An­zac week – a time for he­roes

Auckland City Harbour News - - OPINION -

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.

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