On a wing and a prayer: Amazing survial story of Norfolk’s adopted airman Jimmy Ward
PUBLISHED: 20:47 15 March 2020 | UPDATED: 21:13 15 March 2020
Air Force Museum of New Zealand
He was one of Norfolk’s greatest and most reticent heroes of the Second World War. Now a new book has shed fascinating fresh light on the myriad ordeals of Feltwell’s ‘man on the wing’, James Ward VC. Steve Snelling salutes a magnificent monument to modest courage
The packed hall was a fog of tobacco smoke and a raucous din of noise. It's safe to say the sergeants' mess at RAF Feltwell had never experienced a gathering like it.
At the back of the room, a mob of officers and sergeants clambered onto table-tops. With their arms draped around one another like some disreputable chorus line, they began a chant that was quickly taken up by everyone else who was there till it drowned out the squadron band.
'We want Jimmy Ward,' came the cry. 'We want Jimmy Ward! We want Jimmy Ward!'
And all the while the focus of their attention shuffled nervously beside a microphone, his bowed head and pale face a picture of awkwardness.
According to a journalist who was there, 'his sensitive mouth was twisted in an embarrassed smile as he looked at his feet… His thumbs were stuck in his trouser-pockets. Outside the pockets his fingers worked uneasily against his uniform…'
Nothing in his training as a bomber pilot had prepared him for anything like this. And it was only the beginning. In the days and weeks that followed in that vanished summer nearly 80 years ago, RAF Bomber Command's newest recipient of the Victoria Cross and hero of one of the Second World War's most improbable death-defying feats of daring would become feted as the most celebrated airman in the country and a household name in his native New Zealand.
From the moment his award was announced in August 1941 and he was carried shoulder-high from Lakenheath railway station en route back to his base at Feltwell, the 22-year-old primary school teacher found himself public property: a propaganda pawn to be lauded on film, radio and in a myriad of squirmingly hagiographic newspaper reports.
For the naturally shy and self-effacing Kiwi it was a reluctant role, as unwelcome as it was uncomfortable, that shadowed a sadly short life touched by triumph and tragedy which is fully explored for the first time in a poignant new book.
Courage Aflame: Sergeant James Ward VC is a magnificent tribute both to the modest valour of its subject and the tireless dedication bordering on devotion of its author, retired New Zealand school teacher Bob Moore.
Based primarily on a rich treasure trove of family letters, the biography's publication represents the fulfilment of a prolonged mission of remembrance spanning more than 30 years and two 11,400 miles research trips to Norfolk in search of the truth behind the legend.
Its inspiration can be traced back to the early 1980s when Bob joined the staff of Wanganui Boys' College, where, in its previous guise as Wanganui Technical College, Jimmy Ward had been a pupil.
'Basically, on arrival,' he recalls, 'I found that, while the Assembly Hall had a designation re Jimmy, no pupils nor staff had any idea of the significance.'
Within a short while, Bob had established a display archive in the James Allen Ward VC Memorial Hall and the idea, born of a suggestion made by another distinguished New Zealand bomber pilot at the dedication ceremony, had taken root to develop the research into a full biography.
As Bob put it, the quest flowed on in the manner of a 'conveyor belt' which 'had to have a conclusion'.
From the outset, he was supported in his endeavours by Jimmy's family who had always harboured hopes of his complete story being told. 'As far as they were concerned,' says Bob, 'he was the unknown New Zealand VC.'
Determined to rectify that, and to ensure that Jimmy's 'voice' would find belated recognition along with his actions, he delivered a first unpublished draft of his work to the family in 1987.
Since then more drafts, each one more extensive than the others, have followed, but hopes of his study of the Norfolk-based wartime aviator reaching a wider audience have been repeatedly dashed until, finally, after yet another publishing setback, he decided to go it alone.
The result is a compelling and, in places, forensic examination of a courageous life full of promise cut short by war that is part family history, part ripping yarn and part cautionary tale that benefited greatly from two 'illuminating' journeys to Feltwell in 2009 and 2012.
There, at the base from which Jimmy embarked on his most celebrated sortie and which now operates in a secret surveillance role for the United States Air Force, he was given rare access to the site of No 75 (NZ) Squadron's wartime home.
With the help and encouragement of USAF elementary school teacher Joe Koziar, former RAF corporal Dee Boneham and local farmer and aviation enthusiast Chris Cock, Bob and his wife Pat, who died two years after their last visit, was able to see for himself 'the vastness' of the pre-war station, with its hangars and open-air maintenance areas, which were key to helping him 'shape the story'.
And what a story it is.
