircraft with the powerful Beaufighter when he teamed up with Watson.