Fire in the Heart

 

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for that magnificent country in the South Pacific known as New Zealand. I have never been there, no closer than Panama City actually, but its extraordinary natural beauty, rich history and its resilient people I have always admired. 

When I was a child growing up in suburban Canada, my father put us to bed every night with an adlib episode of something he called Sir Edmund Hillary and the Abominable Snowman, a running tale and ritual that lasted what seemed like years. Hillary became for me, through my father’s eyes and words, an exemplar of strength, stamina, self control, pacifism and above all dignity. It was from those bedtime stories of howling winds and flapping tent canvas that a deep respect for the feisty Hillary and his country grew inside me. 

There are many things about New Zealand that speak powerfully to me—Maori culture and spirituality, the snow-capped mountains of the Routeburn Trail, their ordered cities, their dramatic and frightening haka, their All Blacks, their anti-appeasement stance prior to the declaration of war and their proud military heritage. During the Second World War, New Zealand punched far above its weight. At the time of the war, New Zealand’s population was approximately 1.6 million. By the end of the conflict, nearly 12,000 New Zealanders had died—in the European and Pacific and South East Asian theatres. New Zealand’s ratio of deaths per million population was the highest in the Commonwealth—6,684 deaths/million. Compared to the obvious massive sacrifices of Britain at 5,123 and Australia at 3,232, New Zealanders and their families took a disproportionate load upon their broad warrior shoulders.

In the modern world of vintage aircraft and warbird operations, New Zealand is undoubtedly, pound for pound, the greatest of all nations. While there are of course more warbirds in the UK and America, the Kiwis admire, remember and celebrate their heritage like no other nation on Earth. From Wings over Wanaka to Ardmore to Omaka, their reputation is made of sterling, steel and doped linen.

The list of admirable New Zealanders is long. Many, like Hillary, were aviators or members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force—Richard Pearse, Keith Park, and Edgar “Cobber” Kain. One, Charles Upham, was the only military serviceman to receive TWO Victoria Crosses during the Second World War—as an infantryman in North Africa and the Mediterranean. One other I have known about for a few years and have always wanted to tell his story.

His name is Sergeant James Allen Ward, a shy 22-year-old Royal New Zealand Air Force Vickers Wellington pilot with the famous 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, Royal Air Force. His military career was as short as it was spectacular. 

In a well-known propaganda photograph from the Second World War, air crew members of 75 (New Zealand) Squadron, Royal Air Force at RAF Feltwell walk self-consciously en masse for the camera prior to a night raid. 75 Squadron was a Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force squadron during the First World War. In 1939, the Kiwis had purchased 30 modern Vickers Wellington medium bombers to replace their aging Vickers Vildebeests. The New Zealand crews who were to operate them travelled to England to train on their new aircraft and then fly them back to New Zealand. Instead, with the war in the offing, the New Zealand government put the machines and their crews at the disposal of the RAF. The RAF gave them the 75 Squadron number, and the rest is history. Photo: Imperial War Museum

An aerial view of RAF Feltwell, Norfolk, the home base for 75 Squadron at the time of Ward’s eventful evening—showing the hangar line to the left and dispersals off the airfield (lower right). Typical of many British airfields of the time, the landing and takeoff areas were not runways, but rather large open fields where aircraft could always take off and land into the wind, eliminating cross wind operations. The field is camouflaged to look like farmland from above and appears to be quite convincing. The photo was taken by No. 1 Camouflage Unit, whose task it was to take aerial photos of factories, vulnerable points (VPs) and other military installations deemed important enough to be camouflaged from the air. Prior to the war, this task was carried out by a civilian operator, but following the outbreak, the task was taken over by aircraft of 24 Squadron—Stinson Reliants and Leopard Moths. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Vickers Wellington Mk.Is of 75 Squadron (RNZAF) from RAF Feltwell fly in loose formation. The Wellington was nicknamed the “Wimpy” after Popeye the Sailor’s hamburger eating chum J. Wellington Wimpy—the “bloviating hamburger glutton” my friend Alex MacQuarrie would say. The lead Wimpy—AA-A (RAF Serial P9206) was often flown by the unit’s commanding officer, Squadron Leader Cyril “Cyrus” E. Kay, DFC. Photo: Imperial War Museum.

Jimmy Ward was awarded the Victoria Cross for something he did that frankly defies the imagination—an act of such extraordinary courage and physical accomplishment that it seems almost impossible. If it were not for the witnesses and the physical evidence he left on the wing, one might simply assume the act was a fiction. On the night of 7–8 July 1941, at an altitude of 13,000 feet, a speed of 90 miles an hour and in total darkness, Ward climbed out of the top of his Wellington bomber through the astrodome hatch, climbed down the side of the fuselage, crawled out on to the wing to the starboard engine and beat out a fire in the fuel system using the aircraft’s canvas cockpit cover. I kid you not.

