Jimmy Ward, V.C. – ‘a bloody fine little chap’.

James Ward VC © IWM (CH 3200)

James Ward, V.C.
© IWM (CH 3200)

What follows is the full chapter from “New Zealanders in the Air War”, by Alan W. Mitchell, entitled ‘Sergeant Pilot James Allen Ward. The full chapter can be read here, I have broken the chapter across the post simply because its too long to easily present within a post.

” Tobacco smoke fogged the Sergeants’ Mess. Officers and sergeants of 75 (New Zealand) Bomber Squadron standing on chairs or ringed round tables, shouted above the din of voices and the dance-music of the squadron’s band.

The High Commissioner for New Zealand, Mr W. J. Jordan, sat back on a sofa. He smoked a cigar, and his strong, homely face smiled his pleasure. Near him was Group Captain M. W. Buckley, who was shortly to give up his command of the station to return to New Zealand.

Amused, he looked at the back of the long room where officers and sergeants were climbing on table-tops, arms round one another’s necks.As he watched they began to chant. Soon the whole mess joined in. The band became inaudible.
“ We-want-Jimmy-Ward. We-want-Jimmy-Ward. We-want-Jimmy – Ward.”

Ofiicers and sergeants, pilots, air-gunners, observers, wireless operators—all took up the chorus, bawling from the table-tops, swaying, laughing, holding one another up. Suddenly the chant burst’ into cheering.

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 embarrassed 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. Hewore 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 to-night a number of chaps hiding themselves in a corner who’ve done more than we’ve ever done. They’re the ground-crews who look after our kites. They don’t get anything like this. There are no V.C.’s for them, but if they didn’t do a first-class job for us, as they all do, 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, New Zealand’s first V.C. of this war, 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 a Wellington bomber. Squadron Leader R. P. Widdowson, a Canadian, was at the controls. Sergeant A. R. 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 a half miles below was the Zuyder Zee – a sheet of silver. Flying on through the moonlit night, the crew began to think automatically 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 use- less. The bomb-doors slipped open. The wireless and inter-com. sets became unworkable. 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 fire. Then abruptly the black shape of a 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 showed clearly under the moon, and 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 stood up uncomfortably to observe its position. Settling back in his seat, he banked the Wellington and pointed its nose parallel to the Dutch coast.
“ Hi there,” he bawled, cursing mentally the useless inter-communication 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 P ” Ward bawled back.
“ We’re heading along the coast. See if you can put out that bloody fire.”
Box, staring back through the smoke, saw the crew putting on their parachutes. Were they going to jump ? He slipped his from its hook, fitted it, swivelled his turret so that he could just peer along the outside of the fuselage and glimpse the glow. Ward, Lawton, and the wireless operator began to rip away the khaki- coloured fabric from the geodetic work. Through the gap they pushed 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 the aeroplane.

Some time later, above the engines, he heard the Canadian shouting.
“ How’s it going ?” the Squadron Leader asked when Ward reached him.
“ 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 clobbered back from the cockpit. He tried the axe, withlittle success. Looking out from the astro-dome, he saw the flame still burning steadily. It was two to three feet long.
“ Think I’ll hop out with this,” Ward shouted to Lawton, indicating a cockpit-cover. There was an immediate argument. Ward shook his head and grinned.
” Then take your parachute.”
“ No. Too much wind resistance.”
“ Take the ruddy thing, you fool.”
“ Oh, O.K., then.”
Rapidly preparations were made. Lawton tied a rope from the dinghy round Ward’s waist. The astro-dome, like a crystal half-bubble, was removed. Then Ward, in his bulky flying suit, hampered by his parachute and the cockpit-cover, began to work his way out. That hatch was two feet six inches in diameter.

The Wellington droned along at ninety miles an hour. The rush of wind struck the young 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. He 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 wing and behind the whirling airscrew, was the flame. Three feet down, three feet along.

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 second foot. He made a second toe grip. Gently he descended to the wing. Making sure of every foot, he lowered himself until he was lying flat on the wing. His feet were wedged securely in holes framed by the geodetic construction. His hands were gripping the metal-work.

Wind tore round him. Without warning it lifted him savagely. He was flung back against the side of the fuselage. But his feet, firmly rooted in the holes, held. Steadily he worked back to the hatch-ledge. Then he began again. Inch by inch he started the crawl towards the flame. This time he did better. Soon the slip-stream 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 cock- pit-cover from under him.

The powerful slipstream slid between him and the wing. It lifted him, buffeted him. It 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 became too much. He had to remove his ann. 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 from the wing, and it was gone. Ward stared at the flame. It was still gushing, but 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 lonely. He began to move again inch by inch, foothold by foothold, hand-grip by hand-grip, across 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, was keeping 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. He 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 in the pilot’s eyes. He raised himself to look at the flame. It was still burning, but there was now no danger of its 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 it went out. The Wellington flew on. England was ten miles away. Soon the bomber landed and, unchecked by flaps or 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. To-day 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.

