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James Allen Ward

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James Allen Ward

A black and white photograph of a man in a flying suit standing in the cockpit of an aircraft
Sergeant James Allen Ward standing in the cockpit of his Vickers Wellington at Feltwell, Norfolk, July 1941
Born14 June 1919
Wanganui, New Zealand
Died15 September 1941 (aged 22)
over Hamburg, Germany
Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery Ohlsdorf, Hamburg
Allegiance New Zealand
Service/branch Royal New Zealand Air Force
Years of service1940–1941
RankSergeant Pilot
UnitNo. 75 Squadron
Battles/warsSecond World War
AwardsVictoria Cross (UK) ribbon.png Victoria Cross

James Allen Ward VC (14 June 1919 – 15 September 1941) was a New Zealand recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Born in Wanganui, Ward was a teacher when the Second World War began. He immediately volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force and after completing flight training in New Zealand, travelled to England. In mid-1941, he was posted to No. 75 Squadron, which operated Vickers Wellington bombers. He participated in his first few bombing missions as a co-pilot, during the last of which, on 7 July 1941, he earned the VC for his feat in climbing out onto the wing of his Wellington bomber to extinguish an engine fire caused by a night fighter attack. Ward was the first of three New Zealand airmen to be awarded the VC during the Second World War. He was killed two months later commanding his own Wellington on a bombing mission to Germany.

Early life[edit]

James Allen Ward was born on 14 June 1919 in Wanganui, New Zealand, to English immigrants, Percy and Ada Ward.[1] He was educated at Wanganui Technical College and after graduation, trained as a teacher in Wellington. Having qualified in 1939, he had just accepted a teaching position at Castlecliff School in Wanganui when the Second World War broke out. Ward immediately volunteered for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF).[2]

Second World War[edit]


Ward Personnel File (1939 - 1945)

Despite being quick to enlist in the RNZAF, Ward was not called up until 1 July 1940, when he reported to Levin for initial training. He then proceeded to No. 1 Elementary Flying Training School at RNZAF Taieri, followed by more advanced courses at Wigram Air Base in Christchurch. He was rated as a pilot of high average ability and of confident and reliable character.[2] During his period of flight training, one of his fellow classmates was Fraser Barron, who went on to become a notable bomber pilot during the war.[3]

Ward qualified as a pilot on 18 January 1941 and was promoted to sergeant shortly thereafter.[2] At the end of the month he departed for England aboard the troopship Aorangi, to commence service with the Royal Air Force (RAF).[4] On arrival, he was selected for training on heavy bombers and posted to 20 Bomber Operational Training Unit RAF, in Scotland. Upon completion of his courses at Lossiemouth in mid-1941, Ward was posted to No. 75 Squadron. According to Hugh Kimpton, a fellow New Zealander at Lossiemouth, only one place was available at the squadron at the time. Ward was selected as a result of winning a coin toss between Kimpton and him.[3]

Service with No. 75 Squadron[edit]

No. 75 Squadron was an RAF unit formed around a core of RNZAF flying personnel present in England prior to the outbreak of the Second World War to take delivery of 30 Vickers Wellington bombers purchased by the New Zealand government. These personnel had set up a unit at Marham, in Norfolk, to prepare for the transportation of the Wellingtons back to New Zealand. However, once hostilities commenced, with the permission of the New Zealand government, the fliers were transferred to the Royal Air Force. Shortly afterwards, it was arranged for the RNZAF personnel to form the cadre of 75 Squadron, the first Commonwealth squadron of Bomber Command.[5] At the time of Ward's arrival at 75 Squadron, it was based at the Royal Air Force's base at Feltwell in Norfolk, and operating Wellington bombers.[5] His first operational flight was made on 14 June, as a second pilot to Squadron Leader Reuben Widdowson, a Canadian, on a bombing mission to Düsseldorf in Germany. Over the next few weeks, he flew six more bombing missions accompanying Widdowson.[2][6]

a black and white photograph of a portion of the fuselage and wing of an aircraft with holes that served as foot and hand holds
The Wellington in which Ward flew on operations on 7 July 1941. Shown are the holes Ward made to help him climb across the wing in order to put out a fire caused by a night fighter attack

The sixth and final mission Ward flew with Widdowson took place on 7 July; a raid on Münster. On the return flight, while over the Zuider Zee on the Dutch coast, Ward's Wellington was attacked by a German Bf 110 night fighter. The attack opened a fuel tank in the starboard wing, and caused a fire around the rear of the starboard engine. After initial attempts to put out the flames using fire extinguishers directed through a hole made in the fuselage of the Wellington failed, Widdowson ordered the crew to bail out. However, Ward proposed that he climb out and try and smother the fire using an engine cover. He crawled out through the astrodome on the top of the fuselage, secured by a rope. Making his way down the side and along the wing of the aircraft, he kicked or tore holes in the fuselage's covering fabric with a fire axe to give himself hand-and foot-holes.[2][6][7][8]

