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RB396’s History

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 F/L Chris House. With the help of historians, authors, family members and museum archives over the last two 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


16th November 1944

Pinkie Log BookAll 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 F/L 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.

To learn more about Laurence ‘Pinkie’ Stark incredible RAF career, please read our RB396’s Pilots Profile.

 

 



9th December 1944

LogbookAll 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).

To learn more about the remarkable Anna Leska-Daab including her escape from Poland and her career in the ATA, please read our RB396’s Pilots Profile.

 

 



12th December 1944

G.R.G Gimblett

CVHF Sam, James, Bernard on stageThe 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. Gimblett 5

 

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?

Gimblett 6

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 SquadronRB396 delivery to 174

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

Frank Johnson - Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Frank Johnson – Peter J. Thompson/National Post

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

A Hawker Typhoon Mark IB of No 263 Squadron RAF during an attack on an enemy headquarters and observation post south-west of Goch Germany. Image (c) IWM

A Hawker Typhoon Mark IB of No 263 Squadron RAF during an attack on an enemy headquarters and observation post south-west of Goch Germany. Image (c) IWM

Monday 22nd January 1945 saw improved weather and 174 Squadron put up 3 operations. The second of these saw P/O Frank Johnson and RB396 take off from B.80 at Vokel flying as RED 2 to the Boss, S/L 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, S/L 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

With its rocket rails empty, a 175 Sqn Typhoon taxis between the trees at B5 Le Fresne Camilly after returning from a close-support sortie 1 Aug 1944. Image: IWM

With its rocket rails empty, a 175 Sqn Typhoon taxis between the trees at B5 Le Fresne Camilly after returning from a close-support sortie 1 Aug 1944. Image: IWM

Tuesday 23rd January 1945 dawned fine and clear. RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson flew as RED 2 to 174 Squadron CO S/L 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 P/O 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

Gun Camera footage from a 609 Squadron aircraft attacking a train.

Gun Camera footage from a 609 Squadron aircraft attacking a train.

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 P/O 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 P/O 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

Armourers loading a Hawker Typhoon with RP-3 60lb rockets. Image: IWM

Armourers loading a Hawker Typhoon with RP-3 60lb rockets. Image: IWM

A fair February afternoon saw RB396 and P/O 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, F/L 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 P/O 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

Eight Typhoons of 266 Squadron in two finger four formations. Image: IWM

Eight Typhoons of 266 Squadron in two finger four formations. Image: IWM

Saturday, 3rd February 1945 would be a busy day for RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson with two Armed Reconnaissance sorties to Osnabrück, Germany.

Departing B.80 at Volkel at 10:50, RB396 and P/O Johnson flew as Yellow 2 to F/O 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 F/O 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 P/O 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 F/L 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

Squadron Leader J M Bryan, Commanding Officer of 198 Squadron RAF, inspects the damaged starboard wing of his Hawker Typhoon Mark IB, JR366, at Manston, Kent, after returning from a 'Roadstead' mission on 27 September 1943. © IWM (CE 108)

Squadron Leader J M Bryan, Commanding Officer of 198 Squadron RAF, inspects the damaged starboard wing of his Hawker Typhoon Mark IB, JR366, at Manston, Kent, after returning from a ‘Roadstead’ mission on 27 September 1943. © IWM (CE 108)

According to P/O Frank Johnson’s logbook, Friday the 9th February 1945 was eventful. 174 Squadron’s ORB does not record RB396 and P/O 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.

 



10th February 1945

Following the damage to RB396, P/O Frank Johnson took RB396 up for a 20 minute Air Test.

The aircraft was signed off and ready to return to the fray, as she would be on the 11th February.

 


 
11th February 1945

Life Magazine image of a 198 Squadron Typhoon being made ready by The Erks

Life Magazine image of a 198 Squadron Typhoon being made ready by The Erks

With RB396 repaired and signed off after the damaged of the 9th, P/O Frank Johnson and RB396 flew on 174 Squadron’s first armed recce of the day. 174 Squadron put up eight aircraft and at 09:05 were airborne for Coesfeld in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Frank and RB396 flew as Blue 4, with S/L D.T.N. Kelly leading the sweep.