Wing walkers do this all the time you might say. But this was not on a biplane aircraft with struts and flying wires to hold onto. This was on a large monoplane bomber, in the dark of night and with no previous experience in wing walking. I had been thinking about Ward’s astonishing story and how to tell it, when, a couple of weeks ago, I came across an item on eBay relating to Ward’s action and his subsequent award of the Victoria Cross. It was a menu from a dinner in Ward’s honour, signed by him. Along with it was a pamphlet which was clearly written and published sometime after the war—my guess was around the 1970s based on certain qualities of the printing. The pamphlet, entitled Unsung Heroes—A Story of a Wartime Incident in the Cotwolds [sic], was a short piece by a man named Alan White, a member then of the Severnside Aviation Society. There were low resolution scans of the pages of this pamphlet and from them I was able to transcribe White’s moving story of two crews of Vickers Wellington L7818—the aircraft that was saved by the actions of Ward in July 1941, but which was lost during a cross-country training mission ten months later. Later, through dogged research on the web, I realized that the main part of the story, concerning Ward’s actions, was actually a transcription from the book New Zealanders in the Air War, by Alan W. Mitchell, published in 1945.

I have tried to find the Severnside Aviation Society and to make contact with Alan White—so far to no avail. I have no idea if he is even alive. His story of the later crash of L7818 brings a new dimension to Ward’s story and Mitchell’s recounting and brings into focus both to airmen whose stories will live on forever and those whose stories disappear into the mists of time, unsung and forgotten. There were many thousands of stories of the ultimate sacrifices of these boys before they made it to combat. Their courage went undecorated and, save for unit Operational Record Books, unrecorded. Everything about young Ward’s courage and actions meant he deserved the accolades he received, but, like Mr. White, I believe that the courage of those lost in training is no less great.

I am taking a chance here, reproducing White’s pamphlet text and Mitchell’s now 70-year-old words, but I believe they would forgive me, for we all want the same thing—to tell this remarkable story. I hope White will contact me if he reads this. I hope he will forgive me for any copyright infringement, but this is a story of 13 men in two incidents ten months apart, that was published some time ago, and needs to see the light of day again.

Following White’s and Mitchell’s stories, I also have transcripts of 75 (New Zealand) Squadron’s Operational Record Book entry for 7–8 July 1941, as well as Ward’s own words about the event.

Part OneJust another Dayby Alan White, Severnside Aviation Society

This is a story whose end has to be told first. It happened in 1942, the third year of the war.

In the Cotswold village of Cold Aston it was just another day. The grim realities of war had not spoiled this tranquil place. Of course, local people were used to the sight of many aircraft in the skies, but these were mostly training aircraft from the nearby airfields of Little Rissington, Northleach, Windrush, Chedworth, South Cerney and Bibury.

Wednesday the 8th of April 1942 was a typical day for Gerald Hathaway, a local lad of seventeen who worked on the land. Gerald came from a family who could trace their antecedents back to the Cotswold Yeomen and he had inherited a natural affinity with the land. Notwithstanding his love of the land, Gerald also had an interest in aircraft and learned to recognise every detail of the many types of aircraft he saw daily. He would always take time to look out for an aircraft when he heard its approach.

The weather that Wednesday was typical for April—sunny, with squally rain showers. Gerald had to make many dashes for the shelter of the trees to avoid the rain. In the early afternoon Gerald made yet another dash for those trees and as he stood taking shelter from the squall he heard the sound of two aircraft.

It didn’t take him long to spot and identify a swift Spitfire fighter flying out of the rain towards him into the direction of the sun. Gerald looked to his right. There in the distance he saw a Wellington Bomber, droning sedately and steadily on its course. It would soon pass in front of him. The Spitfire was also still speeding towards him. Gerald began to feel very disturbed. The aircraft appeared to be flying on a converging course.

Gerald felt sure that both pilots must have seen one another, but they were leaving it a bit late to take necessary avoiding action. Both aircraft came on, straight and steady. Gerald began to relax when he felt it was going to be a near miss. It seemed that the Spitfire was going to pass behind the Wellington by a whisker. But moments later an almighty bang filled the air and Gerald saw the right wing of the Spitfire strike the rear turret of the Wellington.

Everything happened very quickly. Pieces of metal flew off in all directions. A large object became detached from the back of the Wellington and fell at the top of the valley. The Spitfire wing came off and the fighter fell from the sky into the valley of the Broadwater stream.

The Wellington passed from Gerald’s sight, falling behind a wood. Not knowing that the Wellington had crashed, Gerald’s concern was for the pilot of the Spitfire and he ran for all he was worth to where he had seen it fall. With heart pounding and gasping for breath, he came upon the crashed and broken aircraft. He could see there was nothing he could do. The pilot had remained with the aircraft, having had insufficient height in which to successfully bale out.

Gerald did not know it, but the Spitfire pilot, wearing the uniform of an RAF pilot officer, was American Pilot Officer James Robert Lee; an American who had fought and laid down his life for the last thing he saw before his death: the green and pleasant land of England.

