Fighter Ace

Closeup of red poppies on a war memorial wreath.Tomorrow will be the 11th day of the 11th month and, at the 11th hour, Armistice Day will be commemorated in many countries around the world. Begun as a way to mark the end of the Great War and remember all those who didn’t come home, it now includes all who have died in subsequent wars. It is sometimes referred to as Remembrance Day, possibly because of the lines repeated at every war memorial service “…at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.” So here is one story to remember on Armistice Day.

In June 1940, with the advancing German army just days away from Paris, R.A.F. pilot Paul Richey decided to take a last look at the city.

“Paris as a whole retained its irresponsible gaiety – though one felt it was even rather too irresponsible. The couples still sipped their champagne and sang the choruses of romantic songs in the boulevard cafes. Albert still bowed one in with a portly gesture and a welcoming smile at Maxim’s. The Ritz Bar was still in full swing before lunch and again before dinner. The only thing changed was the almost total abscence of soldiers.

It was as I walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Concorde one afternoon that I came upon Cobber, of 73 Squadron, sitting at a pavement table with the 73 Squadron Doctor and a well-known journalist. Over a drink Cobber told me that the rest of the original 73 had gone back to England, and that they had been re-formed, like us. He had stayed behind to help get things going, but was off in a couple of days’ time. He was on a few hours’ leave now. He said they’d had some losses – about five killed, I think – and in answer to my question told me his own personal score of Huns was 17. I noticed, but without surprise in the circumstances, that he seemed nervous and pre-occupied, and kept breaking matches savagely in one hand while he glowered into the middle distance. Like the rest of us, he’d had enough for a bit.

HurricaneThe following day [7th] a Hurricane roared down and beat up 73’s aerodrome south-west of Paris. To finish up with it did a couple of flick-rolls in succession at 200 feet, and foolishly attempted a third with insufficient speed. Naturally it spun off. It straightened out promptly enough, but of course had no height and went in. The rescue squad was shocked to find an identity disc marked with Cobber’s name on the body. So died Cobber.”
‘Fighter Pilot’, 1941.

Cobber KainB

© IWM (C 1148)

Flying Officer Edgar “Cobber” Kain, DFC, from Hastings, New Zealand, was recognised as the R.A.F.’s first fighter ace of World War Two. He was 21 years old when he died on 7th June. He had become engaged to the English actress Joyce Phillips in April. The wedding was planned for July.

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A choice of legs

From ‘For Ever England’, J.E.B. Seeley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1932.

I have named Bron Herbert as one of my most intimate friends. He had a leg shot off in the South African War but that did not prevent him from raising and commanding a troop of Yeomanry, formed from the men of the New Forest, where he had a house and spent much of his time. During this period he succeeded to an old title and became Lord Lucas [1905].

I happened to be in command of the Regiment during the whole period that Bron was with his New Forest men. He would come to me of a morning, when we were at our annual training, and say to me : “I want to ask you a very confidential question. At to-day’s manoeuvres, had I better wear my walking leg or my riding leg? Because, as you know, I cannot walk with my riding leg and I cannot ride with my walking leg.” Then I would tell him, so far as I could foretell, which leg he would want. If I had guessed wrong, and told him the wrong leg, he would be hopelessly crippled, and suffer great pain, but this never stopped him going on with the manoeuvre. I have often begged him to get on his pony and ride home, when he found himself commanding a dismounted troop, with his riding leg, but always he steadfastly refused. The only real row we ever had in all these years of friendship was when I tried to insist, on one of these occasions.

Meantime, he was immersed in political work as a Liberal…..

When the World War broke out he tried by every means to get accepted for some combatant force, but of course no doctor would pass a one-legged man. So, when Asquith invited him to join his Cabinet as Minister for Agriculture, he accepted. Thus the crown seemed to be set on his political career, and one would have expected him to decide to devote his whole energies in that direction. Not so Bron in time of war.

He was doing very well in his post, but all the time he was learning to fly. One day he came to the Prime Minister and astonished him by saying that he had qualified as a pilot, and had reason to believe that he would be accepted for service in the Flying Corps at the Eastern theatre of war. He therefore tended his resignation, and off to war he went.

Herbert later transferred to the Western Front, having acquired a “flying leg…. a further addition to his equipment”, and on 3rd November 1916 was shot down and killed.