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AUCKLAND CITY HARBOUR NEWS, APRIL 24, 2013
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Anzac week -- a time for heroes
Eleven, the age when big boys don t
cry, and I was weeping as if there
was no tomorrow.
He was dead, my great hero,
photographed with his uniform s
open top button and white silk cra-
vat, and only 10 years older than
I willed that the radio was wrong
with the news. But that didn t work
Cobber Kain stayed dead.
Something, some body, had drop-
ped out of my life. There would
never be any one like him again.
The only blessing for me was that
he hadn t been shot down by what
the comics and a lot of other sources
called the Hun -- Beware the Hun
in the sun , and all that.
His trusty Hurricane fighter had
let him down.
That was the only scenario that
my young, fame-filled mind could
At 21, he was the first RAF air
ace of World War II and the first to
receive the Distinguished Flying
During the Battle of France in
1940, he had a string of victories.
Some references say he shot down
13 German aircraft, others credit
him with 17 confirmed kills .
One fanciful other admirer has
suggested a totally unlikely 40.
Numbers didn t worry me. I
simply ranked him as Pilot Superb.
Later, I was to read that it hadn t
always been smooth flying for my
Apparently twice as a novice pilot
he was forced to ditch his Hurricane
and land by parachute.
Kain was all but written-off after
He turned up at a French village,
his face brick-red from burning oil,
his eyebrows singed, bandages on a
leg and on a hand, and his hair still
streaked with oil .
In the months of my total admir-
ation, I thought that description
was (using a doubly unfortunate
cliche) overkill, to me, he was dash-
ing, not oil-covered.
In death, as in life, Cobber Kain
was not prosaic.
Admiring his skills and fearful
this hero might be killed with all
the national regrets that I later per-
sonified, air force big wigs who were
flying desks in Whitehall, decided to
bring him back from France to be
put into official cotton wool -- super-
vising the training of other would-
be Cobbers .
About to board a passenger plane
for the Channel flight, he saw his
much-loved and lonely Hurricane
standing outside a hangar.
Typically finding the temptation
too great, he told the passenger
plane s pilot to turn his engines off
while he took his old bus for a
That turned out to be much too
He flew two high-speed, low-level
rolls over the airfield, before decid-
ing on a third which clipped one of
the hangars, crashing and throwing
One final spin for Edgar James
Kain, the man they called Cobber .
(Who would ever have called him
Edgar -- other than his parents?)
Once back in England, he was
planning secretly to marry his
fiancee Joyce Phillips.
Shortly afterwards, Joyce perfor-
med one of the ceremonies in his
diary -- presenting colours to an air
cadet training squadron on his
I remember going back to the
much-thumbed World War I refer-
ence books my big, much older
brother had lent me.
One fell open at familiar pages.
There was the face and grave of a
World War I ace I had long revered,
Albert Ball VC, DSO, MC -- the
loner who spent hours playing
classical violin and who had the face
of a concert artist to go with that.
Playing, that is, when he wasn t
shooting down German Fokkers. He
had 44 kills when he died shortly
before his 21st birthday.
He was the victim of an eccen-
tricity. A village behind the German
lines had a clock tower and he
developed a habit of flying low past
it to check the time. Total bravado.
One time too many. The Germans
noticed this foible and stationed a
machine gunner in the tower in
In one of the gracious habits of
pilots in those days, his German
enemies then erected a cross above
his grave lauding his courage fur
sein Vaterland -- for his fatherland.
Wellington-born James Edward
Allen Ward of Wanganui also had
an obvious place in my childhood
pantheon of valour.
Only 22, he was second pilot of a
Wellington bomber in an attack on
Munster in July 1941.
A German Me 110 scored a
serious hit, leaving one engine blaz-
ing before bomber s rear gunner
shot the German attacker down.
Warned to prepare to parachute
out, Jimmy Ward instead volun-
teered to climb out on the wing in
an attempt to douse the fire with an
engine cover which just happened to
be on board.
His first plan was to go without
his parachute to cut down wind
resistance. Talked out of that, he
had aircraft s dinghy tied to him
and climbed through a small astro
hatch and went out, then buckling
his chute, kicking hand and foot
holds in the Wellington s fabric body
(Yes, fabric! Aghast Americans
called the Wellingtons clath
covered bombers .)
Lying flat on the wing behind the
engine, my brave Jimmy smothered
the fire in the wing fabric and tried
to cover a leaking fuel pipe before
the fierce slipstream ripped the
engine cover from his hands.
The fire, now clear of the wing
fabric, burned itself out.
The Wellington and its crew were
saved and Jimmy won a Victoria
Cross. Tragically, he never saw nor
wore it. He died over Hamburg two
months later -- September 15, 1941.
His medal is in the RNZAF s
museum at Ohakea.
His heroic feat was a reminder of
earlier bravery mid-Tasman on one
of the famous Kingsford Smith pion-
eer flights when Smithy s South-
ern Cross plane lost an engine -- a
piece of newly replaced exhaust had
broken loose and damaged its pro-
A second over-worked engine
threatened to seize, rapidly burning
oil as they turned back to Australia.
Smithy s navigator, Bill Taylor, a
World War I Sopwith Pup pilot,
climbed out six times in nine hours
and edged his way through gale-
force slipstream along the engine
He used a thermos flask casing to
transfer oil from the sump of the
dead engine to replenish the other.
He won an Empire Gallantry
Medal for his courage, replaced with
a George Cross, instituted in 1941,
and was later knighted.
Also knighted, Smithy , who was
on Gallipoli at 18, was lost trying
for an England to Australia record
flight in 1935.
I ve often wondered whether a
young Jimmy Ward had Bill Taylor
as a childhood hero, dreaming that
he would later emulate Bill s cour-
age himself to win that VC now in
the RNZAF museum at Ohakea.
RIP: Cobber , Jimmy, Smithy
and Bill -- and all those who sadly
have no memorial.
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