Spitfire FR.XIVe MV293 (registered G-SPIT). Owned by The Fighter Collection at Duxford is marked as MV268, JE-J, flown by Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson OC 127 Wing, Germany May 1945.
Air Vice Marshal James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson CB, CBE, DSO & Two Bars, DFC & Bar (9 March 1915 – 30 January 2001) was a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot who, during the Second World War, claimed 34 victories over enemy aircraft, as well as seven shared victories, three shared probables, ten damaged, three shared damaged and one destroyed on the ground.12 This score made him the highest scoring Western Allied fighter ace against the German Luftwaffe, thus becoming the British, and Western Allied flying ace, with the greatest number of victories in the European War. Only Marmaduke Pattle claimed more victories overall than any other Western Allied pilot in Europe, but over half of his claims were made against the Italian Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) and a significant number of his claims cannot be verified.
Johnson grew up and was educated in the East Midlands where he qualified as an Engineer. A keen outdoor personality, Johnson hunted and played sports. During the course of these pursuits he sustained a collar bone injury that was to complicate his ambitions of becoming a fighter pilot. Johnson had been interested in aviation since his youth and applied to join the RAF. He was initially rejected by the RAF on medical grounds, but after the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, and the need for pilots in RAF Fighter Command was urgent, and Johnson was accepted. However, his injury problems resurfaced during his early training and flying career and he missed the battles in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. He also failed to take part in the vital Battle of Britain. In 1941 Johnson began flying regularly and took part in the offensive sweeps over occupied Europe from 1941–44. Johnson was involved in heavy aerial fighting during this period. His combat tour included the Battle of Normandy, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge. Johnson scored his last victory in September 1944, but he continued to fly combat missions to the last day of the war. Johnson continued his career in the RAF after the war, and served in the Korean War. Johnson eventually retired in 1966, with the rank of Air Vice Marshal. He died in 2001.
Johnson was born in Barrow upon Soar, Leicestershire, England, the son of local policeman Alfred Johnson. He was later educated at Loughborough Grammar School. During his time there he was expelled after being found in the school’s swimming pool with a young lady, which was very taboo at the time. Among his hobbies was a mixture of hunting and sports. Johnson would hunt rabbits and birds in the local countryside.3 Johnson continued to play rugby in his spare time as well. In 1938 Johnson sustained a broken collar bone playing for Chingford Rugby Club near the Epping Forest. Johnson was treated but later found out the wound had been wrongly set and thus did not heal properly which would cause him difficulty.4 Soon afterwards, Johnson attended University of Nottingham, at the latter of which he qualified as a civil engineer aged 22.3 Keen to follow up his interest in aviation and forge a career, Johnson applied to join the 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. As the war clouds gathered in the aftermath of the Munich Crisis, however, the standards of the RAF were relaxed as the service expanded and brought in much needed combat personnel. Johnson applied again to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and was accepted.5 During a period of leave, in November 1942, he married Pauline Ingate and they had two sons.6
 Second World War
 Training: 1939–1940
In August 1939, Johnson was called up. His initial training took place at 22 EFTS, Cambridge, then moving to 5 FTS at Sealand before completing training at 7 OTU (Operational Training Unit) – RAF Hawarden in Wales. During his training flights, the inexperienced Johnson stalled and crashed a Spitfire. Johnson had his harness straps on too loose, and wrenched his shoulders – revealing that his earlier rugby-derived injury was not successfully resolved. The Spitfire did a ground loop, ripping off one of the undercarriage legs and forcing the other up through the port mainplane. The Commanding Officer excused Johnson, 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”.7
Johnson had tried to pack the injured shoulder with wool, held in place by adhesive tape. He also tightened the straps to reduce vibrations. Johnson found he had lost his “feel” in his right hand, and it became numb. When he practised dives, the pressure also aggravated his shoulder. He often tried to fly using his left hand only, but the Spitfire would have to be handled with both hands during anything other than simple manoeuvres.8
