When F/O Louis Emile Cochand finally arrived in Britain, he was an experienced fighter pilot, but he was still very lucky to be assigned a wing commander Canadians knew and trusted. It was Johnnie Johnson, not only a British ace but a man who already had experience leading hot shot Canadian flyboys. In the spring of 1943, Johnnie was asked to take over an all Canadian wing based at Kenley. Johnnie had flown with Canadians before but this was to be a wing equipped with the new Spitfire Mk.IX. In his autobiography:
“The Canadian fighter pilots had a reputation for toughness and they required a firm hand on the reins. I thought of Bader and how often he’d sworn by the Canadians.”
Johnnie describes his warm welcome and the meeting with his new Canadian wing of over 70 pilots from Nova Scotia and right across the Dominion. There was at least one other all Canadian Spitfire wing, the 126th commanded by ‘Iron Bill” MacBrian.
The new Spitfire Mk.IX had a larger more powerful engine and Johnnie hoped it would be more than a match for the Focke-Wulfe 190s. He quickly came to the conclusion that it was better than both the Focke-Wulfe and the Messerschmitt, the only disadvantage was the range of less than 200 miles, which severely limited time over France and the support they could give to bombers. Although the deep thrusts of the Eight Air Force had tied down most of the Luftwaffe’s day fighters, the Spits were busy with Messerschmitt’s and Focke-Wulfes on the Pas de Calais. Their real advantage was the huge advantage of radar, knowing where and when the enemy fighters were up. By the end of the summer 1943, the Canadian wing had accounted for 100 kills.
One of Johnnie’s squadron leaders was ‘the burly assertive ‘Buck’ McNair, who had already been through the thick of the air fighting over Malta (ten victories).’ By the end of 1943, Johnnie was bone weary and moved to a desk job in operations.
Early in 1944, Johnnie had a visit from Paul Davoud, who before the war had been a bush pilot in Canada. The R.C.A.F was sending a further six squadrons (two of which had been in action in the Aleutians against the Japanese) to England for the long awaited invasion of France.
The Canadians wanted Johnnie back.
Johnnie organised his batman, his dog and loaded his Lagonda for the drive north to Digby in Norfolk to meet his new Canadian wing.
And F/O Louis Cochand.
Unlike some of the eighty Canadian pilots, Louis was not completely green. Not only had he been a trainer in Commonwealth Air Training programme in Quebec and Ontario, but when Pearl Harbour was bombed and the Imperial Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on the Aleutian Islands, the Americans were caught by surprise, and asked for help from the Canadians. Louis was decorated by the grateful Americans for his effective attacks on Japanese forces.
Louis remembered Digby well and could with delight describe the delivery of the Spitfire Mk.IX flown in by attractive women ‘who just greased them down on the runway’.
D-Day was approaching, and there was a secret plan to secure air superiority in Normandy, a plan that involved a small airfield in the New Forest. “After two weeks of hard training at Digby we moved south to an airfield near Bournemouth, and took the opportunity to rehearse the operational procedure for the move of a tactical wing.” Johnnie recorded. Johnnie knew that his wing would be the first to land in France, re-fuel, re-arm and then continue to provide cover for the D-Day landings. It was an important tactical priority and would double the air-time of the fighters to insure air superiority.
Louis’ squadron was based at Holmsley South, one of the twelve air fields in the New Forest. From the new base, with their long range tanks, they could attack enemy fighters based at airfields near Paris and as Johnnie says:
“Within three weeks of receiving their Spitfires, the newcomers from Canada had flown like veterans and kept level heads under fire.”
More importantly, 442 Squadron was now experienced at landing and taking off from a small airfield, skills they needed for Normandy.
The wing then moved to Tangmere to prepare and train for the invasion. The new base and long range tanks meant the Spits could range as far as Brussels. Louvain and Ostende in the east, and south of Paris in the west attacking the Wehrmacht on the ground and meeting fighters and bombers in the air. Finally, it was time. June 5th 1944, Johnnie was with the group captains and wing leaders who were briefed about the next day’s invasion.
