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RB396’s Pilots – P/O Frank Johnson

World War Two Hawker Typhoon fighter pilot Frank Johnson is mirrored in portrait of himself in his twenties, at his home in Mississauga, Thursday November 7, 2013. Peter J. Thompson/National Post

World War Two Hawker Typhoon fighter pilot Frank Johnson is mirrored in portrait of himself in his twenties, at his home in Mississauga, Thursday November 7, 2013. Peter J. Thompson/National Post

An air test is supposed to be a simple flight, test the repaired aircraft and ensure all is well. Pilot Officer Frank Johnson had just completed his air test when his radio crackled into life. He was told that they ‘had action for’ him. A lone Fw190 had just blasted across his home airfield and Frank was vectored to intercept the bandit. Having a height and speed advantage, Frank quickly caught the Focke-Wulf and as he lined up his gun sight, he noticed that the German aircraft was doing nothing to evade him. Frank didn’t fire. He pulled alongside and saw a terrified kid at the controls. Frank decided not to kill him that day, waved and returned to base. Frank would have a strip taken off him but for the rest of his life, Frank would feel that was “the only thing that I did in that whole goddamn war that I am really pleased about.” Frank Johnson was always his own man.

Born York Township, Ontario on March 19, 1922, Frank grew up in a family of six where money was very tight. Yet the dream to fly was there from early on following a trip to Barker Airfield. Sneaking out to the airfield, and against his mother’s wishes, Frank was a regular on the airfield and was invited up for a flight by one of the local pilots. Frank knew from that day he was going to be a pilot.

With the outbreak of the war, Frank walked into the Royal Canadian Air Force recruiting office on Bay Street in Toronto. Advised he was not eligible for pilot training without a high school education, so Frank doubled down at school, graduated from Grade 13 and was promptly called up. 

Frank Johnson (right) with "Bud" Lacanne (left) and "Shorty" Wright (centre). Frank and Shorty received their wings together in Aylmer, Ontario. Image:RAF/RCAF/Historica Canada

Frank Johnson (right) with “Bud” Lacanne (left) and “Shorty” Wright (centre). Frank and Shorty received their wings together in Aylmer, Ontario. Image:RAF/RCAF/Historica Canada

Frank trained in Ontario, Canada, but being fresh out of high school, he aced his navigation course and the selection board put him forward to be a Navigator. Showing the lip that would mark his career, he refused this offer. After a bit of conversation, the board put Frank down as a pilot and he earned his wings on October 23, 1942. A month later, he was in England. While on parade, a call for volunteers for the RAF was made. No one offered their services so the officer counted off a number of men to be transferred to the RAF, Frank was number 15.

Posted to Group 9, 59 OTU at Millfield Northumberland on course 31, Frank first flew a Hawker Hurricane on April 3rd 1943. P3035 was an early Hurricane MkI which was built by the Gloster Aircraft Co. between November 1939 and April 1940. Frank’s training continued with 56 OUT at RAF Tealing near Dundee before moving to RAF Waddington where, at Base 53, Frank flew Hurricane MkIIc’s, Mile Masters and even a Lancaster.

In June 1944, with the invasion of ‘Fortress Europe’ underway, Frank was at RAF Annan in Dumfriesshire where No 3 Tactical Exercise Unit (TEU) was based and Frank first met the Hawker Typhoon. 3TEU is where pilots learned how to fly low-level Rhubarbs, fire rockets and gain the combat skills they would need when they joined their frontline squadron. On the 24th June 1944, at RAF Honiley Wroxall in Warwickshire, Frank records his first Typhoon solo with the note “first solo-whew!!!!”

Frank Johnson was posted to 174 Squadron RAF in August 1944. The squadron ORB does not record his arrival but given the level of operations flown from B.5 at Le Fresne-Camilly, France, throughout August, you can forgive the squadron “spy” that. The first operation flown by W/O Frank Johnson flew was on 10th August 1944 as Red 2 in Typhoon JP606. 121 Wing, consisting of 174, 175 and 184 Squadrons, departed B.5 at Le Fresne-Camilly at 15:35 led by Wing Commander Charles Green, were vectored to Caen. When the primary target could not be spotted, they were sent to a wood outside of Sassy. The wing attacked with rockets and then returned to B.5. Upon return, it was found that 174 Squadron’s Red 4, F/S E.W. Taylor in Typhoon JP541, was missing. It is not known what happened to F/S Taylor but there were reports of a wing being seen falling to the ground. Frank’s logbook shows him flying seven further sorties in August in five different Typhoons. 174 Squadron would lose 5 Typhoons and 3 pilots during that time.

174 Squadron in Holland, autumn 1944. Frank Johnson is in the second row, third from the left. Image: Frank Johnson/Historica Canada

174 Squadron in Holland, autumn 1944. Frank Johnson is in the second row, third from the left. Image: Frank Johnson/Historica Canada

On the 17th August, Frank was flying as Red 2 in Typhoon JP512 when 174 Squadron attacking barges on The Seine. 2 barges were claimed destroyed and on the way home, as they neared Paris, Frank saw the Eiffel Tower and, breaking formation, flew over and had a closer look, flying around the tower. “They were very unhappy with me” he remembered.

During the operations against the German 7th Army encircled in the Falaise Pocket, Frank was hit by flak during an attack. He found he needed to keep both his feet on the left rudder just to keep his Typhoon flying straight. He managed to nurse his aircraft back to base but, upon landing in the wrong direction, was chastised by his Group Captain, Charles Green, but luckily for him, an intervention from his CO, S/L J.C. Melvill AFC saved Frank from a charge. The hole in the fuselage of Frank’s Typhoon ‘the size of a dust bin’ no doubt also helped.

