Tag Archives: History

Air Vice-Marshal Johnnie Johnson

Book cover for Ace of AcesGallant and dashing. A sharp shooter and natural leader. A Spitfire pilot. Johnnie Johnson was an air ace with a relentless desire to destroy the enemy.

Johnson was trained at an Operational Training Unit in Cheshire, where he learned how to fly Spitfires, but not how to fight in them. Pilots were longing for information about the Bf 109, on how to master deflection shooting and how best to keep a look out in the glare of the sun. Johnson relates a story about sending someone to London to buy a novel about World War I, after hearing that it contained some useful information. The booksellers knew about it, but all the copies had already gone at six times the cover price (Bungay 261).

However, his coolness as a pilot and a tremendous eye and judgment once the target was in his gun-sight ensured that he not only survived the war, but went on to become on of its great heroes.

A badly broken collar bone meant that he didn’t fly operationally during the Battle of Britain. Fiercely determined to prove that he wasn’t lacking in moral fibre (an accusation that hung over him during his medical grounding), he made up for lost time and became the RAF’s top WWII ace, accounting for at least 38 enemy aircraft over Britain and Europe.

At the D-Day landings on June 6 1944, Johnson led the first wing of Spitfires over the Normandy beaches. A few days later, they captured the aerodrome at St-Croix and were the first Allied fighters to land in France for over four years. Johnson said:

“…I was very pleased with this new development. Not only would we have the honour of being the first Spitfires to land in and operate from Normandy, but this would give us the extra range needed to sweep South of the River Loire, where we knew concentrations of enemy aircraft were based…Bear in mind that this was a strange experience, landing in what had been enemy territory from which we had previously had thrown at us every description of hostile shot and shell. We touched down…The villagers brought with them gifts of fruit and flowers and wine. Whilst we and the French rejoiced, dead German soldiers lay all around.” (Sarkar 228-229)

Perhaps Johnson’s most impressive achievement was that, in some 1,000 combat missions, he was never shot down. Only once was his Spitfire damaged by the enemy. Apologising, he said, “I was surrounded by six of them.”

Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, former chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, wrote:
“Johnnie’s kills were hard-earned, but then Johnnie had the two skills needed to be successful: he was a good shot and a good pilot. Lots of people were good pilots, but Johnnie was also a good shot – gifted in the art of deflection shooting. Before the war he had been a game-shooter, a sort of “Lincolnshire poacher”. He was a hard man, a very tough man, but a very good leader. He was trusted and he looked after his people. But he was intolerant if a man did not come up to scratch. There were some pilots who had to overcome a great deal of fear; but Johnnie did not seem to suffer like that. It was somehow easier for him. “

This clip from This is your life shows a post-war Johnson adopting his familiar steely-eyed, crossed-arm stance as he encounters personalities from his past. Watching the interview, there is a strong sense of his calmness, professionalism and perhaps detachment.

Johnson prolifically recounted his wartime experiences and wrote several books, including Wing Leader (1956), a wartime autobiography, and Full Circle (1964). With his friend and fellow Wing Commander P B “Laddie” Lucas, he wrote Glorious Summer (1990); Courage in the Skies (1992); and Winged Victory (1995).

After reading two first hand accounts (Richard Hillary and Geoffrey Wellum), I opted for an historian’s approach and turned to Dilip Sarkar’s latest book Spitfire: Ace of Aces. Compiled with information from Johnson’s logbooks, records and writing- coupled with extensive interviews, it is a thorough examination of Johnson’s training and WWII service.

As an independent and external author (a voice that an autobiography cannot provide), Sarkar is able to factually and dispassionately record events. Drawing on his personal friendship is helpful, but it’s still difficult to form a picture of Johnson’s personality, opinions and life beyond the airfield. Faulks captures more of this sort of detail in his biography of Hillary- but he is writing decades after Hillary’s death with no first hand knowledge of the man. The challenge to pin down history continues…

Michael Morpurgo on the pity of war

As the author of “War Horse”, Mr Morpurgo has seen the battlefields of Flanders many times. But In Flanders Fields Museum still moves him …

“From the moment we entered, words and photographs, film and sound, sculpture, paintings, artefacts and models told of how, nearly a century ago, men went mad all over Europe.

There is a sense of personal involvement in all this. On entering the museum, visitors are encouraged to choose a real character whose story they can follow through the war. Walking beside me, Flora is absorbed in the life of a Dutch girl, six years old when the war broke out, and orphaned shortly afterwards…”

A thoughtful article that is worth reading… 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2011

Barrington Gates’s review of The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement of June 13, 1942

“This is another book written by a young man who interrupted his youth to become a Spitfire pilot. It will not disappoint those whose appetite for realistic description of the R. A. F. fighters in training and action is still unsated; and it will refresh and sustain many whose interest is rather in the men who are making this tradition than in the details of the battles they fight. This is a book of war aims in which the act of aiming a Spitfire at the enemy is only incidental; if anyone is still unconvinced that this war is a war of ideas over the secret places of the human spirit he will find a proof here. Mr Hillary’s enemy is hardly at all the one he met in the air. The last enemy of his title is drawn from I Cor. xv, 26, but even that is not a very precise definition. It is not death but rather the evil of negation, of life ingrown in self, which engages Mr Hillary as he hunts himself through the fortunes of this striking discourse…”

Read the full article. 