The Wellington had staggered out of Gerald’s sight behind a small wood. With its control cables severed at the tail, there was little the pilot could do to try and maintain height. It had fallen like a leaf, striking the top of the valley and sliding down the slope to stop short of the stream at the bottom.

Shortly afterwards a small number of villagers gathered on the opposite side of the valley. No-one approached. They stood in silence as officials from the Police, Rescue and the R.A.F. went about their business at the scene.

Because of wartime censorship, no-one was allowed near the aircraft and, of course, no detail of the accident was made public. The local press were not allowed to report on such incidents and none of those present would have known any of the airmen involved. They would have no inkling that there could not have been a more experienced pilot at the controls of the Wellington than Flying Instructor George Leeke. He must have made a desperate attempt to save his stricken aircraft, a fight that George could not have won even with the help of the other veteran in the crew, Stan Pook.

Both George Leeke and Stan Pook were flying instructors who had completed operational tours and were, in theory at least, being “rested” from their operational squadrons. Many pupils had already successfully passed through their hands. For them, and their pupils*, Billy Wilson, Frank Good, Fred Fairclough and Eric Coleman, this would be just another day. Hours earlier, at 15 Operational Training Unit at Hartwell, Oxfordshire, George and Stan had briefed their pupils on the cross-country flight they were about to undertake. The pupils had been told that they were required to plot a course and put their theory into practice in the air under the watchful eyes of their experienced instructors.

They had been flying that Wednesday in a Vickers Wellington IC, Serial No. L7818. For them, it would have been just another aircraft with no particular significance. But we take this story back ten months earlier to July 1941.

* The names of the airmen from Wellington L7818 are more accurately: Pilot: W/O 580297 George Ernest Leeke RAFVR killed. Obs: Sgt 1210053 Walter Frank Good RAFVR killed.  Wop/AG: Flt/Sgt 903242 Stanley William Pook RAFVR killed.  Wop/AG: Sgt 1065788 Eric Coleman RAFVR killed.  Wop/AG: Sgt 1311317 Frederick Keith Fairclough RAFVR killed.  Wop/AG: Sgt 1113163 William Wilson RAFVR killed. The pilot of the Spitfire was 21-year old James Robert Lee of Comanche, Texas. He was flying a Battle of Britain veteran Spitfire Mk I (R6686) from 57 Operational Training Unit at RAF Hawarden.

 

Part Two—For Valour from Alan W. Mitchell’s New Zealanders in the Air War, 1945

Two photographs of James Allen Ward, both taken after 7 July 1941 and the events that led to his award of the Victoria Cross. At left, he stands in the cockpit of the same 75 Squadron Vickers Wellington AA-R (RAF Serial No. L7818) in which he was flying that night. In the more formal photograph at right, he is wearing his Victoria Cross ribbon below his RNZAF wings. In this photograph, he looks much older than his 22 years—a testament to the stresses of Bomber Command night operations and the terror of that particular night. This image was taken after his award on 4 August. Five weeks later he was dead—killed on operations during a night raid on Hamburg, 15 September 1941. Photos: Imperial War Museum

Tobacco smoke fogged the Sergeants’ Mess of 75 (New Zealand) Bomber Squadron at Mildenhall in Suffolk. Officers and sergeants standing on chairs or ringed around tables shouted above the din of voices and the dance music of the Squadron’s band. “We want Jimmy Ward… We want Jimmy Ward… We want Jimmy Ward!”

A short, slight boy stood by a microphone in front of the band. His head was bowed, his face pale, contrasting with his mat of dark hair. His sensitive mouth was twisted in an embarassed smile as he looked at his feet and shuffled them. His thumbs were stuck in his trouser pockets. Outside the pockets, his fingers worked uneasily against his uniform. He wore a sergeant’s stripes and tabs on his shoulders bore the words “New Zealand”. Under his wings he wore a scrap of maroon ribbon bearing a miniature bronze medal. The din died. The sergeant pilot threw off his nervousness and, in a boyish voice edged with precision, he said: “We’ve got here tonight a number of chaps hiding themselves in a corner who have done more than we have ever done. They’re the ground crews that look after our kites. They don’t get anything like this. There are no VCs for them, but they do a first class job for us. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t get back. Those chaps—they keep our kites in first class order.”

Then, as the cheering welled out again, he slipped away to a window. He sat on the ledge, his head bowed, half smiling nervously as the cheers gave way to the singing of “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”

A jolly good fellow!—it was an understatement. If any of those singing men had been asked at that moment what they thought of Sergeant Pilot James Allen Ward, VC, they would have stared and said with intensity, “He’s a bloody fine little chap. He’s got all the guts in the world.”