From Jimmy's roots as an adventurous, caring and resourceful aircraft-mad boy growing up on New Zealand's North Island through his pneumonia-delayed pilot's training to his first operational posting to a 'frontline' bomber squadron at Feltwell in June 1941, his life was rarely free of incident.
The former record-breaking aero-modeller proved himself as adept at handling full-scale aircraft. Rated as 'above average' by a number of instructors, he was considered a keen and confident pupil with plenty of initiative.
Such comments would have come as little surprise to his family. During one of his last leaves before 'shipping out' to the UK, Jimmy was staying at his family's home when the chimney caught fire. In a strange augury of things to come, he wet some sacks, climbed onto the roof and, despite being half-frozen, 'succeeded in extinguishing the flames'.
The 'real' war was drawing ever closer. Following more training in Scotland - working-up on twin-engine Wellingtons which were a mainstay of Bomber Command operations - Jimmy, at last, achieved his ambition of joining a combat unit on the eve of his 22nd birthday.
His excitement was unbounded. 'On real stuff now,' he declared in a letter home to his parents. 'Corker station. No fussy rules and regs and really good spirit. Permanent drome and very nicely laid out grounds, well camouflaged. Looks like a collection of large houses from the air…'
The next day, June 16, 1941, he took off from Feltwell's expansive grass strip on his first mission at the beginning of what he hoped would be a seven-sortie apprenticeship as a second pilot before taking charge of his own crew.
The raid flown against Dusseldorf, though uneventful by the standards of what was to follow, was exhilarating enough for a fledgling aviator and prompted an enthusiastic letter full of youthful exuberance.
'As soon as you get near the target things begin to whoof and clatter and bang and sheets of flame seem to be all around you,' he wrote, 'but if you do the right things, everything goes OK.'
Billeted in a rectory in the nearby village of Hockwold, he fairly gushed about his 'beautiful' rural idyll. 'All the trees [were] in full leaf' and everything seemed to him 'very old, warm and comfortable', but, in truth, there was little time to enjoy it.
During a hectic 17 days that included six days of leave he clocked up no fewer than five missions before being briefed for his sixth sortie - one destined to make history but which, as Bob Moore's research reveals, very nearly did not get off the ground.
The target on the night of July 7/8, 1941 was the German city of Munster, an important rail hub, and his crew was a united nations outfit captained by Canadian pilot Squadron Leader Ben Widdowson and including two more New Zealanders as well as an Englishman and a Welshman.
An hour before midnight, they were all aboard their allotted bomber ready for take-off when a mechanical snag was detected. On some nights that might have meant standing down, but on this occasion, as luck or fate would have it, a stand-by aircraft was available.
Even then there was a further hitch. The pilot's seat aboard Wellington L7818 AA-R 'for Robert' had not been adjusted. In a spirit of 'make do and mend', a member of the ground crew hurriedly made a parcel out of an old engine cover and slipped it beneath Widdowson who responded with a thumbs-up.
The delay meant a lonely flight, 'well behind' the other nine Wellingtons representing Feltwell's contribution to the raid, but that apart the journey to Munster was incident-free as was the return trip until they neared the Dutch coast.
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Passing over the Zuider Zee, they suddenly came under attack from a German Messerschmitt 110. Jimmy, who was keeping watch from bomber's astrodrome, saw the night fighter coming in from the port side, but a faulty intercom meant his warning went unheard.
The consequences were potentially catastrophic. In a short and savage combat which reminded one crew member of a fireworks' display, the Wellington's rear gunner succeeded in hitting their assailant, sending it plunging earthwards wreathed in smoke, but not before it had wrought havoc of its own.
The damage to 'R for Robert' was grievous. The starboard engine had been hit, the wireless rendered useless and the aircraft's hydraulics wrecked, resulting in the undercarriage falling half-down and the bomb doors gaping open.
'Worst of all,' Jimmy later observed, 'a fire was burning up from the front surface of the starboard wing where a petrol feed-pipe had been split open.'
The natural instinct, and one that they considered, was to bail out, but instead, at the behest of their second pilot, they adopted an alternative approach to their parlous and perilous plight, one so outlandish, so well-nigh suicidal that at least one member of the crew considered it 'crazy'.
What followed is related in all its breathtaking drama through the letters written home by the aircraft's navigator Joe Lawton and the matter-of-fact description subsequently broadcast to the nation by Jimmy himself.
Having attempted in vain to douse the flames with fire extinguishers pushed through the fabric of the fuselage and the contents of the aircraft's lavatory and coffee flasks, Jimmy hatched an altogether more precarious plan to put out the fire.
'I thought,' he later explained, 'that there was a decent chance of reaching it by getting out through the astrodome, down the side of the fuselage and out onto the wing.'
