Air Vice-Marshal


At school I always wanted to become an R.A.F. Figher Pilot, and I was inspired by the legendary Aces of the First War—Ball, Boecke, Bishop, Von Richthofen, Mannock and McCuddon. When the Volunteer Reserve was expanded I joined this enthusiastic bunch of weekend pilots.

After initial training I was posted to 616 Squadron at Kenley. However almost immediately I found myself out of the front-line when the Squadron, which had been decimated by the loss of six pilots and five wounded, was moved to Coltishall. (Perhaps just as well for I had only 12 hours on Spitfires.)

In February 1941 Billy Burton took the Squadron to Tangmere and the next few months were the most exciting of my fighting career. Then Douglas Bader arrived to lead the Tangmere Wing, and the great man elected to fly with 616 Squadron: ‘Cocky’ Dundas, Alan Smith and myself were selected to fly with Douglas in the leading section.

We flew and fought hard during that epic summer. Douglas was a great and inspiring leader whose fruity language in the air was a joy to hear! He took time to teach us the intricate art of air fighting. His idea of an afternoon off was to take one or two of us over the Channel hoping to come across Adolf Galland and some of his chaps, then based at Abbeville in the Pas de Calais.

On 19th August, 1941, we were badly ‘bounced’ by a bunch of higher Messerschmitts and Douglas did not return from this fight. After we had refuelled we searched for him for several hours over the Channel as we thought he might have baled out and clambered into his dinghy. Gradually it dawned upon us that he would not be returning and that this day marked the end of an era that was rapidly becoming a legend.

In the summer of 1942 I was promoted to command 610 (County of Chester) Squadron, and then in early 1943 I was promoted to Wing Commander to lead the Canadian Spitfire Wing at Kenley. My personal score at that time was eight victories. During the spring and summer of that year I led the aggressive Canadian fighter pilots on 140 missions over North-West Europe, my pilots shot down more than 100 enemy aircraft, and my personal score rose to 25. The highlights of those days were escorting the Flying Fortresses of the American Eighth Air Force.

After a short rest from operations, in March 1944, I was posted to lead another Canadian Spitfire Wing, and on D-Day, 6th June, 1944, I led 144 Wing on four missions over the beaches. On 8th June, we made history when we were the first Spitfire Wing to land in France, and a few weeks later we began the exhilarating, buccaneering trek across France.

In September 1944, I scored my 38th and last victory. Patrolling the Rhine, with 443 Squadron, we bounced nine Messerschmitts flying low in the opposite direction, and very quickly shot down five, but unfortunately on this occasion I lost a superb Canadian fighter pilot, Squadron Leader “Wally” McLeod.

Early in 1945, I was promoted to Group Captain and commanded 125 Wing equipped with the latest Spitfire 14s. In the spring we crossed the Rhine and flew from Luftwaffe airfields. Soon it was all over and I had time to reflect that a boy’s ambition of slightly more than a decade ago had, indeed, been realised

During the Second War I flew Spitfire 1’s, 2’s, 5’s, 6’s, 9’s and 14’s. “A nice first flying machine, but it is not a Spitfire any more” was my comment after my first flight in a 14, for the powerful Griffon engine produced a lot of torque, which meant that in a dog-fight the aircraft required constant trimming—not conducive to a favourable conclusion. My favourite was the beautiful Mark 9-the best Spitfire of them all.

616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron will always have great significance for me because it was my first operational squadron and I stayed for nearly two years, becoming a Flight Commander and winning the DFC and Bar.

When I joined the squadron in the late summer of 1940 it was in poor shape, but I witnessed the new Squadron Commander, Billy Burton, restore the confidence of the older pilots, train us new pilots and form us into a fighting, aggressive, squadron, which eventually rated with the best in Fighter Command.

I retired from the R.A.F. in 1966 and founded the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust, which after 15 years now provides homes for over 2500 elderly and disabled people. I also enjoy writing. My books include WINGLEADER, a WWII biography, and THE STORY OF AIR FIGHTING.

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