When they arrived in the reconnaissance area, they found it covered by 10/10th cloud. With no other option, S/L Kelly ordered his aircraft back to base. After an eventful couple of days for RB396, today was a quiet one. But not so for the Erks! The squadron summary reflects the fluid situation on the ground stating that the Typhoon’s long-range tanks were being “whipped on and off aircraft just like nobody’s business!” The afternoon sortie would take 174 Squadron to Bremen.

P/O Frank Johnson and 174 Squadron would have the 12th February off as the weather closed in once again. On the 13th, the squadron would be stood down for a ‘practice pack up’. This was to prepare the squadron for its next move forward on from B.80. The dust stirred up from the practice packing up of what had been the squadron’s home for nearly six months, we are informed, required much lubrication of throats that evening to clear.

 



14th February 1945

For deeper penetration reconnaissance sorties, Typhoon Squadrons would sacrifice two rockets for two long range tanks. This is image is of a 137 Squadron Typhoon being readied at B78 Eindhoven. © IWM (CE 108)

For deeper penetration reconnaissance sorties, Typhoon Squadrons would sacrifice two rockets for two long-range tanks. This is image is of a 137 Squadron Typhoon being readied at B78 Eindhoven. © IWM (CE 108)

Valentine’s Day 1945 found 174 Squadron flying two Armed Reconnaissances and a composite mission with 245 Squadron. P/O Frank Johnson and RB396 would fly on the two armed recces to Bremen.

Departing B.80 at Volkel at 08:20, Frank and RB396 flew as Blue 3 in the 8 aircraft formation lead by the CO, S/L Kelly. As they crossed the Rhine, the cloud came in and the aircraft broke through to find a village. As they approached, they spotted a factory and a large number of MET (Mechanised Enemy Transport). The squadron broke and attacked, with S/L Kelly going after a nearby train, P/O R.B.T. Kelly in Red 3 find three more trains to the souths, which he attacked with considerable success. The weather was not helping matters, with low cloud making pinpointing targets difficult.

Returning to B.80, Frank and RB396 spotted a Military Camp north of Munster and attacked. Franks recorded the attack in his logbook: “10/10 over the area – broke cloud and were split up. I attacked an army camp and damaged one building; sure to have killed a few Jerries.”

174 Squadron all returned safely after a sortie of 1 hour and 45 minutes. Their claims for the sortie were:

  • Locomotives – 1 destroyed, 3 damaged, 4 tenders damaged.
  • Trucks – 3 damaged.
  • MET (Mechanised Enemy Transport) – 6 destroyed, 5 damaged.
  • Other – 1 Factory damaged.

That same afternoon, 174 Squadron took off with 8 aircraft flying in 4 sections, with Frank and RB396 flying as Blue 1. The destination was the Bremen area again. But again the weather did not play ball. Flying through 9/10ths cloud, when 174 Squadron finally broke free, they found they had been blown much further south, due to stronger than forecasted winds, and found themselves much closer to Hamburg than Bremen. Jettisoning their long-range tanks near Steinhuder Lake, Frank’s wingman, W/O W.F. Morley’s Typhoon started suffering engine issues and they turned for home. On the way back to B.80, Frank spotted a truck on the road and made an attack, he claimed 1 “pranged” MET. Both RB396 and W/O Morley returned safely to B.80 after a long sortie of 1 hour and 45 minutes, the rest of 174 Squadron returned a half-hour later, after another successful sortie.

The weather had caused the squadron to separate and each section acted independently. Yellow Section stumbled across an airfield and attacked it. Red and Green Sections found trains near Nienburg which they attacked, destroying 1 and damaging another 4. The claims for this sorties were:

  • Enemy Aircraft –  1 destroyed, 1 damaged, 1 prob destroyed.
  • Locomotives – 1 destroyed, 4 damaged.
  • Trucks – 2 destroyed, 21 damaged.
  • MET – 2 destroyed, 1 damaged.

Following a busy day with excellent results, the crews settled down for a movie, The Song of Bernadette starring Jeniffer Jones and Vincent Price. Jennifer Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for 1943 for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous. The director Henry King had made the fluffy A Yank in the R.A.F. with Tyron Power and Betty Grable but would go onto making one of the finest war films of all time, Twelve O’Clock High starring Gregory Peck.

