Flying VCs

James Allan Ward

There were 182 VCs awarded in the Second World War. For each one a certain amount of time passed between the commission of the act and the official gazetting of the award. This `lag-time’ between act and gazette date varied from as low as eight days to as high as 2084 days. The median average of lag-time was 90 days. Eighty-six (47.7 percent) had a lag-time between 60 and 120 days. One hundred and thirty of the awards (72 percent) were gazetted between 30 and 150 days after the act. Of the medals that fall outside this majority, only 13 Crosses (7.2 percent) were published in less than 30 days. Thirty-seven VCs (20.5 percent) were granted following a lag-time of more than 150 days.

These long lag-times for the latter category can be explained in a variety of ways. In some cases the individual was either killed or taken prisoner, as were the witnesses to the act. In such cases the recommendation could not be made until the release of the eyewitnesses at the end of the war. Thus the heroism of Honorary Captain John Weir Foote, Canadian Chaplain’s Service during the raid on Dieppe, 19 August 1942, was not gazetted until 14 February 1946:

Captain Foote coolly and calmly during the eight hours of the battle walked about collecting the wounded, saving many lives by his gallant efforts and inspiring those around him by his example. At the end of this gruelling time he climbed from the landing craft that was to have taken him to safety and deliberately walked into the German position in order to be taken prisoner so that he could be a help to those men who would be held in captivity until the end of the war.

Not until the release of POWs at the end of the war could the true intentions of his actions be determined from the accounts of the men he accompanied into captivity.

In some instances the recommendation might be held up by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Such was the situation for Lieutenant Cairns, the officer who had disarmed a sword-wielding Japanese officer in March 1944. His recommendation was in the dispatch pouch accompanying General Orde Wingate when he died in an air crash. Consequently, the particulars of the recommendation were not obtained until well after the end of the war; Cairns was not gazetted until 20 May 1949, the last of the Second World War’s awards.

The quick vetting of some of the recommendations cannot be attributed to some force of fate or enemy action. Speeding the wheels of bureaucratic entropy required pressure from above. Thirteen Crosses were gazetted in under 30 days. For some reason these awards were hurried through an adjudication process that was normally slow and deliberate.

Seven of those 13 went for air operations; six of those seven were generated by Bomber Command. Five of those six went to missions against high-profile targets. Flight Lieutenant Roderick A. B. Learoyd bombed the Dortmund-Ems Canal, one of the highest- priority targets mentioned in Harris’s memoirs, and in the process demonstrated Bomber Command’s proficiency in precision bombing. Nettleton’s raid on Augsburg was the trial by fire for unescorted bombers. Likewise was the daring daylight raid on the port of Bremen, led by Wing Commander Hughie I. Edwards on 4 July 1941.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson got a Cross for dam-busting. The large dams at Mohne, Sorpe and Eder were tempting targets. As `Mutt and Jeff’ [Captain `Mutt’ Summers and `Jeff’ – Barnes Wallis, the creator of the dambuster bomb] explained in Gibson’s initial briefing, these dams supplied water for drinking and industrial uses and generated electrical power for a large portion of the heavily industrialized Ruhr River Valley. Not only would their destruction reduce the Reich’s power production and industrial output, but the flood damage resulting from their sudden rupture had the potential to do `more damage to everything than has ever happened in this war.’Massive destruction of enemy production, power generation, and civilian workforce from a single air strike would vindicate Harris’s position on the effectiveness of strategic bombing.

Bomber Command’s salvation of England in destroying the invasion barges won a VC for Sergeant John Hannah, whose efforts to extinguish a fire aboard his aircraft allowed the pilot to bring the crippled aircraft to a safe landing. Harris saw these barges as a distinct threat to British security, but `the War Office seems to have lacked appreciation of how they could be used to put troops across the Channel or of the enormous number of them available.’ The gun is not smoking, but the barrel is warm and there is a scent of cordite in the air. It appears the RAF was using the VC to validate the high command’s doctrine.

This having been said, it is necessary to point out that the political steering of the types of heroism granted official recognition does not detract from the heroism displayed by the winners. Each of the `quick’ RAF winners displayed extreme valour and courage. In some instances, such as with the sixth of the quick winners, it was nothing less than phenomenal:

The sergeant [James Allen Ward, Royal New Zealand AF] crawled out through a narrow astro-hatch, scrambled onto the back of the starboard engine which was alight, and smothered the flames with an engine cover. His crawl back over the wing in which he had previously torn hand and foot-holes, was more dangerous than the outward journey, but he managed it with the help of the aircraft’s navigator. The bomber was eventually landed safely.

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. 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 to the wing from where he was eventually able to extinguish the burning wing-fabric.

Unfortunately, Ward did not live to receive the Cross he won the night of 7 July 1941. He died in a raid on Hamburg ten weeks later, before the official award ceremony.