On D-Day, Johnnie led three squadrons across the Channel to patrol along the line of beaches being assaulted by the Canadian and British troops. Air superiority and surprise was such that Johnnie was actually more worried about the danger from American Typhoons over Omaha and Utah.
“Other than that, we were the undisputed masters of the Normandy sky.”
Johnnie was able to describe the panoply of conflict below while keeping below 2,000 feet and the shells of the naval guns. Louis also recollected the terrifying moment seeing a naval shell go by, fired inland by one of the Allied cruisers! The secret plan was up and running. The Canadian troops forging inland had taken their objective!
It was D-3 before Johnnie was contacted and told that the first airfield in Normandy was ready for fighters, inland from Juno Beach at St. Croix sur Mer. After a reconnaissance by Dal Russell checked out, the first Allied planes, all Canadian, were able to land and re-fuel in Normandy. It took 20 minutes and they were airborne again and back in the fight covering the beaches.
The landing strip was difficult to get into because of the air barrage balloons over Juno Beach, and not completely safe when you were down because of the risk of German snipers and of course minefields!
Within days the ground crews and equipment had come over from England. This included Johnnie’s batman, Varley, his Labrador Sally, and his caravan! Louis’s recollection was that he never saw his personal kit again!
With their new base, the Wing could fly deep into enemy territory and meet the challenge of the Luftwaffe reinforcements. It was pretty busy at St. Croix sur Mer and almost impossible to sleep because of the heavy guns, and the Bofors which opened up whenever the Luftwaffe appeared, and sleep was dangerous even if you could find room in a slit trench where you might be safe from falling hot shrapnel.
Louis recalled an occasion when a miss-calculation by another pilot on the ground in the confined space resulted in the back of his Spit being taken off just behind his armoured seat.
In the air, it was hot as well. Within a week the Wing had lost four Spits. The Wing was in constant action with Johnnie’s tally soon crossing 32 confirmed kills (the record set by ‘Sailor’ Malan in the Battle of Britain.
On the ground, there was a warm welcome from the French and Johnnie describes how he was grateful for the help of ‘one of the French-Canadians’ who acted as an interpreter when the mayor came to visit. It would have been Louis!
The pilots lived exclusively on compo rations.
“The Canadians deplored the absence of fresh meat, milk and fruit juices and wanted good fresh bread instead of hard biscuits.”
As Johnnie knew there was a daily flight with spares into the small field, he organised some extras with the publican of the Unicorn in Chichester. The next day the twin engined Anson flew in with a crate of tomatoes, loaves of new bread, some lobsters and a gallon or two of bitter! It wasn’t long before another bright spark modified the bomb racks on the replacement Spits so that a small barrel of beer could be carried instead.
The pilots were meeting and fighting the Luftwaffe daily over Normandy as the Germans desperately tried to regain lost ground and there were losses. The wing had been in Normandy for well over three weeks and Caen was still being resolutely defended. It fell to 144 Wing to cover the bombers that came in and reduced Caen to rubble. By D-Plus 30 the Canadians had accounted for 52 confirmed kills, just pipping the more experienced 127 Wing. The final score was 74 confirmed with many more damaged, and the loss of only 14 pilots, 2 whom who were confirmed safe. Johnnie was sad to say good-bye to what he later described as his “Happy, aggressive Canadian Wing”.
The Wing was then broken up for operational reasons. Johnnie took 443 back to the England while Dal Russell and his 442 (with Louis and my uncle Mac Hume) was transferred to 126 Wing with Dal as Wing Commander. They were to join the 2nd Tactical Air Force and take part in the adventurous trek across Northwest Europe through France, Belgium and Holland.
Later, Louis and Mac were able to personally liberate their cousins, the Famille Cochard, at their home in Uccle, an event well remembered by Denise and Anne-Marie, only teen-agers at the time.
For flying exploits over the invasion, Louis was recommended for the D.F.C. by the British and awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French.
February 3rd, 2015.
You can find out more about the various activities of Holmsley South in this overview article: Holmsley South Airfield – Overview and you can find out more about the New Forest’s vital role in D-Day from Mulberry Harbour, to holding camps, road widening, advanced landing grounds, PLUTO and Embarkation by visiting our main page on D-Day in the New Forest.