Vice-Marshal Johnnie Johnson
Johnson revisiting the cockpit of a Spitfire in 1986
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 pre-war 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 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
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. Johnson 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
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.