After a night at the pictures, Frank Johnson and RB396 would be back in action again tomorrow.

 


 


15th February 1945

This remarkable image shows the contrail from a V-2 rocket photographed from a B-24 Liberator of the 93rd Bomb Group, 24 December 1944. © IWM

This remarkable image shows the contrail from a V-2 rocket photographed from a B-24 Liberator of the 93rd Bomb Group, 24 December 1944. © IWM

Thursday 15th February found morning mist descending on B.80 at Volkel as the sun rose. This meant that 174 Squadron flew only one sortie in conjunction with 245 Squadron. The target that afternoon was a V2 site. Things didn’t get off to a great start.

Getting airborne at 14:15, the 8 Typhoons from 174 Squadron were quickly reduced to 6 when both aircraft from Red Section had to return with engine issues and a burst fuel pipe respectively. The remaining 6 174 Squadron aircraft set off for the target. With the morning mist still hanging in the air, the remaining Red Section Typhoons became separated and, unable to rejoin the rest of the squadron, they returned to base. 6 Typhoons were now 4.

When the remainder of the squadron was about halfway to the target area, Blue 1 and 2 were forced to turn back as well. Blue 1 reported he was losing oil and Blue 2 had radio trouble. That left P/O Frank Johnson in the comparatively reliable RB396 and Blue 3 flown by W/O J.W. Hodges the lone 174 Squadron aircraft to arrive in the target area. They loitered until 245 Squadron arrived. Joining up, they attacked in squadron strength. All the rockets fired landed in the target area with Frank reporting: “A good prang for only 2 of us. No R.P strikes observed but many cannon strikes on buildings. No Flak!!!”

The sortie for Frank and RB396 lasted for an hour and five minutes. But their work for the day was not done.

 

 

That evening, 174 Squadron, according to the squadron summary, celebrated its second anniversary of B.80 Volkel. Given that they had only arrived at Volkel on the 30th September 1944, this is an interesting entry in the squadron diary. Still, a party is a party. Best Blues were dusted off and spit and polish applied liberally and the celebration commenced.

RB396 now has a rest in our records, until the 22nd February.

 

 


 


22nd February 1945

Hawker Typhoon Mark IB MN606 of 247 Squadron being overhauled by a Repair and Salvage Unit in a dispersal wrecked by the retreating Luftwaffe at B78 Eindhoven Holland © IWM

Hawker Typhoon Mark IB MN606 of 247 Squadron being overhauled by a Repair and Salvage Unit in a dispersal wrecked by the retreating Luftwaffe at B78 Eindhoven Holland © IWM

After a period of poor weather, Thursday 22nd February 1945 was fine and sunny which meant a busy day for 174 Squadron. RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson flew on 174’s first of 5 operations that day, an Armed Reconnaissance to the area around Osnabrück, Germany.

Things didn’t start well. After departing B.80 at Volkel at 10:00, 35 minutes later F/O J.M. Harbridge flying as Blue 2, developed engine trouble and had to return to base, escorted by Blue 3, F/O J.G. Penfield. That left Frank and RB396 in a section of 2 aircraft with Blue Leader, P/O F.E. Wheeler. They were contacted by Control to offer some trade in the marshalling yards at Dorsten. Before they arrived over the marshalling yards, engine trouble struck Red 4, and F/O J.S. Kennon had to be escorted home by F/L J.S. Knight in Red 3. That left 174 Squadron down to 4 of the 8 aircraft they had departed B.80 with, but as they arrived at Dorsten, they could not see any trains in the marshalling yards. Having a look up the Ems Canal, they spotted some barges and the remaining 174 aircraft made an attack.

They were met with a thick haze and intense flak that made picking out targets difficult. They claimed one barge damaged and returned to B.80 at Volkel, one hour and twenty-five minutes after departing. The four other 174 Squadron aircraft had already arrived home safe.

Frank’s logbook only notes the sortie and mission time but does not record any notes against this operation.

The other 4 sorties flown by 174 Squadron that day would also encounter the haze coming up, which meant results were minimal for the day, but other than a few spots of engine trouble, all aircraft and crews ended the day safely.

