Our Heritage on the Walls

Last year I asked myself the question “I wonder why I share the surname of that barrack block?” I never thought how much of a personal journey that question would take me on.

It started with a simple internet search ‘Copley Block RAF Marham’, which found various websites detailing the story of a Yorkshire man from the small village of South Heindley, near Barnsley, which happened to be the town where I was born.

John James Copley joined the RAF in 1935 aged 22. Having trained as a flight rigger he was posted in 1936 to 38 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall and then transferred in 1937 with 38 Squadron to RAF Marham.

On the outbreak of war Copley took part in leaflet drops over Germany taking the role of air gunner and in late 1939 he flew in a Wellington bomber and took part in a seek and destroy mission over the coast of Germany which led to him receiving a DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal) given for his actions bringing down a German fighter.

During this mission the aircraft suffered damage and crashed landed on arriving at RAF Marham. Copley discovered post landing that an impact he felt during the attack had in fact been caused by a German bullet which had lodged in the buckle of his parachute harness; his life saved by a fraction of an inch.

Later in the war Copley took part in what turned out to be his last mission over Germany. Leaving from Oakington airfield on the 29th September 1941 in a 7 Squadron Short Stirling aircraft (Serial W7441), Copley’s role  was now Flight engineer but with his experience he was known as ‘Pop’ at just age 29.

His aircraft’s mission was to be the lead aircraft to mark the target with flares and fire bombs on a raid on the Polish coastal city of Stettin which served as a major port for Berlin. His aircraft was attacked by a German night fighter; with the aircraft on fire he opened the hatch and helped as many of the crew escape. Being unable to help any others he bailed out and was subsequently captured in Denmark. This was now to be his war, enduring the hardships as a prisoner of war. At the end of the war he returned to his family running a garage repair shop and petrol station in his home village.

Four generations of the Copley family recently visited RAF Marham to see the barrack blocks recent improvements. I had reutilised the family’s documents and photographs which I had access to from a previous visit by his daughter and placed framed information with pictures on the walls of the barrack block to tell his story to the occupants. They also made a visit to the RAF Marham Aviation Heritage centre which included seeing a restored Bristol Hercules engine component from the aircraft J J Copley bailed out from. This component was recovered from the sea bed by the nephew of the radio operator from the downed aircraft and who also visited RAF Marham at the same time.

The family has been once again connected to their relative’s story and feel the connection to RAF Marham more than ever. Prompted by the work I did with Copley barrack block I researched my own family’s past and managed to find my dad after 29 years apart; my journey has only just begun…