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Gary Cooper of Horsham

Gary Cooper

I was born in Kingston upon Thames in 1938. My father was a master plasterer and after the war he had plenty of work restoring houses that suffered bomb damage.

He was a special constable before the war, and he had volunteered for service straight away, which my mother wasn't too happy about. He served in the desert in 1940 and was involved in one of the first major victories the British forces had, at Beda Fomm in Libya.

They trapped the Italians despite being heavily outnumbered, through surprise, speed and dash. When Rommel landed with the Panzer Corps, my father was taken prisoner whilst trying to recover a tank, and was handed over to the Italians. He was taken to Naples and didn't have a good time in the Prisoner of War camp.

Some prisoners were well treated by the Italians, but the group my father was part of did not. However, he did have one bit of luck when they were being taken on three trains to Germany. Two were bombed, but his
wasn't. He was moved to East Germany and eventually sort of liberated by the Russians. He returned home shortly after. I remember vividly him coming home.

During the war years, I remember going down in the air raid shelter. I used to like tomato sandwiches, and that was how they enticed me to go down there! We moved to a little cottage in Wiltshire, and I spend most of the war years in Warminster, which has always been a garrison town. It was a young boy's paradise as it was full of tanks, artillery, and soldiers regularly marched through the town.

My grandfather had a shop on the high street, which still stands, so you could look out the window and see tanks passing by. A friend of my mother had a boyfriend who was a sergeant, and one day he brought the tank round to this girl's place and sat me in the turret!

It was a fantastic time for a young boy. A travelling salesman came by one day and said a Heinkel had come down. I went up to see it and I can remember it vividly. I pass the field occasionally and I can picture it still. It was a great time, the war, and I was sad when it ended!

When my father came home, I remember him knocking on the cottage door, and my mother was obviously extremely excited about it all. But I thought 'I don't know about this chap!' I had become the little dad of the house in his absence, but he assumed the role of man of the house. He had, though, brought me back a lot of German memorabilia – belts and badges and stuff.

I was going to a private school during the war, but my father wasn't having any of that so I was thrust into a council school, which was full of army kids, and he made me wear boots with iron toe caps and studs. I had been spoilt as I had a great mass of aunts and uncles in the area and I was the only child. When dad came back, I didn't get the same attention!

From the time I was put in the council school, I was trouble. I passed exams in the subjects I liked, but was nearly expelled on a couple of occasions.

I left school when I was 16. I went to the job centre, and there was a job for a clerk in the Lebanese Embassy in London. I shot up there for an interview and they took to me straight away. I had a monthly salary, and duty free cigarettes and booze, which I used to give it to my old man. He couldn't believe that a troublemaker like me could step into such a good job.

They were very good to me, buying me shoes, suits, and Van Heusen shirts. I would pick people up from the airport, and take the diplomatic bag in a taxi to the Air France offices when I was only 16-year-old. Can you imagine that happening now?

I had to go into the army for national service for a couple of years. My father kept saying to me, if you don't behave yourself, you'll go in the army. I thought 'I'll teach you to tell me about going in the army!' So I went to the recruiting centre and signed on for 22 years. When my father heard there was absolute hell of course! But I had signed with an option to leave after three years.

For the first two weeks, all they do is run you ragged. I felt as though the world had dropped in on me. I thought 'I'm stuck here for three years, so I either enjoy it or I can be miserable'. I thought I would enjoy it and so, whatever they asked, I did. I never put a foot wrong. I had the time of my life in the army.

I went for driver training for ten weeks, and over the next few months fulfilled various roles before I was sent to Germany. I was stationed in Dortmund for about six months, initially just driving for various people.

One day an officer said to me 'I want you to be my bat man', which was a personal servant of sorts. I didn't want to do that. I had enough trouble cleaning my own kit without having to do someone else's. He said 'I can order you every 24 hours to be my bat man, and if you don't I'll put you on a charge.' I said 'fair enough' and made him order me every day!

I continued with driving duties for a time. One day, the Commanding Officer's driver headed back to Blighty so I drove for him too. But I did not want to stay with the army. After three years, I returned to Woolwich and worked in a factory, before I moved to another factory, Spencer's, a dry cleaning firm. They put me on all kinds of courses and I obtained a few qualifications. I was finally learning, after all those years being naughty at school. I ended up taking an Open University degree.