I met Jimmy Ward for the first time shortly after he had made his climb through that narrow astro-hatch and before it was announced that he had won the Victoria Cross. I stayed the night at the station and saw him take off and return from a raid on Mannheim. He was one of the shyest and most modest boys I have ever met. He told me of his adventure with difidence and understatement. He seemed surprised at the thought that he had done anything unusual. Some weeks later I was at the smoking concert in the Sergeants’ Mess, and Ward was still as diffident and embarrassed. I suspected that he found praise, congratulations, flattery, a strain which tired him and made him wish he could become again plain Jimmy Ward, instead of Sergeant Ward, V.C.

Although I knew his father well—I worked with him for six years in New Zealand – I never got to know Jimmy well enough to ask why he

had volunteered to come those twelve thousand miles. Nor did I ask him his views on the war—why he was fighting or for what. If I had he would probably have indicated with embarrassment that he was not going to ‘ shoot a line ’ and changed the subject. But a remark he made in London on leave showed me how his mind worked. He was asked whether a man was found a ground job when he won the V.C., and

Jimmy Ward blushed pink.
“ I’ve never heard of anyone being grounded like that,” he said. “ I hope they don’t take me from the boys. I’d be a deserter.”

Like so many youngsters throughout the Empire, the war provided Jimmy with an opportunity to fly. He wanted to fly. Flying became his job. To fly, to find the target, to know that the bombs had found their mark, to get the kite back home, to pull his weight with the ‘ boys ’—that was his life until the war should end. On the war itself he undoubtedly thought as so many young New Zealanders think, though they rarely express themselves: that a man is not much of a man if he will not fight when necessary; that if his country is worth living in it is worth fighting for; that Hitler and his gangsters must be stopped and given a taste of their own medicine. Jimmy Ward was born in Wanganui, a town of thirty thousand people, and the Dominion’s fifth city. His parents came from Coventry, of which his father is a freeman. Although he lived in a country young in settlement but wealthy in achievement, England was more than a name to him. In common with many New Zealanders, he knew more of England than the average Englishman knows about the Dominion. His father and mother, staunch Baptists, fostered in him a strong sense of responsibility, of modesty, thoroughness, and duty.

His boyhood was not exceptional. He received a good education. He took naturally to sport, and he developed as a small boy a hobby for model aeroplanes. He saved his money to buy models. He carved air-screws and polished them, kneeling on the kitchen-floor. His tools were a pocket-knife and a razor. But his workmanship was skillful. He joined the Wanganui Model Aero Club. At Easter 1939 he flew his own model at an exhibition. It was accurate in detail even to a tiny sparking-plug.

He began to study to be a teacher. He went to the Teachers’ Training College at Wellington. One of his fellow-pupils was Edgar Kain, later Flying Officer “ Cobber ” Kain, D.F.C. Jimmy began his teaching career near Wanganui. For a period he taught children in a back-block district, deep in the country. He developed a liking for Maori music.

But model aeroplanes and flying occupied most of his leisure thoughts, and early in 1939 he applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He was down with pneumonia, the sequel to a chill contracted while giving swimming lessons, when the summons arrived to report for medical examination.

Jimmy Ward flew for the first time when he began his training at Levin. After completing his course at Dunedin and Wigram he sailed from the Dominion in February 1941. It was in July that he won the V.C. He died in September.

His letters home during that brief period were modest and discreet. He never even referred to the types of aircraft he was flying——they were all kites. One letter was written during a rest period on a training flight.

He Wrote :
“I am flat on my back, but if I look up I can see the Scottish coast on the port beam. Writing in one of these kites is like writing in a noisy room. They are so big that they sit like rocks in the air, and it has to be very rough before they move an inch off course . . . I’ve got my helmet on, and it is plugged into the telephone inter-communication in the kite, and occasionally there are really funny wisecracks from the gunners—they are Canadians—to the pilot or navigator.”

He was charmed by the Scots, but of the Scottish climate, so different from sunny Wanganui, he wrote, ” Fog in the morning, sunshine for an hour, mist in the afternoon. Mother – oh mother – what a climate! ”

After training he was posted to the New Zealand Bomber Squadron. He was soon recognized as a good second pilot. He was on his sixth flight with Squadron Leader Widdowson when he crawled out on the wing. Later he made operational flights to Kiel, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Brest, Munster and Mannheim. He came to London on leave. He was féted and entertained. He was taken to Birmingham, where he made a short speech at a “ Women at War Work ” Exhibition. He was nervous, embarrassed, and as soon as he had spoken he hid himself behind a phalanx of officials. He was photographed many times. His portrait waspainted by Oswald Birley.

It was a full leave. 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 air-borne. 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 inter-communication. 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 tourch, 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, V.C.

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.”

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