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Out on the wing to fight a fire
7 July 1941: James Ward awarded VC after climbing out of his aircraft mid air
New Zealander Sergeant James Ward provided a dramatic account of his flight home from a bombing operation over Germany on the 7th July.
It was on one of the Munster raids that it happened. It had been one of those trips that you dream about—hardly any opposition over the target; just a few searchlights but very little flak—and that night at Munster I saw more fires than I had ever seen before. 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 astro-dome 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 inter-com. 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 inter-com. was still out of action and we couldn't talk to the rear turret.
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.’
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. 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 astro-dome, 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 astro-dome 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.’
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.
All the time, of course, I was lying as flat as I could on the wing, but I couldn't get right down close because of the parachute in front of me 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 from the engine made things worse. It was like being in a terrific gale, only much worse than any gale I've ever known in my life.
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 astro-dome again.
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 astro-dome 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 astro-hatch, 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 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 by running into a barbed-wire entanglement. Fortunately nobody was hurt though, and that was the end of the trip.
Sergeant James Allan Ward V.C. died on the 15th September 1941 when the aircraft he was commanding was shot down during a raid on Hamburg. On the same day the Chief of Air Staff RNZAF had approved a proposal to return Ward to New Zealand, where it was felt he would play an important role in propaganda and recruitment. He would have been posted to flying training duties.