After training, he posted to No. 19 Squadron as a probationary Pilot Officer in the following August, though he was soon transferred to 616 Squadron at Coltishall.9 At this point, Johnson had “only” flown 205 hours, of which 23 hours were flying Spitfires.10 However his 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 de Havilland Tiger Moth. Johnson opted for the operation.11 Johnson had hoped for discreet treatment, but word soon reached the C.O, and Johnson was taken off flying duties and sent to the RAF Hospital at Rauceby. He did not return to the squadron until December 1940.12
 Fighter Sweeps: 1941–1943
Johnson returned to operational flying in early 1941, and with 616 Squadron forming part of the Tangmere Wing. Johnson often found himself flying alongside Wing Commander Douglas Bader. Johnson flew various marks of the Supermarine Spitfire throughout the war and was one of that fighter’s greatest exponents. Proving himself both a capable fighter pilot and excellent formation leader, Johnson opened his account by claiming a Messerschmitt Bf 109 destroyed on 26 June 1941.13 Johnson took part in the 9 August 1941 mission in which Douglas Bader was lost over France. During the mission he destroyed a solitary Messerschmitt Bf 109.14
Flying extensively through the summer fighter offensives, he was quickly promoted1516 and by June 1942 Johnson was in command of 610 Squadron. Johnson led his squadron through Operation Jubilee the Allied amphibious assault on the port of Dieppe. After shooting down a Fw 190, Johnson had what he considered his most difficult combat of the war, embroiled in an exhausting and hectic dogfight with a single Fw 190, and managing to escape only by power-diving through the AA barrage over the Allied destroyer screen.17
In March 1943, now an acting Wing Commander, he took over the Canadian Wing stationed at RAF Kenley. Despite initial resistance to a British Wing Leader from his tough, obstinate Canadian charges, he quickly won them over with his sheer force of personality. The unit, now flying the Spitfire Mk. IX, became one of the highest scoring fighter wings. 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 April—September 1943.13 During this period, on 4 June 1943, he was awarded the DSO for at least 13 victories.13 Before leaving combat operations for six months, Johnson was awarded his first Bar to the DSO for adding a further seven aerial victories by 24 September 1943.13 Johnson’s tour ended in September 1943 with a score of 25 kills. At this time he had been given a substantive promotion to Squadron Leader,18 being given a desk job at No.11 Group Headquarters until 2 March 1944, when he was put in charge of 144 (RCAF) Wing.13
 Normandy and Germany: 1944–1945
Johnson scored his 28th victory on 5 May 1944 and became the highest scoring ace still on operations. After the D-Day landings in France in June 1944, Johnson added further to his tally, claiming his last victories in March—September 1944. It was during this time that Johnson scored reached 30 aerial victories after bouncing a formation of Bf 109s and Fw 190s over Argentan, shooting down an Fw 190 while four more fell to his Wing.19 Two days later Johnson destroyed two more Bf 109s over the same area, equalling Sailor Malan’s record score of 32 kills.2021 On 30 June 1944, Johnson scored his 33rd aerial victory, yet another Bf 109. Johnson had now passed Sailor Malan’s record total of 32 confirmed kills. However Johnson considered Malan’s exploits to be better. Johnson points out, when Malan fought (during 1940—41), he did so outnumbered, and had matched the enemy even then. Johnson said:
Malan had fought with great distinction when the odds were against him. He matched his handful of Spitfires against greatly superior numbers of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. He had been forced to fight a defensive battle over southern England and often at a tactical disadvantage, when the top-cover Messerschmitts [Bf 109s and Bf 110s] were high in the sun. I had always fought on the offensive, and, after 1941, I had either a squadron, a wing or sometimes two wings behind me.22
The 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 the UK, the Wing scored heavily through the summer. After the Normandy break-out, 144 Wing was disbanded, Johnson being given command of 127 Wing.23 On 21 August 1944, Johnson was leading No. 443 Squadron on a patrol over the Seine, near Paris. Johnson bounced a formation of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, shooting down two, which were recorded on the cine camera.24 Climbing back to his starting point at 8,000 ft, Johnson attempted to join a formation of six aircraft, he thought were Spitfires. The fighters were actually Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Johnson escaped by doing a series of steep climbs, during which he nearly stalled and blacked out. He eventually evaded the Messerschmitts, which had been trying to flank him on either side, while two more stuck to his tail. Johnson’s Spitfire IX was hit by enemy aircraft fire for the only time, taking cannon shells in the rudder and elevators.25
