Air Vice Marshal James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson, CB, CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar. A Royal Air Force (RAF) flying Ace of the World War II. He was a qualified engineer, and a passionate rugby player. Johnson was interested in aviation. When applied to join the RAF, he was initially rejected, first on social, and then on medical grounds, because of a rugby injury. He was eventually accepted in August 1939. The injury problems, however, returned during his early training and flying career, resulting in him missing the Battle of France and Battle of Britain between May and October 1940. In 1940 Johnson had an operation to reset his collarbone, and began flying regularly. He took part in the offensive against Germany from 1941 to 1944. Johnson was involved in heavy aerial fighting during this period. He became a Group Captain by the end of the war.
Johnson flew nearly 1000 operational sorties and engaged enemy aircraft on 57 occasions. He was credited with 34 individual victories, seven shared, three shared probable, 10 damaged, three shared damaged and one destroyed on the ground. Included in his list of individual victories were 14 Messerschmitt Bf-109s, and 20 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s destroyed making him the most successful RAF ace against the Fw 190. His score made him the highest scoring Western Allied fighter Ace against the German Luftwaffe. Johnson later served in the Korean war before retiring in 1966 as an Air Vice Marshal. Johnnie Johnson died of cancer in 2001.
Johnson was born on 9 March 1915 in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire. His father, Alfred was a policeman. Johnson’s uncle, Edgar Charles Rossell, who had won the Military Cross with the Royal Fusiliers in 1916, paid for Johnson’s education. Johnson was nearly expelled from school after refusing punishment for a misdemeanour, believing it to be unjustified. He was very principled and simply dug his heels in. Among Johnson’s hobbies and interests were shooting and sports; he shot rabbits and birds in the local countryside. Johnson qualified as a civil engineer at age 22. He became a surveyor, and later an assistant engineer. In 1938, Johnson broke his collarbone playing rugby. The injury was wrongly set and did not heal properly, which later caused him difficulty at the start of his flying career.
Struggle to Join the RAF
Johnson started taking flying lessons at his own expense. In 1937, “Johnnie” Johnson tried to join the Auxiliary Air Force (AAF). On hearing that he came from Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, the interviewing officer said, “My dear chap, you’re just the type. Which hunt do you follow?” When Johnnie said he did not even ride a horse, he was promptly shown the door. Little did that interviewing officer think he had just rejected the man who, in the second world war, would shoot down more of the enemy than any other pilot in the RAF – and without ever being shot down himself. Johnson felt he was rejected on the grounds of his class status.
The prospect of war increased, and the criteria for applicants changed as the RAF expanded and brought in men from ordinary social backgrounds. Johnson re-applied to the AAF. He was informed that sufficient pilots were already available but there were some vacancies in the balloon squadrons. Johnson rejected the offer. Realising that the AAF was at that time an exclusive club, Johnson then applied to join the royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), which was a means to enter the RAF for young men with ordinary backgrounds. All volunteer aircrew were made Sergeant on joining with the possibility of a commission. But, once again he was rejected, because there were too many applicants for vacancies and his shoulder injury made him unsuitable for flight operations. He then joined the Territorial Army as a reserve, to be called in case of war.
Persuasion and War Clouds Supports His joining RAF
With war clouds in the horizon, in August 1939, Johnson was finally accepted by the RAFVR and began training at weekends at an RAF satellite airfield. Johnson trained on the de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane. Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, Johnson entrained for Cambridge. He arrived at the 2nd Initial Training Wing to begin flight instruction. After many a “ifs and buts, Johnson was finally selected for fighter pilot training and given the service number 754750 with the rank of Sergeant. By December 1939, Johnson began his initial training at 22 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School), Cambridge. He flew only three times in December 1939 and eight in January 1940, all as second pilot. On 29 February 1940, Johnson flew solo for the first time in Tiger Moth N6635. He passed out on 6 May, and moved to 5 FTS at Sealand before completing training at 7 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at RAF Hawarden in Wales. He received his “wings” on 7 August 1940, and was immediately inducted into the General Duties Branch of the RAF as a pilot officer with 55 hours and 5 minutes solo flying.
