Tag Archives: Supermarine Spitfire

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…

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First light

First Light Geoffrey WellumEven by the standards of the Battle of Britain, Geoffrey Wellum’s story is astonishing.

He joined the RAF in August 1939, aged just 17, and was flying his first combat missions within a matter of months. At the sharp end of many of the ferocious dogfights, he was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, promoted to Flight Commander and, in 1942, transferred to the Mediterranean to lead a group of eight Spitfires patrolling the skies above Malta.

He wrote about his experiences in a moving yet startlingly clear-eyed memoir, First Light, which was first published in 2002 and went straight to the top of the bestseller lists.

Matthew Whiteman directed  a one-off adaptation, which was aired on BBC Two in September 2010. He comments that Wellum’s self-effacing approach is why the book resonates today: “All the other memoirs that I’ve read from the period are very much, ‘How I won the war.’ Whereas the last thing Geoffrey talks about is his own heroism. The effort was heroic, but the only thing about Geoffrey that’s truly heroic is that he found a way to endure.”

Perhaps the book’s reflective tone is due to the fact that Wellum wrote it decades after the end of the war. It’s a strange twist that something written so long after the event should resonate with such truth and capture the immediacy of the Battle.

Twenty-five years ago, Geoffrey Wellum was at the lowest ebb of his life. “The family business was going into liquidation,” he recalls in an interview with the Telegraph. “I was losing my house, my divorce was coming, my son was at university, I had nowhere to live. Everything was pear-shaped.”

In despair, he started writing a memoir about his youth. “I just wanted to sit quietly and convince myself…” He takes a deep breath. “That at some point in my life I had been of use.”

He writes in the prologue:

“Thirty-five years later I am sitting at the dining room table in my small cottage. The french windows are open and the sound and smell of the steady summer rain create a peaceful atmosphere. Before me on the table is a pencil, sheets of foolscap and an old exercise book containing some reflections I jotted down at odd times during those momentous early days of the Second World War.

“Without realising it, I pick up the pencil and start to write. Something seems to guide that pencil as my hand moves back and forth across the paper. The daylight fades. I switch on the lamp and continue until my hand finally stops. The writing has totally relaxed me. I must write some more one day when I think about it and before memory fades further with advancing years. I kept no diaries, so I’ll just have to put all that I’ve written into some sort of order and call it a manuscript.”

Wellum never intended his memoir for publication, but gave it to James Holland, a young author researching a novel set during the Second World War. “I didn’t expect much,” said Holland. “Most fighter-pilot memoirs are fascinating, but they tend to be anodyne, devoid of any emotional punch. But Geoff’s was different.”

Even at the height of battle, Wellum suspected that their heroism would be forgotten. “Well, it has been,” he says during an interview. Recent Battle of Britain Association visits of schools revealed that virtually no children were aware of the events of 1940. Nor were their teachers. “It doesn’t matter,” Wellum says, unconvincingly.

Independent journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith interviewed him in 2002. She noted that he was a natural writer and asks him whether he’s got another book in him. “But what would I write about, darling? Nothing else mattered after that, nothing was worth recording.” But was the writing at least cathartic she asks? Wellum looks sad. “No, darling. It unwound me, but it couldn’t get it out of my system. People say, ‘You’ve got to forget all this, it was a long time ago’. And I say, ‘I quite agree with you, but can you tell me how?'”

 

“England is being tested and, with her, my own personal testing time is about to begin. This is the moment for which I was trained and the moment that has been on my mind largely since I joined the squadron. I am down on the order of battle for tomorrow morning at first light; readiness at dawn.

So be it. Soon I shall know what the others already know. I shall be a man or a coward. I’m afraid of being a coward. If the truth were known, most people are, I should think. I suppose cowardice is the most common of all skeletons in the cupboard.”

-Geoffrey Wellum, 131


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. 


Why have we never honoured man who invented the Spitfire?

R J Mitchell did not live to see his country threatened with invasion in 1940, but the aeroplane he designed did more than any other to defeat the Nazi assault on our skies.

Read the full article on The Telegraph website.