A few weeks before he stood so embarrassed in that Sergeants’ Mess, Jimmy Ward, second pilot, stood peering through the astrodome of Wellington I.C. Serial L7818. Squadron Leader R.P. Widdowson, a Canadian, was at the controls; Sergeant A.R.J. Box of Auckland was in the rear turret; Sergeant Observer L.A. Lawton of Wellington was plotting the course; the Front Gunner, Sergeant T. Evans, and the Wireless Operator, Sergeant W. Mason, were at their posts.

Two and half miles below was the Zuider Zee—a sheet of silver. Flying on through the moonlit night, the crew automatically began to think of touching down safely. Behind them lay Munster, where their bombs had fallen. The flak had not been bad. Now their job was nearly finished for the night.

Suddenly their placid flight was shattered. A German pilot in a Messerschmitt 110, lurking beneath the Wellington, picked out its silhouette in the moonlight and followed it skillfully. Then he began to climb, firing cannon shells with the bomber well in his sights. The Wellington shuddered as shells clattered into it. In a few seconds, the starboard engine was badly damaged, the hydraulic system became useless, the bomb doors slipped open, the wireless and intercom sets became inoperable. Smoke and fumes filled the cockpit. A piece of shell hit the Front Gunner in the foot. Tracer bullets, missing the Wellington, shot out like a stream of fireworks before the aircraft’s nose.

Nineteen-year-old Sergeant Box was startled by a stream of tracer bullets ripping past like sparks from a wind stirred by fire. Then, abruptly, the black shape of the Messerschmitt turned away, its long belly exposed, twenty yards before him. Box squeezed the trigger buttons and watched flecks of light pouring from his four guns into the German. The Messerschmitt rolled on its back and began a leisurely spiral dive, black smoke from its wings showing clearly under the moon. It was seen no more.

The Wellington flew on, but now a tongue of flame, five feet long, gushed from a split petrol pipe by the starboard motor. Looking back from his turret, Sergeant Box saw a cloud of smoke, smudged red from the glow, filling the aircraft. The licking flame cast a ruddy light in the cockpit and the Canadian [Widdowson] stood up uncomfortably to observe his position. Settling back in his seat, he banked the Wellington and pointed its nose parallel to the Dutch coast. “Hey there!” he bawled, mentally cursing the useless intercom set.

Jimmy Ward clambered into the cockpit and leaned over the Canadian’s shoulder. “Tell the chaps to put on their parachutes—prepare to jump for it,” Squadron Leader Widdowson yelled above the engine’s drumming.

“Going to land in the sea, or make for land, Skipper?” Ward bawled back. “We’re heading along the coast. See if you can put that bloody fire out.”

Box, staring back through the smoke, saw the crew putting on their parachutes. Were they going to jump? He slipped his parachute from its hook, fitted it and swivelled his turret so he could just peer along the outside of the fuselage and glimpse the glow.

Ward, Lawton and the Wireless Operator [Mason] began to rip away the khaki-coloured fabric from the geodetic work. Through the gap they pushed a fire extinguisher. Liquid gushing from it was swept like spray along the fuselage to splatter against the rear turret. Ward, grabbing thermos flasks, flung out coffee. He saw the wind wipe it along the length of the aeroplane.

Some time later, above the engines, he heard the Canadian shouting “How’s it going?” Ward replied: “Still going. Not going worse though.”

The Canadian stared thoughtfully before him. Then he banked the Wellington. Once again, the course was for England. He glanced at the sea, thirteen thousand feet below. It looked calm, silver-sheened. “It’s better than a prison camp!” he thought.

“Jimmy.”

“Yes Skipper?”

“You might have a crack at making a hole with the axe, and then lean out and see what you can do to that fire.”

“O.K. Skipper.”

Jimmy Ward clambered back from the cockpit. He tried the axe, with little success. Looking out from the astrodome, he saw the flame still burning steadily. It was two to three feet long.

“Think I will hop out with this,” Ward shouted to Lawton, indicating the cockpit cover. There was an immediate argument. Lawton said, “Then take your parachute.” Ward shook his head and grinned.

“No, too much wind resistance.”

“Take the bloody thing, you fool.”

“Oh, o.k., then.”

Rapid preparations were made. Lawton tied a rope from the dinghy around Ward’s waist. The astrodome was removed. Then Ward, in his bulky flying suit, hampered by his parachute and the cockpit cover, began to work his way out. The hatch was two feet six inches in diameter.

The Wellington droned along at ninety miles an hour. The rush of wind struck the New Zealander with the force of a gale as his head poked through. Inch by inch he worked himself above the fuselage. He got his body to his waist outside the plane, checked his parachute and the cockpit cover. Then he paused and looked down at the flame. The wind was lashing him. Three feet below the hatch was the wing. Three feet from the edge of the fuselage, along the wind [sic] and behind the whirling airscrew, was the flame. Three feet down, three feet along. How? And where?

Carefully Ward ran his blue eyes over every inch of the way. Then he began to move. Gripping the ring of the hatch, he lifted out one foot. He kicked his toe against the fuselage until he pierced the fabric and found a foothold. He brought out his other foot, and made a second toe grip. Gently, he descended to the wing. His feet were wedged securely in holes formed by the geodetic construction. His hands were gripping the metalwork.