Tough Days on Spitfire
On 19 August 1940, Johnson flew a Spitfire for the first time, and began operational flying training. During his training flights, he stalled and crashed a Spitfire. Johnson had his harness straps too loose. The shoulder got wrenched revealing that his earlier rugby injury had not healed properly. The Spitfire did a ground loop, ripping off one of the undercarriage legs and forcing the other up through the port main plane. The Commanding Officer (CO) forgave Johnson, for the short airfield was difficult to land on even for an inexperienced pilot. Johnson was worried that he will be under close watch, and could not make another mistake. Johnson packed has injured shoulder with wool, held in place by adhesive tape. He also tightened the straps to reduce vibrations while flying. The measures proved useless and Johnson found he had lost feeling in his right hand. When he dived the pressure changes aggravated his shoulder. He often tried to fly using his left hand only, but Spitfires had to be handled with both hands during anything other than simple manoeuvres. Despite the difficulties with his injuries, on 28 August 1940, the completed the course, and now had over 200 hours in his log book, including 24 on the Spitfire.
Initial Tactical Flying
In August 1940, he was briefly posted to No. 19 Squadron as a probationary Pilot Officer. On 6 September 1940 Johnson was posted to N0. 616 Squadron, where he learnt the technique of deflection shooting and how to take a killing shot from line-astern or near line-astern positions. He also learnt that the duty of the No. 2 was not to shoot down enemy aircraft but to ensure the leader’s tail was safe. He learnt the importance of correct battle formation and the tactical use of sun, cloud and height. Five days later, Johnson flew an X-Raid patrol in a Spitfire, qualifying for the Battle of Britain Clasp.
Injury Resurfaces – The Shoulder Operation
Johnson’s old injury continued to trouble him and he found flying high performance aircraft like the Spitfire extremely painful. RAF medics gave him two options; he could have an operation that would correct the problem, but this meant he would miss the Battle of Britain, or becoming a training instructor flying the light Tiger Moth. Johnson opted for the operation. He was taken off flying duties and sent to a RAF Hospital. He return to the squadron only on 28 December 1940. He flew a test flight with his CO and was cleared for further flying. And from then on Johnson became a deadly killing machine, not only the master of the Spitfire but also – unlike almost everyone else – a master of accurate deflection shooting, learned against agile rabbits.
Second World War – Time For First Action
Johnson was in operational flying in early 1941 in 616 Squadron, which was forming part of the Tangmere Wing. Johnson often found himself flying alongside Wing Commander Douglas Bader and Australian ace Tony Gaze. The only problem was that the great Battle of Britain was over, and “Huns” were hard to find. On 15 January 1941, Johnson, took off as a No.2 in a formation to fly as cover for a convoy off North Cotes. The controller vectored the pair onto an enemy aircraft, a Dornier Do 17. Both attacked the bomber and lost sight of it and each other. Although the controllers intercepted distress signals from the bomber Johnson did not see it crash. The formation was credited with one enemy aircraft damaged. It was the only time Johnson was to engage a German bomber.
Take the Fight to Germans
Johnson flew as a night fighter. Using a day fighter without radar was largely unsuccessful in intercepting German bombers during The Blitz (a German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941). Johnson’s only action occurred on 22 February 1941 when he damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 110 flying a Spitfire. Johnson’s squadron was moved to RAF Tangmere on the Channel coast. In November 1940 Air Marshal Sholto Douglas became Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Fighter Command. On 8 December 1940 a directive from the Air Staff called for “Sector Offensive Sweeps”. It ordered hit-and-run operations over Belgium and France. The operations were to be conducted to harass German air defences. On 10 January 1941 “Circus attacks” were initiated by sending small bomber formations protected by large numbers of fighters. These were designed to draw up the Luftwaffe. These operations became known as the “Circus Offensive”. Trafford Leigh-Mallory, AOC 11 Group, outlined distinct mission escort operations for day fighters.
Johnson’s First Combat Embarrassment
Johnson’s first contact with enemy single-engine fighters was when he led a section behind Bader’s patrol section. Johnson spotted three Bf 109s a few hundred feet higher and travelling in the same direction. Johnson, forgetting to calmly report the number, type and position of the enemy, shouted, “Look out Dogsbody” (Bader’s call sign). Such a call was only to be used if the pilot in question was in imminent danger of being attacked. The Section broke in all directions and headed to Tangmere singly. The mistake brought an embarrassing rebuke from Bader at the debriefing.
Evolving New Combat Tactics and Formations
Johnson flew various operations over France including ground attack missions, which Johnson hated, as he considered it a waste of pilots. Several successful fighter pilots had been lost in such missions he felt. During this time, many other pilots also expressed dissatisfaction with the formation tactics being used. After long deliberations, Bader accepted the suggestions and agreed to the use of more flexible tactics to lessen the chances of being taken by surprise. The tactical changes involved operating overlapping line abreast formations similar to the German “finger-four” formation. The formation and tactics were used thereafter by all RAF pilots.
