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Coward, James (1915–2012)

by Kristen Alexander and Mark Lax

As a flight of Nazi bombers were returning to France, they encountered No. 19 Squadron’s Spitfires. Flying Officer James Coward saw a Dornier and lined up for a ‘beautiful shot’ but, he later recalled, ‘when I pressed the firing button absolutely nothing happened’. His guns had jammed. Then, ‘I suddenly felt a hard kick on the shin. I looked round and I saw my bare foot sitting on the rudder pedal’. His shoe and sock had disappeared; his foot was hanging by the ligaments. He didn’t have time to think about the pain because his Spitfire was diving out of control. ‘I was sucked out of the cockpit and my parachute got caught and I was trapped. I was dragged back along the fuselage, my trousers had blown off and my foot was banging around my knee’. He pulled the ripcord and found himself alone in the sky. As he descended, he remembered experiencing ‘the most wonderful feeling of peace until I suddenly looked down and saw my blood pumping out red spurts’.

He used his helmet wireless lead to tie a tourniquet to staunch the blood – this saved his life. Upon landing, he was accosted by a young lad with a pitchfork, and after ‘pleasantries’, was whisked to Cambridge Hospital where his left leg was amputated below the knee. It was 31 August 1940 and he awoke to find a heavily pregnant wife at his bedside. His first words to her were, ‘Hallo Cinnie. I shan’t play Rugger again’.

James Coward’s Battle of Britain career was only brief but he was one of the 2940 or so men who were awarded the Battle of Britain Clasp to their 1939-45 Star. He will always be remembered as one of The Few, indeed one of the last of The Few.

James Baird Coward was born in Teddington, Middlesex on 18 May 1915. He was educated at St John’s School, Leatherhead. As a 15 year old he went to work in his father’s office. He hated it. He desperately wanted to fly. When he was 21, he applied to the Royal Air Force and was granted a commission on 16 October 1936. After training, he was posted to 19 Squadron, based at Duxford. Two years later he was in the cockpit of the RAF’s sleek new monoplane – the Spitfire. He was thrilled to be flying fighters and later recalled, ‘it was a lovely aeroplane’. On 29 December 1939, he married Cynthia Bayon. Their marriage was to last over 70 years.

After recovery, James was posted to Winston Churchill’s staff, where he was in charge of ensuring the Prime Minister’s safety from air attack at Chequers and Chartwell. After promotion to squadron leader in late 1941, he was appointed flight commander at an operational training unit at Aston Down. Further command appointments followed and in 1944 he moved to the Air Ministry in charge of operational fighter training.

James Coward’s service in the RAF did not end in 1945. After staff appointments and an attaché posting to Norway, he was Wing Commander Flying at the Meteor Advanced Flying Training School. On 1 January 1954 he was awarded the Air Force Cross for demonstrating the dangers of inverted spinning and correct recovery on Meteor jet aircraft.

In 1960, Group Captain Coward joined the British Defence Liaison Staff in Canberra, a posting he and Cynthia thoroughly enjoyed. Returning to the United Kingdom in October 1962, he was appointed Air Officer Commanding Air Cadets and in May 1966 took up the post of Defence Attaché in Pretoria.

The Cowards retired to Australia in September 1969 where two of their four daughters were already resident. They lived in Canberra for over 40 years in one of the first passively heated houses in the Territory. Paying homage to his favourite aircraft, he erected a Spitfire weather vane which served as a landmark to visitors walking down the battleaxe drive. 

James Coward loved life intensely. He never let the loss of his leg hamper him. He skied until his 90s, thinking nothing of possible risks. He also enjoyed dancing and would often don a kilt for an evening of highland reels.

Air Commodore James Coward AFC, RAF (Retd) died at Yass on 25 July 2012 with Cynthia holding his hand. He had recently celebrated his 97th birthday. James is buried at Michelago beside two of his daughters who predeceased him. He is survived by Cynthia, his two youngest daughters and many grand and great-grandchildren.

Citation details

Kristen Alexander and Mark Lax, 'Coward, James (1915–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/coward-james-15941/text27165, accessed 14 November 2019.

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