February 1, 2001

 

 

A relentless desire to be at grips with the enemy: Johnson revisiting the cockpit of a Spitfire in 1986

 

Air Vice-Marshal Johnnie Johnson

 

Air ace who brought the principles of wildfowling to air combat and notched up the record score of RAF combat victories in North West Europe

 

The highest scoring RAF fighter pilot to survive the war, Johnnie Johnson shot down 38 enemy aircraft in the skies over Western Europe between June 1941 and September 1944. This tally is remarkable on two counts. Johnson began his operational career after the end of the Battle of Britain, which provided such a rich harvest of combat victories for many of his peers as the Luftwaffe's air fleets attacked virtually day after day. Kills were much harder to obtain on the fighter sweeps over enemy territory which succeeded the battle, operations for which the Spitfire was much less suited than it had been to the role of air defence in the summer of 1940. In addition, all Johnson's victories, with the exception of a quarter share in a Messerschmitt 110, were against single-seat fighters - easily the most formidable opponents.

Johnson had that sine qua non of the combat pilot, a relentless desire to be at grips with the enemy, which is the hallmark of the finest troops. This was allied to coolness as a pilot and a tremendous eye and judgment once the target was in his gunsights. Johnson often likened air combat to wildfowling, and brought to his performance with the 20mm cannon of the Spitfire much the same principles of deflection shooting which had made him so effective against game birds with a shotgun in his youth.

Johnson's combat career might easily never have happened. During the Battle of Britain a prewar injury caused him such agony that he found flying very difficult and was threatened with being grounded, as well as suspected of being 'LMF' - Lacking in Moral Fibre, as the terminology of the time had it. In the event he opted to have an operation which returned him to flying duties. From that moment he never looked back, ending the war with three DSOs and two DFCs and going on to hold high appointments in the RAF afterwards.

James Edgar Johnson was born at Melton Mowbray (10 March 2006- I received the following message: "I assume this is the error of The Times, and not yourself, but Johnnie Johnson was NOT born in Melton Mowbray (where I live), but was actually born ten miles away in the village of Barrow-upon-Soar (where I work!). Hopefully you can correct this"). and educated at Loughborough School and Nottingham University, where he read engineering. Before the war he worked as a civil engineer and also applied to join the Auxiliary Air Force. But, unknown to him, a broken collarbone sustained while playing rugby had not properly set, and his application was turned down. Undaunted, he enlisted in the Leicester Yeomanry, TA.

With war clouds gathering, however, he was able to join the RAF Volunteer Reserve for weekend training. In August 1939 he was called up and after gaining his wings was first posted to 19 Squadron. But No 19 was far too heavily involved in the Battle of Britain to absorb a 'rookie' pilot (it was also having frustrating teething troubles with its first cannon-armed Spitfires, and in the end reverted to the tried and tested eight Browning machine-guns). Johnson was therefore sent to 616 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, which was not in the thick of the air fighting at that time.

Johnson's injury, which had been exacerbated by an accident during training, now began to plague him afresh. With his shoulder and arm often in excruciating pain he found flying extremely difficult. Opting to have an operation to correct the condition, he returned to the squadron too late to participate in the battle, but was to gain valuable experience in 1941 when 616 flew on fighter sweeps over France as part of Douglas Bader's wing. He frequently flew No2 to the wing leader. It was one of Bader's great qualities as a leader that he allowed relatively new pilots to perform this vital function - many wing leaders liked experienced No2s guarding their tails - and Johnson learnt a lot from the old master of fighter tactics. Johnson opened his account on June 26, 1941, when he shot down his first Me 109. By September his score had risen to six (all Me109s) and he was awarded the DFC and made a flight commander. (Bader had been shot down over France in August and become a PoW.) By this time the Spitfire was encountering stern opposition to its sweeps in the new radial-engined Focke Wulf Fw 190 which could outpace and outmanoeuvre it and had a formidable armament of four 20mm cannon and two 13mm machineguns. Johnson first encountered one of these aircraft in April 1942, getting a shot at it and damaging it.

