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 cravat, and only 10 years older than me.
I willed that the radio was wrong with the news. But that didn’t work either. ‘‘Cobber’’ Kain stayed dead. Something, some body, had dropped 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 accept.
At 21, he was the first RAF air ace of World War II and the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.
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 hero.
Apparently twice as a novice pilot he was forced to ditch his Hurricane and land by parachute.
Kain was all but written-off after one sortie.
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 admiration, I thought that description was (using a doubly unfortunate cliche) overkill, to me, he was dashing, 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 personified, air force big wigs who were flying desks in Whitehall, decided to bring him back from France to be put into official cotton wool – supervising the training of other wouldbe ‘‘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 final spin.
That turned out to be much too true.
He flew two high-speed, low-level rolls over the airfield, before deciding on a third which clipped one of the hangars, crashing and throwing him out.
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 performed one of the ceremonies in his diary – presenting colours to an air cadet training squadron on his behalf.
I remember going back to the much-thumbed World War I reference 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 eccentricity. 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 May 1917!
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 blazing before bomber’s rear gunner shot the German attacker down.
Warned to prepare to parachute out, Jimmy Ward instead volunteered 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 and wing.
(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 pioneer flights when ‘‘Smithy’s’’ Southern Cross plane lost an engine – a piece of newly replaced exhaust had broken loose and damaged its propeller.
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 galeforce slipstream along the engine connecting strut.
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 courage 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.