Lt Geoffrey Maidens Walter Gaven Cato - 6 Squadron Royal Air Force
Geoffrey Maidens Walter Gaven Cato was born in October 1897 at Cape Runaway (a name given to the area by Captain Cook during his first voyage of discovery in 1769 after he frightened off hostile Maori natives by firing one of his ship’s canon), a tiny coastal town on the eastern tip of New Zealand’s north island. At the age of eighteen Geoffrey sailed to England and straightaway enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps.
After three months of pilot training he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, served two short postings with reserve squadrons in England before being sent overseas to join 6 Squadron on the Western Front. He arrived at Abeele on the 19th June 1917, five days after the short but brutal Battle of Messines in which the squadron played an important but dangerous role, with casualties totalling seven men killed, one man taken as POW and a further five men injured. Despite these losses, moral on the squadron was high, as the previous day saw a change in commanding officers as well as the shooting down of a German Albatros scout from Manfred von Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’ by two of 6 Squadron’s RE8s after they were attacked by eight enemy aircraft on the way home from a bombing mission. With a shortage of pilots and serviceable aircraft, Geoffrey Cato was sent into action after only two familiarisation flights behind the lines.
Though nothing is known of Lt Cato’s missions, it is evident from two surviving incident reports that he quickly became a skilled pilot, as twice he successfully crash-landed a crippled RE8 without injuring himself or his observer. The first incident took place on the 3rd August 1917 when his aircraft, RE8 Serial No: ?????, was struck by anti-aircraft fire and the second, a month later on the 6th September, after the engine of his RE8 Serial No: A4243 failed when he was on an Artillery Observation mission over Zillebeke Lake.
Ironically, on the 6th November 1917, Lt Cato and his observer Lt Robert Richardson were both drowned as a result of a flying accident in which their RE8, Serial No: A3643 was wrecked. Having been sent out on a contact patrol in the worst of weather conditions that offered little prospect of them being able to spot any allied troops on the ground, they were returning to the aerodrome at Abeele when their aircraft was seen by observers to make an attack on a practice target in the lake at Dickebusch, only a few miles from Abeele. According to the eyewitnesses, the wings of the RE8 folded up when the machine came out of a dive and the aircraft broke up and crashed into the shallow waters of the lake’s shoreline. Sadly, though both men survived the impact, they drowned before help could reach them. In another twist of fate, Lt Richardson was due to go on leave later that day and had arranged to swap places with another observer who had previously flown with Lt Cato and was looking for more experience. However, their new flight commander, a recently-promoted captain who was only eighteen years old and unwilling to break the rules, refused to agree to the swap.
After a funeral service conducted by the squadron, the two officers were buried side by side in the Lijssenthoek cemetery, a short carriage ride from Abeele aerodrome. By the end of the war, a total of thirty-one men from 6 Squadron would share the same final resting place, their names honoured for ever amongst the other ten thousand seven hundred and fifty three headstones erected at Lijssenthoek, the largest military cemetery containing Royal Air Force casualties in the whole of the Ypres region.