James McCudden was one of the most successful fighter aces of World War One. McCudden is credited with being seventh on the list of all fighter pilots in terms of the number of ‘kills’ he made. As with so many of the fighter aces of World War One, McCudden died young. By the time of his death he was also a very highly decorated pilot.
James McCudden was born on March 28th 1895 into a military family. His father had served as a sergeant major in the British Army and it was not a surprise when McCudden joined the Royal Engineers in 1910. In 1913, trained as a mechanic, he transferred to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. In August 1914 at the start of the war he went to France. Here he was allowed to fly as an observer. The RFC had a more passive role at the start of World War One with reconnaissance and intelligence gathering being its primary task. In January 1916, McCudden returned to England to learn how to fly and he was awarded his wings in April 1916. He returned to France as a sergeant and in September 1916 made his first ‘kill’.
Such was his reputation that McCudden was awarded a commission in 1917 as well as being awarded a Military Medal (for his work as a non-commissioned rank) and a Military Cross (as an officer) in the same year.
McCudden gained a reputation for being a highly skilled pilot who put a great deal of thought into his tactics. He was also well respected by younger and less experienced pilots, as he was known to protect the young men under his command while in flight and combat.
His success against the Germans and his overall leadership qualities were recognised when he was awarded the Victoria Cross in April 1918. His citation for the Victoria Cross reads:
For most conspicuous bravery, exceptional perseverance, and a very high devotion to duty. Captain McCudden has at the present time accounted for 54 enemy aeroplanes. Of these, 42 have been destroyed, 19 of them on our side of the lines. Only 12 out of the 54 have been driven down out of control. On two occasions, he had totally destroyed 4 two-seater enemy aeroplanes on the same day, and on the last occasion all 4 machines were destroyed in the space of one hour and thirty minutes. While in his present squadron, he has participated in 78 offensive patrols, and in nearly every case has been the leader. On at least 30 occasions, whilst with the same squadron, he has crossed the lines alone, either in pursuit or in quest of enemy aeroplanes. The following incidents are examples of the work he has done recently: on 23 December 1917, when leading his patrol, 8 enemy aeroplanes were attacked between 1430/1550 and of these 2 were shot down by Captain McCudden in our lines; on the morning of the same day, he left the ground at 1050 and encountered 4 enemy aeroplanes and of these he shot 2 down; on 30 January 1918, he, single-handed, attacked 5 enemy scouts, as a result of which 2 were destroyed. On this occasion, he only returned home when the enemy scouts had been driven far east; his Lewis gun ammunition was all finished and the belt of his Vickers gun had broken. As a patrol leader he has at all times shown the utmost gallantry and skill, not only in the manner in which he has attacked and destroyed the enemy, but in the way he has, during several aerial fights, protected the newer members of his flight, thus keeping down their casualties to a minimum. This officer is considered, by the record he has made, by his fearlessness, and by the great service which he has rendered to his country, deserving of the very highest honour.
McCudden died in a flying accident and not in combat. On July 9th 1918, his aeroplane suffered engine failure after taking off and he was killed in the accident.
Major James McCudden was credited with 57 in World War One. His final tally of medals also included a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and a bar to his Military Cross. Combined with his VC and MM, McCudden was one of the most decorated combatants of World War One.