Wind tore around him. Without warning, it savagely lifted him and flung him back against the side of the fuselage. But his feet, firmly rooted in the holes, held. Steadily he worked back to the hatch ledge and began again. Inch by inch he started to crawl towards the flame. This time he did better. Soon the slipstream from the airscrew was rushing over him. He tried to flatten himself closer against the wing, but the parachute on his chest and the cover seemed like a hill. He lay gripping, clinging, dazed by the engine’s thunder, fighting the tearing hands of the chill wind. Carefully, he brought up his right hand and shifted the cockpit cover from under him.

The powerful slipstream slid between him and the wing. It lifted him, buffeted him, wrenched at the cover. The added force nearly tore Ward into space. The strain on his legs and left arm began to sear him with pain. Desperately he plunged the cover into the gaping hole towards the flame. It blocked the hole. He held the cover there until the strain was too much. He had to remove his arm. Immediately the wind whipped the cover to the lip of the hole. He moved to push it back again. It bobbed out. Exultantly the slipstream whirled it away from the wing, and it was gone.

A dramatic depiction of Ward’s battle with the engine fire. The image from the National Archives indicates the artist’s name was “Sax”, but I can find no other information about the artist or the work. Image: National Archives

Another artistic dramatization of Ward on the wing of his Wellington. In the astrodome hatch opening navigator Sergeant L.A. Lawton holds onto the Wellington’s dinghy painter, likely little help in the event that Ward was swept away, but something which gave him a modicum of security. Image via arrase.co.uk

An overly dramatic illustration of Ward’s action accompanied Alan White’s story. The battle with the engine fire on the wing most certainly did not happen in a tight bomber stream with searchlights and heavy flak all around, but the drawing does convey very well the almost unbelievable events that night over the North Sea coast of Holland. Image via Severnside Aviation Society

Ward stared at the flame. It was till gushing, although less forcefully. With the cover gone, there was no way of reaching it. Weariness surged through him. He must go back. Dazed by the rhythm of the engine and the force of the eternal slipstream, he felt very lonely. He began to move again, inch by inch, foothold by foothold, handgrip by handgrip, across the three interminable feet. Pain racked his limbs. His mind felt thick. Thoughts came with difficulty. Only his will kept him moving. Lawton peering above the hatch, kept the dinghy rope taut, taking in the slack.

Slowly Ward reached the fuselage. Time stood still while he raised himself to the hatch opening. Then his left leg was inside the Wellington again. He slipped down gratefully, wearily, and stuck there, his right leg and body still outside. Lawton, fussing below, cursed to himself and pulled at Ward. But the boy was wedged. The right leg could not be drawn through the hatch. Desperately Lawton levered Ward up. Then he reached out, grasped the leg, pulled it safely down. Ward slipped through the opening and sat down. The long cabin, calm and windless, was unbelievably peaceful. Slowly his strength flowed back; he just sat there.

Lawton went forward to the cockpit. As the Canadian listened to his shouts, amazement showed on the pilot’s eyes. He raised himself to look at the flame. It was still burning, but there was now no danger of it spreading. Ward’s struggle on the wing had cleared away the surrounding fabric. With a grunt, the Squadron Leader bumped back into his seat. Once after that, the flame flared up furiously. As suddenly, it died down, then went out. The Wellington flew on. England was ten miles away. Soon the bomber landed and, unchecked by flaps and brakes, ran on until stopped by a barbed wire fence. The operation had been completed.

Jimmy Ward won the Victoria Cross that night. He was twenty-two years and three months old when, two months later, he went out on a raid on Hamburg. He was the captain of a Wellington which was shot down in flames. News filtered back to his squadron that three of the crew were known to be killed and two others had been taken prisoner.

But of Jimmy there was no word. Today his name appears in the long list of New Zealand airmen killed in this war, some of them, like himself, little more than boys, who will return no more to their sunny country in the South Pacific where life held out so much promise for them.

Aside: L7818 remained with No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron but never flew on operations again, passing to 15 OTU on 27th October 1941. 

A photograph of Wellington AA-R (serial no. L7818) showing the condition of the aircraft following a safe return from the Munster raid. A—Hole caused by damage from the attack. B—the opening for the astro-hatch and 1, 2 and 3—foot and hand holds created by Ward as he crossed over the wing towards the starboard engine. The larger hole at the wing root was likely where Ward, Lawton and Mason had ripped away fabric to use fire extinguishers and their coffee flasks in a fruitless attempt to put out the fire from inside the fuselage. Photo: Imperial War Museum

A shot from the engine nacelle looking at the fuselage of Wellington L7818 reveals the damage caused by the night fighter attack (A) as well as footholds and handholds created by Ward. The large hole in the fuselage at right was torn by Ward and Lawton and through which they had emptied their fire extinguisher and coffee flasks to no avail. Photo: RAF

A post-mortem photo of the starboard wing damage caused by the attack and the subsequent fire. Photo: RAF

A photograph of Ward’s Wellington (AA-R, serial no. L7818) after a safe landing back at RAF Feltwell. It shows cannon and machine gun damage from the attack by a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf.110 night fighter. One can see how the geodesic nature of the Wellington’s structure absorbed the blast well. The Wellington’s bomb bay was divided into three separate bays, each with a separate door. It appears that the starboard bomb door is missing, perhaps torn off by the cannon shell explosion or when it was, due to hydraulic failure, hanging in the slipstream on the trip back home. Note as well the bullet hole in one of the blades of the starboard propeller.