 


 


5th March 1945

A Hawker Typhoon Mark IB of 439 Squadron RCAF taxis through a water splash at B78 Eindhoven while leaving its dispersal loaded with two 1000lb bombs for an attack on a rail target behind the German lines. Image IWM CL 1961

A Hawker Typhoon Mark IB of 439 Squadron RCAF taxis through a water splash at B78 Eindhoven while leaving its dispersal loaded with two 1000lb bombs for an attack on a rail target behind the German lines. Image © IWM CL 1961

The weather closed in at B.80 Volkel. Despite this 174 Squadron, including P/O Frank Johnson and RB396, got airborne for an Armed Reconnaissance but had to return after 30 minutes. Frank and RB396 would go up for a practice flight that afternoon, but no further operations were carried out. The weather break allowed for 174 Squadron to get all their new pilots operational.

The weather would curtail operations for the next few days, but 174 Squadron would be back in action on the 7th March with RB396 and Frank Johnson flying the sortie.

 

 

 

 

 


 


7th March 1945

A 609 Squadron Typhoon's rockets heading towards a train in the railway station at Frielingen, west of Soltau Germany. Image IWM C 5223

A 609 Squadron Typhoon’s rockets heading towards a train in the railway station at Frielingen, west of Soltau Germany. Image IWM C 5223

174 and 184 Squadrons departed B.80 Volkel at 14:50 for an Armed Reconnaissance to the Borken area, 174 was led by F/L D.C. Nott with P/O Frank Johnson and RB396 flying as Yellow 2. They patrolled further into Germany and found a train in the station at Darfeld (Frank’s logbook differs from the squadron ORB in that he said the station they attacked was at Haltern, Germany, which is further to the north of Darfeld). Both squadrons of Typhoons attack the train, which Frank noted was “intense light flak”. The two squadrons claimed 3 trucks destroyed in the attack.

Turning for home, as they flew back over Borken, the spotted a formation of MET (Mechanised Enemy Transport) hiding in some woods. Again when both squadrons attacked, they were met with light flak but they managed to destroy 2 vehicles.

All aircraft returned to B.80 at Volkel safely after a sortie that lasted 1 hour and 25 minutes.

 

But there was no rest for the wicked as all at Volkel then had to complete a practice pack-up. The wing would soon be on the move again.

 


 


8th-13th March 1945

A "railway cut" meant exactly that, an enemy railway line was spotted and attacked so that the line is "cut" or made unusable to the enemy. Image IWM C 4725

A “railway cut” meant exactly that, an enemy railway line was spotted and attacked so that the line is “cut” or made unusable to the enemy. Image IWM C 4725

The weather once again closed in at B.80 Volkel. While this meant that all operations were cancelled, the weather was such that 174 Squadron’s pilots, P/O Frank Johnson and RB396 included, could get some time in on the practice range to hone their skills. This would be vital with major Allied operations planned for later in March.

On the 13th March, 174 Squadron did manage to fly an operation, without Frank and RB396, but the weather once again hampered the operation. In conjunction with 184 Squadron again, they cut a railway and returned to B.80 at Volkel.

RB396, with P/O Frank Johnson at her controls, would next fly together on the 19th March.

 


 


19th March 1945

Typhoon pilot entering the cockpit of his aircraft before setting off for a raid on enemy radio installations in France Image IWM: CH013343

Typhoon pilot entering the cockpit of his aircraft before setting off for a raid on enemy radio installations in France Image IWM: CH013343

174 Squadron took off from B.80 at Volkel at 09.50 with Frank Johnson in RB396 flying as Red 4. 174 Squadron were tasked with flying as top cover for 184 Squadron for their Armed Reconnaissance to the Ahus-Haltern area. Both squadrons were lead by Wind Commander J.G. Keep DFC. The recce area was found to be quiet, so both squadrons attacked a marshalling yard where some trucks were lined up, with 174 Squadron claiming 2 destroyed, courtesy of Frank and RB396, and 3 damaged.

But, it was not all plain sailing for RB396. On the first pass, her rockets didn’t fire, so for the rest of the sortie RB396 has all 8 of her rockets still attached. This would be bad enough except for the reception they received over the marshalling yard, Frank noted: “Bags of heavy and light flak: Dicey!!!” With that much high-explosive stuck under each wing, 2 destroyed trucks was a rather impressive return for a morning’s work.

