England and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. My uncle John was 19-years-old, a Spitfire pilot in 74 Squadron, stationed at Hornchurch, on the eastern outskirts of London.
John saw his first real action on September 6th, when he was scrambled at 7am to intercept an approaching enemy formation. Within moments, two suspected enemy aircraft were spotted and his superior, Sailor Malan, shouted over the radios: “Tally ho! Number one attack – go!”
As ordered, John dived into attack and destroyed one of the aircraft while his mate Paddy Byrne shot at, and damaged, the other. In the excitement of war declared, neither of the pilots realised anything was wrong until they landed back at Hornchurch and were immediately arrested and sent for Court Martial.
For the two aircraft Freeborn and Byrne had attacked, at Malan’s order, were in fact English planes from 56 Squadron, who had unknowingly been sent to challenge the same enemy attack as 57.
Just three days into the Second World War my uncle had pulled the trigger that killed the first British fighter pilot of the war, in what became known as the Battle of Barking Creek.
It was a tragic and demoralising start to the war, made worse by the subsequent actions of Malan, who moved to absolve himself of blame, lying (and convincing another pilot to concur) that he had in fact called off the attack moments after the initial order was given, upon recognising the friendly aircraft.
But on October 17, 1939, after just half a day of court proceedings, and despite Malan treacherously appearing for the prosecution, Freeborn and Byrne were completely exonerated.
The fact that my uncle John went on to become one of the true heroes of the Second World War, and an integral player in the crucial Battle of Britain, was a triumph of his skill, tenacity and commitment to the RAF and his country.
On one occasion during the Battle of Britain, he flew four sorties in just eight hours.
John Connell Freeborn was born and raised in Yorkshire, and as a boy he had no idea he wanted to fly, let alone join the RAF. But once he did (in those days, for boys without a solid education, work was a choice between the armed forced or the mine pits) he says he instinctively knew that he would survive the war.
It was this uncanny belief that gave him the confidence to operate in the way that he did. For John flew and fought with no fear, often coming in as close as 100m to enemy craft – rather than the standard 500m – in order to execute his attacks, as he engaged in dog fights with the Luftwaffe up and down the Thames and along the English coast.
He was skilled enough to fly solo after half the average training time, and his accuracy while firing in flight was twice as good as most pilots.
Curiously, in the pre-war days, pilots were allowed to take aircraft home for the weekend, and John once revelled in flying aerobatic displays over his former school, before landing on the cricket pitch where his teachers, who had berated and beaten him as an unruly, anti-authoritarian student, praised him as a shining example to the current pupils.
Less than a year after the tragedy of Barking Creek, on August 13th, 1940, John was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy; a requirement of which was at least six confirmed kills.
His citation read: “This officer has taken part in nearly all offensive patrols carried out by his squadron since the commencement of the war, including operations over the Low Countries and Dunkirk, and, more recently, engagements over the Channel and S.E. of England. His high courage and exceptional abilities as a leader have materially contributed to the notable successes and high standard of efficiency maintained by his squadron.”
He received his second DFC, awarded as a bar to the ribbon of existing medal holders, on February 25th, 1941, for having killed at least 12 enemies.
But it wasn’t just the United Kingdom that recognised and celebrated John’s talents, for in December 1941 he was posted to the USA as a Liaison Officer.
While America could trump Britain for resources and remuneration – they had a surplus of equipment and pilots were paid a lot more than their UK cousins – their training left a lot to be desired. Posted to a huge training facility in Selmer, Alabama, John was able to identify problems and suggest means of improvement.
America’s military affluence was further demonstrated when 20th Century Fox was drafted to Selmer to produce a training video. Upon its completion, Fox invited John to visit its studios in Los Angeles and there followed a fascinating three weeks in which John, being a respected RAF officer, was treated royally, hobnobbing with the stars of the day, including Henry Fonda and Mae West, and enjoyed three days romantically holed up with Betty Grable.
By the end of the war, John had amassed more than 13 confirmed kills (25 unconfirmed) and had flown more operational hours than any other pilot in the Battle of Britain. He eventually retired from the RAF in 1946, having been made a Flight Commander in 1940, and a Wing Commander (of Squadron 118) in 1943, and to this day, 60 years after Allied victory over the Nazis, remains one of the most celebrated flying aces of his time.
John Connell Freeborn passed away on August 28, 2010, aged 90.
RIP uncle John.