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Flying Officer Edgar 'Cobber' Kain DFC

27 June 1918 – 07 June 1940

Edgar James 'Cobber' Kain, DFC was a New Zealand fighter pilot and flying ace who flew in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

Edgar was born in Hastings New Zealand on 27 June 1918 to parents Nellie Maria Kain (formerly Keen, from prior marriage by which she had one child) and George William Reginald (Reggie) Kain, who married in 1912. According to 1914 electoral records his family resided at 504 Nelson Street North, Hastings, and his father was working as a commercial traveller (travelling salesman) and later a warehouse man.

Eddie (as he was known to his family) had two older brothers Maurice and Kenneth and sisters Peggy, Mabel and Judith.

In 1919 when Edgar was 10 months old the family returned to England aboard the Athenic for a holiday and they returned to the port of Napier in January 1920.

The family moved to Wellington a short time later and George Kain (Reggie) operated an importing business. He also operated from premises in Christchurch. The business did well assuring Eddie of a good education and a comfortable childhood.

Edgar attended Croydon Preparatory school in Eastbourne Wellington as a border; he startedsecondary school as a border at Christ’s College Christchurch. After 3 years of secondary school Eddie left Christ’s College at the end of 1935.

He began flying lessons at Rongatai Aerodrome Wellington, while in Wellington he was employed in his father’s business as a clerk. In 1936 he transferred from the Wellington AeroClub to the Canterbury Aero Club based at Wigram to complete his training. After 5.40 hours solo flying he gained his A License.

At the time the British RAF had been advertising for applicants for their Short Service Commission. Applicants had to make their own way to London and there was no guarantee of acceptance, Eddie travelled to London with his family and towards the end of 1936 applied to join the RAF. Once accepted he was posted to a civilian flying school.

Eddie’s initial training was a 10 week course at Brough, near Hull in Yorkshire. Towards the end of the course Eddie was asked to state his preference fighters or bombers, his immediate answer was fighters. When the course concluded in March 1937 Eddie had completed over 25 hours dual and 30 hours solo flying. His training is also said to have been at Blackburn, Lincolnshire with further training at Sealand and Tern Hill.

Eddie was granted a Short Service Commission for 4 years as an Acting Pilot Officer in the general duties branch of the RAF.

He developed an early interest in aviation, and was accepted into the RAF in 1936. He completed his flight training in 1937, joined 73 Squadron RAF and flew the Gloster Gladiator and then Hawker Hurricane. On the outbreak of the Second World War he was sent with his squadron to France, part of the RAF Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF).

Kain began flying operational sorties during the Phoney War and gained his first victory in November 1939. A second followed days later. In March he had claimed his fifth victory and became the first fighter ace - a pilot credited with five or more enemy aircraft destroyed in aerial combat - and the first recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Second World War. During these encounters, his fighter was damaged on more than one occasion and he was wounded in action. The Phoney War ended on 10 May 1940 when the Battle of France and the Low Countries began. Within 17 days, Kain had claimed a further 12 aerial victories. His success so early in the war meant he was to become a household name in Britain.

Deemed to be physically exhausted Kain was ordered to return home on 7 June 1940. Having bid farewell to his squadron, and in a gesture to his comrades, he took off in a Hurricane to perform a series of low-level aerobatics over Échemines airfield. Kain crashed at high speed and was killed instantly. At the time of his death he held the rank of flying officer and was credited with 17 aerial victories against the Luftwaffe.

He went to Croydon School, Wellington and Christ's College, Christchurch later studying under Professor Von Zedlitz in Wellington. While at school he played rugby, cricket and excelled at athletics. Kain then worked as a clerk in his father's warehousing business. An interest in flying came early, Kain joining the Wellington Aero Club and securing his 'A' pilot's licence at Wigram in 1936. After earning a private pilot's licence, he applied for a short-term commission in the RAF on 8 March 1937 as an acting pilot officer. He was then posted to No. 5 Elementary Flying School on 20 March.

After further training at RAF Sealand and RAF Ternhill, he was posted in November 1937 to 73 Fighter Squadron, then equipped with the Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter based at RAF Digby. In 1938 took part in the May Empire Air Day bear London, giving aerobatic demonstrations to the public. Later in 1938, the squadron converted to the new monoplane Hawker Hurricane. Kain was promoted to flying officer on 21 July 1939.

Phoney War

Before the start of hostilities, 73 Squadron RAF on 24 August 1939 was mobilised as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF). Appointed a section commander Kain flew on 80 fighter and escort operations over Le Havre, Louvres, Rheims, Verdun and other parts of enemy-occupied territory as 73 was one of the first units to engage the Luftwaffe.

Four days after war was declared, 73's 16 Hurricane fighters flew across the Channel to France. On 10 September 1939, Kain flew his first operational patrols without making contact with the enemy. His first victory occurred on 8 November 1939 during a defensive patrol. Kain had spotted a Dornier Do 17 from reconnaissance unit 1.(F)/123 above and ahead of him. As the Do 17 began to climb to 27,000 ft with Kain in pursuit, he made two attacks but saw no result. With his Hurricane showing signs of strain, he attacked again and the Dornier dived steeply. Kain followed but pulled out when he saw fabric peeling off his wings. The Dornier crashed into the small village of Lubey northwest of Metz, exploding on impact and killing the crew. A machine gun recovered from that aircraft features as part of the Outbreak 1939 exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

On 23 November, near Conflans, Kain shot down another Do 17, from 3.(F)/22. Due to bad weather there was little flying in December, January and February but on 1 March 1940, Kain fought an action with two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. His Hurricane was already damaged when he shot the first Bf 109 down in flames although the second fighter attacked him, stopping the Hurricane's engine with a cannon shell but then flew off, leaving Kain to glide 30 miles from 20,000 feet to reach French territory. When his engine caught fire, Kain prepared to bail out but had to re-enter the cockpit when he realized his parachute strap was not in position. Fortunately the flames went out and Kain glided on to a forced-landing at Metz aerodrome.