Both squadrons would return to Volkel without loss, but fellow 121 Wing 175 Squadron lost their CO, S/L Michael Savage, when he spun in, in Typhoon RB214, while attacking marshalling yards north-west of Hamm.

This was the start of intense ops for 174 Squadron as the jumping of the Rhine in Operations Plunder and Varsity were less than a week away.


 


20th March 1945

A dual barrel German Flak 43 Zwilling of the type the Typhoon force would regularly encounter. Image: Bundesachiv

A dual-barrel German Flak 43 Zwilling of the type the Typhoon force would regularly encounter. Image: Bundesachiv

174 Squadron’s 121 Wing is informed that they will be the first 2TAF unit to be based in Germany, but there is no respite. Along with 184 Squadron, 174 Squadron put up six Typhoons with RB396 and Frank john flying as Yellow 1 on the Armed Reconnaissance to the Ahus-Munster area. When the two squadrons arrive over the recce area they are met with intense flak. Flying through the flak, they could not find any road or rail movement, so both squadrons looked for a railway to cut, but a number of 184 Squadron aircraft were running low on fuel and the decision was made to return to B.80 at Volkel.

Flak was the Typhoons main foe in the skies above Occupied-Europe claiming 37% of all Typhoon losses. The Flak 43 Zwilling, a 37mm anti-aircraft cannon, was typical of the medium flak that the Typhoon encountered. Deployed as a single or dual barrel weapon, the Flak 43 could fire at up to 250 rounds a minute. Along with the lighter quad-barrelled Flak 38 Flakvierling, these weapons could be mounted on trains and on Panzer IV chassis to create deadly flak traps for any low flying aircraft, the Typhoon in particular.

RB396 and Frank Johnson would take advantage in the lull before the move to Germany to spend the afternoon on the rocket range, getting some target practice in.

 


 


21st March 1945

An rocketed-up Typhoon at dispersal at B.100 Goch, c.March 1945 © Dr. Albreghts

A rocketed-up Typhoon at dispersal at B.100 Goch, c.March 1945 © Dr. Albreghts

At long last, the day has come! After multiple practice pack ups at B.80 Goch Frank Johnson notes a 20-minute flight in RB396 stating:

“Into Germany at last! We are first wing to operate from German soil.”

121 Wing left B.80 at Volkel over the 21st and 22nd March. Frank and RB396 with part of ‘A’ Party of 174 Squadron, the first half of 174 Squadron to move to B.100 at Goch, Germany. They would be joined by 143 Wing RCAF on the 29th March. 174 Squadron’s ORB Summary notes that:

“‘A’ Party moved off to the Third Reich. Pilots flew over in the later afternoon. All arrived safely and commenced erecting tents. A glorious sunny day and everything went according to plan.”

On the 22nd March, the rest of 174 arrive in Germany. RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson would carry out a 40-minute sector patrol covering the squadron’s move. The Squadron Summary noting the conditions of their new home:

“‘B’ Party arrives in Germany. Everyone soon bedded down. Another fine day. The airfield is delightful, with firm turf for the strips and domestic sites in dispersals surrounded by fir trees.”

RB396 would only be based at B.100 Goch for less than two weeks. Frank Johnson would only have a further week on operations. This coming period would be intense with 174 Squadron now on the very front line with Operations Plunder and Varsity imminent.


 


23rd March 1945

A German 88m Flak 37 emplacement in France, c1944. Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-496-3469-24 / Zwirner / CC-BY-SA 3.0

A German 88m Flak 37 emplacement in France, c1944. Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-496-3469-24 / Zwirner / CC-BY-SA 3.0

With the 21st Army Group poised on the banks of the Rhine, with Operation Plunder a mere 12 hours away, 121 Wing 2TAF were tasked with attacking anti-aircraft positions that were out of range of Second Army’s heavy artillery. 174 Squadron put up three sorties with RB396, flown by P/O Frank Johnson, flying on each.

The first sortie for 174 Squadron was airborne for 09:05 and was an Armed Reconnaissance to Appelhülsen, south-west of Münster. RB396 and Frank were the ‘spare bod’ on this sortie and once they had crossed the bomb-line, and with the 8 aircraft of 174 Squadron all serviceable, they returned to B.100 at Goch after a flight of 40 minutes.