But it was not until the Dieppe raid of August 19, by which time he had been given command of 610 Squadron, that he had his first Fw 190 kill. It was to be the first of many he shot down as improved marks of the Spitfire closed the gap on the Fw 190. Early in 1943 he was appointed leader of the Canadian wing at Kenley. As Bader had discovered with the Canadian 242 Squadron in 1940, he found that its pilots distrusted him at first. But, by improving on the wing's somewhat outdated flying tactics he led it inspirationally in what turned out to be a period of hectic action over the Continent. Over the next four months the wing took a severe toll of occupied France's fighter defences, its leader adding more than a dozen to his own tally in that time. Johson was soon held in affection and respect by his men, who awarded him the insignia 'Canada' which, in breach of regulations, he had sewn to the upper sleeves of his uniform tunic.

In September 1943, by which time he had brought his score to 25, Johnson was rested from operations and given a staff appointment as an operational planner at Headquarters, 11 Group. He returned to operations in command of another Canadian Wing in March 1944. As part of 83 Group 2nd Tactical Air Force this was involved in the intensive air attacks on the occupied Continent which preceded D-Day, and Johnson continued to add to his tally of combat victories. After the landings themselves, Johnson led his wing to Normandy where it became the first Allied fighter unit to operate from French soil since the fall of France four years before.

In Normandy his wing supported the advancing Allied armies with strafing attacks and by taking on the enemy's fighters. Johnson's last combat victory came on September 27, 1944, in the skies over the battle for the Falaise Gap. He shot down an Fw 190 that day, but himself sustained damage - his first during the entire war - when his aircraft was struck by a single cannon shell.

Johnson ended his war in command of 125 Wing which in May 1945 he led to Denmark to put on a victory air display. His wartime tally of 38 was exceeded only by that of the South African ace 'Pat' Pattle, who was credited with 41 kills in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean before being shot down and killed in April 1941.

After the end of the war Johnson was offered a permanent commission and stayed in the RAF. In 1950 he was attached to the USAF as the Korean War was breaking out and he went to Korea, adding the US Air Medal and the Legion of Merit to his Second World War decorations. Among his later appointments was the important command of RAF Wildenrath in the 2nd TAF in Germany, 1952-54, and he was commander of the V Bomber base RAF Cottesmore from 1957 to 1960. His last appointment was as AOC Air Forces Middle East, from 1963 to 1965; he opted to take early retirement the following year. He was appointed CBE in 1960 and CB in 1965.

His retirement was an active one. In 1969 he founded the 'Johnnie' Johnson Housing Trust, a charitable housing association for people in need, which today manages some 4,000 properties in the North of England. He was also a director of companies in Britain, Canada and South Africa.

Johnson published both in his own account and jointly, a number of books: among them were Wing Leader (1956), The Story of Air Fighting (1985), Courage in the Skies (1992) and Winged Victory (1995). His marriage, in 1942, to Pauline Ingate was dissolved. He is survived by two sons.

Air Vice-Marshal J. E. (Johnnie) Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO and two Bars, DFC and Bar, fighter ace, was born on March 9, 1915. He died on January 30 aged 85.


Johnnie Johnson, World War II Ace Pilot, Dies at 85

 

By Richard Goldstein,, February 1, 2001

 

Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson, the British fighter pilot who shot down 38 German planes, becoming the leading Allied air ace of World War II in Europe, died yesterday at his home in Derbyshire, England. He was 85.

The cause was cancer, The Daily Telegraph reported.

Flying the single-engine Spitfire fighter, Air Vice Marshal Johnson completed more than 1,000 missions. He was never shot down and acknowledged having been hit only once, when he was jumped by a group of Messerschmitts. 

He missed most of the Battle of Britain while recovering from an injury he sustained in a rugby match. But he provided air cover for the Dieppe raid of August 1942, flew over the Normandy beaches on D-Day, and supported raids by American B- 17 bombers and advances by Allied ground forces in France and Germany. 

