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.

16 Comments | Add New

By Steve Chamberlain  |  2010-05-13 at 00:20  |  permalink

Apparently one of the main reasons that JE-J was rarely if ever photgraphed from the port side was that Johnson had a “special” marking applied to the aircraft. According to a very good friend of mine ( Mr. Ralph Bolitsky of Kitchener Ontario Canada) who knew Johnson and had photos of the aircraft from the port side showing the marking, it was due to the marking being a rather large black and white cartoon / silhouette of and I quote Mr. Bolitsky: “Mr. Hitler getting a boot up his backside”.

Mr. Bolitsky was in his 70’s and a good friend of mine when I was a young lad growing up in Southern Ontario in the late 1970’s early 1980’s. He was an invaluable asset and respository of aircraft knowledge. He held a pilot’s license with an extremely low number which was issued to him during the 1920’s / 30’s and which was signed/ issued by Orville Wright. From the many days I spent building flying models and researching details for accuracy with Mr. Bolitsky I am aware that he personally knew such people as Glen Curtis, Bill Piper, Art Shaw and others. From the vast photo collection he had, many of which had him present in the photos, I would not doubt that what he said was true, since I have seen the photos Mr. Bolitsky had of Johnson beside JE-J.

Steve Chamberlain
Lic. AME
George Town, Grand Cayman

By Michael Satin  |  2010-11-22 at 23:34  |  permalink

Mr. Chamberlain,

This is very interesting information that I’ve never heard elsewhere! It does have a ring of truth about it, however. Johnnie Johnson’s mentor was Douglas Bader, the famous “legless” ace and squadron/wing leader from the Battle of Britain. Bader’s aircraft all had a very similar cartoon of Hitler getting the boot as is well documented both on his BoB Hurricanes and later Spitfires. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Johnson copied this onto his own airplanes after Bader was shot down, especially given his admiration of Bader.

I, and I’m sure many others, would love to see those photos if there’s any way for you to borrow and post them here. It would certainly solve a longstanding historical question!

Michael Satin

By Steve Chamberlain  |  2017-08-11 at 08:50  |  permalink

Hello Michael,

The photo that Ralph had is now long gone. Ralph passed while I was out of country for work back in the early 90’s and I have no idea what his wife or relatives did with his possessions..

I was a young lad in southern ontario when I met Ralph.. He was in his late 60’s – and I was a teenager, anyhow to a young “Air Minded” kid he had quite the background – although few ever really got to know him as he rarely let people get to close – but he sure loved building and flying RC models and had done so since he was a boy himself.

From what I gather he was well liked by the Military Officers he worked with during the war and his knowledge of aeronautics was exceptional. He had learned to fly on something called a “Canada Cub” – a 38h.p Taylor Cub assembled in Canada – very few ever got a C of A from the Air Board and the “Canada Cub Co.” of Hamilton Ontario didn’t last long as it was an American company.. Ralph said you had to open the engine up flat out and pray you could hop the fence at the end of the field and then relax the stick and let the little bird work its’ way into the air as the wheels kissed the tops of the corn. His first pilot’s license was issued by the Aero Club of America and signed by Orville Wright – I know because he showed it to me one day along with numerous other photos from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. The number on his US Aero-Club licnese was between in the low 100’s .. an “Early Bird” perhaps?. Ralph apparently also helped assemble the 1st Tiger Moth in Canada – the ship carrying the blueprints was torpedoed and sunk, but the parts for the DH-82 arrived on another ship and the DH Engineers had no trouble putting the machine together (just a newer version of the DH60 to them) – and then they went on to using the pieces to develop the paterns for their production line .. My guess is that Ralph studied or was studying to become an “Air Engineer” (Aeronautical Ground Engineer in British terminology and what we call a Licensed AME today) – when the war broke out and that is how he got his knowledge of the “Technical side of flying” … He worked for DeHavilland’s and was involved in the production of the Mossie at Downsview (really big model planes 🙂 ) and he may have worked for “Victory Aircraft” – probably late in the 40’s and that may be how he wound up with a nice fat roll of drawings for the Avro Arrow (the roll was about 8″ in diameter and rolled so tight you could hardly stick a blade of grass in the center and which wound up being given to a Mr. Chris Gauntley of K-W, another exceptional model builder)