The First Air Victory
Johnson gained his first air victory on 26 June 1941. Crossing the coast near Gravelines, Bader warned of 24 Bf 109s nearby, southeast, in front of the formation. The Bf 109s saw the British and turned to attack the lower section from the rear. While watching three Bf 109s above him dive to port, Johnson lost sight of his wing leader at 15,000 feet. Immediately a Bf 109E flew in front of him and turned slightly to port at a range of 150 yards. Johnson shot. After being hit, the Bf 109’s hood was jettisoned and the pilot bailed out. Several pilots witnessed the victory. He had expended 278 rounds. The Bf 109 was one of five lost German Fighter Wing 2 that day.
More Victories Follow
On 1 July 1941 he expended 89 rounds and damaged a Bf 109E. Bader’s section was attacked and Johnson out-turned his assailant. Firing, he saw glycol streaming behind it. On 14 July, losing sight of the squadron, Johnson and his wingman proceeded inland at 3,000 feet after spotting three aircraft. Turning in behind them, he identified them as Bf 109Fs. Johnson dived so as to come up and underneath into the enemy’s blind spot. Closing to 15 yards, he gave the trailing Bf 109 a two-second burst. The tail was blown off and Johnson’s windshield was covered in oil from the Messerschmitt. Johnson saw the other Bf 109s spinning down out of control. Having also lost his wingman, Johnson disengaged. Climbing and crossing the coast at Etaples, Johnson bounced a Bf 109E. Giving chase in a dive to 2,000 feet and firing at 150 yards, he observed something flying off the Bf 109’s starboard wing. Johnson could not see any more owing to the oil-covered windscreen and did not make a claim.
Encounter with Adolf Galland
On 21 July, Johnson shared in the destruction of another Bf 109 with Pilot Officer Heppell. Johnson’s wingman disappeared during the battle. Sergeant Mabbet was mortally wounded but made a wheels-up landing near St Omer. Impressed with his skillful flying while badly wounded, the Germans buried him with full honours. On 23 July, Johnson damaged another Bf 109. During this battle the famous German Ace Adolf Galland was wounded, but his life was saved by a recently installed armour plate behind his head.
Mission When Bader Bailed Out
Johnson took part in the 9 August 1941 mission in which Bader was lost over France. On that day Bader had been without his usual wingman Sir Alan Smith who was unable to fly due to a cold. During the sortie, Johnson destroyed a solitary Messerschmitt Bf 109. Johnson flew as wingman to Dundas in Bader’s section. As the Wing crossed the coast, around 70 Bf 109s were reported in the area, the Luftwaffe aircraft outnumbering Bader’s Wing by 3:1. Spotting a group of Bf 109s 1,000 feet below them, Bader led a bounce on a lower group. The formations fell apart and the air battle became a mass engagement with high risk of collision rather than being shot down. Johnson exited the mass of aircraft and was immediately attacked by three Bf 109s. The closest was 100 yards away. Maintaining a steep, tight, spiral turn, he dived into cloud and immediately headed for Dover. Coming out of the cloud, Johnson saw a lone Bf 109. Suspecting it to be one of the three that had chased him, he searched for the other two. Seeing nothing, Johnson attacked and shot it down. It was his fourth victory. On 4 September 1941 Johnson was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
Johnson Becomes A Flying Ace
On 21 September 1941. Escorting Bristol Blenheims to Gosnay, the top cover wings failed to rendezvous with the bombers. Near Le Touquet at around 20,000 feet, Johnson’s section was bounced by 30 Bf 109s. Johnson broke and turned in and behind a Bf 109F. Approaching from a quarter astern and slightly below, Johnson fired closing from 200 to 70 yards. The German pilot bailed out. Pursued by several enemy aircraft, Johnson dived to ground level. About 10 miles off Le Touquet, other Bf 109s attacked. Allowing the Germans to close within range, Johnson turned into a steep left-hand turn. It took him onto the tail of a Bf 109. He shot a Bf 109. The two victories made Johnson’s total to six destroyed, which now meant he was an official flying Ace. In winter 1941, Johnson and 616 Squadron moved to training duties.
German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Introduced
RAF Fighter Command resumed its offensive policy in April 1942 when the weather cleared for large-scale operations. Johnnie flew seven sweeps that month. But the situation had now changed. RAF was flying the Spitfire V, which was a match for the Bf 109F. However, the Germans introduced the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. It was faster at all altitudes below 25,000 feet, possessed a faster roll rate, was more heavily armed and could out-dive and out-climb the Spitfire. Only in the turn could the Spitfire outperform the Fw 190. The introduction of this new enemy fighter resulted in heavier casualty rates among the Spitfire squadrons until a new mark of Spitfire could be produced. Johnson claimed a damaged Fw 190 on 15 April 1942 but he witnessed the Fw 190s get the better of the British pilots consistently throughout most of 1942.