The next sortie of the day got airborne at 13:05 and was an Armed Reconnaissance back to the Münster area. RB396 and Frank Johnson flew as Red 3 (with Sydney Russell-Smith as Red 2) and F/L D.C. Nott leading the 8 aircraft of 174 Squadron. They joined up with another 8 aircraft of 245 Squadron and proceeded to the recce area. Flying to Ahus, they patrolled east of Münster and south to Hamm. With no movement spotted on the roads, the two squadrons made a railway cut and returned to base. While nothing was seen, Frank noted in his logbook that they encountered “bags of light flak”, but all aircraft returned safely ready for the next call.

That call for close support came around 17:00 and S/L Monk lead 10 174 aircraft to Gedringen just across the Rhine in the Netherlands. RB396 and Frank Johnson flew as Yellow 1, but before they made their attack, Red 2 flown by F/S K.C. MacKenzie was forced to return to base with engine trouble. The remaining 9 aircraft were vectored to a gun position where 4 dual-purpose guns (possibly 88’s) had been spotted. With the crossing and the largest single drop Airborne operations hours away, 88’s and their kin were prime targets.

Circling around to the North-East, they commenced their attack to the South-West. Frank noted in his logbook that they: “Pranged gun positions, good shooting.” Which it was. Despite low cloud and dust thrown up by the rockets, the Army was able to report back that they had knocked out 3 of the 4 guns in the gun pit. It was not all plane sailing. F/O D.H. Gardner flying as Red 4 took damage and was losing Gylcol. He made it back to B.100 at Goch where he successfully force landed.

RB396 didn’t get through the sortie unscathed. Frank notes that there was intense flak over the target that they were hit in the spinner and port fuel tank. RB396 returned to B.100 without incident and The Erks would have her patched up and ready to fly in support of Operations Plunder and Varsity on the 24th March 1945.


 


24th March 1945

C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine in Operation Varsity. Image: IWM 4700-06

C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine in Operation Varsity. Image: IWM 4700-06

While RB396 waited for the dawn, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group (which consisted of the 1st Canadian Army, the 2nd British Army, and the 9th U.S. Army) launched their assault on the Rhine at Wessel. Utilising a 66-mile wide smokescreen to hide the preparations, over 5,500 artillery guns opened fire and, with the Commandos leading the way, the Rhine crossing began at 2200 on the 23rd March. Four hours later, the fighting was deep into Wessel and the bridgehead was established. Unlike previous Airborne operations, and with the lessons of Market Garden applied, the paratroopers would be dropped after the ground assault had begun. So at 1000 on the 24th March, the largest single drop Airborne operation began. Over 16,000 soldiers would be dropped from over 1000 transports and 1350 gliders.

174 Squadron were called into action at 0540 to operate their first VCP (Vehicle Control Point) sortie of the day. 174 Squadron would fly 13 operations throughout the day, with RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson flying two of them.

RB396’s first operation of the day began at 09:45. As soon as the four aircraft were airborne the VCP controller, code-named ‘Limejuice’, requested urgent close support. Despite their best efforts, they could not get to the target in the requested time. Thankfully, a section from 175 Squadron was able to assist.

With no targets, RB396 and Red Section remained on patrol until they were tasked with an attack on the village of Krudenburg to the east of Wessel. The flak over the target Frank noted as ‘intense’ and all rockets landed in the target area. Frank also notes that on this patrol he saw several Dakotas being shot down. All four aircraft returned to B.100 Goch safely and were quickly refuelled, rearmed and the pilots watered, ready for the next call.

174 Squadron would fly four more operations before, at 14:45, RB396 and Frank Johnson were airborne again. Their flight of four Typhoons was vectored to the battle area where their first target on the ‘Red Grid’ could not be made out in the smoke and mist. The alternate was also obscured so they were tasked with attacking a road the ran south-east from Doetinchem, in the north of the battle, where MET (Mechanised Enemy Transport) were reported as hiding in the trees along the road. An attack was made with no clear results being seen.

