The Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group (HTPG) is a charitable organisation, run entirely by volunteers, and exists to raise the funds required to rebuild Hawker Typhoon MkIb, RB396, as the lasting legacy of all those who played a part in the Typhoon’s history deserve.
RB396 flew over 35 combat sorties against ground targets in ‘Fortress Europe’ and was repaired 18 times in her short four-month life. In total, 666 Typhoon pilots, 56% of all Typhoon pilots, were lost on operations, a higher percentage than losses suffered by Bomber Command. On 1st April 1945, whilst attacking mechanised transports (METs) five miles north-east of Hengelo in the Netherlands, RB396 herself was hit by intense light flak and started to lose height. Her pilot Flight Lieutenant House, skilfully made a forced landing north-west of Denekamp on the Dutch/German border. Flight Lieutenant House evaded capture, managing to return to his Squadron just four days later. RB396 became one of many battlefield relics littering the European theatre.
After the war had passed her by, RB396 was recovered from the battlefield, transitioning through a scrap dealer and then a chemical factory, that proposed making a chemical wash from her rear fuselage. She was eventually saved by Dutch enthusiasts for display in a small museum. In 2012, she was brought back to the UK by one of the founding Trustees of the HTPG. With the securing of a factory inhibited Napier Sabre engine the very real prospect of getting a true WWII veteran flying again became a reality and the HTPG was established in 2016.
The funds required to return this aircraft to flight are considerable.
Fuselage monocoque £340,000
Front End £360,000
Propeller and hub £500,000
Tail section, rudder and tail planes £220,000
Electrics, pneumatics and flying controls £450,000
Final assembly £750,000
Extras and contingencies £500,000
The full history of RB396
During the early days of the project, the only history the team were able to confirm was the delivery to 51 Maintenance Unit (RAF Lichfield) on 23rd November 1944 and the subsequent forced landing on 1st April 1945 by Flight Lieutenant Chris House. With the help of historians, authors, family members and museum archives over the last few years, research has been able to fill in the gaps and complete much of RB396’s history.
Hawker Typhoon RB396 was ordered under contract number 943 which comprised of the following allocated serials: RB192-235, RB248-289, RB303-347, RB361-408, RB423-459, RB474-512.
Timeline of RB396
16th November 1944
All new aircraft completed a series of acceptance tests by an active RAF pilot before being accepted by the RAF. After baling out of Typhoon MN527 ‘X’ on the 3-July-1944 and evading capture with the help of French Resistance Acting Flight Lieutenant Laurence ‘Pinkie’ Stark was on rest from operations as the test pilot at Gloster Aircraft. On 16-November-1944 ‘Pinkie’ Stark took new Typhoon RB396 for a 45-minute acceptance flight followed on the same day by a further 15-minute flight following adjustments.
9th December 1944
All new aircraft were delivered from the factory and Maintenance Units by the pilots of the Air Transport Auxilary. This civilian organisation, under the Ministry of Aircraft Production, delivering over 309,000 aircraft of 147 types. On the 9-December-1944 Polish ATA Pilot Anna Leska-Daab delivered RB396 from 51 Maintenance Unit (51MU) at RAF Lichfield to RAF Westhampnett, home of 83 Group Support Unit (83 GSU).
12th December 1944
The TV historian and author James Holland invited the project to be part of a Q&A on stage at the Chalke Valley History Festival in 2018, ahead of the large scale Typhoon on the hilltop in 2019. This Q&A featured Bernard Gardiner, WWII Typhoon veteran and our Trustee Sam as the project representative and potential future pilot of RB396. They were both asked questions by James about the Typhoon itself, its role, the project and it’s future in front of a crowd of 150+ on the opening day of the event. It was very popular, and at the end of the talk a member of the audience came forward to say he had his father’s logbook, and he thought his father flew RB396.
The gentleman brought the logbook up to the stage, and on inspecting it, it was found that RB396 was there on the 12th December 1944. This was while G Gimblett was attached to 83 GSU. The logbook entry simply states “air gun test”. From this we can surmise that the flight was carried out from RAF Westhampnett, as that is the last known location of the aircraft, and the entry above and below RB396’s state “to Tangmere”. If RB396 ended up at Tangmere on this flight, it could be reasonably expected to state that. The flight was 40 minutes in duration, so it would have been a very thorough test, perhaps some firing at the local ranges such as Selsey?