Bar to DFC
On 26 June 1942, Johnson was awarded the Bar to his DFC. Meanwhile the Spitfire Mk. IXs began reaching RAF units. On 10 July 1942, Johnson was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader and given command of 610 Squadron. In Johnson preferred the finger-four formation much to the disagreement with his boss Wing Commander Patrick Jameson. On 19 August 1942 was the Dieppe raid. Johnson in his Spitfire VB ran into around 50 Bf 109s and Fw 190s. In a climbing attack Johnson shot down one Fw 190 and shared in the destruction of a Bf 109F.
Becomes a Wing Commander – Introduces New Tactics
Then he was frustrated by being given a staff job. But in March 1944, he was switched to command a different Canadian wing in the newly formed 2nd Tactical Air Force. Johnson took command of No. 127 Wing RCAF based at RAF Kenley, and they received the new Spitfire IX, perhaps the answer to the Fw 190. Being a Wing Commander meant his initials could be painted on the machine. After D-Day he organised barrels of beer to be slung under the Spitfires in place of extra fuel tanks, a move welcomed on the dusty front-line airfields of Normandy. His Spitfires now carried JE-J. He was also allotted the call sign “Greycap“. Johnson set about changing the wing’s tactical approach. He quickly forced the wing to abandon the line-astern tactics for the finger-four formation which offered much more safety in combat; enabling multiple pilots to participate in scanning the skies for enemy aircraft so as to avoid an attack, and also being better able to spot and position their unit for a surprise attack upon the enemy. Johnson also abandoned ground attack missions whenever he could. On a fighter sweep, Johnson destroyed an Fw 190 for his eighth victory. Johnson scored more success in July when the USAAF began Blitz Week, a concentrated effort against German targets. Escorting American bombers, Johnson destroyed three Bf 109s and damaged another, the last being shot down on 30 July; his tally stood at 18.
Becomes Highest Scoring Ace
Johnson continued to score regularly. His 22 & 23rd victories were achieved on 25 April 1944 and Johnson became the highest scoring ace still on operations. After the landings in France on 6 June 1944, Johnson added further to his tally, claiming another five aerial victories that month. Johnson’s wing was the first to be stationed on French soil following the invasion. With their radius of action now far extended compared to the squadrons still in Britain, the wing scored heavily through the summer. Johnson had now equaled and surpassed Sailor Malan’s record score of 32. However Johnson considered Malan’s exploits to be better, and said, Malan had fought with great distinction when the odds were against him.
Last Victory of the War
In September 1944 Johnson’s wing participated in support actions for Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. On 27 September 1944, Johnson had his last victory of the war, when his flight bounced a formation of nine Bf 109s, one of which Johnson shot down. The wing rarely saw enemy aircraft for the remainder of the year. Only on 1 January 1945 did the Germans appear in large numbers, during Operation Bodenplatte to support their faltering attack in the Ardennes. He recalled the Germans seemed inexperienced and their shooting was “atrocious”. Johnson led a Spitfire patrol to prevent a second wave of German aircraft attacking but engaged no enemy aircraft, since there was no follow-up attack. From late January and through most of February, Johnson reduced his flying time.
Post War – Permanent Commission
On 26 March Johnson was promoted to acting Group Captain, and later took command of No. 125 Wing. Some idea of his character is shown by the fact that in early 1942 he became a Squadron Leader, in 1943 a Wing Commander and in February 1945 a Group Captain. During the last week of the war, Johnson’s squadron flew patrols over Berlin and Kiel as German resistance crumbled. After the German capitulation in May 1945, Johnson relocated with his unit to Copenhagen, Denmark. After the war, Johnson was given a permanent commission by the RAF, initially as a Squadron Leader, on promotion to Wing Commander (his wartime rank), he become OC Tactics at the Central Flying Establishment.
During an exchange posting to the US Air Force, in 1950 he served in the Korean War flying the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star, and later flew the North American F-86 Sabres with the US Air Force Tactical Air Command. Johnson did not leave any written record of his experiences but at the end of his tour received the US Air Medal and Legion of Merit.
Further RAF Service
In 1951, Johnson commanded a wing at RAF Fassberg. In 1952, he was promoted to Group Captain and commanded RAF Wildenrath in West Germany until 1954. From 1954 to 1957 he was deputy director operations (DD(Ops) at the Air Ministry in London. In 1956 his wartime memoir, “Wing Leader” was published. When he had written his autobiography, Wing Leader, he asked Bader to contribute a foreword. His old CO wrote back “Dear Johnnie, I did not know you could read and write.” That was Johnnie in a nutshell.
