Johnnie Johnson’s Spitfire Revisited

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“I found the engineer officer and together we had a look at her, gleaming and bright in a new spring coat of camouflage paint. ...

“I found the engineer officer and together we had a look at her, gleaming and bright in a new spring coat of camouflage paint. Later I took her up for a few aerobatics to get the feel of her, for this was the first time I had flown a Mk IX. She seemed very fast, the engine was sweet and she responded to the controls as only a thoroughbred can. I decided that she should be mine, and I never had occasion to regret that choice.”
W/Cdr James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson about his first encounter with EN398

The recent article about RAF leading fighter ace Johnnie Johnson and his aircraft prompted me to do some further research into the look of his Spitfire, the work which resulted in the two colour profiles and a few findings presented below.

As is widely known, Johnson scored the bulk of his victories flying two Spitfires Mk. IX. The first one was EN398, JE-J, the subject of this article, 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.

Spitfire Mk. IX EN398

EN398 was part of batch EN112 to EN759 built by Vickers Armstrong between November 1942 and August 1943. This lot was originally ordered as Spitfires Mk. VC but as new marks of the fighter reached the production-ready status, it became a mixture of Mks. VII, IX, XI and XII.

EN398 was representative of the early production Mk. IX. The following features are distinctive of this aircraft:

  • “C” type wing with two cannon but broad cannon blisters,
  • Small teardrop blister at starboard engine cowling housing the cabin blower driveshaft
  • “Small” carburettor intake
  • Single-angled horn-balanced elevator

The Merlin 63 engine was equipped with fuel cooler featuring a prominent circular intake in the port wing root. All these features are further described in the article Spitfire Mk. IX, XI and XVI – Variants Much Varied also available at this site.

The aircraft was first issued to No. 402 Squadron RCAF on 18th February 1943. In service with this unit it initially received code letters AE-I.  In March, as it became the regular aircraft of F/Lt Ian Keltie, it was recoded AE-B and the ground crew added a nose art of Popeye on the port cowling side. On 22 March 1943 EN398 was transferred to No. 416 Squadron RCAF remaining on charge until the end of the month when it was listed as part of the Kenley Station HQ Flight. In the meantime, Johnson took command of the wing on 16 March. Presumably this was when Johnson adopted it as his own.

The Camouflage

Spitfire Mk. IX, serial no. EN398, JE-J
Personal aircraft of W/Cdr Johnnie Johnson, commanding officer of the Kenley Wing
Summer 1943
Click to enlarge image

Although the aircraft was still only two months old, it would seem that it was repainted before transfer to the HQ flight. Johnson recalled receiving it “gleaming and bright in a new spring coat of camouflage paint.”. The two published photographs of EN398 taken about July 1943 indeed show a rather shiny semi-gloss finish.

Johnson claimed his first kill on this aircraft on 3 April 1943. Soon EN398 was soon sent to Air Service Training, Hamble to undergo some modifications, returning to Kenley on 16 April. Most probably, the modification was mounting a gun camera in the starboard wing root. AST Hamble did this routinely on many initial production Mk. IXs, on which the gun camera was omitted to leave room for the fuel cooler intake in the port wing.

Even if the aircraft was repainted, its camouflage pattern followed pretty closely the factory finish that can be seen on many early Mk. IXs, characterised by gently curved demarcation lines with a notable “S” on the port side below the cockpit and, presumably, another “S” curve on top of the cowling.

Fuselage roundels in standard position, with JE-J lettering applied as shown – the forward “J” being placed higher than the rear letters. Serial number EN398 was applied in small serif-style lettering on top of the fuselage band. These were probably hand-painted or, alternatively, applied by stencils and touched-up to remove the stencil marks. Note that the number is painted at a slight angle to the fuselage datum.

A peculiarity visible on the photos of EN398 is the patch of fresh paint between the roundel and the forward “J”, apparently a sign of some repainting. It could have been a fresh application of Ocean Grey – as shown here – or some other colour, perhaps grey-green primer.

A Canadian Maple leaf on a white circular background was carried on both sides of the fuselage under the windscreen. Its colour has been a matter of some controversy. In his memories, Johnson stated that the the leaf on his aircraft was green. However, all the Canadian squadrons of the Kenley wing had this national symbol painted in red. Was green the conscious decision on the part of Johnnie to underline his British origin, or did the memory fail him on this rather small detail? Perhaps we will never know. I have chosen red for my profiles.

It is known that “Johnnie” customised his aircraft. Like many other aces, he ordered EN398’s guns to be harmonized according to his personal preference. Judging from the photos it would also seem that the circular rear view mirror was attached to a modified, taller mount.

Port view of EN398 (reconstruction)
Click to enlarge image

The port side of Johnson’s JE-J has, to my knowledge, escaped the attention of photographers. The following profile is my attempt an the reconstruction, using available information and the camouflage pattern which the aircraft carried while still in the markings of AE-B.

The codes JE-J on this side of the fuselage would fit under the rear part of the canopy as shown. The rear “J” would occupy only the portion of space between the fuselage roundel and the Sky band. Presumably the serial number was painted on the latter in the similar position and style as on the opposite side.

Johnson ordered the red and blue pennant of a Wing Commander to be applied on his aircraft. Most commonly these pennants were painted on the port side of the cowling below or in front of the windscreen. In the case of EN398 the most logical placement would be in front of the Canadian Maple leaf badge.

The last point worth mentioning is the absence of the kill marks. It may seem odd that the one of the top RAF fighter aces with all the fame and publicity which surrounded him would not have his double-figure victory tally reflected in the form of kill marks on his aircraft. Well, maybe they were there, maybe not – there is no conclusive evidence either way. If you prefer to believe that they were painted on his aircraft, you should know that JE-J finished his operational tour on EN398 with 25 confirmed victories, so any number of black crosses between 13 and 25 would be appropriate.

During the six months of flying with EN398, Johnson had shot down 12 enemy aircraft, sharing the destruction of  5 more. Remarkably, EN398 never caused him any technical trouble and never suffered any damage due to enemy action. After Johnson finished his tour and moved on to No. 11 Group Headquarters, his aircraft went to No. 421 Squadron for a couple of weeks before sustaining damage necessitating its return to Hamble for repairs. The aircraft never returned to operations, spending time in store for the remainder of the war.

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By Roberto Tamagnini  |  2017-04-25 at 16:01  |  permalink

Dear Sirs , many years go I built a little Spitfire (Airfix, scale 1-72) but I lost all the documentation – when I wrote on Google ” JE J spitfire ” your site showed up and now I can put a little card with its history near to it – thankyou ! Roberto , Roma , 25 Aprile 2017

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