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Air Commodore James Coward AFC

Air Commodore James Coward A.F.C.
Born: May 18th 1915, Teddington. Died July 25th 2012 Age 97

Air Commodore James Coward, was shot down flying a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain, despite losing a leg, he went on to fly jet fighters.

Coward, 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 the squadron was scrambled to intercept an incoming raid, and Coward was leading his section at 22,000ft when they identified a formation of Dornier bombers escorted by a force of 60 fighters.

Coward 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. He 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. He landed heavily, and a farm worker who had watched his descent hailed a passing car.

Fortuitously, the driver was a doctor, and Coward was rushed to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge, where his left leg was amputated.

James Baird Coward was born on May 18 1915 at Teddington and educated at St John’s School, Leatherhead.

After a few years as an apprentice bookkeeper, he joined the RAF in October 1936 and trained as a pilot.

When Coward joined No 19 Squadron at Duxford a year later, it was equipped with the Gauntlet biplane fighter.

A fine artist, he executed a set of caricatures of his fellow pilots and was then asked to paint the squadron badge on the fins of the silver fabric covered aircraft.

After weeks of painstaking work, he had just completed the final aircraft when the Munich crisis erupted and all RAF aircraft had camouflage paint applied to their skins.

Shortly afterwards No 19 became the first RAF squadron to be equipped with the Spitfire.

The squadron was heavily engaged in providing support during the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk, and on June 2 1940 Coward was credited with the probable destruction of a Messerschmitt Bf 109.

After five months recovering from his wounds, Coward joined Winston Churchill’s personal staff. Each weekend was spent at Chequers or the Prime Minister’s private home at Chartwell, where Coward coordinated the roof-spotting organisation.

He dined regularly with Churchill, when they drank nothing but the best champagne.

In January 1942 Coward returned to flying and became an instructor at a fighter training unit.

He later commanded the Aircraft Delivery Unit at Croydon.

He remained in the post-war RAF, serving as the air attaché in Oslo and at the RAF College Cranwell before taking command of an advanced flying training school equipped with the twin-engined Meteor fighter.

He carried out many test flights investigating the spinning characteristics of the jet, and at the end of his appointment was awarded an AFC.

In 1957 Coward assumed command of RAF Boulmer in Northumberland, one of the RAF’s main radar early warning and fighter control units.

Three years later he left for Australia to join the British Defence Liaison Staff.

For four years he was the Air Officer Commanding Air Cadets and Commandant of the Air Training Corps before being appointed, in 1966, defence attaché in Pretoria.

On leaving South Africa in 1969, Coward retired from the RAF and moved with his wife, Cynthia, to Australia.

His wife and their four daughters survive him.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 02 July 2019, 11:52