In March 1940, Kain was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a particularly daring action. While flying on operations, he sighted seven enemy Bf 109 fighters above him at 5,000 ft. Immediately giving chase and while pursuing them back towards the German lines, Kain discovered another enemy fighter on his tail. Attacked from behind, and with his own Hurricane fighter badly damaged, he engaged the enemy and shot it down. With his cockpit full of smoke and oil, he managed to bring his Hurricane down behind the Allied lines. The citation for the award referred to 'the magnificent fighting spirit Kain displayed in outmanoeuvring his enemy and destroying him.'

Citation: DFC

Air Ministry,

March, 1940. ROYAL AIR FORCE.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the undermentioned award in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy:—

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Flying Officer Edgar James KAIN (39534).
In March, 1940, while on patrol with another aircraft, Flying Officer Kain sighted seven enemy bombers about 5,000 feet above him, and while giving chase well into Germany, he was attacked from behind by an enemy fighter. Showing the finest fighting spirit this officer out-manoeuvred the enemy and although his own aircraft was badly damaged he succeeded in bringing the hostile aircraft down. Thick smoke and oil fumes had filled his cockpit and although unable to see his compass, he skilfully piloted his aircraft inside allied lines in spite of being
choked and blinded by the smoke.

London Gazette 29 March 1940

On 26 March, Kain destroyed a Bf 109 and probably a second of JG 53 but then with his own engine on fire he bailed out, with shell splinters to his left leg, a bullet-grazed left hand and burns to the face.

Kain went on leave to England on 2 April and before he returned, his engagement was announced. Back with the squadron he damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 110 on 23 April. During the Phoney war from September 1939 to March 1940, Kain shot down five aircraft.

Battle of France

On 10 May 1940, the German forces launched the blitzkrieg through the Low countries and France; in the next 10 days, Kain destroyed five more enemy aircraft including an unusual Do 17 victory on 15 May where the enemy crew (of KG 3) was seen to bale out when Kain had attacked in a head-on pass, and probably destroyed or damaged another five.

On 22 May he was again posted back to England with other pilots but on arrival Kain and another pilot were ordered to immediately report back to 73 Squadron. They were put on administrative duties and Kain did not fly again until 25 May when he destroyed a Do 17 but had to make an emergency landing in his damaged Hurricane. He subsequently destroyed a Henschel Hs 126 on 26 May and another Do 17 on 27 May. Kain continued to fly as his unit retreated from one airfield to the next during the Allied retreat to Dunkirk and on 5 June, he shot down a Bf 109.

Officially credited with the destruction of 16 enemy aircraft and one damaged in fighter engagements, Kain was mentioned in dispatches on 27 February 1940.

Final sortie

By 6 June 1940, Kain was the RAF's top ace, and he was informed he would be returning to England the next day. The following morning, a group of his squadron mates gathered at the airfield at Échemines to bid him farewell as he took off in his Hurricane to fly to Le Mans to collect his kit.

Unexpectedly, Kain began a 'beat-up' of the airfield, performing a series of low level aerobatics in Hurricane I L1826. Commencing a series of flick rolls, on his third roll, the ace misjudged his altitude and hit the ground heavily in a level attitude. Kain died when he was pitched out of the cockpit, striking the ground 27 m in front of the exploding Hurricane. Kain is buried in Choloy Military Cemetery (below right).

Choloy War Cemetery. Grave IA.C.8. Son of Reginald G. Kain, and of Nellie Kain, of Wadestown, Wellington, New Zealand. Engaged to English actress Joyce Philips a few weeks before he was killed. He proposed after the show at Peterborough, where Miss Phillips was appearing in a successful play, and was accepted.

A total of 636 flying hours logged and having completed over 80 operational sorties.

Grave inscription reads: "Cobber Kain" You Inspired Our Little Nation. New Zealand Remembers. Adieu"

Based on his exploits in the air as well as an engaging, friendly manner, 'Cobber' (New Zealand slang for 'pal') Kain was treated as a popular hero by the RAF as well as the media.

The pity of it was that such a superb officer, with so splendid a record, should have been killed in an aircraft accident, quite unnecessarily, three weeks before his twenty-second birthday. Flying Officer Kain became almost a legend during his brief but glorious career as 'one of the few'. To his skill and daring he added an ebullience of temperament which made him a vivid and memorable personality wherever he was stationed. His friendly disposition and general lightheartedness earned him the sobriquet 'Cobber', and as Cobber Kain he is better known to the wartime generation of servicemen and civilians alike than as Flying Officer Edgar Kain.

Kain Place in his home town of Hastings, New Zealand, was named in his honour in 2008. Kain Avenue in Matraville, Sydney, Australia, was also named in his honour.

Sources: Wikipedia article, NZ Encyclopaedia, New Zealand newspaper archives, Ben for grave photograph.

SY 2019-07-17

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