Willy Coppens (deceased)
|COLONEL AVIATEUR BARON WILLY COPPENS DE HOUTHULST, DSO, MC. |
Willy Coppens, the leading Belgian Ace of World War one, was born in Boitsfort near Brussels in 1892. His aeronautical achievements during the war are all the more remarkable when one considers that he spent the first two years of the war in the army, with the 2nd Grenadiers, that he did not learn to fly until October 1915, and that his 37 victories were all achieved between 25 April and 14 October 1918. In September 1915 Willy Coppens joined the Belgian Flying Corps and took two months leave to receive his flyingtraining in Britain. He joined the Ruffy-Baumann School at Hendon, where he met Albert Ball. He got his 'ticket', No. 2140 of the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain, on the 9th December 1915 and was posted to the Belgian Military Flying School at Etampes, South of Paris, where he undertook further training and on the 1st July 1916 received his wings. Coppens went to No 6 and later No 4 reconnaissance Squadrons, stationed near the Belgian general headquarters at Houthem. Here he flew B.E. 2C's and Farman F.40's as well as the more exciting Sopwith 1.5 Strutter. It was in a 1.5 Strutter that he had his first aerial combat, on May 1st 1917, when he was attacked by four German fighters above the forest of Houthulst. Coppens kept his head, bravely facing each attack, until after five minutes the enemy fled and Coppens, unharmed, brought his aircraft back to Houthern. For this action he was mentioned in The Flying Corps despatches. Life in a reconnaissance Squadron was not however for Coppens - he wanted to be much more actively involved in the war. In July 1917 this wish was realised when he was posted to No 1 Fighter Squadron under the command of Captain Fernand Jacquet, the first Belgian pilot to bring down an enemy aircraft, and in the company of two distinguished aviators, Jan Olieslagers and Andre de Meulemeester. First of all he flew a Nieuport Scout and then converted to a Hanriot HD 1, a manoeuvrable little aircraft but one that was not favoured by his colleagues. He was promoted to Flight Commander and painted his machine a distinctive blue. Coppens first victory was on April 25th 1918 when he shot down a German fighter just over the lines, and between this date and October 14th he shot down ten enemy aircraft. His greatest skill however lay in the shooting down of enemy kite balloons. The Germans observation balloons along the Yser front were extremely well organised and a permanent danger for Allied troops; the enemy's artillery was very precise because of the advice given by the observer from the balloon. The so-called "dirtywork" of shooting these balloons down was left to the airmen. It was a dangerous task as the anti-aircraft defence was highly concentrated and extremely effective and the Belgian Flying Corps did not have the necessary incendiary bullets. Willy Coppens volunteered and after obtaining some French incendiary bullets proceeded to shoot down many enemy kite balloons, thus saving the life of many an allied soldier. Coppens worked from the North Sea end of the lines, as far as Ypres and the river Lys. Once, having destroyed three balloons South of Ypres in a matter of ten minutes, he was awarded the Military Cross by General Plumer, Commander of the British Second Army. Not long after General the Duke of Athlone pinned the DSO on Coppens chest. Coppens wartime career came to a halt on October 14th 1918 when he was wounded in the leg and it had to be amputated. In less than six months he had shot down twenty-seven enemy balloons. After the war Coppens started to fly again, with only one leg, but with the aid of a steering wheel that he had designed and attached to the control column of his aircraft. He was the first standard-bearer of the Belgian Air Force, which had been created after the war. He was made Chevalier and later Baron Coppens de Houthulst. He was Air Attache to the Belgian Embassy in London from 1919 to 1924, in Paris from 1924 to 1934, and in Rome from 1934 to 1935. After these appointments he commanded Tirlemont and Nivelles Air Force Bases in Belgium. Coppens has written his first World War Memoir which has been published in Paris, London and New York. He has also written a history of Belgian Military aviation from its inception to 1940. as well as many other books and numerous articles.