On 20 October 1957, Johnson became Commanding Officer of RAF Cottesmore in the UK, a station operating the Victor V bombers. In 1960 he was promoted to Air Commodore, and attended the Imperial Defence College (IDC) course in London and in June 1960 was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his work as Station Commander. On 1 October 1963 he was promoted to Air Vice Marshal and served as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Middle East based at Aden. In 1964 he published his book “Full Circle”, a history of air fighting, co-written with Percy “Laddie” Lucas, a former Member of Parliament and Douglas Bader’s brother-in-law. In 1965 on retirement from the RAF he was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).
Post Retirement Life
Johnson was a Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Leicestershire in 1967. He established the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust. In 1969 and by 2001 the housing association managed over 4,000 properties. After the death of the WW2 RAF fighter pilot Douglas Bader in 1982, Johnson, Denis Ceowley-Milling and Sir Hugh Dundas set up the Douglas Bader Foundation, to continue supporting disabled charities, of which Bader was a passionate supporter. Johnson was also the first to recognise the skills of Robert Taylor, aviation artist, in the 1980s. Depictions of aircraft and battle scenes in print began to become popular and he helped Taylor promote them. The venture was successful and Johnson’s sons set up their own distribution networks in the United States and Britain.
In 1942 he married Paula, and they had two sons, Michael and Christopher. In 1977 he and his wife decided amicably to separate. For a while he lived in Jersey, but he returned to Buxton, Derbyshire.
Johnson spent most of the 1980s and 1990s as a keynote speaker, fundraiser and spending time on his hobbies; travelling, fishing, shooting and walking his dogs. Johnson appeared on the long–running British television show “This is Your Life” on 8 May 1985, the 40th anniversary of VE Day. Among the program’s guests was German fighter ace Waltor Matoni. British wartime propaganda had alleged Johnson had challenged Matoni to a personal duel; a version of events denied by Johnson. The two men arranged to meet after the war but were unable to do so until the TV program. Among other guests was High Dundas, “Nip” Heppel, who flew alongside Johnson on his first operation.
Summary of War Flying and Air Victories
Johnson’s wartime record was over 1,000 missions flown, 38 aircraft claimed destroyed with a further seven shared destroyed (three and one shared victories), three probable destroyed, 10 damaged, and one shared, destroyed on the ground. All his victories were fighters. As a Wing Leader, Johnson was able to use his initials “JE-J” in place of squadron code letters. He scored the bulk of his victories flying two Mk IXs: EN398/JEJ in which he shot down 12 aircraft, an MK392/JEJ, 12 aircraft plus one shared, destroyed on the ground. His last victory of the war was scored in this aircraft. The ability to verify British claims against the British’ main opponents in 1941 and 1942, JG 26 and JG 2, is very limited. Only two of the 30 volumes of War Diaries produced by JG 26 survived the war. Historian Donald Caldwell has attempted to use what limited German material is available to compare losses and air victory claims but acknowledges the lack of sources leave the possibility for error. Officially this remains the highest total of any RAF pilot, though it is widely believed Sqn Ldr St John Pattle exceeded 40 in the turmoil of the Greek campaign. Only one Allied pilot — Richard Bong of the United States Army Air Forces, who shot down 40 Japanese planes — had greater success during the war. The leading American air ace in Europe, Francis Gabreski, shot down 28 German planes.
Perhaps Johnson’s most impressive achievement was that, he was never shot down. Only once was his Spitfire damaged by the enemy. Apologising, he said, “I was surrounded by six of them.” He was awarded the DSO and two bars, the DFC and bar, the Belgian Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, wrote: Johnnie Johnson’s performance was even more creditable because he largely missed the Battle of Britain and won his “kills” in fighter-to-fighter combat rather than against heavy bombers. Johnnie’s kills were hard-earned, but then Johnnie had the two skills needed to be successful, he was a good shot and a good pilot. Lots of people were good pilots, but Johnnie was also a good shot, gifted in the art of deflection shooting”.
He was a hard man, a very tough man, but a very good leader. He was trusted and he looked after his people. But he was intolerant if a man did not come up to scratch. There were some pilots who had to overcome a great deal of fear; but Johnnie did not seem to suffer like that. It was somehow easier for him. He was certainly tough – and demanding, both on and off duty – but then you had to be.
Second world war fighter ace credited with more enemy ‘kills’ than any other British pilot. On 30 January 2001, Johnson, aged 85 years, died from cancer. A memorial service took place on 25 April 2001. The only memorial was a bench dedicated to him at his favourite fishing spot on the estate; the inscription reads “In Memory of a Fisherman”.
Picture Credit: starduststudios.com