Air Commodore James Coward
Air Commodore James Coward was shot down in a dogfight over the village
While he was living in Little Shelford, he lived at King's Farm in the High Street.
James was shot down in a dogfight over south Cambridgeshire when he lost a leg.
James, who had seen action over Dunkirk, was one of the more senior pilots on No.19 Squadron flying from Duxford.
Early on the morning of August 31, 1940, nine fighters were scrambled to intercept an incoming raid at around 7.30am, and James was leading his section at 22,000ft when they identified a formation of Dornier bombers escorted by a force of 60 fighters.
James dived on the bombers but his cannons jammed as he opened fire. As he pulled away, he felt a dull thud on his left leg and looked down to see his foot almost severed.
The controls of his Spitfire were damaged and he was forced to bail out. James decided to free-fall to a lower height but could not stand the pain as his foot twisted in the slipstream. He was also losing a great deal of blood, so he pulled the ripcord.
Fearing that he would bleed to death in the long descent, he took off his helmet and used the long radio lead to tie a tourniquet to arrest the bleeding. His spitfire crashed at Little Shelford.
“My wife was told about it by the milkman,” James recounted later. “Fortunately, the service doctor called in and told her I was all right and she arrived at the hospital before I recovered from the anaesthetic after the amputation."
He went on to spend 18 months on the personal staff of Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Chequers.
Excerpt from Last of the Few by compiled by Max Arthur.
"On 31st August the squadron was scrambled from Fowlmere - a satelite of Duxford - at about 7.30 am. There were only nine aircraft serviceable and we climbed to about 25,000ft in sections of three in loose line astern. Flight Lieutenant Clouston led the squadron, I led the second section and Flight Lieutenant Brinsden the third. About 10 miles east of Duxford, I sighted a large formation - fifteen Do 215s escorted by a reported sixty fighters. Clouston instructed Brinsden to climb and engage the fighters.
We attacked the bombers head-on. My foot was shot off when closing, causing no pain but just a dull thud, and I saw my bare foot on the floor of the cockpit, almost severed. The aircraft controls were damaged and the aircraft went out of control, bunting into a steep dive.
On baling out, my parachute got caught and I was forced back along the fuselage, my gloves being blown off. Itried to do a delayed drop from about 20,000 feet because I was losing blood very quickly, but was unable to stand the pain of the foot twisting in the slip-stream, so I pulled the ripcord. and put on a tournìquet using my helmet wireless lead.
I drifted across Duxford airfield at about 10,000 feet towards Royston, and I saw the squadron land. Eventually the Wind changed and I sailed back across Duxford and came down in a field near the roundabout at Whíttlesford, on the Royston/Newmarket Road where I was met by a youth of fifteen with a pihfork, who thought I was a German. When my language convinced him that I wasn’t, he Went off at high speed to find a doctor. Fortunately the first car he met contained a doctor and in about half an hour Was picked upby an RAF ambulance from Addenbrooke’s
Suffering no great pain.
My aircraft crashed just beyond my home village of Little Shelford and my wife was told about it by the milkman. Fortunately the service doctor called in and told her I was all right and she arrived at the hospital before I recovered from the anaesthetic after the amputation."
Born in 1915, James Coward joined the Royal Air Force in September 1936. In September 1937 he was posted to 19 Squadron at Duxford. During this time he lived at King’s Farm in Little Shelford. In August 1938 this squadron became the first unit to fly the Spitfire. During the Battle of Britain he was shot down over Duxford, and lost a leg. On leaving hospital, he was posted to Mr Churchill’s staff for 18 months. In October 1942 he went back on flying duties, as Chief Flying Instructor at the Fighter Operational Training Unit, and was later made Wing Commander Flying at the Meteor Advanced Flying Training School at Worksop. He was awarded the AFC for helping to demonstrate the dangers of inverted spinning on Meteors at the Central Flying School. After serving as Air Attache to Norway in 1946, he joined the British Liaison Staff in Canberra during 1960. Returning to the United Kingdom in October 1962, he became the Air Officer Commanding Air Cadets at Waltham, with responsibility for 53 Wings of Air Cadets. In May 1966 he took up the post of Defence Attache in Pretoria. Air Commodore Coward retired to Australia from South Africa in September 1969. In Canberra he built one of the first solar passive heated houses and turned a sheep paddock into a very productive organic garden on a ½-acre block.
From the book A Few Down Under
"Every weekend I spent at Chequers or Chartwell. On Monday morning when we went back to London, I got in my car and drove home. Until Friday I was living on leave. And, of course, every weekend was fascinating because not only was the food a lot more interesting than what we had in the messes, but we drank nothing but the very best Champagne, either from large bottles of Magnums, or Jereboams – the double-magnum! He always seemed to drink out of the big bottles.
"Churchill was very kind to me because, the first time, you can imagine, I was a bit anxious going into dinner. There were always about 18 people there on the weekends. He asked me to sit next to him and started off by asking – “how did you lose your leg?”. So I told him. He said “What were you flying?”. I said “A Spitfire Sir”. He said “What Mark!” I said, “It must have been Mark 1 I suppose. I hadn’t heard of any of the others. He was quite interesting. He knew all the production figures from all the German Factories.