A poor quality photograph from a scan of White’s pamphlet shows the Widdowson Crew tracing on a map the route taken on the night of 7–8 July 1941. Ward is in the middle with the Canadian Widdowson standing next to him. At left is Sergeant Box, DFM, while the others are Lawton the Navigator and Mason the Wireless Operator. Evans, the front gunner, was recuperating in hospital from the wounds to his foot sustained during the attack. Photo via Severnside Aviation Society

Two photos of young Ward following his awarding of the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Winston Churchill, a lover of exploits of derring-do, had invited Ward to 10 Downing Street after the ceremony. In total awe in the presence of the great Prime Minister, Ward was struck dumb, unable to answer Churchill’s queries. Churchill, understanding the unhappy hero’s predicament, said “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence.” “Yes sir.” squeaked out Ward. “Then you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours.” said the Prime Minister. Photos: Left: Imperial War Museum, Right: Via SimHQ

Following his Victoria Cross award ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 4 August 1941, young Ward is greeted exuberantly by his fellow crewmen at the railway station. For a British Pathé newsreel clip of the shy Ward and his crew being congratulated by Commanding Officer Cyril Kay, click here. Photo via www.feltwell.net

The last flight of Sergeant James Allen Ward, VC as told by Alan W. Mitchell in New Zealanders in the Air War, 1945

Jimmy Ward rejoined his squadron. Squadron Leader Widdowson had completed his operations. Ward was now captain of his own crew. In the briefing room he listened with them to the instructions for a raid on Hamburg. Back in his room he lay on his bed and chatted over the details with them. He ate a meal and talked on.

He listened to dance music until it was time to go to the crew room to kit up. Laughing, chatting, his crew waited for transport to drive them across the aerodrome to their Wellington. They piled out of the lorry and into the aircraft. Jimmy Ward warmed up the engines. The radio telephone cackled at him to take off. The aeroplane lumbered, pregnant with bombs, across the airfield. Soon it was airborne. It circled above the box-like hangars, then, steadily gaining height, set out for Hamburg.

Hours later it approached the target. Searchlights sought it. Flak spurted. It rumbled on unharmed. At the controls Jimmy Ward was calm, calculating. Flak and searchlights were no new thing. The navigator was at his bomb sights. The gunners were alert. Suddenly the strong beam of a searchlight held the Wellington like a moth in a torch ray.

More beams flicked on to it, and more. The strong lights flooding through the aircraft lit up every detail.

“Hang on, chaps,” Jimmy Ward called over the intercommunication. He worked at the controls. The Wellington twisted, weaved, and dived to escape the lights. But they held it.

Flak exploded like giant whips around it, and crackled like machine-gun fire. Near bursts made the twelve-ton Wellington bounce. Suddenly a scarlet streak glinted, overtoning the yellow tentacles of the search- lights. The Wellington was hit. Fire had broken out. Dark blobs escaped from its belly; the bombs had been released. The red streak became longer. Flames caught a grip of the tissue-like fabric. The Wellington’s nose dipped. It was going down.

Ward ordered his crew to put on parachutes and jump. One by one they left the aeroplane. He remained at the controls. Jimmy Ward was alone again, lonelier now than when he had been out on that wing. And this time the flames had a sure grip…

Somewhere, perhaps in a farm field, the great bomber, flaring like a massive torch, whistled hoarsely out of the black night sky. It crashed with a sickening bellow of sound, then bounced to a standstill for flames to writhe themselves to nothing.

Such was the funeral pyre of young Jimmy Ward, VC

He is buried at Hamburg. But his epitaph was spoken from the hearts of his companions:

“He is a bloody fine little chap. He’s got all the guts in the world.”

 

Now, we present the account of 7–8 July 1941 as told by Jimmy Ward himself.

Via WW2Today (unattributed)

It was on one of the Munster raids that it happened. It had been one of those trips that you dream about—hardly any opposition over the target; just a few searchlights but very little flak—and that night at Munster I saw more fires than I had ever seen before. We dropped our bombs right in the target area and then made a circuit of the town to see what was going on before the pilot set course for home.

As second pilot I was in the astrodome keeping a lookout all round. All of a sudden, over the middle of the Zuider Zee, I saw an enemy machine coming in from port. I called up the pilot to tell him, but our intercom had gone phut. A few seconds later, before anything could be done about it, there was a slamming alongside us and chunks of red-hot shrapnel were shooting about all over the place.