Frank’s logbook doesn’t mention this attack as on this flight he saw something that struck him. He noted simply:

“Witnessed paratroops descent. Many chutes were flaming on the descent.”

Operation Varsity was a huge undertaking and was, broadly, a success. Losses were high, both in aircraft and men. Over 2,000 casualties were sustained by 6th Airborne and the US 17th Airborne division. 76 aircraft were also lost, with the Curtis C-46 Commando coming in for direct criticism. Unlike the C-47 Dakota, the C-46 had not been modified with self-sealing fuel tanks or vented wings. When damaged, fuel would either pool in the spaces in the wings or flow towards the fuselage. Many C-46 simply exploded when damaged. Perhaps this is what Frank saw that made him specifically comment on it in his logbook.

RB396 survived this busy and momentous day of operations unscathed. She would only have a week of operational service left.

 


 


25th March 1945

Churchill crossing the Rhine at Wessel. 25 March 1945

Churchill crossing the Rhine at Wessel. 25 March 1945

The day broke fine and 174 Squadron put up 9 operations of four aircraft each. RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson would fly two of them with Sydney Russell-Smith as their wingman. The advance into Germany continued apace with Monty’s 21st Army Group pushing into the Rhineland from Wessel and Patton and Bradley in the south pushing in from Remagen.

The first op of the day saw them airborne for 09:15, flying as Red 3, and they proceeded to the holding point for the Visual Control Point (VCP) ground controller to call them in. With no target given, they were directed to their alternate, which was the town of Isselburg, north-west of Wessel. They attacked the town with rockets and cannon, which all landed in the target area but no clear results were seen or reported. All aircraft returned to B.100 safely after a sortie of just 45 minutes, which show how close to the frontline 174 Squadron was based.

Shortly after RB396’s return, the next set of four Typhoons departed for their cab-rank. But the lead aircraft, flown by F/L D.C. Nott crashed on takeoff. The remaining three aircraft got away ok, Nott was unhurt and his Typhoon would be repaired and returned to service. On such a busy day, this could have been disastrous for the wing operating out of Goch.

The interior of "G Air" Command vehicle. "G Air" is responsible for all air support within the Corps and sets in motion bombing by Allied planes of enemy concentrations and Typhoon RP attacks on tanks. Image: IWM BU 428

The interior of “G Air” Command vehicle. “G Air” is responsible for all air support within the Corps and sets in motion bombing by Allied planes of enemy concentrations and Typhoon RP attacks on tanks. Image: IWM BU 428

After a break of 6 hours, RB396 with Frank Johnson at the controls were airborne again. Their usual V.C.P. controller, callsign ‘Limejuice’ handed them over to another, callsign ‘Armour’, who had a group of enemy troops holed up in a house that needed clearing. White smoke was laid on to the house and RB396 went into the attack. Attacking with rockets and cannon, Frank noted the success of the strike in his logbook saying: “Attacked “Jerry” billets. Scored several strikes. Buildings left burning.”

All aircraft returned to base safely after a 50-minute sortie. 174 would fly two more operations that day, including one lead by F/L Nott in a borrowed Typhoon. The squadron summary noted at the end of the day that “targets and results were both very good. Pilots happy and tired.”

While RB396 and Frank Johnson were busy, freshly captured Wessel was visited by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He made the crossing with little fanfare and was not far from the fighting throughout his visit. Eisenhower was not amused.

 


 


28th March 1945

After a day of indifferent weather, RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson were back in action, flying close support mission in aid of the ground forces pushing deeper into the Reich. The morning operation had four 174 Squadron Typhoons proceed to their cab rank station, with P/O Frank Johnson in RB396 flying as Red 3 with the newly joined F/L Chris House flying as his wingman in Red 4. Soon their controller, ‘Limejuice’, had trade for them. They were vectored to a farmhouse the Army designated with red target smoke. A force of German troops were holed up inside and the four Typhoons made four attacks on the building, first with rockets and then with cannon. The result was that the building was totally destroyed. All aircraft returned safely to B.100 at Goch, Germany after a forty-minute sortie.

That afternoon, Frank and Chris would together again on an Armed Recce to Winterswijk on the Netherlands/German border. Frank would be flying in another Typhoon, XP-M, as F/O Sydney Russell-Smith was flying RB396 as Red 4 that afternoon.