He soon reached the engine and attempted to smother the flames with a canvas cover. With the fire out, he stuffed the cover into the hole from which fuel from a petrol line, damaged in the night fighter attack, had leaked and exacerbated the fire. Ward, now exhausted, gingerly made his way back to the astrodome with the navigator, Sergeant Joe Lawson of the RNZAF, keeping tension on the rope tethered to Ward and assisting him back into the aircraft. Although the cover shortly blew away by the slipstream, the remnants of the fire had burnt itself out and the plane was now safe. Instead of the crew having to bail out, the aircraft made an emergency landing, without flaps or brakes, at Newmarket. The Wellington ran into a hedge and fence at the end of the runway and was written off.[2][6][7][8]

Ward described his experience out on the wing of the aircraft, exposed to the slipstream, as "...being in a terrific gale only worse than any gale I've ever known".[7] To recognise Ward's courage, the commander of 75 Squadron, Wing Commander C. Kay, recommended him for the Victoria Cross (VC).[2] Instituted in 1856, the VC was the highest gallantry award that could be bestowed on military personnel of the British Empire.[9] Kay also recommended Widdowson for the Distinguished Flying Cross and Sergeant Allan Box for the Distinguished Flying Medal. Box, a New Zealander, was the tail gunner of Ward's aircraft and had shot down the night fighter. The awards for Widdowson and Box were immediately approved while Ward's VC was announced on 5 August.[2]

The citation for Ward's VC was published in the London Gazette and read:

On the night of 7 July 1941, Sergeant Ward was second pilot of a Wellington bomber returning from an attack on Munster. While flying over the Zuider Zee at 13,000 feet his aircraft was attacked from beneath by a German Bf 110, which secured hits with cannon-shell and incendiary bullets. The rear gunner was wounded in the foot but delivered a burst of fire sending the enemy fighter down, apparently out of control. Fire then broke out in the Wellington's near-starboard engine and, fed by petrol from a split pipe, quickly gained an alarming hold and threatened to spread to the entire wing. The crew forced a hole in the fuselage and made strenuous efforts to reduce the fire with extinguishers, and even coffee from their flasks, without success. They were then warned to be ready to abandon the aircraft. As a last resort Sergeant Ward volunteered to make an attempt to smother the fire with an engine cover which happened to be in use as a cushion. At first he proposed discarding his parachute to reduce wind resistance, but was finally persuaded to take it. A rope from the aircraft dingy was tied to him, though this was of little help and might have become a danger had he been blown off the aircraft.

With the help of his navigator he then climbed through the narrow astrodome and put on his parachute. The bomber was flying at a reduced speed but the wind pressure must have been sufficient to render the operation one of extreme difficulty. Breaking the fabric to make hand and foot holds where necessary and also taking advantage of existing holes in the fabric, Sergeant Ward succeeded in descending three feet to the wing and proceeding another three feet to a position behind the engine, despite the slipstream from the airscrew which nearly blew him off the wing. Lying in this precarious position he smothered the fire in the wing fabric and tried to push the engine cover into the hole in the wing and on the leaking pipe from which the fire came. As soon as he had removed his hand, however, a terrific wind blew the cover out and when he tried again it was lost. Tired as he was, he was able, with the navigator's assistance, to make a successful but perilous journey back into the aircraft. There was now no danger of fire spreading from the petrol pipe as there was no fabric left near it and in due course it burned itself out. When the aircraft was nearly home, some petrol which had collected in the wing blazed up furiously but died down quite suddenly. A safe landing was made despite the damage sustained to the aircraft. The flight home had been made possible by the gallantry of Sergeant Ward in extinguishing the fire on the wing in circumstances of the greatest difficulty and at the risk of his life.

