Warrant Officer John Henry Coates (pictured) went missing during a mission in March 1945. His body was discovered 74 years later
He gave up a leave day to join his RAF squadron for a daring raid in the closing months of the Second World War, helping liberate Italy from the Nazis.
Tragically, Warrant Officer John Henry Coates paid the ultimate price for his bravery – his Spitfire was downed and his remains lost until recently.
But yesterday he finally got the send-off he deserved at two poignant ceremonies.
The first was in Cavarzere, the village closest to where his Spitfire fell. It was shot down at dawn on March 5, 1945, after WO Coates, 24, who was known as Harry, joined 111 Squadron on the bombing raid.
By then, two months before VE Day, Hitler’s ally the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had been deposed and the invading Allies were being welcomed as liberators by Italians living under Nazi occupation.
Six Spitfires took off from Ravenna, on the north-east coast, on a mission targeting 20 barges transporting munitions to German troops. But York-born Coates’s Mark IX fighter was soon downed by anti-aircraft flak.
Rain and mud swallowed the wreckage and the pilot’s remains. His parents John and Eliza, along with his three sisters and three brothers, lived the rest of their lives not knowing what had become of him.
Three years ago, a villager in his eighties revealed that his father had witnessed the doomed Spitfire spiralling from the sky.
He pointed out the area to a local shopkeeper, Alessandro Voltolina, 48, a member of the Romagna Air Finders, a group of volunteers who recover Second World War aircraft.
RAF pallbearers carry Warrant Officer Harry Coates’ coffin as he is put to rest in Italy. The Yorkshireman has now been given a military funeral which was organised by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission
Youngsters Marcus Preston and Nicole Godfrey, relatives of Warrant Officer Coates, lay down a white rose on top of the pilot’s grave
RAF pallbearers with the coffin of Warrant Officer Harry Coates as they lead a procession of relatives and local residents
The coffin for Warrant Officer Coates is carried by RAF pallbearers as they make their way to the pilot’s final resting ground
Offering an emotional display, the relatives of WO Coates, Charlotte Dearlove, Sarah Watts and Shelagh Coates, can’t hold back the tears as they attend the pilot’s funeral
‘I spent a year looking with a metal detector,’ Mr Voltolina recalled yesterday at the funeral.
He eventually unearthed a fragment of the fuselage, and on October 14, 2017, a team of Italian archaeologists excavated the whole Spitfire, and WO Coates, all astonishingly well preserved under 27ft of clay. He was identified via a DNA match with his nephew John.
Yesterday, more than 500 grateful townsfolk brought Cavarzere to a standstill in honour of the young Briton who gave his life for theirs.
Standing by the coffin, Mayor Henri Tomassi said: ‘We have to say thank you, thank you, thank you. It means so much to express our gratitude to a man who lost his life to free us.’
Several dozen local schoolchildren paraded shoulder-to-shoulder with firemen, policemen, local dignitaries and elderly residents.
As the town band struck up God Save The Queen, people came out of shops and homes to join the crowds snaking through Cavarzere to the San Mauro church, where a Roman Catholic bishop held a mass and RAF Wing Commander Peter Cochrane, the UK’s air attache to Rome, read An Airman’s Prayer, a traditional tribute to pilots.
Finally laid to rest: WO Coates of 111 Squadron was declared missing in action after the RAF aircraft he was piloting crashed close to the village of Cavarzere
Around 22 relatives attended the funeral, after an appeal to find his descendants was launched. One of his relatives spotted a story in a local newspaper and thankfully his family finally learnt of his resting place
The town people of Cavarzere out in force to honour the pilot, with local schools and roads all being closed for the day
WO Coates’ coffin is carried by RAF pallbearers along the streets of Cavarzere, Italy, as residents walk behind to show their respect
Niece Shelagh Coates and godson Marcus Preston of Warrant Officer Coates attend the funeral
Standing in the crowd, her eyes brimming with tears, was one of the pilot’s nieces, Shelagh Coates, 70, from South Lincolnshire, who said: ‘It is overwhelming that the whole town have come out like this.
‘The sadness I feel is for his six siblings, including my father Frank who died in 2015. They all survived the war and always longed for him to be found, but they all died before it happened.’
A few hours later, the mournful notes of a trumpeter’s lament rolled across a windswept cemetery in Padua, near Venice, at the second service where six RAF pallbearers in pristine blue uniform bore the coffin.
WO Coates became the 518th Commonwealth serviceman to be buried at the Padua War Cemetery with full military honours.
A poppy wreath is neatly placed on top of the pilot’s coffin – covered with a Union Jack flag – as a sign of remembrance
WO Coates’ relatives Sarah Watts and Shelagh Coates accept the Union Flag from an official during the burial of the pilot
A priest speaks at the funeral of WO Coates as his body is finally laid to rest, with family members and local residents attending the church service
The Spitfire pilot is carried by RAF pallbearers to Padua War Ceremony where he was given a traditional military send-off
A total of 20 members of his family, clad in black, had flown over from Britain. They included great-great-niece Nicole Godfrey, seven, and great-great-nephew Marcus Preston, 14, who both laid a white rose by his coffin before an RAF trumpeter sounded The Last Post.
A padre, Group Captain Reverend Giles Legood, told mourners: ‘Today is our chance to do what Harry’s parents John and Eliza longed to do but never could – give a decent burial to their son.’
WO Coates, who worked as a railway draughtsman in York before the war, and never married or had children, has at least 62 known blood relatives.
WO Coates shown standing on the wing of a Spitfire. Seven decades later, the 24-year-old Yorkshireman’s body was discovered in the wreckage of his plane by Italian aviation archaeologists
Shown left is the remains of a boot found amongst the wreckage of the plane, while right is a display from the flight deck
It was in October 2017 that WO Coates’ remains were discovered by members of the Romagna Air Finders, an organisation which recovers WWII aircraft
Christine Stanton, 68, whose mother Molly Dearlove was the hero’s younger sister, said: ‘Our mum never came to terms with Harry’s death.
She died in 2008. But today was the most beautiful service, conducted with great dignity, and it brought a lot of closure. I felt very proud of him.’
Niece Mrs Coates added: ‘It was overwhelming to see so many here for a man they never knew. One lady said she came for what he did – fighting for their freedom.’
WO Coates’ plane was discovered near Cavarzere, which was excavated after the Romagna Air Finders were told by locals an aircraft had crashed there in the 1940s
WO Coates had been taking part in the dawn bombing of barges moored on a canal when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire (shown is the aircraft’s engine)
The crash site in Cavarzere, Italy, where the wreckage was unearthed in October 2017