"Well Churchill used to talk of people when he went round the factories. He used to talk to people and get such a lot of information. He knew a tremendous amount. And of course, he had a photographic memory. He was an amazing man really.`
" My own Battle of Britain experience was really short and sharp. I was shot down quite early on in the battle. My Squadron intercepted a base coming in at 22,000 feet and we’d just got to height in time and met them head on. And we did the most perfect attack. We were 12 Spitfires in vics of three line astern and the buggers coming towards us were 15 Dornier bombers, and also in sections of three, line astern. And I was leading the first section of Spitfires, so I bowled in behind the first section of bombers. I came on my turn and there was this bloody great Dornier sitting ahead of me, just coming into range. And I thought – when I pressed the firing button I’d have to watch out,
because we’d got the first Squadron with bore cannons fitted, as well as 8 machine guns.
With 4 cannons firing, things were going to blow up, so I’d have to be very quick at getting away, so I didn’t fly into the Blitz. And when I’d just come into range I pressed the firing button. Absolutely nothing happened. None of my Guns worked. And they were getting closer and closer. Pressing this firing button, hoping it was going to happen, and get ready for a quick break. And suddenly I felt hard kick on the shin. I had a quick glance to see what it was and I was astonished to see my bare foot sitting on the floor of the cockpit. Still held on my some ligaments and things, but it was completely severed otherwise. And the aeroplane had come out of control, and I had to bail out.
When my parachute opened, I was swinging in a huge figure 8, at about 20,000 feet, or something of that sort, and then I thought “I’ve got to do something quickly!” because the blood was popping out of my leg at a great rate. Well I had my helmet on still, with a radio chord attached, so I put the radio chord round my thigh, gave it a 2 and a half hitch and tightened it, and that stopped the bleeding more or less.
I was swinging in this huge figure eight, alone in the sky. There wasn’t a sound or a sight of an aeroplane anywhere. I had the most marvellous view of Cambridge. You could see around 100 miles in every direction. But I just had to wait. I just sailed down very slowly under this parachute and as I got down to about 12,000 feet, a couple of Spitfires circled me, and went on to Duxford, I suppose having figured out who it was. And after about 20 minutes I came down with a great thump in a field, where some young lads were helping to strip corn. In those days there were still horse-drawn farming machines – they had to strip the corn from the cod and come and pick it up later.
And I was pulling the parachute up off my legs, because it was all tangled, when I was shocked by somebody rushing towards me. And there was a young fellow, I suppose he was about 16 or so, who had a pitchfork in his hand. And he was rushing at me with a pitchfork at a charge. And it made me absolutely furious. I’d gone to all that trouble trying to get down in one piece, and then that silly ass had to come and stick a pitch fork in me!
I gave a great bellow – “P*** off and try to get me an ambulance!”. It made me absolutely furious! I’d gone to all that trouble trying to get down in one piece and this silly ass has to come and stick a pitchfork in me. I gave a great bellow – “P*** off and try to get me an ambulance!”. And he turned
and ran off like a startled hare. He was still running absolutely flat out when he got to the farm gate.
And the first guy he stopped was an Army medical officer from the anti-aircraft gunners at Duxford. I got quite quick attention.
Very lucky. And about 20 minutes later an ambulance from Duxford appeared to pick me up and took me into Cambridge. The extraordinary thing was, when I came round from the anaesthetic, in the accident ward of Cambridge hospital, my wife was sitting beside me with a great vase of flowers
on the side table. And I was quite surprised. What had happened of course, the RAF Doctor from Duxford had took me in the ambulance, dropped in to see her on the way back, and told her I was in hospital. Anyway, I woke up in hospital and there was my wife sitting beside me – I thought,
wrongly, that she’d bought me the flowers. But, it wasn’t until about 50 years later that I discovered what had happened.
Well, 50 years later we went across to Britain on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. While we were there, we stayed with a sister of mine who lived at Cambridge, and whose husband asked me to speak at the rotary club dinner, of my experiences in the Airforce. And after the dinner, a little white haired woman came up to me and said “ Did you ever get my flowers?”
And I thought “Oh God, I’ve got a nutcase here. Why would someone send me flowers in Australia?”
She was waiting to be married and her husband was in the army – was coming by train and all the trains were delayed because of the air raids. And they were looking forlornly towards the railway station, wondering he was ever going to turn up at all, and if he did, whether the vicar would still be waiting to marry them.
My Spitfire crashed into some trees on the other side of the road, made a big hole in the field. This made her look up. She saw my parachute at a great height! And there she was and I came slowly down. After about half way down the wind changed and I started drifting away and I disappeared behind these tall trees. She went back to looking towards the railway station. And about 20 minutes later she saw me coming up again! I was coming back again and the wind was - I could be seen quite clearly. And because I was holding my knee up onto my shoulder because I thought it might stop the bleeding, it looked from where she was that I’d only got one leg left. After the wedding, she sent her wedding bouquet to the hospital in Cambridge for me. These were the flowers I’d woken up to.
It was an extraordinary thing that 50 years after an event, that I should be recognised by this woman and able to thank her for a great kindness that was a real surprise.
But, as far as the Battle was concerned, my squadron, 19 Squadron was dispersed on a farmers field about 5 miles from Duxford. Just an ordinary grass field, grass wasn’t much short than that. I haven’t got much more to say about it except the pilots were all very keen, and weren’t in the least bit worried about the effects of the Battle. Everyone assumed we were going to knock the hell out of them.
Excerpts from interviews with 'The Few Down Under'
Nick Lawson, June - August 2010
Air Commodore Coward died, aged 97, in July 2012.
This is from Voices in Flight: RAF Fighter Pilots in World War 2 by Martin Bowman.
There are interviews with the Air Commodore on Youtube.
Other sections on the Little Shelford history website