One of the things I did with Ralph was to work on a model of a Hawker Hurricane between 1983 and 1986. We spent many weekends at the C.W.H at Mount Hope, Ontario pouring and peering at their Hurricane, taking measurements and notes and then comparing them to the drawings and technical info we had .. I drew up a plan for the model and the construction method – a lot of lightening and built up ribs and sections, “I” beam spars and similar high strength – low weight ideas and so forth.. anyhow we always had a copy of the drawing with us to make notes on and to sketch out ideas. From the info we were noting, the folks at the musem thought we were going to build a full scale replica not a 1/4 scale Hurricane that just barely fit into Ralph’s station wagon (Nose and spinner between the front seats and the fin / rudder prevented from touching the rear door glass by a thin sheet of foam) The model had a modified airfoil for the wing and horizontal tail (about 5-8 % thicker in the panels and 12-15% in the center section for more lift at model speeds) and the fuselage was built around a truss frame for both strength and lightness – same as the real deal – while many kit built models of the day were built using solid sheet and so heavy that they barely flew. Power for the model was a chainsaw engine and the landing gear was specially made to retract in the same manner as the real aircraft, not an “off the shelf” set of retracts.. It was during all this time spect with Ralph that I learned of the “Hitler getting a boot to the ass” carricature on the lesser seen side of fuselage of Bader’s aircraft – Ralph showed me the picture he had of Bader beside the aircraft – and I do believe that it was autographed – and stated his model would have the same carricature on it.

Interestingly, while writing this response I “googled” Ralph, and came up with the following hits you may find interesting : https://archive.org/stream/Model_Airplane_News_Magazine_1990-06#page/n55/mode/2up/search/bolitsky

This article, “Scale Steps” by Dick Phillips – speaks of Ralph’s Hurricane and is something I had never seen before tonight. I know the model I designed for him flew, and had been told that Ralph liked it, and only now see that Ralph’s “Flight report” of the model’s flying ability was in fact published. I still have the original outline drawings for this large model in my posession if anyone wants a copy…

the photo of the Hurricane in the October 1989 issue of Model Airplane News can be found here (although they call him “Bob” in the article” – and Ralph’s handiwork is indeed marked as “L-ED” Bader’s Hurricane : https://archive.org/stream/Model_Airplane_News_Magazine_1989-10#page/n41/mode/2up/search/Bolitsky

Incidently, I know Mr. John Clark of Clark Airscrew mentioned in this October 1989 article of M.A.N – and his Spitfire (and his company’s then proposed Hurricane) were / are big and made of fibreglass whereas Ralph’s Hurricane was “Rag and Tube” so to speak.

Not sure if you can access this link, but this is a colour picture of Ralph (crouched) with the model of L-ED and Mr. Steve Ruxton of Kitchener Ontario taken about 1986 before it was ever flown. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154951000936391&set=pb.681471390.-2207520000.1502439824.&type=3&theater

When Ralph passed, I believe that his model of L-ED was donated to Tom Dietrich of the “Tiger Boys” at Guelph Airpark, Guelph Ontario, has never flown again and remains in the Tiger Boys’ collection.

And for anyone interested, below is some info on the Permanent Organisation of the RAF – the famous “Trenchard Memorandum” read into parliament by W.S Churchill – also known as “Trenchard’s memo on the Supreme importance of Training” – well worth a read…

https://archive.org/details/PermanentOrganizationOfTheRoyalAirForce1919

By Steve Chamberlain  |  2017-08-11 at 09:12  |  permalink

Here is a pic of Bader on LED and the carricature is below the port exhaust .. http://sim-fly.com/now-you-can-fly-a-hawker-hurricane-at-sim-fly/

and here is a rather decent pic of the carricature – http://www.bravobravoaviation.com/shop/en/hawker-hurricane/495-hawker-hurricane-mk-i-sl-douglas-bader-no-242-squadron-royal-air-force-september-1940.html

My friend Ralph knew a great many people and his background (and that of most Aeronautical Ground Engineers / Air Engineers is now largely lost.