Only one Allied pilot ó Richard Bong of the United States Army Air Forces, who shot down 40 Japanese planes ó had greater success during the war. The leading American air ace in Europe, Francis Gabreski, shot down 28 German planes.

James Edgar Johnson was born in Barrow Upon Soar, Leicestershire, the son of a policeman. "I always wanted to fly," he recalled. "But I had a lot of trouble. My old man wouldn't let me sign the papers to join up. He thought it was a young and frivolous service." 

The young man obtained a civil engineering degree from Nottingham University in 1937 but took flying lessons in his spare time. Then he applied to the Auxiliary Air Force, but the recruiting officer proved as big an obstacle as his father had been upon learning that the would-be airman had no experience of any sort in shooting things down. 

As Air Vice Marshal Johnson put it in an interview with The Leicester Mercury last October: "I remember sitting opposite this officer and he said, `Which pack do you hunt with?' I said, `I beg your pardon?' and I told him I spent all my money on flying lessons. And that was the end of that. Rejected." 

He tried to join the Royal Air Force's Volunteer Reserve, was told it had no openings, then was accepted for flight training when the war began in 1939. He took part in the late stages of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, without downing any planes.  

But the following year, he flew fighter sweeps and bomber-escort missions as wingman for Douglas Bader, the legendary British air ace who lost both legs in an air crash in 1931. He honed his skills from flying in the Bader unit, and by September 1941, he had shot down five planes. This made him an ace, and he was promoted to flight commander. 

On Aug. 19, 1942, Commander Johnson flew in support of Canadian and British troops in the disastrous raid on the German-occupied port of Dieppe, France. His war almost ended that day. On his fourth sortie, he went into a near-vertical dive while pursued by a Focke-Wulf 190 fighter. He pulled out just above ground level and then, crossing the beaches, flew into a barrage of antiaircraft fire from a Royal Navy destroyer. Unscathed, he pulled up over the ship and then set off in search of the fighter that had been pursuing him. "But happily, he was no longer with me," he remembered. 

While leading a unit of Canadian fighter pilots, Commander Johnson flew four missions over the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Two days later, his wing landed the first Allied fighters in France since 1940. 

His 38th and final kill came on Sept. 27, 1944, near Venlo in the Netherlands, in a dogfight with nine Messerschmitts, when his Spitfire was hit for the first and only time in the war.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He returned to combat in the Korean War, flying fighter- bomber missions while attached to the United States Air Force, and received the United States Legion of Merit and the Air Medal. 

He was promoted to air vice marshal during the 1960's and served as the Royal Air Force's commander in the Middle East. He retired in 1966, then founded the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust, which provided homes for elderly and disabled people. He told of his wartime exploits in his 1956 autobiography "Wing Leader." 

"There was never any euphoria in shooting down a plane," he said. "You just felt you had acquitted yourself well." 

In recounting his success, Air Vice Marshal Johnson conceded that the recruiting officer who turned him down back 1938 because he didn't hunt might have had a point. 

He eventually developed prowess with a shotgun and said he could usually kill two birds with three shots. 

"The principles of deflection shooting against wildfowl and airplanes were exactly the same," he said. But he acknowledged one difference: "Airplanes could sometimes return your fire."

 


   

February 1, 2001 

 

Air Vice-Marshal J E 'Johnnie' Johnson

 

AIR VICE-MARSHAL J E "JOHNNIE" JOHNSON, who has died aged 85, was the top-scoring RAF fighter pilot of the Second World War; his dash, courage and flying skills were outstanding.

Johnson accounted for at least 38 enemy aircraft over Britain and occupied Europe, yet his actual score was almost certainly higher. Of the many enemy aircraft he shot down, he waived shared credits to boost the scores - and the confidence - of younger pilots.

He earned an appropriately impressive collection of decorations, including a DSO and two Bars and a DFC and Bar. This recognition contrasted starkly with the RAF's refusal before the war to approve his application to join an Auxiliary Air Force (AuxAF) squadron, or to serve in the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR).

