On March 23, 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, Canadian fighter pilot James Francis Edwards took off from a North African airfield to join in an attack on a German air base. Soon enemy fighters rose in challenge and, in the sky full of turmoil that followed, Flight Sergeant Edwards shot down a German Messerschmitt Bf 109.
It was his first combat mission. He was 20 years old.
Flight Sgt. Edwards went on to become famous later as Wing Commander (Stocky) Edwards, one of the great Royal Canadian Air Force aces of the war. Wing Cdr. Edwards died on Saturday in Comox, B.C., at the age of 100. Until his death, he was very likely the Commonwealth’s top surviving fighter pilot.
By his own count, Wing Cdr. Edwards shot down 19 enemy aircraft, while numerous others were considered “probables” and 12 aircraft were destroyed on the ground. However, his son Jim Edwards told The Globe and Mail that his father was “slack in recording his victories” and that the real total was almost certainly much higher.
Wing Cdr. Edwards flew over battlefields at El Alamein in Egypt in 1942, Anzio in Italy in 1944, and in the skies above Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a record that is believed to be unique.
He won the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, the Distinguished Flying Medal and was mentioned in dispatches, while after the war he was awarded France’s Legion of Honour and in 2004 was named to the Order of Canada.
Stocky Edwards was neither heavyset nor physically big but was, instead, a wiry bantam weight. The odd nickname was meant to convey that he could be exceptionally tough when the chips were down.
He was questioned many times about his success as a fighter pilot. As a young man, he was a crack shot, a fine athlete and able to read the time off a clock tower in Battleford, Sask., from a distance of one mile.
However, he said it was difficult to tell who might make a good fighter pilot.
“Not everybody is aggressive enough to do it. You had to be a certain type.” A quiet, reserved person might be completely different in combat. “You had to go up on a flight with him and see.”
Pure luck played its part in survival, he said.
James Francis Edwards was a prairie boy, born in Nokomis, Sask., on June 5, 1921, to a family of four boys and two girls. His parents lost their home in the Depression and had to move to Battleford so the father, Wilfrid, could find work.
The younger Mr. Edwards enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on Oct. 24, 1940, wanting to be a pilot even though he had never flown in a plane and had barely driven a car. Despite that, he won his wings in June, 1941. Historian Dave O’Malley described Mr. Edwards as being among wartime pilots who were “fresh and young, beaming with accomplishment, and flushed with exuberance.”
In January, 1942, the young man, known as Eddie Edwards at the time, was promoted to flight sergeant and, like thousands of other Canadians, was posted to a British squadron, in his case one that was based in North Africa. He arrived just as Field Marshal Rommel was kicking off his last major offensive.
A short time later he was reassigned to a squadron that was switching from older Hurricane fighters to new American-built Kittyhawks. Although bigger and better armed than its predecessor, it was still an uninspiring stallion, well outclassed by the German Bf 109 (also known as the ME-109).
Flight Sgt. Edwards’s uncanny abilities immediately impressed fellow pilots. On a sortie on June 17, 1942, Australian wing mate Ron Cundy saw a Bf 109 slide in behind Flight Sgt. Edwards’s plane ready for the kill. However, the move had been spotted.
“As I watched the 109 close in, Eddie applied a lot of right rudder and skidded out of the way. The 109 was coming in too fast to make the necessary adjustment and as he overshot, Eddie swung back to the left, opened fire and shot him down. It was the coolest piece of aerial combat that I had ever seen.”
It was one of two aircraft shot down by the young pilot that same day.
Air squadrons moved frequently and it often took months for mail from home to catch up. Amid shimmering 38 C temperatures in the desert, he received the hockey skates he had asked his mother to send him months earlier when he was in England.
In the summer of 1942, then serving in the Royal Air Force’s 260 Squadron, he was promoted three ranks in quick succession to pilot officer.
By the end of the North African campaign, he had shot down 15 enemy aircraft, three times the number that usually makes a pilot an “ace.” However, the fighting was also costly for 260 Squadron, which lost 33 pilots, 10 of them Canadians.
In February, 1943, the further promoted Flight Lieutenant Edwards was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal with the citation lauding his “outstanding coolness and courage.”
Shortly afterward he won the Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded only to officers, noting his “outstanding gallantry.”
Stories about him began to appear in newspapers, with one headline reading “Prairie Pilot in Desert Famed as Deadly Gunner; Wins Flying Cross at 21.”
On Dec. 19, 1943, he was posted to Sicily and then mainland Italy, flying during the costly Allied attack at Anzio and shooting down three aircraft in one day.
Overshadowed by his skill as a pilot was Eddie Edwards’s extraordinary leadership ability. It was recognized in March, 1944, with his promotion to squadron leader and appointment as commanding officer of 274 Squadron.
His closest call with death came in the mountains of Italy. Flying at low level, his Spitfire developed a coolant leak. With the engine about to fail, he undid his safety harness intending to bail out but he realized the aircraft was too low.
As he described it, “I decided to try and force land on this little spot and I was coming in to land and the engine blew up and I didn’t remember anything after that.” Flames engulfed the crash site, leaving wing mates to believe the worst had happened.
In reality, Squadron Leader Edwards got out of – or was thrown out of – the crashing plane, but he never knew exactly what happened. Unbuckling his safety harness may well have saved his life.
A second extraordinary break was that some nearby Allied soldiers spotted him, went to the crash scene and carried him, badly cut and bruised, to a medical station.
Some days later, there were moments of shocked silence when a living ghost appeared at the 274 Squadron headquarters. A new squadron commander was set to replace him the next day.
On June 5, 1944, back in England and flying a Spitfire IX, Squadron Leader Edwards marked his 23rd birthday. The next day – D-Day – he flew three sorties over the Normandy beaches but did not see a single German fighter.
In October, 1944, he was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross – in other words, a second DFC. Late in the war came a promotion to wing commander and an assignment to lead 127 Wing made up of four Canadian squadrons. On May 3, 1945, he flew his 373rd and final combat mission, an exceptional record.
In a tribute in 2012, historian Dave O’Malley said that during the war Wing Cdr. Edwards went “from greenhorn to respected commander, from prairie boy to legend.”
Wing Cdr. Edwards remained in the air force but, because of postwar cutbacks, his rank was reduced to flight lieutenant. His son, Jim Edwards, said the demotion wounded him deeply and his father continued on determined to regain his wartime rank.
In June, 1946, Mr. Edwards married a nurse, Norma Alice Hatcher, and they had two children, Dorothy and Jeanne. But when Jeanne was only four months old, Norma Edwards contracted polio and died. In February, 1951, he married Alice (Toni) Antonio, also a nurse. They had two children, Angel and Jim.
During the Cold War, Wing Cdr. Edwards flew many jet aircraft and at one point commanded a squadron of Sabre jets in Germany. Having recovered his earlier rank, he retired from the air force in 1972.
Retired RCAF Colonel Terence Chester said that for those who met Mr. Edwards in later life, the most memorable thing about him was not his brilliance as a fighter pilot, great as that was. Col. Chester said that people were struck most of all “not by what he did, but by who he was, a man of character and dignity.”
In retirement Mr. Edwards moved to Comox, B.C., on Vancouver Island. However, having served in war and peace in Egypt, Libya, Italy, Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States, he nevertheless ruefully admitted, “I still get homesick for Saskatchewan sometimes.”
He was predeceased by his first wife, Norma, and his daughter, Jeanne. He leaves his second wife, Toni, and children, Dorothy, Angel and Jim, along with numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.