James “Stocky” Edwards, Canada’s greatest living ace, completed three combat tours during World War II and fought over the deserts of North Africa, the beaches of Italy and the farmlands of France and northwestern Europe. Edwards grew up during the Great Depression in Battleford on Saskatchewan’s Great Plains. As a youth, he worked on his uncle’s farm, enjoyed hunting and excelled at high school hockey. When war came to Europe and Canada’s mother countries, he sacrificed a scholarship to Gonzaga University, Spokane, and a tryout with Chicago’s Blackhawks hockey team to enlist in 1940 in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
Edwards earned his wings and was sent to England as a Sergeant Pilot to fly fighters. After training in the Hawker Hurricane and assignment to the 94 Squadron, Royal Air Force, he was sent to North Africa. Soon after arriving in Egypt, the squadron converted to Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks. Reassigned to 260 Squadron, he wasted no time, shooting down a Messerschmitt 109F on his first operational sortie. Edwards helped turn the tide of Field Marshal Rommel’s advance into Egypt, becoming a triple ace as Commonwealth forces pushed the Axis forces west across Libya and into Tunisia.
After the Axis surrender in Tunisia, he served a five-month stint as an aerial gunnery instructor and then was posted to Italy. He was soon back in combat as a flight commander in 92 Squadron. Flying Supermarine Spitfires in “East India” Squadron, he helped cover allied forces pinned down on the Anzio beaches. In recognition of his leadership and proven ability, Edwards was promoted to squadron leader and made Officer Commanding, 274 Squadron in March 1944. The next month, his squadron returned to England to prepare for the war’s greatest amphibious landing, Operation Overlord.
Edward’s Spitfires escorted heavily laden gliders and tow planes in their vulnerable cross-channel flight. From Normandy, 274 Squadron fought the Luftwaffe and harassed German ground forces in their final retreat east of the Rhine. By the end of the war, Edwards was credited with 19 3/4 enemy aircraft destroyed, 6 1/2 probably destroyed, and 17 damaged in air-to-air combat. He destroyed or damaged another 14 on the ground. Returning to Canada, Edwards remained in the RCAF and continued to make history. He commanded his nation’s first jet unit, a flight flying the DeHavilland Vampire. In November 1951, he took command of the first squadron to employ the Canadair F-86 Sabre. In 1953, as commander of 2 Wing, Edwards led the first RCAF wing to deploy to Europe. In 1972, after more than 30 years of military service, Wing Commander “Stocky” Edwards retired.