‘Cobber’ Kain – first RAF Hurricane Ace, first RAF air ace of the WWII, and first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross

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Remembering 'Cobber' Kain: the first RAF Hurricane Ace, the first RAF air ace of the WWII, and the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross
New Zealand Flying Officer Edgar James 'Cobber' Kain of No. 73 Squadron RAF, standing by his Hawker Hurricane Mark I "Paddy III" (P/L1766) at Rouvres, France

“‘Cobber’ Kain was 73 Squadron’s most split-arse pilot. He often led a section 40 miles or more into Germany, regardless of the fact that it was against orders to cross the frontier,” Paul Richey, Hurricane ace

The remarkable Hawker Hurricane, designed and built to combat the emerging fighter strength of the Axis nations in the lead-up to World War II, made its name in the air battles over Britain and France in the first years of the war. Beloved by its pilots for its stable firing platform and reputation as a rugged survivor, the Hurricane quickly became the backbone of the Royal Air Force (RAF), scoring a greater number of kills than the more glamorous Spitfire in the Battle of Britain.

Many pilots reached ace status by scoring five or more air-to-air victories over enemy aircraft on the Hurricane. Edgar James ‘Cobber’ Kain was the first RAF Hurricane Ace, the first RAF air ace of the war, and the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.

A vivid description of Kain exploits is given by Paul E. Eden in the book Hurricane: “The last three Hurricanes gently bumped down on the grass strip at Rouvres, its pilot throttling back and rolling out in the direction of his dispersal. Watching from their cockpits, a further trio of No. 73 Squadron pilots continued their preparations for the next patrol over the Franco-German border.

“Word quickly filtered through to them that the returned section had engaged the enemy, with some success. This hastened the heartbeat and moistened the palms of two of the pilots, who were yet to encounter the Luftwaffe. Fortunately for them, however, their section leader had already left his mark on the enemy, destroying two Do 17 bombers and a single Bf 109E in previous skirmishes. Despite their junior age, Flying Officer Edgar James ‘Cobber’ Kain was the squadron’s best and most combat-experienced pilot.

“Keen to see if more German aircraft were aloft in the vicinity of the Saar River (barely 30 miles from Rouvres), New Zealander Kain signalled to his groundcrew to switch on the starter trolley connected to his aircraft (possibly L1766). With electricity pouring into some power unit, Kain flicked on the main magneto switches and the starter magneto and the Merlin II turned over, the propeller spun and the engine fired in to action. Within a minute, all three fighters had barked into life. After a quick confirmation by the section leader that his two pilots were happy with their aircraft, Kain waved the starter trolleys and wheel chocks away and led his charges out from the dispersal.

“Take-off was completed with little fuss, ‘B’ Flight’s Green Section closed up into the standard RAF fighter ‘vic’ formation and then climbed in an easterly direction towards the German border town of Saarbrücken. Their patrol height on this Tuesday afternoon was to be 20,000ft and the formation levelled off at this altitude barely eight minutes after departing Rouvres.

Remembering 'Cobber' Kain: the first RAF Hurricane Ace, the first RAF air ace of the WWII, and the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross
Hawker Hurricane Mk I in France, November 1939, showing original fabric-covered outer wing and two-bladed propeller

“Kain knew exactly where the German border was, having already gained a reputation among RAF fighter pilots within the AASF [Advanced Air Striking Force] for patrolling deep into enemy territory, as fellow AASF pilot and future Hurricane ace, Paul Richey, attested: ‘ ‘Cobber’ Kain was 73’s most split-arse pilot. He often led a section 40 miles or more into Germany, regardless of the fact that it was against orders to cross the frontier.'”

Eden continues: “On this occasion, Green Section had barely crossed the ‘Siegfried Line’ when Kain spotted nine III/JG 53 ‘Pik As’ Bf 109Es cruising in a wide vic at 26,000ft. Despite being outnumbered, the Kiwi pilot skilfully manoeuvred his flight into an advantageous position than made his move. Initially only two enemy fighters responded to the attack, Kain’s gunsight quickly filling with the grey-green shape of the leading ‘Emil’. He pressed the gun button on his spade-grip control column at a range of less than 250 yards, and the Hurricane shuddered as all eight .303in Brownings spewed forth deadly hail of bullets. The tracer rounds arced across the sky and hit their target with telling effect.