As soon as we were attacked, the squadron leader who was flying the plane put the nose down to try and dive clear. At that time we didn’t know that the rear gunner had got the attacking plane, a Messerschmitt 110, because the intercom was still out of action and we couldn’t talk to the rear turret.

We’d been pretty badly damaged in the attack. The starboard engine had been hit and the hydraulic system had been put out of action, with the result that the undercarriage fell half down, which meant, of course, that it would be useless for landing unless we could get it right down and locked. The bomb doors fell open too, the wireless sets were not working, and the front gunner was wounded in the foot. Worst of all, fire was burning up through the upper surface of the starboard wing where a petrol feed pipe had been split open. We all thought we’d have to bale out, so we put on our parachutes. Some of us got going with the fire extinguisher, bursting a hole in the side of the fuselage so that we could get at the wing, but the fire was too far out along the wing for that to be any good. Then we tried throwing coffee from our flasks at it, but that didn’t work either. It might have damped the fabric round the fire, but it didn’t put the fire out.

By this time we had reached the Dutch coast and were flying along parallel with it, waiting to see how the fire was going to develop.

The squadron leader said, “What does it look like to you?” I told him the fire didn’t seem to be gaining at all and that it seemed to be quite steady. He said, “I think we’d prefer a night in the dinghy in the North Sea to ending up in a German prison camp.” With that he turned out seawards and headed for England.

I had a good look at the fire and I thought there was a sporting chance of reaching it by getting out through the astrodome, then down the side of the fuselage and out on to the wing. Joe, the navigator, said he thought it was crazy. There was a rope there; just the normal length of rope attached to the rubber dinghy to stop it drifting away from the aircraft when it’s released on the water. We tied that round my chest, and I climbed up through the astrodome. I still had my parachute on. I wanted to take it off because I thought it would get in the way, but they wouldn’t let me. I sat on the edge of the astrodome for a bit with my legs still inside, working out how I was going to do it. Then I reached out with one foot and kicked a hole in the fabric so that I could get my foot into the framework of the plane, and then I punched another hole through the fabric in front of me to get a hand-hold, after which I made further holes and went down the side of the fuselage on to the wing. Joe was holding on to the rope so that I wouldn’t sort of drop straight off.

I went out three or four feet along the wing. The fire was burning up through the wing rather like a big gas jet, and it was blowing back just past my shoulder. I had only one hand to work with getting out, because I was holding on with the other to the cockpit cover. I never realised before how bulky a cockpit cover was. The wind kept catching it and several times nearly blew it away and me with it. I kept bunching it under my arm. Then out it would blow again. All the time, of course, I was lying as flat as I could on the wing, but I couldn’t get right down close because of the parachute in front of me on my chest. The wind kept lifting me off the wing. Once it slapped me back on to the fuselage again, but I managed to hang on. The slipstream from the engine made things worse. It was like being in a terrific gale, only much worse than any gale I’ve ever known in my life.

I can’t explain it, but there was no sort of real sensation of danger out there at all. It was just a matter of doing one thing after another and that’s about all there was to it.

I tried stuffing the cockpit cover down through the hole in the wing on to the pipe where the fire was starting from, but as soon as I took my hand away the terrific draught blew it out again and finally it blew away altogether. The rear gunner told me afterwards that he saw it go sailing past his turret. I just couldn’t hold on to it any longer.

After that there was nothing to do but to get back again. I worked my way back along the wing, and managed to haul myself up on to the top of the fuselage and got to sitting on the edge of the astrodome again. Joe kept the dinghy rope taut all the time, and that helped. By the time I got back I was absolutely done in. I got partly back into the astro-hatch, but I just couldn’t get my right foot inside. I just sort of sat there looking at it until Joe reached out and pulled it in for me. After that, when I got inside, I just fell straight on to the bunk and stayed there for a time…

Just when we were within reach of the English coast the fire on the wing suddenly blazed up again. What had happened was that some petrol which had formed a pool inside the lower surface of the wing had caught fire. I remember thinking to myself, “This is pretty hard after having got as far as this.” However, after this final flare-up the fire died right out—much to our relief, I can tell you.

The trouble now was to get down. We pumped the wheels down with the emergency gear and the pilot decided that, instead of going to our own base, he’d try to land at another aerodrome nearby which had a far greater landing space. As we circled before landing he called up the control and said, “We’ve been badly shot up. I hope we shan’t mess up your flarepath too badly when we land.” He put the aircraft down beautifully, but we ended up by running into a barbed-wire entanglement. Fortunately, nobody was hurt though, and that was the end of the trip.

From the 75 Squadron ORB, July 1941

A number of decorations was won by the Squadron during July. These included one Victoria Cross, one DSO, two DFCs, and two DFMs.