This was a previously unknown flight, another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that the team are always working on completing and another 40 minutes added to RB396’s life.
31st December 1944
RB396’s Delivery to 174 Squadron
We are able to interpolate that RB396 was delivered from the UK to 174 Squadron on the continent on the 31st December 1944 from this extract from the Squadron ORB. It says the weather improved and two pilots returned from 83 GSU after an eight-day wait, with two very new aircraft. RB396 would have been one of these. Then there was a good New Years’ Eve party. Most will know what happened the next day with the Luftwaffe and Bodenplatte…
13th January 1945
On the 13th January, Pilot Officer Frank Johnson RCAF took RB396 up for some local flying and practice around B.80 at Volkel, south-west of Nijmegen. The 55-minute flight is the first record we have of Frank flying what he would term ‘his W’.
At some point, Frank would have his girlfriend’s name, ‘Shelia’, painted on the nose. Frank would record 34 flights and sorties in RB396 over the next two and a half months before Frank would be shot down in Typhoon SW495.
Frank Johnson RCAF
RB396 was noted to have been taken on strength by 174 ‘Mauritius’ Squadron on 4th January 1945 (this may not be accurate as the only record of this date is on the aircraft movement card). She was allocated as the replacement ‘W’ for MN141, pictured at a Forward Repair Unit (FRU) at Odiham in the Autumn of 1944, and was adopted by Canadian pilot Frank Johnson.
Although pilots were not allocated an aircraft until reaching the rank of Wing Commander all pilots adopted one unofficially. Some may have requested an aircraft through superstition but Frank seemed to find himself flying ‘W’ most of the time and so adopted her purely through use. Frank recorded ‘W’ in his logbook on 33 separate flights from 13th January 1945 with the last entry on 28th March 1945, baling out of XP-F on the 30th March 1945 to become a PoW. He logged just under 30 hours in her.
A family friend of Frank Johnson’s told the project the following: “In one of Frank’s drawers we found a short diary that began the day before he was shot down near the end of the war. It mentions Sheila and that she had received some damage the day before, needed repair and couldn’t fly, so he was assigned another plane.
Frank started off in the RCAF and was ‘volunteered’ when his C.O. requested 15 men to join an RAF squadron. No-one was forthcoming so the first 15 in the front row were counted off and away they went to 174 Sqn, Frank included.
Frank first flew Hurricane P3095 a Hurricane 1 on April 3rd 1943 whilst in Group 9 at 59 OTU at Millfield Northumberland on course 31. He then went on to fly Hurricanes at 56 OTU at Tealing Dundee. Training included all types of fighter, ground and anti-shipping exercises. He flew his first Hurricane 2c, equipped with four 20mm cannon similar to the Typhoon, at 53 Bomber base Waddington. During his time here he also flew a Miles Master II and a Lancaster.
He first experienced rockets in June of 1944 with No 3 Tactical Exercise Unit (TEU) at RAF Annan in Dumfriesshire. No 3 TEU specialised in training to fly low-level Rhubarb missions that crossed the channel to attack targets of opportunity. Finally, his first flight in a Typhoon was in L2710 at RAF Honiley Wroyall Warwickshire on June 24th 1944. His log entry is annotated “first solo-whew!!!!”
Listen to an interview Frank gave, before he passed away, about the events of 30th March 1945 by clicking here.
22nd January 1945
Monday 22nd January 1945 saw improved weather and 174 Squadron put up 3 operations. The second of these saw Plt Off Frank Johnson and RB396 take off from B.80 at Vokel flying as RED 2 to the Boss, Sqn Ldr D.T.N. Kelly. The sortie was a close support mission to the Aphoven area where enemy infantry and mortars were causing problems. 174 Squadron put up 11 aircraft for the mission, with 3 flying as part of 184 Squadron in a composite flight. The three squadron wing, which also included 245 Squadron, was led by 184 Squadron’s CO, Sqn Ldr W. Smith DFC.
The callsigns for the squadrons were CRAYFISH for 174 Squadron, FIRKIN for 184 Squadron and LANDLORD for 245 Squadron.
