John Laffan was ahead of his time. Not only did he get his driver’s licence when he was 16, but he also had his pilot’s wings.
“It was a different world then. And it was very cheap to learn to fly. There were two of us and the Royal Aero Club at Mascot Sydney gave lessons.” They did their early flying on the classic Gypsy Moth biplane and John breezed through it. “It wasn't difficult to learn on and I took to it like duck to water and even learnt aerobatics."
No surprise that he applied and was accepted into the Air Force. He was sent for his training to No. 8 Elementary Flying Training School RAAF Station Narrandera, then RAAF Base Uranquinty near Wagga Wagga in South Western NSW.
"I had to go through the Air Force system and I went up with an instructor and did the circuit and he said, "I don’t have anything to teach you," so the rest of my time I just flew around and amused myself. “
His next posting was the RAAF No 1 Bombing and Gunnery School (1BAGS) at Evans Head where he trained on the Fairey Battle light bombers. Little wonder these had been withdrawn from frontline service and relegated to training units: John recalls, "They were Britain’s biggest single engine bomber and they got shot down left right and centre. It was like a very big Hurricane."
Finally, he received orders to join Fighter Command in Britain and it's ironic that in 1944 this eager pilot had to follow the longest route possible there: ship to San Francisco, train across America to New York, then by sea to England. In any other time it would have been the trip of a lifetime for a Sydney boy who'd never left Australia.
John (left of propellor) and the 603 Squadron
Aside from his enthusiasm for flying,
"The end object was to defend your country. My father had joined up again and he’d fought at Gallipoli and had re-enlisted and I wanted to do the same thing as him. "
John Laffan and his spitfire
John was allocated to the 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, flying the famous Spitfires that had starred in the Battle of Britain. The motto of the squadron was "Gin ye daur" or "If you dare."
"It was a very good aeroplane and we mainly flew over Holland and Belgium and that area, dive-bombing V1 and V2 rocket launch sites as well as escorting bombers on missions."
He was never very sure of his crew's success rate since Fighter Command kept this kind of knowledge mostly secret. Their biggest fear was a pilot being shot down and interrogated about strategic information. As for threats to life and line, Flying Officer Laffan's suffered collateral damage when the cockpit hood snapped down early on take-off and nearly chopped off his finger.
He was stationed on a base on the East Coast of England only 20 minutes flying from Holland and over the next year he would fly between 25 and 30 missions.
John's strongest memory was nearly hitting a U-boat accidentally. He had been separated from the rest of the squadron on a mission and was lost in cloud cover flying over the English Channel.
"I’m flying on my own and I just came out of a cloud base very low down, and was practically hitting the water and I nearly hit the U-boat in front of me. A couple of blokes are standing on the conning tower and I just managed to pull out."
When John heard about the Japanese Surrender he was still in England but about to move with the squadron to the Far East to be part of the Pacific campaign. "I just felt a release that it was all over," he recalls. He was offered the choice of joining the occupation force in Germany but opted to return home.
"Once the war was over, you felt you were more of a nuisance than anything else. So I went back to see my family and it was wonderful."
John's return to Sydney was a quiet affair. As it was for so many others who'd served overseas, there was no one waiting and he remembers catching a tram to the family home.
He describes his experience of serving in the war - the flying, the camaraderie and the idea of sacrifice - as "interesting". It opened his eyes to the ways of the world and helped him become a seasoned pilot.
John kept flying until he was over 70 as both a commercial pilot for an international airline and a freelance pilot. He's also a handy mechanic and his most recent project was getting a good deal on a Porsche 4WD in Armidale where he lives. On finding there was no one in town who could service it, he stripped down and rebuilt the engine.
It's hard to fly under the radar when driving a Porsche in a country town. Hopefully the local Highway Patrol know about his Spitfire experience.
John Laffan, 2020