Lieutenant Gerald George Cates of the headquarters company of Solihull Home Guard (5th Warwickshire), died in Shaftesbury Military Hospital on 20th April 1942 after suffering an abdominal injury during a battle exercise at Imberdown, near Warminster, on Salisbury Plain. He was 44 years old and was one of some 25 officers and men who died as a result of the Imber “friendly fire” incident on 13th April 1942 when a Hawker Hurricane fighter plane (similar to those pictured above) taking part in a demonstration accidentally opened fire on a crowd of spectators.
Gerald George Cates was born in Portsmouth on 22nd October 1897 and baptised at the Royal Garrison Church, where his father, Henry John Cates, was a Sergeant with the East Lancashire Regiment, stationed at Clarence Barracks. Gerald grew up in Chichester, where he began his Civil Service career as a clerk with the Inland Revenue.
In 1913, he joined the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment at Guildford, transferring to the Army Service Corps when he was moved to the Inland Revenue Office at Gateshead.
At the time of his death, Lieutenant Cates lived in Winterbourne Road, Solihull and worked for the Inland Revenue in Birmingham as a Senior Tax Officer. He had served in France with the Army Service Corps during the First World War 1914-17, before becoming a Second Lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps in March 1918. He passed his Aviator’s Certificate on 13th August 1918 at the Military School, Huntingdon. He then served for two years as an instructor-pilot with the newly-formed Royal Air Force.
He married Ruth Pougher in 1924, and they had two daughters, Mary Lena Cates (1926-2015) and Geraldine (born 1939).
Gerald Cates was one of the first to join the Solihull Home Guard in May 1940 and was commissioned in February 1941, being promoted to Lieutenant seven months later. His Commanding Officer, Colonel F. Blennerhassett, said: “He was generally an extraordinarily fine fellow and a most competent and efficient soldier.”
He was buried with Military Honours on 24th April 1942. The funeral took place at St Alphege Church, where his coffin, draped with the Union Flag and surmounted by his Lieutenant’s helmet, had rested, guarded by members of his company. His remains were then interred at Robin Hood Cemetery. The Birmingham Mail reported:
Solihull’s main street was lined with people after the service as the cortege moved to the burial ground at Robin Hood. Heading the procession and marching in slow time, were men of the lieutenant’s company and a band of the Pioneer Corps with drums muffled. The bearers, officers and N.C.O.s, marched beside the coffin.
The Birmingham Mail of 23rd April 1942 reported that the other Solihull officer attending the training exercise, Captain D. H. Hirons, second in command, escaped without injury. The newspaper noted that there would have been other officers from Solihull at the exercise but for the fact that an important lecture was schedule for the night of the battle exercise. In the event, the lecture was cancelled but without sufficient notice for the officers to make it to Warminster in time for the exercise.
Gerald’s widow, Ruth, married James Weir in Solihull in 1946 and died in Weston-super-Mare in 1990. aged 89.
In 2012, the 70th anniversary of the Imber friendly-fire incident was marked by the unveiling of a memorial in Warminster Garrison Chapel.
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Heritage & Local Studies Librarian