Departing B.80 at 13:40, the wing climbed to 8000′ and the aircraft set course for the village of Maisyck [sic]. When they arrived, there was no red target smoke to indicate where to attack, so the two squadrons orbited the village in a wide arch. On the second orbit, the red smoke was spotted by Firkin Leader and the attack commence with Landlord squadron making the first attack, followed by Crayfish (174) Squadron and then Firkin (184) Squadron. The Wing’s rockets were seen to hit the village and they then followed up with a further attack with cannon.
No losses to the Wing were incurred and they had returned to B.80 by 14:55, a sortie of 1 hour 15 minutes. Frank’s logbook notes:
“Attacked Aphoven: R.P and cannon used. A good prang!”
174 Squadron would put up 6 aircraft for another close support sortie later that afternoon. All aircraft would return safe and it is not currently known if RB396 flew on that operation.
23rd January 1945
Tuesday 23rd January 1945 dawned fine and clear. RB396 and Plt Off Frank Johnson flew as RED 2 to 174 Squadron CO Sqn Ldr D.T.N. Kelly for the second day running. The target for the day was gun positions near Dremmen, in the Heinsberg region, Germany.
174 Squadron put up 8 aircraft for the operation. When the squadron arrived over Dremmen, they had issues identifying the target as the gun positions they could see did not match with what had been reported. The squadron ORB reports that they encountered a ‘fare amount of flak’ and Frank’s logbook said the flak was ‘heavy and accurate’. Before the attack could begin, F/S T.D.V. Cram had to return to base as his windscreen was oiling up badly.
With Cram safely on his way back to B.80, the rest of the squadron attacked the gun positions and slit trenches on either side of the road where they were dug in. Their R/P and cannon attacks resulted in the gun pits being, as the ORB reported, ‘plastered’ with all RP and cannon strikes in the target area. Frank’s logbook states that he and RB396 managed to ‘prang 3’ guns during the sortie.
174 Squadron returned to B.80 at Volkel after a sortie that lasted 1 hour and 5 minutes. The squadron suffered no losses. 174 Squadron had one further operation later that afternoon, to attack an enemy headquarters in a chateau near Wassenburg. It is not currently known if RB396 flew on that operation.
24th January 1945
The weather at B.80 Volkel was a tad questionable on Wednesday 24th January 1945. 174 Squadron put up two operations, one of which helped the Army take a village that had been causing trouble.
For RB396 and Plt Off Frank Johnson, there was only a 15-minute air test of the aircraft. Given the nature of the previous two days of operations, it is logical to think RB396 needed a repair that required a check flight.
28th January 1945
Sunday 28th January 1945 saw improved weather, but very low temperatures. 174 Squadron again flew two operations in the afternoon and evening with RB396 and Plt Off Frank Johnson departing B.80 at Volkel for an Armed Reconosance in the Munster area of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. The six Typhoons of 174 Squadron, of which RB396 and Plt Off Johnson were again Red 2, crossed the border into Germany near Winterswijk, Holland and found that the cloud covered had increased to 9/10ths below them at about 6000′. They pressed on but the cloud meant that their recce area was obscured. Turning to the north-west and their secondary target of Vreden in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, they found Vreden was also covered by cloud.
With no other option, the order was given to return to base. On route back to B.80, Red Section attacked two railway trucks and a railway shed which they claimed as damaged. All aircraft returned safely to B.80 after a sortie lasting 1 hour and 15 minutes.
2nd February 1945
A fair February afternoon saw RB396 and Plt Off Frank Johnson in action with an Armed Reconnaissance to Venlo on the Dutch/German border. The eight Typhoons of 174 Squadron, with RB396 flying as Green 1, arrived over Venlo in between two cloud layers which then joined as they approached their recce area. The squadron became separated in the cloud and they descended to try and reestablish visual contact with each other. As they finally broke cloud, Flt Lt Irwin, flying as Red 1, decided that an independent attack was the way to go and the aircraft attacked transport vehicles north of Venlo. Each aircraft made an attack with rockets and cannons to the effect that all ammunition was expended.
The squadron turned for home and en route spotted a convoy of motor transport. While Plt Off Johnson and RB396 landed safely, four other 174 aircraft were quickly refuelled and rearmed and set off to attack the convoy, with good results.