— The London Gazette, No. 35238, 5 August 1941[10]

Ward's VC was the first of three that would be made to New Zealand airmen during the course of the war;[11] the others were Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, a bomber pilot,[12] and Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg, a pilot with Coastal Command.[13] According to Clifton Fadiman, a compiler of anecdotes, Ward was summoned to 10 Downing Street soon after the announcement of his VC, by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The New Zealander was apparently awestruck by the experience and was unable to answer the Prime Minister's questions. Churchill regarded Ward with some compassion. "You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence," he said. "Yes, sir," managed Ward. "Then you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours," said Churchill.[14]

After his flight of 7 July, Ward was given command of his own crew and aircraft. He flew his first mission as commander to Brest without incident. On his second mission, a raid on Hamburg carried out on 15 September, his Wellington encountered a night fighter shortly after releasing its bombs. Set on fire by the attacking night fighter, Ward ordered his crew to bail out and held his aircraft steady enough for two of his crew to do so; they subsequently became prisoners of war. When the Wellington crashed near Hamburg, the remaining crew and Ward were still on board. It was initially reported that the Wellington had been hit and destroyed by flak. It was not until the two surviving crew members were released from their prisoner of war camp was it determined that a night fighter was involved in the destruction of Ward's aircraft.[2][15]

A colour photograph of several grave headstones, with Ward's in the middle of the image
Ward's grave in Hamburg, Germany

Unbeknown to Ward, an official at the Air Ministry had suggested to the New Zealand government that he be returned to New Zealand. It was appreciated that Ward's profile as a result of the VC award would be useful for propaganda and recruitment purposes. He could also have served as an instructor with one of the home-based RNZAF squadrons. On 15 September 1941, the day of Ward's death, Group Captain Hugh Saunders, the Chief of Air Staff of the RNZAF, approved the proposal to return him to New Zealand.[16]

Ward's body was recovered from the wreckage of his aircraft and buried by the Germans in a civilian cemetery.[2] Initially reported in the United Kingdom and New Zealand as missing, presumed dead, at one stage Ward was believed to be a prisoner of war in Germany.[17] Confirmation of his death was officially reported in August 1942 by the International Red Cross.[18] After the war and following official identification, his remains were reinterred in the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery Ohlsdorf in Hamburg.[2][19]

Victoria Cross and legacy[edit]

Ward's VC was presented to his parents by the Governor General of New Zealand at Government House in Wellington on 16 October 1942.[20] The Ward family loaned Ward's VC and other service medals to the RNZAF for several years until 2006, when they were returned. The medals were subsequently lent to the Auckland War Memorial Museum for display.[2][21]

There are a number of memorials to Ward, one being a painting by Peter McIntyre, entitled Memorial to Sergeant James Allen Ward, V.C. and depicting Ward's feat, hangs at the Sarjeant Gallery in Ward's hometown of Wanganui.[22] There is also a plaque honouring him in Queen's Gardens in Dunedin.[1] In November 2004, the Wellington College of Education, in preparation for merging with Victoria University, renamed one of its halls in honour of Ward.[23] On 14 May 2011, the community centre at Feltwell, where Ward had flown from during the Second World War, was dedicated in his honour. It had served as a sergeant's mess hall during the Second World War.[24]


  1. ^ a b "Cenotaph Record: James Allen Ward". Online Cenotaph. Auckland Museum. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Harper & Richardson 2007, pp. 283–287.
  3. ^ a b Lambert 2007, pp. 124–125.
  4. ^ Lambert 2007, p. 200.
  5. ^ a b Thompson 1953, pp. 32–34.
  6. ^ a b c Franks 1991, pp. 41–43.
  7. ^ a b c Thompson 1953, pp. 197–198.
  8. ^ a b Lambert 2007, pp. 122–124.
  9. ^ O'Shea 2000, pp. 558–559.
  10. ^ "No. 35238". The London Gazette. 5 August 1941. p. 4515.
  11. ^ Harper & Richardson 2007, p. 282.
  12. ^ Harper & Richardson 2007, pp. 291–293.
  13. ^ Harper & Richardson 2007, pp. 296–297.
  14. ^ Fadiman 1985, p. 122.
  15. ^ Lambert 2007, p. 121.
  16. ^ Lambert 2007, p. 120.
  17. ^ "V.C. May Be Safe". New Zealand Herald. 78 (24107). 28 October 1941. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  18. ^ "Sgt. Ward, V.C., Buried in Hamburg". Northern Advocate. 27 August 1942. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  19. ^ "Ward, James Allen". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  20. ^ "Parents Receive V.C." Northern Advocate (16 October 1942). Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  21. ^ "James A Ward VC". The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria & George Cross. Retrieved 16 February 2020.
  22. ^ "Memorial to Sergeant James Allen Ward, V.C." Serjeant Gallery. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  23. ^ "Buildings Named in Honour of Former Principals" (PDF). Victoria University of Wellington Public Affairs. 16 November 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 5 January 2020.
  24. ^ Saffell, Steven N. "RAF Feltwell Community Activity Center Renamed After WWII Hero". Royal Air Force Lakenheath. United States Air Force. Retrieved 3 January 2020.


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