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Firefighting in the Air – In Sgt James Ward VC’s Words

Photo: Aircrew from 75 Sqn in front of a Wellington Mk.I. (HMP)

 

During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. We present one of these narratives, an account selected from over 280 broadcasts which were, at the time, given anonymously. One of those men was Sgt James Ward VC.

On the night of 7/8 July 1941, Bomber Command despatched aircraft against four German cities, one of which was Münster. The force for this target consisted of 49 Vickers Wellingtons from No.3 Group. The crew of one of these Wellingtons, from 75 Squadron, was a mix of nationalities. The skipper, Squadron Leader R.P. Widdowson was a Canadian; Sergeant James Allen Ward, the second pilot, was from New Zealand, as was the navigator, Sergeant L.A. Lawson and the rear gunner, A.J.R. Box. It was a Welshman, T. Evans, who manned the front turret and the wireless operator, Sergeant W. Mason, was an Englishman from Lincolnshire.

James Ward VC  in the cockpit of L7818. After the Münster raid, he was given his own aircraft and he flew three more missions over Germany. (IWM)

For the raid on Münster, Widdowson had been allocated a new aircraft, L7818, coded AA-R. He took off from RAF Feltwell in Norfolk at 23:10. The raid was a success, after which Widdowson’s return flight took him across Holland. Jimmy Ward revealed what happened next in a broadcast he made for the BBC:

“We dropped our bombs right in the target area and then made a circuit of the town to see what was going on before the pilot set course for home. As second pilot I was in the astrodome keeping a look-out all round. All of a sudden, over the middle of the Zuider Zee, I saw an enemy machine coming in from port. I called up the pilot to tell him, but our intercom had gone ‘phut’. A few seconds later, before anything could be done about it, there was a slamming alongside us and chunks of red-hot shrapnel were shooting about all over the place.

“As soon as we were attacked, the squadron leader who was flying the ’plane put the nose down to try and dive clear. At that time we didn’t know that the rear gunner had got the attacking ’plane, a Messerschmitt 110, because the intercom was still out of action. [NB: Despite Rear Gunner Box’s claims, no BF 110s were lost that night – though two returned with severe damage.]

“We’d been pretty badly damaged in the attack. The starboard engine had been hit and the hydraulic system had been put out of action, with the result that the undercarriage fell half down, which meant, of course, that it would be useless for landing unless we could get it right down and locked. The bomb doors fell open too, the wireless sets were not working, and the front gunner was wounded in the foot. Worst of all, fire was burning up through the upper surface of the starboard wing where a petrol feed pipe had been split open. We all thought we’d have to bale out, so we put on our parachutes.

“Some of us got going with the fire extinguisher, bursting a hole in the side of the fuselage so that we could get at the wing, but the fire was too far out along the wing for that to be any good. Then we tried throwing coffee from our flasks at it, but that didn’t work either. It might have damped the fabric round the fire, but it didn’t put the fire out.

Being the First New Zealander to be awarded the VC in the Second World War, Ward (third left) received much press attention, being filmed with the rest of his crew. (Critical Past)

“By this time we had reached the Dutch coast and were flying along parallel with it, waiting to see how the fire was going to develop. The squadron leader said, ‘What does it look like to you?’ I told him the fire didn’t seem to be gaining at all and that it seemed to be quite steady. He said: ‘I think we’d prefer a night in the dinghy in the North Sea to ending up in a German prison camp.’ With that he turned out seawards and headed for England.

“I had a good look at the fire and I thought there was a sporting chance of reaching it by getting out through the astrodome, then down the side of the fuselage and out on to the wing. Joe, the navigator, said he thought it was crazy. There was a rope there; just the normal length of rope attached to the rubber dinghy to stop it drifting away from the aircraft when it’s released on the water.

“We tied that round my chest, and I climbed up through the astrodome. I still had my parachute on. I wanted to take it off because I thought it would get in the way, but they wouldn’t let me. I sat on the edge of the astrodome for a bit with my legs still inside, working out how I was going to do it. Then I reached out with one foot and kicked a hole in the fabric so that I could get my foot into the framework of the ’plane, and then I punched another hole through the fabric in front of me to get a hand-hold, after which I made further holes and went down the side of the fuselage on to the wing. Joe was holding on to the rope so that I wouldn’t sort of drop straight off.

“I went out three or four feet along the wing. The fire was burning up through the wing rather like a big gas jet, and it was blowing back just past my shoulder. I had only one hand to work with getting out, because I was holding on with the other to the cockpit cover. I never realised before how bulky a cockpit cover was. The wind kept catching it and several times nearly blew it away and me with it. I kept bunching it under my arm. Then out it would blow again.

Sergeant Ward speaking to the press at RAF Feltwell. Note the VC medal ribbon on his tunic. (Critical Past)

“All the time, of course, I was lying as flat as I could, but I couldn’t get right down because of the parachute on my chest. The wind kept lifting me off the wing. Once it slapped me back on to the fuselage again, but I managed to hang on. The slipstream made things worse. It was like being in a terrific gale, only much worse than any gale I’ve ever known.

“I can’t explain it, but there was no sort of real sensation of danger out there at all. It was just a matter of doing one thing after another and that’s about all there was to it.

“I tried stuffing the cockpit cover down through the hole in the wing on to the pipe where the fire was starting from, but as soon as I took my hand away the terrific draught blew it out again and finally it blew away altogether. The rear gunner told me afterwards that he saw it go sailing past his turret. I just couldn’t hold on to it any longer.

“After that there was nothing to do but to get back again. I worked my way back along the wing, and managed to haul myself up on to the top of the fuselage and got to sitting on the edge of the astrodome again. Joe kept the dinghy rope taut all the time, and that helped. By the time I got back I was absolutely done in. I got partly back into the astrohatch, but I just couldn’t get my right foot inside. I just sort of sat there looking at it until Joe reached out and pulled it in for me. After that, when I got inside, I just fell straight on to the bunk and stayed there for a time…

“Just when we were within reach of the English coast the fire on the wing suddenly blazed up again. What had happened was that some petrol which had formed a pool inside the lower surface of the wing had caught fire. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is pretty hard after having got as far as this.’ However, after this final flare-up the fire died right out – much to our relief, I can tell you.

The damage caused to Ward’s Wellington. Cannon shells struck the starboard wing (A), causing a fire from a fractured fuel line. Efforts to douse the flames failed, and Sgt Ward climbed out the astro-hatch (B). With a rope around his waist, he made hand and foot-holds (1, 2 and 3) and moved out. (IWM)

“The trouble now was to get down. We pumped the wheels down with the emergency gear and the pilot decided that, instead of going to our own base, he’d try to land at another aerodrome nearby which had a far greater landing space. As we circled before landing he called up the control and said, ‘We’ve been badly shot up. I hope we shan’t mess up your flare-path too badly when we land.’

“He put the aircraft down beautifully, but we ended up running into a barbed-wire entanglement. Fortunately nobody was hurt, and that was the end of the trip.”

The award of the Victoria Cross to Sergeant Ward was announced by the Air Ministry in The London Gazette of 5 August 1941. For their part, Widdowson received the DFC and the wounded Box was awarded a DFM.

On 15 September 1941, Ward’s Wellington was one of 12 bombers from 75 Squadron detailed to attack Hamburg, but Ward’s ’plane was hit by AA fire and set ablaze. Two crew members baled out, the other four, including Ward, were killed. Sergeant James Allen Ward VC was buried in Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg.

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