Air 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 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. 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 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.