John Freeborn: 1919-2010

In a 2004 interview, an RAF hero recalled encounters with friends and enemies during the Battle of Britain.

John Freeborn, second from right, relaxes with fellow Royal Air Force pilots from 74 Squadron at their base in Hornchurch, Essex, in August 1940. Also pictured: Roger Boulding (with dog) and Henryk Szczesny. (Courtesy John Freeborn)

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What about your own mortality?

Bullets didn’t worry me, but burning did. I got shot down by my number two [Tony Mold] during a fight and the top [fuel] tank went. Fortunately, it was full because if it had been half full, the vapor would have gone boom! So I switched all the electrics off and glided back into Manston [in northeast Kent]. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, looking down at the English Channel.

Which German aircraft did you respect most?

I had great respect for the Junkers 88. It was a very good aircraft. It would brake and virtually stop in the air, and we would go straight past it. They were fast too, so by the time we’d turned round, it was gone. On the other hand, I didn’t think much of the Heinkel 111. It was a worn-out aircraft, as bad as the [Vickers] Wellington [bomber].

And what did you think of the German pilots?

I didn’t give a damn about them, though of course I respected their flying skills. They had some good pilots. But they were Germans and they had to go. I sometimes gave pilots who had bailed out a little scare by firing close to their parachutes. It made me so angry to see the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on London, so I did what I could to prevent it. But of course, bombing civilians is the right way to win a war, not killing soldiers.

Describe your first kill.

It was a Messerschmitt 109. As soon as he saw me, he pushed his stick forward, which we [Spitfire pilots] couldn’t do because the engine would stop. So instead I rolled, went through some cloud, and came out behind him. I gave him a squirt or two and down he went straight into the cottage of an old farmer who was out plowing his fields. And I can see to this day the farmer standing there shaking his fist at me.

An image has grown over time of Battle of Britain pilots always in the pub chasing girls when not on duty. True?

We chased the girls all right, but we didn’t get paid enough to be in the pub every night. That’s the reason I never liked [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill; he refused to give us more money than the 14 shillings and tuppence a week. Nor was it true that all the pilots came from privileged backgrounds and went to private schools. We were a mix.

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