It was only after Johnson had enlisted in the Leicestershire Yeomanry, TA, that the RAFVR reviewed his application and accepted him for pilot training. But for the delay, Johnson might well have been ready for action at the beginning of the Battle of Britain on July 10 1940. As it was, his late entry and a badly set collarbone fracture meant that he did not open his score until the New Year of 1941.

When, subsequently, in the summer of 1941, Fighter Command launched a series of aggressive cross-Channel sweeps, the airmanship and combat skills exhibited by Johnson as a member of No 616, South Yorkshire's AuxAF Spitfire squadron, were recognised by Douglas Bader, then leading his celebrated Spitfire wing from Tangmere at the foot of the South Downs.

Bader paid Johnson the compliment of inviting him to fly in his own section, and the two men struck up a lifelong friendship. On August 9, during the wing's operation in support of a bomber attack on Gosnay, near Lille, Johnson was present when the legless Bader was shot down and taken prisoner.

Of that day, Johnson recalled how the amiable banter of his groundcrew relieved the tension as they strapped him in at Westhampnett airfield, a satellite of Tangmere. He remembered, too, how "the usual cockpit smell, that strange mixture of dope [varnish], fine mineral oil, gun oil and high octane assailing the nostrils" was "vaguely comforting".

He tightened his helmet strap, swung the rudder with his feet on the pedals, wiggled the stick, thought about Lille and Me 109s and switched on his gunsight. "In a slanting climb we cross Beachy Head and steer for the French coast. Bader rocks his wings, we level out for the climb, slide out of our tight formation and adopt wider battle formations at 25,000 ft."

Over the Pas de Calais, the wing encountered a swarm of Me 109s. "We fan out alongside Bader. There are four 109s with others on either side. Before opening fire I have a swift glance to either side. For the first time I see Bader in the air, firing at a 109. My 109 pulls into a steep climb, I hang on and knock a few pieces from his starboard wing."

Spotting a solitary Messerschmitt, Johnson dropped below, to take aim with his cannon at the unarmoured underside of the aircraft. Moments later a plume of thick black smoke marked the end of the 109.

In July 1942, when his score had already reached double figures, Johnson received command of No 610 (County of Chester), an AuxAF Spitfire squadron based at Ludham, hard by Hickling Broad in Norfolk. The next month, on August 19, 610 flew with New Zealander Jamie Jameson's No 12 Group Spitfire wing in the air battle over Dieppe, in support of the disastrous Dieppe Raid.

"Over Dieppe," Jameson recalled, "the wing was immediately bounced by a hundred FW 190s and a few Me 109s. I heard Johnson effing and blinding as he broke 610 into a fierce attack. I was hard at it dodging 190s, but I found time to speak sharply to Johnson about his foul language."

Johnson flew four sorties over Dieppe, adding to his tally of "kills". But he was always the first to acknowledge his debt to his groundcrew. "My life depended on my rigger Arthur Radcliffe and my fitter, Fred Burton," he wrote. "They strapped me in, waved me off and welcomed me back - and whenever I was successful they were as pleased as me."

James Edgar Johnson was born at Barrow-upon-Soar, near Loughborough, Leicestershire on March 9 1915. He was educated at Loughborough School and Nottingham University, where in 1937 he qualified as a civil engineer.

Aged 17, he bought a BSA 12-bore shotgun - for £1 down and nine similar monthly payments. Rabbits fetched a shilling each, and he reckoned that if he could average two rabbits from three shots he would pay for the gun.

He became adept at deflection shooting on the ground and, graduating to wildfowling on the Lincolnshire marshes, adapted the skill to bring down widgeon, pintail and teal. "The principles of deflection shooting against wildfowl and aeroplanes," he would reflect, "were exactly the same, except that aeroplanes could sometimes return your fire. The best fighter pilots were usually outdoor men who had shot game and wildfowl."

Johnson also learned to ride at an early age, and he enjoyed his Yeomanry service - though after seeing Spitfires and Hurricanes on a visit, on horseback, to Wittering, he declared that he would "rather fight in one of those than on the back of this bloody horse".

