On August 20th 1943, Canadians flying Spitfires arrived at Headcorn from Lashenden as their runway needed repairing. The two Canadian Squadrons were 403 and 421, led by Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson CB CBE DSO DFC DL. He finished the war as the RAF ace destroying 38 German planes. He was the only Englishman in the Canadian Wing, and he led both squadrons. He has visited us since the war and shown us the logbook he used when flying from here. Every man, both pilots and crew, was housed under canvas. Briefings took place in a large wireless-type vehicle parked under an oak tree opposite Weeks Farm. After briefings the pilots were taken aboard a utility van to their Spitfires which were at dispersal points around the airfield. Johnnie Johnson would always walk with his black Labrador across a field and over two ditches to his plane, which had the initials ” J.E.J” on both sides. I always looked out for these letters when the planes returned from operations in France.
Alan Palmer, boy from Bedlam Lane, Kent
Spitfire Mk. IX, serial no. EN398, JE-J
Personal aircraft of W/Cdr Johnnie Johnson, commanding officer of the Kenley Wing
Click to enlarge image
The highest scoring RAF fighter pilot to survive the war, James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson shot down 34 confirmed enemy aircraft, as well as seven shared victories, three shared probables, ten shared damaged and one destroyed on the ground. This tally is remarkable on two counts. Johnson’s operational career spanned between June 1941 and September 1944, overlapping roughly with RAF offensive over the Channel, but not including the Battle of Britain during which many of his fellow leading Fighter Command pilots gained their ace status. Arguably, chances for aerial victories were fewer and harder to obtain over enemy territory, and Johnson’s record during 1943 and 1944 is purely exceptional. In addition, all his victories, with the exception of a quarter share in a Messerschmitt 110, were against single-seat fighters – easily the most formidable opponents.
Johnson scored the bulk of his victories flying two Spitfires Mk IX. The first one was EN398, JE-J depicted above, in which he shot down 12 aircraft and shared five plus six damaged while commanding the Kenley Wing. His second mount, MK392, was an LF Mk. IX, in which his tally increased by another 12 aircraft plus one shared destroyed on the ground. His last victory of the war in September 1944 was scored in the latter aircraft. He ended the war flying yet another Spitfire, Mk XIVe, MV268. As a Wing Leader Johnson was entitled to personal code letters and his aircraft were always marked JE-J.
Johnson was born in 1915 in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire, England, and was educated at Loughborough Grammar School and the University of Nottingham where he qualified as a civil engineer. Art school age, he sustained a broken collar bone playing rugby union in 1938. Unfortunately the wound had been improperly set, resulting in lasting handicap which almost cost him his flying career.
Having completed his education, Johnson worked for a short time as civil engineer in Nottingham. Shortly before the war, he applied to join the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, but the bone injury meant he was rejected on medical grounds; he then joined the Leicestershire Yeomanry, where the injury was not a bar to recruitment. However, standards became more forgiving as the RAF expanded, and he later successfully applied to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
In August 1939 Johnson was called up. He spent the next year training at RAF Hawarden in Wales. During his training flights, the inexperienced Johnson stalled his Spitfire during approach, ground looping the aircraft, ripping off one of the undercarriage legs and forcing the other up through the port wing. He was fortunate to be excused by the Commanding Officer, for the “short airfield” was difficult to land on for an inexperienced pilot. However Johnson got the impression he would be watched closely, and felt that if he made another mistake he would be “certainly washed out”.
After training, he posted to No. 19 Squadron as a probationary Pilot Officer in the following August, though he was soon transferred to No. 616 Squadron at Coltishall. At this point, Johnson had flown 205 hours, of which 23 were on Spitfires.
Sadly, his injury continued to trouble him, and he found combat flying in a fighter extremely painful. He had to opt for an operation that would correct the problem, but as it turned out this meant that he taken off flying duties entirely and thus missed the Battle of Britain. He returned to his squadron only in December 1940.
Johnson returned to operational flying in early 1941, and with No. 616 Squadron forming part of the Tangmere Wing Johnson often found himself flying alongside the legendary W/Cdr Douglas Bader. He soon proved his worth as a capable fighter pilot and excellent formation leader.
Johnson opened his account on June 26, 1941, when he shot down his first Bf 109. By September his score had risen to six (all 109s) and he was awarded the DFC and made a flight commander. By June 1942 Johnson was in command of No. 610 Squadron. Johnson led his squadron through Operation Jubilee the Allied amphibious assault on the port of Dieppe. During that day he gained his first hard-won victory over the newest Luftwaffe fighter, the Fw 190.
In March 1943, now an acting Wing Commander, he took over the Canadian Wing stationed at RAF Kenley. The unit, now flying the Spitfire Mk. IX, became one of the highest scoring fighter wings of the time. Johnson chose his radio call-sign at this time as Greycap. During offensive sweeps over Europe and as escorts to the USAAF heavy bomber streams, he personally claimed 14 victories during the summer of 1943.
Johnson’s tour ended in September 1943 with a score of 25 kills. At this time he had been given a desk job at No.11 Group Headquarters until March 1944, when he was put in charge of No. 144 (RCAF) Wing.
On 5 May 1944 Johnson scored his 28th victory, becoming the highest scoring ace still on operations. After D-Day in June 1944, the wing was moved to the continent and Johnson continued to add to his tally, claiming another 10 aircraft shot down between March and July 1944. On 30 June 1944, Johnson scored his 33rd aerial victory, yet another Bf 109, surpassing Sailor Malan’s record score of 32 confirmed victories.
After the Normandy break-out, 144 Wing was disbanded, Johnson being given command of No. 127 Wing. His last victory of the war was on 27 September 1944 over Nijmegen.
Johnnie’s wartime record was 515 sorties flown, 34 aircraft claimed destroyed with a further seven shared destroyed (totalling 2.91 kills), three probable destroyed, ten damaged, and one shared destroyed on the ground. In the aftermath of the war Johnson commanded RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force at RAF Wildenrath in the West Germany from 1952 – 1954, then also commanded a force of V Bomber’s based RAF Cottesmore from 1957 – 1960. He retired from the RAF in 1969, having achieved the rank of Air Vice-Marshal.
Johnson died on 30 January 2001 from cancer, aged 85.
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