Back when the war was in full swing it is not surprising that there were photos taken at any opportunity since the pilot and aircrew may not return.. a lot were staged but some were very candid – and a lot never saw the censors marker.

S/L Johnson was no exception when it came to photo ops’ and it is unfortunate that all of Ralph’s personal memorabilia were not collected and donated to an air musem.. then we would have a lot more to go on than memories and “I wish’d i’d have’s” …

a massive amount of history is now gone that could have told us so much about the technical side of the military aviation force and how civil aviation evolved from it beginning in April 1919.

By Sarah Flynn  |  2016-11-29 at 10:41  |  permalink

Dear Mr Chamberlain
Reading your post, might you have a photo of the cartoon of Hitler from Johnnie Johnson’s Spitfire ?
Best wishes
Sarah Flynn

By Steve Chamberlain  |  2017-08-11 at 08:56  |  permalink

Hello Sarah,

Sorry, the conversation and topic revolved around Bader’s “L-ED” … and I have no picture of S/L Johnson’s marked aircraft, however I do seem to recall that his machine did carry a much reduced carricature of “Hitler getting the boot” – purposely small because it was then so hard to make out in the press photos 😉

Steve

By Steve Chamberlain  |  2017-08-11 at 09:40  |  permalink

Here is a thought

the “Censors” of the day didn’t take or allow photos that portrayed any particular pilot in a bad light – and as seen here, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/15/battle-of-britain-photographs-reveal-the-faces-of-the-royal-air-force_n_8139160.html

the hitler getting the boot pic is solely of the nose, but fails to reflect that the aircraft is Bader’s own..

From what my friend Ralph had told me so many years ago, there was no way that the “Official” pics of S/L Johnson’s personal aircraft were going to reflect the carricature – especially in Canada – and that frequently the image was obscured but that it was on the port side.

This location is more than likely on the fold-down door to the cockpit.. and it wouldn’t have been as large as the image on the nose of Bader’s hurricane … I seem to recall there being a discussion with some others at the time re this topic and Ralph getting rather mad and pointing out that the person didn’t know S/L Johnson personally whilst Ralph did, and as the person was only 40 he wasn’t there when the fighting and action was taking place” ..

The most heated discussions on “Air Superiority” were between Ralph (Fiercely loyal to the British Flag) and Mr. Rudy Meyer (Mayer) .. of “German heritage” … They hated each other with a passion .. Ralph’s most timely comment being the day Rudy snap rolled one of his scale models into the ground destroying it instantly.. at which point “Achtung Spitire” was yelled out by Ralph in front of a few hundred people at the model air display… Johnson would have rolled over laughing since “Bader’s (gun) Bus” was still in action …

By larry osment  |  2012-04-12 at 00:24  |  permalink

I have a vintage framed photo of MK-IX EN398 flying peace time over texas with an ME-109 larryo@sydneyinternational.us SIMplified Aviation Art©

By Owen E. Oulton  |  2012-09-17 at 18:49  |  permalink

I love the drawing of JEJ and am using them as a basis for decals for my model of the Mk.IX. However, the maple leaves you depict are not correct. You show the 1965 heraldic maple leaf from the modern Canadian flag. Johnson would have used the type of leaf insignia common to the times, more naturalistic in its design, whether red or green.

By MALCOLM  |  2012-10-08 at 19:39  |  permalink

didn’t the 402 squadron RCAF recieve their spirfires in engand in july 42 in time for the dieppe raid , i have a 3 foot squadron photo of the same with 3 new spits

By solson  |  2015-06-10 at 16:43  |  permalink

What is the function of the yellow stripes on the LE of each wing? Thanks!

By Richmond  |  2016-02-29 at 20:44  |  permalink

Those yellow stripes were a form of identification for RAF aircraft to prevent friendly fire.

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