Widdowson had asked Jimmy to 'see what he could about the fire', but never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined such a solution.
Lawton, too, was less than convinced, but was swayed by Jimmy's determination though he stopped short at letting him go out without his parachute as he had wanted.
Someone then hit upon the idea of fetching the cockpit cover Widdowson was using as a makeshift seat cushion to smother the flames while a rope normally used to tether the plane's dinghy was tied round Jimmy's chest.
Finally, with Lawton hanging on to one end of the rope 'like grim death', Jimmy clambered out into the icy blast of the bomber's near 100 mph slipstream.
In the manner of a mountaineer descending a sheer rock face, he kicked and punched foot and hand holds in the side of the fuselage to reach the wing.
'I went out about three or four feet along the wing,' he later stated, 'and the fire was burning up through the wing rather like a big gas jet and blowing back past my shoulder.'
How he clawed his way along was something miraculous. In order to keep hold of the cockpit cover, he had only one hand to work with and all the while he was having to battle a gale worse than anything he'd ever known.
'I never realised how bulky a cockpit cover could be,' he recorded. 'The wind kept catching it and several times nearly blew it away and me with it.'
His chest parachute was another handicap. It prevented him from flattening himself against the wing with the result that the wind kept lifting him up. 'Once,' he added, 'it slapped me right back against the fuselage but I managed to get a hold again and get back.'
Clinging on for dear life, he tried 'stuffing the cockpit cover down through the hole in the wing onto the pipe where the fire was'
Jimmy was all but exhausted , but managed to pull himself up onto the top of the fuselage with the help of Lawton who later reckoned he 'darned nigh pulled my arms out trying to haul him aboard again'.
As Jimmy 'flopped down', the fire still burned, albeit perhaps a little less fiercely, and it seemed to Lawton his superhuman efforts had all been for nothing.
But on that night fortune favoured the brave. Roughly an hour and a half after being set afire, the flames, which blazed worryingly once again, were seen to die back before going out altogether, probably, or so Lawton surmised, as a result of all the fuel in the pipe having been consumed.
Forging on across the North Sea, 'R for Robert', her load lightened by the ejection of almost'everything moveable', faced one last challenge - landing without the assistance of flaps or brakes!
To give themselves the best possible chance, Widdowson headed not for Feltwell but RAF Newmarket and what Lawton called 'the longest drome we knew'. The decision paid off, though even it took three miles and a barbed wire fence to bring the stricken bomber to a halt.
Against all the odds, they had made it back. Leaving their bomber to be photographed and eventually written off, they were ferried back to Feltwell for a well-earned sleep while the reports that would very quickly spark a media frenzy were prepared.
For Jimmy Ward an ordeal by fire and wind was about to give way to another ordeal at the hands of a relentless publicity-cum-propaganda machine.
The incredible story of Jimmy's 'wing walk' was already big news even before the anticipated and richly deserved award of a Victoria Cross sparked another avalanche of headlines, radio broadcasts and film news appearances.
As Bob Moore's research shows, the wearying summer-long series of press calls took a toll of the modest New Zealander whose reticence was such that he failed to even mention his exploit in his initial letters home.
By September Norfolk's most feted and photographed airman was feeling the strain to the extent that he confided to Lawton that 'all the fuss' had made him 'sorry he'd ever got the VC'.
Writing home from Feltwell on August 29, Jimmy referred to a recent press report as 'lots of baloney' and added: 'I spend a lot of time with sundry news hawks from home and the States… They give me a great time but anything I do or say is multiplied by 10 and called a story. It gets very annoying…'
In the same letter, he announced that he'd just received word of his investiture at Buckingham Palace which was scheduled for September 23.
Sadly, it was a date he would never keep.
Eight days before his appointment with the King he took off from Feltwell for his 11th mission and never returned. Coned by searchlights over Hamburg, Jimmy's Wellington was attacked by a night fighter and was quickly enveloped in flames.
As it dived earthwards two of the crew managed to bail out but there was no escape this time for the Kiwi who had cheated death on the wing of a burning bomber a little over two months earlier.
Nearly eight decades on, his memory lives on close to the Norfolk strip from where he took off on his most famous mission in the form of a small village museum and a base community centre which bears his name.
In time, Bob Moore would dearly love to see a permanent memorial in the form of a stone plaque prominently situated in the count from where he flew.
But for now at least his book, written in the hope of ensuring Jimmy's story 'might not be forgotten', serves as a 'living' monument to a life less ordinary rendered extraordinary by a single spectacular act of selfless valour.
Courage Aflame: Sergeant James Ward VC, by Bob Moore, is published by the author. Copies of the book are available via Dee Boneham email@example.com priced £30, plus £5 postage