Fighter pilot 'sorry' for WWII death
A strange thing happened when a German fighter pilot phoned the Kiwi woman he'd made a widow after shooting down her husband's plane.
"We had to comfort him," said Ailsa Coutts, who's just turned 100.
She is still deeply touched that he wanted to apologise in person.
Memories of the "unbelievable" phone call about 30 years ago are still sharp for the Birkdale woman.
Coutts was just a 29-year-old with two young daughters when her husband Andrew, 27, was killed over Amsterdam in World War II.
The daring raid was doomed for the New Zealand RAF squadron when it was spotted by a group of ace German fighter pilots on a conference.
Twenty-eight of the 48 bomber crew died and 12 were taken prisoner.
Coutts and her daughter Andrea got the chance to tell the German pilot who shot down Andrew's plane they felt no ill feeling towards him years later.
"I just felt sorry for him. Mum was about 70 and he was probably an old man. He was crying," Andrea said.
"He was really mortified. He said the plane had skipped over the water like a stone and went down.
"It must be horrific to shoot down someone and watch their plane sink. That's war, half of those people didn't want to fly and shoot down people."
The phone call was made possible by a Dutch researcher who gathered information on both the New Zealand 487 Squadron and the German fighter pilots.
Equally special to Coutts was a visit by Andrew's squadron leader Leonard Trent just a few years after her husband's death in 1943.
Trent received a Victoria Cross after flying the only plane to complete the bombing raid and shooting down a German Messerschmitt.
His plane was also shot down. Two on board were killed and he became a prisoner of war along with his navigator.
He was sent to Stalag Luft III and took part in the break-out made famous in the film The Great Escape. He surrendered just outside the camp and received solitary confinement until being freed by the British in 1945.
Trent acknowledged the bravery of his whole squadron by visiting all bereaved relatives, including members of the Coutts family, then living in Whakatane.
Memories of the meeting still make Coutts' eyes well up.
She recalls the "ribbons all over his chest" and being touched that he wanted to stay in touch with bereaved families.
Coutts enjoyed a fabulous 100th birthday party at her Mormon chapel in Aeroview Drive surrounded by family and friends.
She said at 100 she "feels no different than when I was nine".
Her birthday party featured a cake made by grandchildren and ice creams.
She lives with her daughter who struggles to keep up with her mum who had a hip replacement at 93.
"I have to yell out wait for me as she walks along the road," Andrea said.
North Shore Times