Story: Kain, Edgar James

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Kain, Edgar James

1918–1940

Military aviator

This biography, written by Paul Harrison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Known throughout the British Empire in 1940 as ‘Cobber’ Kain the fighter ace, Edgar James Kain was born on 27 June 1918 at Hastings, the son of Nellie Maria Keen and her husband, George William Reginald Kain, a warehouseman. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Wellington. Edgar’s early education was at the Wellington Diocesan Boys’ School at Days Bay, where he exhibited natural leadership. In 1933 he commenced secondary schooling as a boarder at Christ’s College, Christchurch. Here he began to show a keen interest in military aviation, watching aircraft from the Royal New Zealand Air Force station at Wigram. A good sportsman, he represented the college in rugby, rowing and shooting, and excelled in athletics. He left college without matriculating in 1935.

Kain joined the Wellington Aero Club in 1936 and quickly showed promise as a trainee pilot, flying solo after only 7 hours and 20 minutes of instruction. He gained an ‘A’ pilot’s licence at Wigram later that year. He worked for a time as a clerk in his father’s merchant business, but flying became his first passion, and entry to the Royal Air Force his one ambition. In late 1936 Kain’s father sailed to England on business, accompanied by Edgar, his mother and a sister. On arrival Edgar approached the Air Ministry for a short-service commission, but failed the medical as his blood pressure was a little high. To improve his general health he worked for a time as a farm labourer, then reapplied and was accepted into the RAF in December.

Kain’s elementary flying training was at a civil school at Brough, Humberside, after which he was promoted to acting pilot officer on 21 December. Following ground training at RAF Uxbridge, he started advanced flying training in March 1937. He gained his pilot’s wings in June and in November was posted to No 73 Squadron at Digby, Lincolnshire. Kain showed his excellence at aerobatics with an exhibition in a Gloster Gladiator bi-plane at the 1938 Empire Air Day show at Hendon. In July that year he began flying the RAF’s new Hawker Hurricane fighters, and in July 1939 he was promoted to flying officer.

With war approaching, No 73 Squadron was mobilised on 24 August 1939. It was posted to Le Havre-Octeville, France, on 9 September, then to Rouvres a month later. By now Kain was a section leader in B flight, flying defensive patrols over France. On 8 November he shot down his and his squadron’s first German aircraft, a Dornier Do17 bomber at a height of 27,000 feet, then the highest altitude for a dogfight in the history of aerial warfare. During the first months of the war, when there was little action in the air, Kain became popular with the war correspondents, who were hungry for exciting news. Over six feet tall, and just 21 years old, he was nicknamed ‘Cobber’ by his squadron colleagues because of his ebullient and friendly nature.

On 23 November he downed another Do17, and on 2 March 1940 he destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf109 fighter. The latter victory received considerable press coverage as Kain, his cockpit filled with smoke and fumes, had to crash-land his badly damaged aircraft after the battle. For this action he was awarded the DFC. On 26 March he shot down two Bf109s to become Britain’s first air ace of the war. During this dogfight his Hurricane was hit again: ‘there was a crash, the top of the hood was shot away and my machine caught fire. The shock must have knocked me out for a moment since when I came to the Hurricane was in a steep dive and flaming’. Suffering minor burns to his face and hands, he regained control and parachuted to safety. On 10 April Kain became engaged to an English actress, Joyce Phillips, adding to his growing popularity.

When the Germans launched their attack on the Low Countries and France, Kain was in the thick of the action, destroying three enemy aircraft between 10 and 12 May, and claiming two more on the 19th. By early June 1940 he had downed 17 German aircraft and was to be rested from operations. To mark his departure he flew an aerobatic display over the aerodrome at Echimenes on 7 June. He completed two low-level rolls and was attempting a third when he crashed onto the airfield, was thrown out of the aircraft and killed. Not yet 22, he was buried in Troyes cemetery. His remains were moved to the Allied section of the Choloy war cemetery in France after the war. Many tributes were paid to Kain by the world’s media. Popular with his fellow airmen, he had shown himself to be a combat pilot of remarkable skill, and had achieved almost legendary status in the early months of the war.

How to cite this page:

Paul Harrison. 'Kain, Edgar James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5k1/kain-edgar-james (accessed 26 September 2018)