Frank’s logbook does not record any comments against the 45-minute afternoon recce, but 174 Squadron’s Operational Record Book shows squadron claims for:
Motor Transport: 5 destroyed, 18 damaged.
Half-tracks: 2 destroyed, 1 damaged.
Locomotive: 1 destroyed.
Trucks: 3 destroyed.
RB396 would be in action again the following day.
3rd February 1945
Saturday, 3rd February 1945 would be a busy day for RB396 and Plt Off Frank Johnson with two Armed Reconnaissance sorties to Osnabrück, Germany.
Departing B.80 at Volkel at 10:50, RB396 and Plt Off Johnson flew as Yellow 2 to Fg Off J.M.Harbidge. The eight 174 Squadron aircraft flew as a strike six with the two aircraft in Green section flying as top cover. They found most of the recce area obscured by cloud, but the Dortmund-Elm canal was clear and quickly they spotted a number of barges making their way between Rheine and Osnabrück. Quickly into the attack, 4 of the barges we quickly destroyed with another 3 damaged. Heavy flak was encountered and Fg Off L.F.Higgins flying as Blue 1 was hit and was losing petrol.
The squadron turned for home and Higgins was able to make a forced landing about 4 miles short of base. He was safe but his Typhoon was declared Cat ‘B’. RB396 and Plt Off Johnson made no claims to the barges but faced a quick turn around, for their day was not done.
At 15:00 RB396 and Frank Johnson were airborne again flying as Blue 1, and heading back to Osnabrück. This sortie was more eventful, with Yellow 2 flown by W/O K.D.Bodden reporting engine troubles as they crossed the Bomb Line and returned to base with Yellow 1, flown by Flt Lt G.I. Mallet, escorting him home. The remaining six 174 Squadron Typhoons continued, with a train spotted in a marshalling yard escaping attention due to heavy protective flak. Frank Johnson then spotted a lorry near a village and he and RB396 made an attack.
After rejoining the rest of the squadron, they began a low level (at 2,500′) search for any trains that might be in the open. They found one and attacked it, damaging all of the trucks. They then found another, about 15 miles away, and made an attack resulting in four more truck being damaged. 174 Squadron then set course for Arnhem after there were reports of motor transport on the road.
En route, they were met with a hail of light and heavy flak. The squadron ORB reports that RB396 was hit in several places, without sustaining serious damage. When they arrived in the area where the motor transport was reported, nothing was found so they returned to B.80 after a sortie of 1 hour and 35 minutes. Frank would briefly note in his logbook that he and RB396: “Attack on trains and MET: bags of H & L flak: very accurate.”
RB396 would be patched up and in action again.
9th February 1945
According to Plt Off Frank Johnson’s logbook, Friday the 9th February 1945 was eventful. 174 Squadron’s ORB does not record RB396 and Plt Off Johnson flying on the sortie recorded, but it is possible that they flew the weather reconnaissance. Frank’s logbook states that they returned early as they had been ‘Hit in spinner, rad, both nose tanks and on port wing. Ugh!’
While we do not have the exact information as to how RB396 was damaged, this was significant damage to the aircraft and Frank’s logbook remark sums this up. But, Frank’s logbook is also a testament to the skill of the ground crews who maintained the Typhoons in the field. RB396 would be ready for an air test the very next day.
A Weather Recce does sound like a rather innocuous operation, but the opening chapter of former 609 Squadron’s CO, Belgian Charles Demoulin’s memoir Firebirds!, described a weather recce over France like this:
“It meant entering closely guarded enemy territory in full sight of his defences, infuriating the Huns for over an hour and being pinpointed by all the radar stations of Fortress Europe. And, while flying in not too much of a hurry over the powerful flak defences, the chosen stooge was supposed to describe in plain language the exalting beauty of a French sunrise somewhat stained by the ugly black patches of Jerry’s ack-ack.”
These flights were made each day and the enemy knew they would be coming. Flown as single aircraft, the Typhoon crews used the aircraft’s speed and the eyes of Allied radar controllers to warn them of any enemy aircraft that may be in the area. By 1945, the primary concern would have been flak.