THE VICTORIA CROSS was awarded to Sgt. J.A. Ward. On the night of 7th July 1941, Sgt. Ward was second pilot of a Wellington returning from an attack on Munster. When flying over the Zuider Zee at 13,000 feet, the aircraft was attacked from underneath by a Messerschmitt 110 which secured hits with cannon shell and incendiary bullets. The rear gunner was wounded in the foot [sic] but delivered a burst of fire which sent the enemy fighter down apparently out of control. Fire then broke out near the starboard engine and, fed by petrol from a split pipe, quickly gained an alarming hold and threatened to spread to the entire wing.

The crew forced a hole in the fuselage and made strenuous efforts to reduce the fire with extinguishers and even the coffee in their vacuum flasks, but without success. They were then warned to be ready to abandon the aircraft. As a last resort, Sergeant Ward volunteered to make an attempt to smother the fire with an engine cover which happened to be in use as a cushion.

At first he proposed to discard his parachute to reduce wind resistance, but was finally persuaded to take it. A rope from the dinghy was tied to him, though this was of little help and might have become a danger had he been blown off the aircraft. With the help of the navigator he then climbed through the narrow astro-hatch and put on his parachute. The bomber was flying at a reduced speed but the wind pressure must have been sufficient to render the operation one of extreme difficulty. Breaking the fabric [of the aircraft’s fuselage and wings] to make hand and foot holds where necessary, and also taking advantage of existing holes in the fabric [damage from the night fighter attack], Sergeant Ward succeeded in descending three feet to the wing and proceeding another three feet to a position behind the engine, despite the slipstream from the airscrew which nearly blew him off the wing.

Lying in this precarious position he smothered the fire in the wing fabric and tried to push the cover into the hole in the wing on to the leaking pipe from which the fire came. As soon as he removed his hand however, the terrific wind blew the cover out and when he tried again it was lost. Tired as he was, he was able, with the navigator’s assistance to make successfully the perilous journey back into the aircraft. There was now no danger of the fire spreading from the petrol pipe, as there was no fabric left nearby, and in due course it burnt itself out.

When the aircraft was nearly home some petrol which had collected in the wing blazed up furiously but died down suddenly. A safe landing was then made despite the damage sustained by the aircraft. The flight home had been made possible by the gallant action of Sergeant Ward in extinguishing the fire on the wing in circumstances of the greatest difficulty and at the risk of his life. Photographs of the aircraft are attached. Immediate awards of the DSO and DFM were made to the captain Squadron Leader Widdowson and Sgt. Box (rear gunner) respectively.

The pilot of Wellington AA-R that night was a Canadian from Winnipeg by the name of Squadron Leader Reuben Pearse “Ben” Widdowson, standing second from left in this shot of combat ready crews of 75 Squadron. Next to him at far left is the squadron’s commander, Squadron Leader Cyril “Cyrus” E. Kay, DFC. Squadron Leader (later Wing Commander) Reuben Pears “Ben” Widdowson, DFC, was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1915. He learned to fly at Winnipeg Flying Club, before moving to England where he joined the Royal Air Force in 1934, and was appointed Acting Pilot Officer on Probation. Later that year he was posted to No. 3 FTS, Grantham, and then as Pilot Officer to 2 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, RAF Manston. He flew Westland Wapitis in Waziristan, prior to his promotion to Flight Lieutenant in 1938. He then served with No. 1 OTU, until being posted for operational flying to 75 (New Zealand) Squadron at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk, just four months before the events of July 1941. He flew in 20 operational sorties with the squadron, prior to his epic flight to Munster and back.

The very tight confines of the Vickers Wellington are evidenced by these three photographs of 75 Squadron, RNZAF Wimpies and crews. The upper photo, looking aft, shows a wireless operator (right) and observer (navigator) demonstrating the cramped working spaces of their Wellington as it sits on the ground at RAF Hucknall. The Imperial War Museum’s website states that this photo was taken on 29 June 1944, but this of course is impossible as 75 Squadron had long since transitioned to Short Stirlings and then on to the Lancaster by that date. The middle photograph shows another 75 Squadron crew member placing flares in the chute for dispensing during a coming night mission. This is clearly a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Wellington as everything inside is in perfect condition, including the Elsen toilet to the right of the airman. For more on the Elsen toilet, click here. Note the extensive glazing along both sides of the fuselage, made possible by the Wellington’s unique geodesic structure. In the lower image, a rather boyish RNZAF observer stands in the astrodome taking a bearing on the sun with his sextant. It was through this same astrodome that young Ward climbed out and onto the fuselage on the night of 7 July 1941. Photos: Imperial War Museum

Another image which, though clearly not a Wellington of 75 Squadron or even one in European action, shows with dramatic effect the claustrophobic atmosphere inside a Wellington bomber. This image shows two crewmen (one using and Aldis lamp to communicate to a ship) at the waist gun positions aboard and Air Sea Rescue Flight Wellington operating from Egypt. Photo: Imperial War Museum

 

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