Valor Friday

| July 30, 2021

Today’s subject comes by way of a request. The story might seem vaguely familiar to those who regularly read my weekly articles. As incredible (and true) as today’s story is, another man did something very similar nearly three years later. 

James Allan Ward

James Allen Ward is a New Zealander who was working as a teacher at Castlecliff School in Wanganui when the 20 year old volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) immediately after World War II began. Though he volunteered in 1939, he wasn’t called up for duty until 1 July 1940.

Ward was trained as an enlisted pilot in New Zealand, earning his wings by January 1941. At the end of that month he was on a troopship headed to England where he was to be seconded to the British Royal Air Force (RAF).

Once in England, Ward, by now promoted to sergeant, was selected for heavy bomber training. Sent to Scotland for specialized bomber training he was assigned to No. 75 Squadron. No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF’s lineage dates to a fighter squadron of the First World War that didn’t see action. No. 75 was again reconstituted in the run up to World War II in 1937.

Vickers Wellington Bombers

By the time Ward was assigned to No. 75 it was made up largely of Kiwis and they flew the Vickers Wellington. The Wellington was a pre-war twin-engine long-range medium bomber. It became a principle aircraft of Bomber Command and more than 11,000 would be built during the war (of which, sadly, only two remain – neither airworthy). To an American audience, the Wellington would be most comparable to the B-25 Mitchell, and you might recognize it as one of the aircraft featured in the 1955 film The Dam Busters.

Wellington’s Geodesic Structure

The Wellington bomber was unique in design. It featured a superstructure made of geodesic shapes, which allowed the aircraft to be both very strong and lighter than traditional methods. On top of the frame (which looks not at all unlike a Zeppelin’s internal framework) was the skin of the aircraft, made of doped fabric.

As a newly assigned pilot, and an enlisted one at that (called “Other Ranks” in British parlance), Ward served as second-seat pilot on the Wellingtons he flew. He flew as co-pilot to Squadron Leader Reuben Widdowson (a Canadian). Ward accompanied Widdowson on 14 June 1941, in what would be Ward’s first combat mission.

Over the next few weeks, Ward and Widdowson would fly a total of six missions. The sixth mission on 7 July 1941 would see the men bomb Munster, Germany. On the return leg of the trip, as they were flying off the Dutch coast, the bomber crew was taken targeted by a German Bf-110 night fighter.

The Nazi fighter was equipped with two 20mm cannons and four forward-mounted 7.92mm machine guns, each with 1,000 rounds. It opened fire on the bomber, ripping into the plane’s starboard wing, rupturing the fuel tank. The ruptured tank caused a large fire at the tail end of the starboard engine.
Meanwhile, the tail gunner, Sergeant Allan Box, though wounded in the foot, was able to shoot down the Bf-110. The men then turned their attention to surviving the rest of the flight.

The crew grabbed a fire extinguisher and shot at the flames through a hole they punched in the fabric skin of the plane. They even used coffee from their flasks to attempt to put out the blaze. When this was unsuccessful, plane commander Squadron Leader Widdowson ordered the men to abandon ship and bail.

Ward however offered an alternative. Bailing into the North Sea, even in summer, was most likely a death sentence for the crew, so he volunteered to go out on the wing and attempt to smother the flames. To save weight, he wanted to leave his parachute behind, but was persuaded out of this.

Ward crawled out of the astrodome on the top of the aircraft’s fuselage at 13,000 feet altitude. This is a glass bubble that protrudes from the top of the airplane to facilitate navigation by the stars. Before stepping out, Ward tied the rope from their rescue raft around his waist. The plane’s navigator, Sergeant Joe Lawson held the line taut as Ward moved out.

Ward muscled through the 100 mile per hour plus slipstream, punching holes in the doped fabric skin of the plane to use as hand and toe holds. Descending three feet, he was out on the wing, Ward reached the fire by crawling another three feet. Using a fabric engine cover he’d brought from inside the craft, he was able to snuff out the fire. He then stuffed the engine cover into the hole in the wing from which the fuel was spraying, feeding the fire.

Exhausted, but the plane and men now given their best chance of survival, Ward slowly fought his way back to the fuselage, up the side of the aircraft, and back inside through the astrodome. He described the buffeting wind of the slipstream as “being in a terrific gale only worse than any gale I’ve ever known.”

Ward’s actions saved both the plane and crew. They were able to effect an emergency landing, without flaps or brakes. They crashed into a hedge at the end of the runway and the aircraft was ultimately written off, but all the men survived unscathed. His feat of heroism earned him the nickname “The Wellington Wing-walker”

Close-up of the damage caused to Vickers Wellington Mark IC, L7818 ‘AA-V’, of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF, at Feltwell, Norfolk, after returning from an attack on Munster, Germany, on the night of 7/8 July 1941. While over the Zuider Zee, cannon shells from an attacking Messerschmitt Me 110 struck the starboard wing (A), causing a fire from a fractured fuel line which threatened to spread to the whole wing. Efforts by the crew to douse the flames failed, and Sergeant James Allen Ward, the second pilot, volunteered to tackle the fire by climbing out onto the wing via the astro-hatch (B). With a dinghy-rope tied around his waist, he made hand and foot-holds in the fuselage and wings (1, 2 and 3) and moved out across the wing from where he was eventually able to extinguish the burning wing-fabric.