Frank and 174 Squadron would operate from a further 5 advanced landing grounds before returning to RAF Warmwell for a break and a rocket course at the end of October 1944. Frank return to 174 Squadron at Eindhoven on 29th November 1944, a week after the rest of the squadron. But Frank would not be with the squadron for long before he was posted to the Aircrew Officers School where he would be for a month, returning to 174 Squadron officially as a Pilot Officer on the 11th January 1945 with, the squadron ORB Summary notes, “mixed feelings”. Two days later, Frank would get his hands on a brand new Typhoon, RB396.

Frank Johnson c1944

Frank Johnson c1944

Frank and RB396’s first flight was on 13th January 1945 and lasted 55 minutes from their new base at B.80 Volkel, Holland. It would be the first of 34 sorties they flew together. Coded “W” by the squadron, Frank had his girlfriend’s name, Sheila, painted on the engine cowling. Together they would fly in support of Operations Veritable (the Battle of the Reichswald) and Operations Plunder and Varsity, the 21st Army Group, 6th Airborne Division and United States’ 17th Airborne Division crossing of the Rhine. These sorties are documented in our RB396’s History page.

On March 30 1945, Frank was flying Typhoon SW495. RB396 had been damaged while flown by F/O Sidney Russell-Smith on a sortie to Zutphen in Gelderland, Netherlands. RB396 was hit in the starboard tank and required repairs. Frank was flying on the second op of 174’s day, a sortie controlled by a forward air controller near Nienburg. The mechanised enemy transport was spotted and attacked with rockets. Frank reported that his engine was cutting out and was going to try to get back to B.100 at Goch. Unfortunately, he was unable too and forced landed his Typhoon in enemy territory. The forced landing was hard and Frank hit his head on the gunsight, was wounded in the leg and had severely damaged his back.

As he tried to climb out of his Typhoon he saw a woman running at him with a pitchfork. He drew his .38 Smith and Wesson revolver and pointed it at her. The woman screamed, dropped her pitchfork and ran off. Only Frank knew that he hadn’t loaded his weapon. He managed to get to a wood before being captured by a German patrol. He remembered a German soldier named Ernst who game the shivering Typhoon Pilot his greatcoat and a stiff shot of very strong schnapps. The soldiers took care of Frank through the night before taking him to a farmhouse where “this lady, she was a real old chick of about 38, because when you’re 22 or 23, anybody over that is old, so she said something to him in German, so she said obviously, well, bring in him and they’d put me upstairs,” Frank remembered.

Hamburg after VE Day 1945

Hamburg after VE Day 1945

The lady stripped Frank, cleaned his wounded head and leg with iodine and “she took the clothes and could you believe in a matter of about four hours, she had them all cleaned? Brought them back up to me and then she goes downstairs and comes up with the most delicious big bowl of, I guess it was stew. And she started to feed me. Started calling me ‘liebshein’. I don’t know what the hell that was.”

Frank was collected the next morning and formally became a PoW. Interrogated over the course of a number of days, he was interned in Stalag Luft I, along with future Blofeld, Donald Pleasence and P-47 ace Gabby Gabreski. He was liberated by the Russians on the 30th April who, after the inmates, lead by American Ace Hubert “Hub” Zemke, refused to evacuate the camp as ordered by their German captors, drove their tanks through the wire. Frank was evacuated back to the UK in ‘Operation Revival’, the massive airlift of Allied PoWs from Barth, Germany, now in the Russian Sector. Loaded on a stretcher due to still untreated back injury, Frank found himself by the cockpit of the C-47 that would fly him home. His pilot flew them over Hamburg to show them the destruction wrought upon the city, Frank could not believe his eyes.

World War Two fighter pilot Frank Johnson is mirrored in a photograph of a Hawker Typhoon which he piloted in the war, at his home in Mississauga, Thursday November 7, 2013.Image Peter J. Thompson/National Post

World War Two fighter pilot Frank Johnson is mirrored in a photograph of a Hawker Typhoon which he piloted in the war, at his home in Mississauga, Thursday, November 7, 2013. Image Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Before he left for war, Frank used to date a girl in Toronto, her name was Sheila. They would go to the movies and get malts together. When he joined the RCAF, she joined the nursing corps. When finally in a Canadian Military hospital in England, Frank’s back was found to be broken and they took three attempts to reset it, all without anaesthetic. While he was recovering, he found he couldn’t urinate. A doctor found a blockage and called in a nurse to sort him right. The nurse that arrived was Sheila.

Returning to Canada, they married and due to his injuries, never had children. Sheila passed away from dementia, but they had lived a long and happy life together with their Huskey Yukon, who Frank called Tom. Frank was incorrectly told he the last surviving member of 174 Squadron (Sydney Russell-Smith who had been hit while flying RB396 all those years ago is still with us) and while a faulty heart valve meant he lost his drivers licence, he still flew regularly with a friend. In one of his final interviews, Frank spoke about RB396 and said, “It is now in England under the care of fellows who hope to restore it. I wish them luck.”

Frank Chalmers Johnson passed away on the 24th September 2017. A longtime member of the Islington Golf and Country Club in the west end of Toronto, he had made sure that when he was gone, the beers in the club bar were on him. He was 95. 

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