When the RAFVR expanded, he seized his chance and began training as a sergeant pilot, and was mobilised as war came. In August 1940 he joined No 19, a Spitfire squadron, but with the Battle of Britain raging over England the squadron was too pressed to train new pilots. In early September he moved to No 616, but was then hospitalised to have his fracture reset. He returned to the squadron in December.

Following command of No 610, in March 1943 Johnson was posted to lead the Canadian fighter wing at Kenley. Before long, Syd Ford, commanding No 403 Squadron, laid a pair of blue Canadian shoulder flashes on Johnson's desk. "The boys would like you to wear these," said Ford. "After all, we're a Canadian wing and we've got to convert you. Better start now."

Attacking ground targets and acting as escorts to US Eighth Air Force Fortress bomber formations, Johnson's Canadians produced ever increasing scores - in addition to Johnson's 14 kills and five shared between April and September. When Johnson left the squadron to rest from operations, his send-off party was such that the wing was stood down the next day.

Such was Johnson's reputation with the Canadians that when, early in 1944, the Royal Canadian Air Force formed No 144 Wing of three squadrons at Digby, in Lincolnshire, they insisted Johnson command it.

At the D-Day landings on June 6 1944, Johnson led the wing four times over the Normandy beaches. Thereafter, from a base near St Croix-sur-Mer, he and his men saw much action, and he himself had soon notched up his 28th kill, an FW 190 shot down over the Normandy bocage.

On the ground, Johnson got about on a horse he had found abandoned by the Germans. In the mess, dissatisfied with field rations, he brightened up meals with airlifts of bread, tomatoes, lobster and stout supplied by the wing's favourite Chichester landlord.

In April 1945, Johnson was promoted group captain and given command of No 125 Wing, equipped with the latest Griffon-engined Spitfire XIVs. After VE Day, on May 8, he led the wing to Denmark. In the course of the war, he had never been shot down and had only once been hit by an enemy fighter, over France in August 1944.

After Denmark, he was posted to Germany in command of No 124 Wing. In 1947, having reverted to the substantive rank of wing commander (the price of peace and a permanent commission), he was sent to Canada to attend the RCAF staff college at Toronto.

The next year he went on exchange to the US Air Force, and in 1950-51 he served with the Americans in Korea, before returning to Germany to command RAF Wildenrath until 1954.

In 1957, once more in the rank of group captain, Johnson was transferred to the world of bombers, as Commander of the new Victor V-bomber station at Cottesmore, Rutland. He relished the opportunities to imbue bomber crews with fighter philosophy and to fly their powerful jet aircraft - and also to hunt with the Cottesmore and to hold hunt balls in the officers' mess.

After promotion to air commodore and a spell as Senior Air Staff Officer at Bomber Command's No 3 Group, at Mildenhall, Suffolk, he received (on promotion to air vice-marshal) his final command - Middle East Air Forces, Aden. Johnson rated the latter command "the best air vice-marshal's job in the Air Force".

After retirement from the RAF in 1965, he sat on company boards in Britain, Canada and South Africa. He also launched, and until 1989 ran, the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust, providing housing and care for the elderly, the disabled, and vulnerable young people and families. Today the trust manages more than 4,000 houses and flats.

He wrote several readable books, notably Wing Leader (1956), a wartime autobiography, and Full Circle (1964). With his friend and fellow ace Wing Commander P B "Laddie" Lucas, he wrote Glorious Summer (1990); Courage in the Skies (1992); and Winged Victory (1995).

In addition to the decorations mentioned already he was awarded an American DFC, Air Medal, and Legion of Merit, and the Belgian Croix de Guerre and Order of Leopold.

He was appointed CBE in 1960 and CB in 1965. He became a Deputy Lieutenant for Leicester in 1967, and was appointed to the Legion d'honneur in 1988.

Johnnie Johnson married, in 1942, Pauline Ingate; they had two sons.


Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

Go to: Obituaries

neil@mishalov.com

© 2001 by Neil Mishalov