Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service
Died on Thursday, 4th October 1945, aged 25
Heather Cosens was the youngest daughter of Albert Olliver Cosens (1884-1975) and Angelina Leshley (1879-1973), and was born at East Preston Sussex in December 1919. She was a first cousin of Edward Forrester Reffell.
Heather was killed in an air accident that involved one of the largest number of female service personnel fatalities in a single incident throughout the whole of the Second World War. Regrettably, this incident was hushed up officially and many relatives were not informed until the March of the following year. The aircraft was taking part in operation DODGE; the transportation of troops back from overseas bases in North Africa and Italy using converted heavy bombers such as Avro Lancasters. Use of the same aircraft was made on the outward journey to return personnel returning from UK leave.
Lancaster PA278 of 103 Squadron took off from RAF Connington for Italy at 00:30 on 4 October 1945 for Naples Italy, the passengers having assembled at RAF Glatton Huntingdonshire late the previous night. On board a crew of six and nineteen female passengers; consisting of two nurses and seventeen ATS personnel. The passengers sat in canvas folding seats in a numbered order for weight & balance reasons. No oxygen, heating or parachutes were provided for the passengers so this was going to be a very uncomfortable flight, not least of which was the requirement for the aircraft to fly at only 2,000′ due to the lack of oxygen facilities. Two Lancasters were involved in this flight with PA278 taking off first.
The route taken was down through France crossing into the Mediterranean west of Marseille. At this stage PA278 radioed the other aircraft to inform them that it was experiencing some engine problem and would be returning to Marseille. This was the last that was heard from them. At approximately 04:40 flames and an explosion was reported, although the other aircraft was unaware of what had happened and carried onto Naples.
As previously stated, due to the official inertia in informing relatives, many of these held out unreasonable hope that the crew and passengers may have survived somehow for some time. No wreckage or personal effects of any kind were ever found.
The following also perished:-
Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey TAYLOR (pilot)
Sergeant William John KENNEDY (air gunner)
Flight Sergeant Jack Anthony REARDON (navigator)
Flight Sergeant Norman Reginald ROBBINS (wireless operator)
Sergeant Richard George STEELE (flight engineer)
Flight Lieutenant John Percy WHYMARK DFC DSO (air gunner)
Senior Matron GI SADLER, age: 41 (South African Military Nursing Service)
Lance Corporal Willimena ALLAN, age: 37
Private Phyllis Kathleen Doris BACON, age: 34
Private Stefania COURTMAN
Private Barbara Diana CULLEN, age: 30
Sister Jane Simpson Annand CURRAN (QAIMNS)
Private Agnes EDWARDS, age: 28
Private Rhoda Alice FRASER, age: 24
Private Bessie GOODMAN, age: 25
Corporal Jill GORING, age: 23
Private Joan LARKIN, age: 24
Private Alice LILLYMAN, age: 22
Lance Corporal Sheila MACLEOD
Lance Corporal May Eleanor MANN, age: 23
Private Betty Evelyn PRECIOUS, age: 24
Lance Corporal Enid Dacia RICE, age: 24
Staff Serjeant Jessie SEMARK, age: 29
Private Marion TAYLOR, age: 22
1) Panel 22, Column 3, Memorial to the Missing (The Rotunda), Brookwood Military Cemetery, Brookwood, Surrey.
2) Panel 199, International Bomber Command Centre, Lincoln
Grateful thanks go to Mary Jane Millare-Adolfo of the Royal Air Force Museum for assistance about the aircraft loss, and to Geoff Thursfield for the precious photograph of Heather. A very special thank you goes to Robert Whymark, son of Flight Lieutenant John Whymark, for the use of his research into this unfortunate loss.