At the outbreak of WWII in 1939 John was only 15 but war had already made an impression on him. His father had been injured in at Villers-Bretonneux, France in 1917 while serving in the army. “I was well aware of what happened in the First World War and that must have been an absolute nightmare”, he said.
It did not deter him though, and like so many other young men he was keen to enlist. He just wasn’t sure which of the armed forces would suit him best.
The Navy recruited 17 year olds but he opted for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and completed the pre-enlistment course until he turned 18 and was old enough to serve. He also thought he’d better cope with the worst outcome, should it happen.
“It seemed if you died, it would be a good clean death rather than wandering around on the ground,” he explained.
“Everything that came to me in the Air Force was totally new and I soaked it up like blotting paper”.
His insatiable thirst for knowledge was what drove his passion for learning to fly despite constant concerns of being ‘scrubbed off course’ prior to joining a squadron.
“Testing of your knowledge and skill was a daily requirement of the course,” he said.
John trained to be a fighter pilot on Wirraway aircraft but by late 1943 and early 1944 the losses in Bomber Command were so great that they needed operational bomber pilots. He quickly learnt to fly twin engine and four engine planes. At just 20 years of age he became Captain and skipper of four-engine aircraft, with five Englishmen and one Australian in his crew. He was the second youngest.
“I was transformed from a hairy tailed, self-confident boy, into somewhat of a responsible man, because it wasn’t just the crew I had to look after. I knew their families intimately. So if anything happened to them, I would suffer double guilt. You are like a captain of the ship. Your crew’s lives came before your own. It weighed on your mind and was part of the training.”
Nearly 60 per cent of Bomber Command aircrew became casualties during the war, with total fatal casualties numbering 55,500.
“These statistics would weigh heavily on the minds of the young men in the aircrews and the ground crews,” he said.
As a proud member of 466 Squadron, based in Driffield, Yorshire, flying Halifax bombers John completed a tour of 32 operations over Germany and occupied Europe - his last was a night time raid over the Ruhr Valley on 22 January 1945.
Shortly afterwards he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and posted to RAF Maintenance Command to test and ferry aircraft. In February, 1945 John completed a test pilots course with Air Transport Auxiliary. While he was taking an engine-handling course with Bristol Aircraft Company victory was finally declared, a day John distinctly remembers.
“The elation, there is no way I could surpass that. You just got caught up. It was amazing, absolutely amazing. People of all ages were dancing in the streets.”
He went on to complete a similar course with Rolls Royce in Derby. During his time in RAF Maintenance Command John flew 20 types of aircraft (not including Marks). Three were heavy bombers, nine were twin engines and eight were single engines. He also flew a Mustang when he was posted with the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) in Japan in 1947.
John returned to Australia in February 1946 and for most of the year he kept his feet firmly on the ground, but then he was posted to Williamtown before his service with the BCOF.
From March 1947 to April, 1948 he was in Japan in RAAF 76 Fighter Squadron where he took additional flying training with rocketry, air to ground gunnery and air to air gunnery (using cameras), and formation flying and aerobatics.
It was then that a kidney stone suddenly put an end to his career in the Air Force.
“In those days there was no keyhole surgery. It was a major operation. My flying days were over.”
John received his Termination of Appointment in August, 1948 after six years of service. He returned home where he got a second chance in life, through the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (CRTS).
“I got the opportunity to go to university and I studied geology at Adelaide University under the tutelage of Sir Douglas Mawson,” he said.
John went on to meet his wife, Lenna, in Broken Hill, NSW, when he was working as a geologist and she was doing midwifery training after having graduated as a nurse in Sydney.
John and Lenna celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary in 2020 and have three children and seven grandchildren.
He has been active in the veteran community serving on the committee of 466/462 Squadrons Reunion in Sydney on three occasions - the last for several years as Secretary Treasurer before hanging up his hat in 2010.
John is passionate about recoding the history of the war and has written two books. The first was self published in 1998 and was written for family members of the 99 airmen, plus the W.A.A.F. Nursing escort who travelled on the SS Umtali troop ship from Sydney to Scotland. The second book ‘Brave and True’ published in 2007 was co-authored with fellow veteran, Stan Parker. It greatly expanded on the First Edition written in 1992 compiled by veterans Alby Silverstone and Stan Parker. The book records the history of 466 Squadron and partly of 462 Squadron.
“I also assist a professional author research his books on the war. I’m a connection to the past for him – I’m the missing link!”
In June 2015, John received the French Legion of Honour with some other surviving members of Bomber Command for their contribution to the liberation of France.
John marching on Anzac Day