Johnson’s last victory of the war was on 27 September 1944 over Nijmegen. His flight bounced a formation of nine Bf 109s, one of which Johnson shot down. During this combat Squadron leader Henry “Wally” MacLeod, of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his squadron had joined Johnson.26 During the action Wally went missing. Johnson made repeated calls over the R/T, but Wally did not answer. After landing, Johnson could see Wally had not returned. Johnson “interrogated”, the rest of the pilots. One of them had seen Wally chasing after a lone Messerschmitt.27 Johnson, knowing McLeod well, believed he would have attacked regardless of the enemy fighters advantage:
I feel certain that he wouldn’t have let go of the 109 until the issue had been decided one way or the other. There was no other aircraft in the area [that Johnson had seen] and they must have fought it out together, probably above the cloud. To start with he would have been at a disadvantage, for the 109 was already several thousand feet higher.27 I think the Messerschmitt got him. It was always all or nothing for Wally.28
After the war, Johnson learned that Wally had been found in the wreckage of his Spitfire, near the scene of the battle. His score stood at 21 confirmed victories, with four probable and 10 damaged.29
His wartime record was 515 sorties flown, 34 aircraft claimed destroyed with a further seven shared destroyed (totalling 3.5 kills), three probable destroyed, ten damaged, and one shared destroyed on the ground.2 All his “kills” were fighters. As a Wing Leader Johnson was able to use his initials JEJ 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 and shared five plus six and 1 shared damaged while commanding the Kenley Wing: MK392/JEJ, an L.F Mk. IX, 12 aircraft plus one shared destroyed on the ground. His last victory of the war was scored in this aircraft. He ended the war flying a Mk XIVE, MV268/JEJ.30 His post-war mount was MV257/JEJ; it was the last Spitfire to carry his initials.31
During the last week of the war, and for the duration of hostilities in May 1945, Johnson’s squadron flew patrols over Berlin and Kiel. During a flight over central Germany looking for jet fighters, Johnson’s squadron attacked Luftwaffe airfields. On one sortie his unit strafed and destroyed 11 Bf 109s that were preparing to take off.32 On one mission an enemy transport was sighted, but took evasive action and retreated back to German held territory. Johnson’s pilots shot it down. On another occasion, however, Johnson intercepted a flight of four Fw 190s. The German fighters waggled their wings to signal non hostile intent and Johnson’s unit escorted them to an RAF airfield.33
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In the aftermath of the war Johnson commanded RAF Second Tactical Air Force at RAF Wildenrath in the West Germany from 1952–1954. He also commanded a force of V Bombers based at RAF Cottesmore from 1957–1960.
 Korean War
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Johnson was given a permanent commission by the RAF after the war (initially as a Squadron Leader, though retaining his wartime substantive rank as Wing Commander, and later confirmed as a Wing Commander),34353637 becoming OC Tactics at the Central Fighter Establishment. After an exchange posting to the USA, he flew F-86 Sabres with Tactical Air Command and went on to serve in the Korean War flying the F-80 Shooting Star. In 1952 he became Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Wildenrath. From 1954-57 he was Deputy Director, Operations at the Air Ministry. In 1957 he became Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Cottesmore. An Air Commodore by 1960,38 his next job was SASO at HQ No. 3 Group. By the time of retirement in 1966 Johnson was an Air Vice Marshal3940 and his last active post was AOC Air Forces Middle East.41
 Later life
He was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Leicestershire in 1967.42 He established the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust in 1969.
Johnson died on 30 January 2001 aged 85 years from cancer.43
Distinguished Service Order44 & Two Bars4546
Distinguished Flying Cross47 & Bar48
Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1960 New Year Honours)49
Companion in The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (1965 Queen’s Birthday Honours)50
Légion d’honneur (France)
Croix de Guerre (1940) with Palms (Belgium)51
Order of Léopold with Palms (Belgium)51
Distinguished Flying Cross (USA)52
Air Medal (USA)53
Legion of Merit (USA)
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