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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How did you relax off duty?

We played cards, and when we were stationed at Gravesend [in northwest Kent] we were billeted in Cobham Hall, this wonderful house that had once belonged to a wealthy family of aristocrats. They had a big library so we were allowed to borrow their books. But what we loved doing most of all was shooting the pheasants in the grounds of the hall.

What was the secret to successful night flying?

First, you had to have the feel of the airplane and the airplane had to have the feel of you. Landing was always the trickiest part of night flying. You’d come down watching your altimeter and your speed, then you’d see the glim lamps [marking the runway] because there wasn’t much else to see at West Malling [airfield]. Then the wheels come down, reduce speed to about 90 mph, close the throttle, and drop to the ground. Luckily the Spitfire behaved itself very well.

What made a good Spitfire pilot?

Practicing all the time. Sounds daft, but it was hard to get some blokes to practice. I used to tell them, “Get in the air,” but they didn’t want to. But luck came into it, too, particularly in shooting down the enemy. That’s why it didn’t bother me, or anyone else in the squadron, if you weren’t successful during a sortie. You could only do what you could do.

Any other memories that stand out?

It was May 1941 and one of the squadron, Roger Boulding, shot down a Heinkel during a heavy air raid, and it came down intact quite close to West Malling. So the next day we went round to see what we could pinch. Roger took the dingy and I went for the camera that the Heinkel had. I was busy with a hammer and chisel trying to pry it off when I felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned round and said to this fellow, “What do you want?” He explained that he was a flight sergeant from Farnborough sent to retrieve the aircraft for further examination. I told him he was too late, to which he replied: “Hasn’t it occurred to you that the Germans might have put a small explosive charge in the sight to surprise souvenir hunters like you?” I let him have the thing!

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