“The Bf 109E fell away trailing smoke and flame, and Kain wheeled around in search of further targets. Following their leader into the fray, Flying Officer J.C. ‘Tub’ Perry (who was killed in a landing accident just three days later) and Sergeant T.B.G. ‘Titch’ Pyne (lost on 14 May 1940, one of three No. 73 Squadron pilots killed in combat with Bf 109Es that day) had also chosen targets on this opening pass as more enemy fighters committed to the engagement. Both pilots quickly expended all their ammunition in the excitement of their first combat, Perry later being credited with a Bf 109E destroyed, while Pyne’s claim was rated as only a probable.

“A second ‘Pik As’ Schwarm (comprising four aircraft) of Emils then entered the fray from a higher altitude, much to Kain’s consternation – he had thought the battle was over. As the only pilot left with any ammunition in his magazines, Kain immediately latched onto one of the overshooting Bf 109Es and fired a burst into it. Having been surprised by the second enemy formation, he had not been best placed from a tactical standpoint when it came to engaging these ‘latecomers’. As Kain attempted to manoeuvre ‘up sun’ of the fleeing Messerschmitts, a well-aimed burst of cannon fire blew his Hurricane’s canopy clean off.

“Feldwebel Weigelt had been flying towards the rear of the second Schwarm, and had shadowed the solitary Hurricane as its pilot attempted to achieve a better angle of deflection on the Bf 109Es ahead of him. He pumped further rounds into Kain’s mortally wounded fighter, which erupted in flames when tracer ignited spilt fuel from the punctured reserve, or gravity tank ahead of the cockpit. The German pilot could see his RAF counterpart hunched down in the now exposed cockpit, which was all but engulfed by the conflagration. Dazed, Kain fumbled around blindly to his left in an attempt to shut off the fuel cock, and thus hopefully stop the fire.

Remembering 'Cobber' Kain: the first RAF Hurricane Ace, the first RAF air ace of the WWII, and the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross
Mechanics servicing the engine of a Hurricane I of 501 Sqn at No. 1 Repair Centre, Reims, Champagne, France

“At this point Weigelt hit the Hurricane with a third burst, which drove no less than 21 shell splinters into Kain’s left calf. Realising he was fighting a lost cause and in some paint from both shrapnel wounds and burns to his right hand, the Kiwi pilot gingerly undid his straps, rolled his blazing Hurricane onto its back and fell away from the stricken machine. He quickly pulled the ripcord of his parachute upon entering a cloud, before passing out from physical exhaustion. Kain came to minutes later in cloud, and landed in a field near small French border village of Ritzing, just half a mile west of Germany.

“His two colleagues returned to Rouvres unscathed and quickly reported their engagement to No. 73 Squadron’s adjutant, Pilot Officer ‘Henry’ Hall. A search party was sent out to retrieve ‘Cobber’ Kain and he was soon located and conveyed back to his unit in a French army staff car. The wounded pilot was debriefed from his bed, and his two claims for Bf 109Es destroyed officially recorded – post-war Luftwaffe records for 26 March 1940 note the force-landing of three Bf 109Es at Trier airfield in the aftermath of this action.

“As the first RAF ace of World War II, the tall, rangy 21.year-old New Zealander celebrated ‘acedom’ that evening in true air force fashion – horizontally, on a stretcher in the sergeant’s mess!”

According NZ History, during the Battle of France in May/June 1940, Kain made 17 confirmed ‘kills’.

Given his experiences in battle, how Kain died was cruelly ironic. He had been rested from operations and decided to mark his departure with an aerobatic display over the aerodrome at Echimenes, France, on Jun. 7, 1940. He completed two low-level rolls and was attempting a third when he crashed onto the airfield and was thrown from the aircraft. He was 21 years old.

Kain was buried in Troyes cemetery. After the war his remains were moved to the Allied section of the Choloy war cemetery.Remembering 'Cobber' Kain: the first RAF Hurricane Ace, the first RAF air ace of the WWII, and the first to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross

Photo credit: Pinterest, Arpingstone via Wikipedia, Imperial War Museum