Using themselves up

“Beyond those who died flying for Bomber Command, many more outstanding men somehow used themselves up in the Second World War, leaving pathetically little energy and imagination to support them through the balance of their lives. Surviving aircrew often felt deeply betrayed by criticism of the strategic air offensive, It is disgraceful that they were never awarded a campaign Medal after surviving the extraordinary battle that they fought for so long against such odds, and in which so many of them died. One night after I visited a much-decorated pilot in the North of England in the course of writing this book, he drove me to the station. Suddenly turning to me in the car, he asked: ‘Has anybody else mentioned having nightmares about it?’ He said that in the past ten years he had been troubled by increasingly vivid and terrible dreasm about his experiences over Germany.

A teacher by profession, he had thought nothing of the war for years afterwards. The a younger generation of his colleagues began to ask with repetitive, inquisitive distaste: ‘How could you have done it? How could you have flown over Germany night after night to bomb women and children?’ He began to brood more and more deeply about the past. He changed his job and started to teach mentally-handicapped children, which he saw as a kind of restitution.  Yet still, more than thirty years after, his memories of the war haunt him.

It is wrong that it should be so. He was a brave man who achieved an outstanding record in the RAF. The aircrew of Bomber Command went out to do what they had been told had to be done for the survival of Britain and for Allied victory. Historic judgements on the bomber offensive can do nothing to mar the honour of such an epitaph.”

-Max Hastings, 458-459.

The cost of the bomber offensive

“We want- that is, the people who served in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force and their next of kin- a categorical assurance that the work we did was militarily and strategically justified.”

-Wing-Commander Ernest Millington MP, House of Commons, 1946

Having taken a long look at Bomber Command over the last few weeks, I think the time has come to start shifting our focus. There are two pieces of work to be done before I start adding the specific details from the log book: further consideration of memoirs and memory (all the work we have looked at thus far has been written by historians; I’d like to look at some first-hand accounts- one written during the war and one written long after it).  I also need to build a better understanding of the situation in North Africa, working from the ground up.

But, before we depart from the topic of Bomber Command, I’d like to collect and post a few final thoughts on the balance sheet and why it remains such a difficult topic even today.

Here is Hasting’s summation:

“After the War, beneath a thin layer of perfunctory good will, it was soon apparent that…in the safety of peace the bombers’ part in the war was one that many politicians and civilians would prefer to forget. The laurels and romantic adulation were reserved for Fighter Command, the defenders. The men of the Army Occupation were first awed, then increasingly dismayed, by the devastation of Germany (451).”

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes…by fighting a long-holding action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If the airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved (458).”

A 1941 weekend

church fete

A couple, in costume, relive memories from 1941 at the local church fete

The little town that I live in made its nod to the nostalgia of the 1940s this weekend. The high street was decked out with ‘Keep calm and carry on’ posters (which I know weren’t actually used during the war and were discovered after the fact in a bookshop). Vintage vehicles trundled their way onto the burgage and the church fete adopted the theme of a street party.

It was an outward pageant for the deep feelings that many people have about the war. The organisers stated that “this will be a commemoration of life and times of this community in 1941. It will remind us that everyone had a role in winning the war – even in this quiet part of England.”

There were plenty of people with direct memories of the war- recalling prisoners of war helping on the farms, evacuated children in the schools and the arrival of the Americans.

Dr. Derek Beattie gave a lecture in the morning about the homefront. In particular, he considered the darker side of evacuation. He described how children were taken out to the safety of the countryside and were cruelly selected by families- taking the strong and fit ones to work on their farms, while the sickly and be-spectacled ones were dragged door to door until a family took them in (the hellish procedure of a captain choosing their school sports team, magnified a thousand times). This meant that siblings were often separated from each other- sometimes never to be reunited. Even worse, many children were physically and sexually abused by their new families. What a war it must have been for them.

He also noted that the upper middle classes, who were well equipped with servants and generous homes, were very poor at taking in evacuees. The upturn in mysterious ‘heart conditions’ rose dramatically and rendered many wealthy families ‘medically unable’ to take the strain of looking after the filthy, ill and poor creatures landing on their doorsteps.

The local women worked on the farms and in the forestry industry, with Dr. Beattie noting that one woman he interviewed still had very strong arms, even though she is now in her 90s.  One might assume that the passage of time might diminish their remembrances, but it was very much the opposite. He found that many are so elderly and in the very last twilight of their lives (with nothing to lose), that they were able to give increasingly candid interviews (as long as he didn’t talk to husbands and wives together!). Before D-Day, there were as many as 5 young men for every young woman in the town.

In a very sweet moment, Dr Beattie recalled that the region accommodated many Italian prisoners of war. “Oh, I know. I knew them!” piped up a woman, carefully dressed in period costume- complete with head scarf and wicker basket. “‘Know’ them in the biblical sense?” he teased. Everyone in the audience chuckled. Without embarrassment and with just the hint of a smile, she reiterated, “Yes, I knew them.”

A final tally

All RAF aircrews were volunteers. They had an average age of 22.

Of 125,000 bomber aircrew involved, more than 55,000 were killed, over 8,000 were wounded and nearly 10,000 were prisoners of war. This was on a scale proportionate to British casualties in the trenches during the worst period of World War One.

43,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz.

Through the bombing offensive, 593,000 German civilians died and 3.37 million dwellings were destroyed, including 600,000 in Berlin alone.

Hastings’ final judgment reads:

“The bomber offensive partly fulfilled useful purposes for the Allied war effort. Bomber Command entirely satisfied Churchill’s hopes… by fighting a long holding-action to buy time before launching Overlord on overwhelmingly favourable terms. If airmen had pitched their demands for resources, their own hopes and their subsequent claims more modestly, history might have judged them more kindly. As it was, the cost of the bomber offensive in life, treasure and moral superiority over the enemy tragically outstripped the results that it achieved” (458).