Ward’s squadron commander immediately recommended him for the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in action for the British Commonwealth. He also recommended Widdowson for the Distinguished Flying Cross and Box for the Distinguished Flying Medal (the Other Ranks-equivalent of the DFC), with both of these awards analogous to a US Distinguished Flying Cross.

Victoria Cross

Ward’s Victoria Cross was gazetted not even a month later on 5 August. Shortly after the award was announced, the 22 year old sergeant was summoned to 10 Downing Street (the British equivalent of the White House) to speak with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

On this visit, Ward, who just two years earlier was a new school teacher in the small New Zealand town of Wanganui, was apparently quite awestruck at the whole ordeal. He is said to have been rendered speechless before the man in charge of the British war effort. Churchill, always witty and erudite, noticed and said, “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence.” Ward managed a “Yes, sir.” To which Churchill said, “Then you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours.”

Given some leave, Ward spent time in London with a fellow Kiwi who was a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Hector Bolitho, the New Zealander he was with, said that Ward fainted after some lighter fluid was spilled on his hand and set afire while at dinner one night. The doctor treated Ward’s wound, which was minor, and allegedly gave him a note to hand to his commander at No. 75. Bolitho claims the note was informing Ward’s command that he was no longer fit to fly, but the note was never turned in.

On his return to duty at No 75 Squadron, Ward was given command of his own aircraft and crew. On his second mission flying on a bomb run over Hamburg, disaster struck again. Another night fighter took Ward’s plane into its sights. Gunned down the aircraft was doomed.

Ward ordered his crew to bail and remained at the controls long enough to steady the plane for two men to do so. They would survive but become prisoners of war. Ward and three of his men were still aboard when the plane crashed on the night of 15 September 1941.

On the day of his death, the chief of staff of the RZNAF approved a proposal to return Ward to New Zealand for propaganda and recruiting efforts. This plan had been in motion for some time, but Ward was unaware of any of it.

Memorial to Sergeant James Allen Ward, V.C.
Peter McIntyre, Artist

Among the many memorials to Sergeant Ward is this painting titled Memorial to Sergeant James Allen Ward, V.C. by Peter McIntyre. It’s on display at the Sarjeant Gallery in Ward’s hometown of Wanganui.

Ward would join a very short list of New Zealand recipients of the Victoria Cross. There have been 22 Crosses awarded to 21 individuals. Nine Crosses were awarded to eight New Zealand military men during World War II (the sole double-recipient, Major Charles Upham, was in this group and we discussed him here). Since World War II there were no recipients for the Korean or Vietnam Wars. There is now a New Zealand-specific Victoria Cross, which has only been awarded once, for action in Afghanistan by a member of the New Zealand Special Air Service.

Category: Air Force, Historical, Kiwis, UK and Commonwealth Awards, Valor, We Remember

Comments (7)

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  1. KoB says:

    Bet the pilot played hell keeping that aircraft in trim with the additional weight of those Big Brass Ones clanking across that wing to put out the fire.

    “…not greater Love…” BZ Sgt Ward. SALUTE!

    Thanks Mason. Another great story of a true Hero!

  2. The Other Whitey says:

    Bomber crews were a special kind of ballsy. I’ve read about many harrowing emergencies on American, British, and Commonwealth multi-engine bombers where the courage exhibited by the men on the plane was just staggering. Sergeant Ward stands in good company.

    Something that is often overlooked is the fact that the RAF’s night bombing campaign really wasn’t any safer for the crews than the USAAF’s daylight missions. RAF Bomber Command took horrific losses. Whatever advantages they supposedly gained by flying in the dark were offset by the substantially-lower altitude ceiling of British bombers putting them in reach of pretty much anything and everything the Germans had (B-24s and especially B-17s could stay above some of the flak—though heavier German guns could still reach them), as well as their weaker defensive armament. Where American bombers flew in a Combat Box formation that allowed mutual support between each plane in formation, RAF bombers instead flew in a “stream” where each plane was on its own, and thus had no protection beyond its own guns, which, as previously mentioned, were smaller and less numerous than those of their American counterparts.

    The men who flew Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes, and Lancasters were some of the bravest who ever achieved powered flight.

    • Mason says:

      Somebody posted this in another thread a few weeks back. Reposting if you haven’t seen it. Andy Rooney discussing the difference between life in the sky and life as a dogface.

  3. Hatchet says:

    …that such Men lived! Absolutely redefines both the references of ‘Wing-walker’ and ‘Nerves of Steel’. Thank you for posting this Mason.

  4. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!
    Thanks again, Mason.

  5. Sparks says:

    That such men lived.

    Thanks for this memorial account of a true hero Mason.

  6. Berliner says:

    A good read. Thanks to you for sharing and to James Allen Ward for his service.