Second world war fighter ace credited with more enemy 'kills' than any other British pilot.
The Guardian, Thursday 1 February 2001
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, who has died aged 85, was born at Barrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire. He was a rather wild youth, and his father, a policeman, is reported to have said: "You'd better be either a policeman or a pilot." In fact, after attending Loughborough College and Nottingham University, he qualified as a civil engineer. Without any further objective in mind, he also became deadly with a shotgun, with an average (he wrote) of two rabbits with every three shots.
Realising that the AAF was at that time an exclusive club, he then tried the RAF Volunteer Reserve, to receive a second rejection. He eventually managed to join the Territorial Army, but in 1939 war clouds were gathering, and he was called up into the RAFVR. To his delight, he managed to be selected for pilot training, and found himself at Marshall's School at Cambridge. At 23 he was older than most of the pupils, but he did well, and in summer 1940 he went to Hawarden in Cheshire to learn to fly the Spitfire. On his fourth flight he pranged (crashed), but in September he was commissioned and posted to 19 Squadron, and then to an AAF unit, 616 Squadron. Exhausted, the survivors of 616 were being rested and reorganised away from the battle at Kirton-in-Lindsey.
Here, Johnnie put in as many hours on the "Spit" as he could, but he found his flying handicapped by a painful old rugby injury. He tried to fly with his left hand, but eventually had to report his difficulty. The instant reaction was "Has this chap gone LMF?" Lack of moral fibre was a heinous crime, but Johnnie soon convinced the authorities that he was exactly the opposite.
An operation cured the problem, 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.
The only problem was that the great Battle of Britain was over, and "Huns" were hard to find. In February 1941, 616 became part of the Tangmere Wing, which a month later was given a new wing leader : Douglas Bader, the famed pilot who had lost both legs in a pre-war crash. Johnson soon became Bader's No 3 ("Cocky" Dundas was No 2), a marvellous position at the front of the wing, but frustrating in that No 3's job was to cover the leader, not to go off chasing enemies.
By May 1941, Bader's wing was taking the offensive over France, and Johnson began to learn his trade in actual combat. A month later, 616 was badly "bounced" over Gravelines. Johnson found himself alone, and suddenly saw a Messerschmitt 109 in front of him. Unlike most RAF pilots, Johnson hit with his first burst. He saw the pilot bail out. From then on, there was no stopping him. In mid-September he was promoted to flight lieutenant and given command of B Flight.
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. As a squadron leader, he was given the command of 610 Squadron, but fretted because they were based mainly in Norfolk. Things looked up in March 1943 when he was given command of a wing at Kenley in Surrey. The wing comprised three Canadian squadrons, and being sent to command it was probably the toughest appointment in Fighter Command.
Eyeing their new English CO keenly, they need not have worried. On the first occasion they met the enemy under his command, they shot down six of the dangerous Fw190s. One fell to Johnson, raising his score to nine. Johnson was just what the Canadians had prayed for: an aggressive leader. As wing leader he could paint his own initials on his Spitfire - now a far superior Mk IX - and he adopted the radio call sign Greycap. By mid-year his own score had reached 20.
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. 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. Just at this time he overtook "Sailor" Malan's score of 32 confirmed victories. When VJ-Day came, in May 1945, his score was 38. 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.
Perhaps Johnson's most impressive achievement was that, in some 1,000 combat missions, 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.
He stayed in the post-war RAF, serving in Korea attached to the US Air Force, and being awarded the American DFC. He commanded RAF Wildenrath in Germany and Cottesmore in England, and from 1960 to 1963 was senior air staff officer in 3 Group, Bomber Command. He finally retired in 1966 as Air Officer Commanding, Air Forces Middle East, Aden, with the rank of air vice-marshal.
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.
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.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, writes: 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. If they numbered less than the German fighter aces this was because the Germans included their hits against the less-skilled Russians. 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. Before the war he had been a game-shooter, a sort of "Lincolnshire poacher".
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. I was fond of him, although he wasn't always easy. And I wished I had been tough like him.
• Air Vice-Marshal James Edgar (Johnnie) Johnson, fighter pilot, born March 9 1916 ; died January 30 2001.