OBITUARY: D-Day veteran William Cooke

D-Day veteran William Cooke
D-Day veteran William Cooke

William Cooke was no stranger to the horrors of violence, having lived through the D-Day landings and lost two of his family in the Tullyvallen massacre.

An active member of veterans associations and a multi-talented musician, he died last month aged 89.

Born in Newtownhamilton on February 28, 1926, he was the son of Martha and William Cooke (a butcher).

Billy Cooke was educated at his home village primary school and then went to Newry tech.

He worked for a short time as a clerk at Lisburn train station before joining the Royal Navy, aged just 17, in June 1943.

He became a wireless operator, and less than a year later he was tasked to work on a vessel which was ferrying troops to the D-Day landing grounds.

In an interview which the News Letter carried last year, marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he said his vessel had been part of a flotilla of 12, ferrying heavy equipment and 20 men to the Normandy coast.

They crossed amid bad weather and under cover of darkness, but he recalled that when they arrived it had been “chaos”.

“Between big ships firing and aircraft, I didn’t know what was going on. I was just sitting there with my earphones on me,” he had said.

They then waited off the coast, although the boat became inoperable, took on water and began to drift, necessitating it being towed back into position.

At one point during the deployment he looked over the edge, and recalled “lots of dead bodies lying about, and floating about too”.

After his initial posting he was sent on return trips to France again, before being billeted to the Far East and the Pacific.

He was demobilised in March 1946.

When he returned home he became an education and welfare officer (essentially a truant officer), working in the south Armagh area.

He rose through the ranks to become chief welfare officer for the region before retiring at age 59.

“He had absolutely no trouble filling his time!” said his wife.

He was a supporter of both Portadown FC and Arsenal, and a keen gardener.

He played violin, cornet, trombone, piano, harp and was a member of the Tullyvallen Silver Band.

He also had a strong tenor voice, and during his lifetime he had sung in the former Richhill Male Voice Choir, the Portadown Male Voice Choir, and Tandragee Presbyterian Church Choir.

He was a member of the Service Masonic Lodge in Newry.

He had also joined the Orange Order upon returning from his Royal Navy service, and was based at the Tullyvallen lodge.

It was there that his father in law James McKee and brother in law Ronnie McKee were among those shot by republican gunmen on September 1, 1975.

The massacre claimed five lives in total.

It was “just chance” that he had not been present at the time, said his widow Bertha (whom he had wed in 1954).

She told the Portadown Times that they “never got over it”.

Mr Cooke had remained a member of the Royal Navy Association and the Royal British Legion’s Gilford branch until his death.

Fellow Royal British Legion member Arthur Reid knew him for 22 years, and said that he had been to the 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings in Normandy (and would have been at the 70th too, if it had not been for a “misunderstanding” concerning the arrangements).

“He was a gentleman - an absolute gentleman,” he said. “He never had a bad word to say about anybody.”

In June 2014, the French government had decided to award the remaining D-Day veterans the Croix de Guerre medal.

He had applied for it, but it did not arrive by the time of his death.

His widow said he had been in “wonderful health”, but succumbed to a brain tumour and died at a nursing home in Lisnaskea on June 5.

His funeral was held at Tandragee Presbyterian Church on June 7 (where he worshipped) and he was buried at Newtownhamilton Presbyterian Church’s churchyard.

He is survived by his widow, sons Rowland and Alasdair, daughter Jacqueline Hamilton and six grandchildren.