I started off sweeping the floors and after seven years I was running one of the company factories. When they sold up, they very kindly made me redundant. I had a wife and two daughters by then, and we had moved to Horsham. They didn't want to move with the company up to Scotland.

My younger brother was in sales, and I thought that, if he could do it, so could I. So I took a job for Marley's, who
provided building products, and never looked back. I stayed there for 25 years until I retired in 1997, gradually
climbing the management ladder.

I wasn't really ready to retire though, so after I had finished revamping our house, I took up with a friend of mine who was in the safety business, selling and installing equipment. It meant going up on roofs and demonstrating equipment. I was 60 years old, but over the years I had done a lot of freefall parachuting jumps, so heights were not a problem for me.

Parachuting was something I'd always been keen to do. I turned down the chance of joining the regiment when I was in the army, but I did go to Headcorn in Kent when I was 46 and ended up jumping for a few years. When the wind dropped on a clear day I would hurtle up there. I would say to my wife, Elizabeth, 'Sorry I'm late home!' and she'd shout back 'You've been out jumping, haven't you!'

I used to go walking a lot with my wife, and one day we went down to the Carfax, where they had recently repositioned the Horsham War Memorial. I looked at the memorial and saw so many names. I thought, who were these chaps?

I needed to know something about them. So I went to the library and the young girl just looked at me blankly. I said 'There must be a book about these men?' I went to the archivist, and the West Sussex Records Office. But nowhere could I find collated information on Horsham's fallen.

It was not right. These people have given their lives for what they believed in. I thought that somebody had to do something about it and that was going to be me.

I started working on a book on all of Horsham's casualties in the First World War whilst I was still working, and it gave me something to do when I stopped. There were 359 names on the memorial initially, and I found the story of each one. I used the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, West Sussex Country Records Office, archive copies of the West Sussex County Times and the West Sussex Gazette, and war diaries in the National Archives. I also managed to find people who still lived in the town who had had relations who were casualties and I
interviewed them too.

Gradually I found out about some people we didn't previously know about. Some had only been in Horsham for a little while but they were residents at the time and so in my estimation needed to be mentioned on the Memorial.

Over aperiod of 10 years, the book took me about six years to complete. The book is not for me. It's for the families, it's for schools so young people can learn what happened, and I hope it's of use to researchers – both military and laymen – in the future. It's a record of what happened in a certain period of time to certain people who lived in Horsham.

There were some fascinating stories. One chap was a semi-professional footballer who played for Brighton and Hove Albion. He was in the TA and the 4th battalion had the HQ in Horsham town. When the war broke out they were immediately mobilised. At that time, there was a rule that no TA soldier was sent overseas unless he volunteered. To a man, they all volunteered. Imagine that happening now!

I found stories for the 359 people on the war memorial and I picked up information on another 58 men. I said to Jeremy Knight at Horsham Museum 'I'm finding all these names that are not on the war memorial, and I think they should be on there.' He took it up with Horsham District Council, and they very kindly agreed to carry out a major operation on the memorial.

A couple of years ago, we had a rededication ceremony. They extended the arms to include the plaques so that they could put the additional names of the Great War victims on and left space for any new names for Second World War soldiers, to add to the 116 on the memorial currently.

I've committed to doing the World War Two book of Horsham's Heroes. There are thousands of books about the war, but most show the same pictures of the Germans marching down the Champs Elysees. I want to know what happened to Joe Bloggs. But it's proving more difficult than I expected. Censorship was strict and not as many news items were published in the local papers. As a result, I've had far more trouble finding out exactly what
happened to people.

Sometimes I will spend many days researching for just a couple of lines. Sometimes people were just shot dead, end of story. That is all the notes will say. There will be nothing about where the soldier was or what he was doing. Then other times, you get detailed reports.

Elizabeth died in 2001, but I have plenty to keep me occupied. I have two daughters and two granddaughters and I go to Cottesmore health club several times a week. I like to go walking too. I used to present historical tours, taking people out to the major battlefields. I still go to some, but with a small group of war experts.

I would like to do a book on soldiers from the parish villages of Horsham too. It would be such a large undertaking that I will probably just do the profile of the casualty and not too much background.

I also want to do more of the social history of Horsham for the World War Two book. I don't know why, as there's enough to do already. I must be mad.