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`Johnnie' Johnson -WW2 Fighter Ace & Derbyshire Fisherman.

Posted Sunday, July 1, 2007

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`Johnnie’ Johnson – WW2 Fighter Ace & `Derbyshire Fisherman’

`One of the 20th Century's Greatest Men'

The medals of one of the twentieth century’s greatest men – war hero and flying ace `Johnnie’ Johnson -who was a Derbyshire resident for the last 25 years of his extraordinary life - went under the hammer in London in 2002. Auctioneers Spink & Son offered for sale this most unique and prestigious collection of world war two national honours and allied medals at their London sale rooms.

The collection which was expected to attract bids in the region of £150,000 included a C.B; a CBE; a triple DSO; a double DFC;

Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S.A.;

Legion of Honour from France;

Croix de Guerre and the Order of Leopold 1st from Belgium, -

and a whole host of other medals and awards won by a man whose very name struck fear into the hearts of the German Luftwaffe!

The top Allied fighter-pilot of the Second World War with a record of 38 enemy aircraft shot-down, the late Air Vice-Marshal James Edgar Johnson who died from cancer at the age of 85 at his Derbyshire home in January 2001, was a hero of heroes.

His courageous leadership and daring exploits as a fighter-pilot who flew a record 700 combat missions in his Spitfire during the 1939 -45 war earned him not only a cockpit full of medals, but the respect, admiration and friendship of other `national heroes’ like Sir Winston Churchill, President Eisenhower, and former mentor, colleague, and fellow flying ace, Douglas Bader, who became a life-long friend. After the war Johnnie became a Trustee of the Douglas Bader Foundation. Later Bader wrote the Foreword to Johnnie's autobiography - “Dear Johnnie, I did not know that you could read or write¼¼¼.”

Johnnie Johnson’s well documented life-story and exemplary exploits are legendary. He was born at Barrow-on-Soar, Leicestershire on March 9th 1915, the son of local policeman Alfred Johnson - who was later promoted to Inspector - and attended Loughborough Grammar School and then Nottingham University where he qualified as a Civil Engineer in 1937.

His father wanted him to try for a career in banking but from an early age Johnnie, who used to watch aeroplanes from the Great War flying over from a nearby airfield, developed a love of flying which became almost an obsession and was determined to join the R.A.F. He applied to join the Auxiliary Air Force but was turned down. Next he tried the R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve only to be told it was full. Eventually he joined the Leicestershire Yeomanry as a part-time soldier, and spent his time during weekend leave having flying lessons at a nearby airfiend – which he paid for himself!

But as war broke out in 1939 the Volunteer Reserve expanded and the ambitious young pilot-to-be was finally accepted into the Royal Air Force – and the rest, as they say, is history!

By 1941 Johnnie was flying under the command of the famous Dambusting hero, Sir Douglas Bader in the role of protective wingman – or as he put it `as a sort of mid-air minder’ – covering Bader from sudden attack.

When Bader was shot down over France in August 1941, to keep up morale Johnnie famously embellished his Spitfire with the words “Bader’s Bus Company – Still Running”!

The story of his exploits in the R.A.F. is told in his autobiography `Wing Leader’ published in 1956 and re-published in 1990, and he explains his philosophy thus:

“If you want to do something; really want to do something, then you will. When I was at school I desperately wanted to get into the Air Force, and I seemed to be thwarted at every turn. Eventually I achieved my aim, and I was successful in the R.A.F. because I wanted so much to do it. When I got my wings and joined a squadron in the Battle of Britain, I met Douglas Bader, and later, when he said to me, “By the way Johnnie, so and so, and so and so¼” I’d arrived! That for me was the goal I’d set out to achieve; I’d set my mind to doing what I really wanted to do. I feel now that I was priveleged to join a very select company of people, and I am one of the survivors. I might have been a bit luckier than most, or perhaps I was a bit sharper, or had better eyesight, but I still regard myself as fortunate to have come through”.

Johnnie retired from the R.A.F. in 1966 aged 51, by which time he had amassed his unique array of medals and risen from the rank of Pilot Officer to Air Vice Marshall – and his civilian life proved equally exemplary.

He became a director of several companies in Britain, Canada and South Africa, and founded the Johnnie Johnson Housing Trust with headquarters at Bramhall in Cheshire. Today the trust provides homes for thousands of elderly and disabled people, mainly in the north of England.

Johnnie’s wartime marriage had already ended in divorce when he met Janet, the widow of Capt.Guy Partridge, killed in a plane crash in 1971 when the tail fell off the Viscount he was flying. Janet’s father had also been a pilot, killed when his Lancaster Bomber was shot down in a raid over Berlin in 1944. The couple met in 1975 when Johnnie was approached for help in Janet’s claim for compensation against British Airways and they became inseperable companions, moving to Wormhill near Buxton in Johnnie’s adopted and beloved Derbyshire in 1977.

Johnnie continued to write and several more books were published, perhaps the most notable being `Glorious Summer’ (1990) – and despite his work with the Trust he found the time to be a member of Wormhill Parish Council for twelve years, and was also President of the now defunct Tideswell British Legion.

In 1988 Johnnie was presenter Eamon Andrews’ `victim’ in a special VE Day television tribute on the programme `This Is Your Life’. War time colleagues regaled the nation with tales of `Daredevil’ Johnnie’s courageous flying exploits, whilst also revealing that in between combat missions he indulged his second lifelong passion - for angling! He fished all over the world, from the Indian Ocean to the salmon spawning snow-melt rivers of the Canadian Rockies, and the `Gone Fishing’ notice hanging from his Spitfire brought some welcome light relief to his hard pressed Squadron!

Johnnie retired from active work with the Trust on his 75th birthday and spent the remaining years of his life visiting friends and family in South Africa, America and Canada, where Michael, the elder of his two sons lives and works. The younger of the two, ex-paratrooper Chris, lives in Cambridge and is currently Chairman of the Trust.

Janet Partridge is an elegant and charming lady who continues her work with the Trust. She told me that in his final years Johnnie, who had grown to love this part of Derbyshire, enjoyed walking his dogs in the countryside and fishing the River Wye between Cressbrook and Ashford-in-the-Water. Standing in the lounge of the lovely home they shared together “for twenty-five gloriously happy years” and gazing up at the excellent portrait of Johnnie painted by artist Alan Holt, titled `The Lion in Winter’, she expressed her hope that the famous medals would not go to a private collector, “but be purchased by a museum and put on permanent display for the nation”.

She also revealed that the ashes of Johnnie Johnson - hero of heroes and one of the `Few’ referred to by Sir Winston Churchill `to whom we owe so much’ – were scattered on the River Wye near his favourite fishing spot.

The land belongs to The Duke of Devonshire who has kindly given Janet permission to place a lasting tribute here beside the river in the form of a memorial seat. The inscription on the brass plaque reads simply, “J.E.J. – Fisherman”.



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