SRS logbook

Sydney Russell-SMith’s logbook for the 28th March 1945

Sydney Russel SmithThe operation was a patrol over the bomb line that took them to Zutphen in the Netherlands. While no trade was given by forward controllers, they spotted some anti-aircraft guns and made an attack. Due to the increasing cloud cover, the results on the ground were inconclusive, but the effect on RB396 was clear. Sydney reported that they had been hit in the starboard tank.

This did not stop Sydney and RB396 from making a safe return to B.100 after a sortie of 1 hour and 10 minutes.

RB396 would be out of action for the next three days.

The project has had extensive contact with Sydney’s son and family, and Sydney is still with us. He is certainly the last known pilot to have physically flown in the very aircraft that the project is working on rebuilding. Sydney managed to sign two copies of the artwork depicting RB396 that was painted by Neil Hipkiss. Sydney, who was a P/O at the time, completed his ground training for the Typhoon MkIb on the 8/9th January 1945 and he appeared to arrive with 174 Squadron, who were at B100 Goch, sometime before the 22nd March 1945, completing his first sortie with them on that date.

 


 


30th March 1945

While RB396 was still being repaired from the damage of the 28th, P/O Frank Johnson continued to fly, today in Typhoon SW495. They took off in a flight of four 174 Squadron Typhoons at 13:40 with Frank flying as Red 4. They were tasked with intercepting some enemy transport on the roads near Neimberg. after their first attack with rockets, Frank seems to have been hit by flak and radioed in that his engine was cutting out and he was returning to base at Goch. He never made it back, force landing near Gronau. Germany.

Frank can explain what happens next better than we can.

On this 75th anniversary of Frank being shot down, we are delighted to present this excerpt of The Memory Project’s Shayla Howell interview with Frank, where he describes the mission and its aftermath.

We are honoured to have partnered with The Memory Project, an initiative of Historica Canada, to share Frank’s and other Canadian Typhoon pilot’s experiences.

The Memory Project Archive houses more than 2,800 testimonials and over 10,000 images from veterans of the First World War, Second World War, the Korean War and peacekeeping missions. While the archive no longer accepts submissions, it remains the largest of its kind in Canada. You can access the interviews, digitised artefacts and book a speaker at www.thememoryproject.com/stories.


F/L Chris House

F/L Chris House in his early RAF career.

F/L Chris House flew ‘W’ the day after Frank was lost in XP-F and was hit by flak, force landing RB396 on the 1st April 1945, returning to the squadron a few days later. RB languished on the battlefield until moved to a scrap yard after the end of hostilities. Chris House’ children have been in touch and very kindly supplied some pictures of their father. They still have their fathers log book and will hopefully be able to let the project have copies of these, perhaps RB396 was used by him on more than just her final flight of the war.

Chris went to enlist in the army as his Grandad was in Welsh borders. His Grandad was recommended for a VC. He had been given two out of the three recommendations but the third did not go through as his commanding officer was killed in action. Before enlisting he had too many beers with a couple of mates and walked by mistake, into the wrong recruitment office and ended up joining the RAF. His father was not happy. He trained as a  pilot with Command No 4 at Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Once his pilot training was complete he was posted back to the UK.

He loved Hurricanes and was posted to North Africa, possibly with 184 Squadron but this needs to be confirmed. During this time he survived two forced landings. The first was engine failure and he had to ditch in the Mediterranean. He was picked up by a flying boat from his dingy. The second time he was was shot down. He always said that he was proud of this as it was all his own work. Whilst in North Africa his logbook shows that he flew a captured ME109 on a covert mission. He was then posted back to Europe. It is believed that he requested to be posted to a typhoon Squadron. He never spoke much about his shooting down in RB396 but he did say that he was on a low-level sortie and was hit by flack and crashed landed. He said that as soon as he landed he did “a runner“. He was on the run for three days. He lived on swedes.

A Dutch family hid him for awhile so that he could rest and gave him food. They also gave him civilian clothes before they passed him on to the resistance. After he had left the Gestapo found out what the Dutch family had done and the whole family including the children were executed. When RB396’s fuselage was found by a Dutch museum he was invited to return to the Netherlands and open the museum. He refused as he could not face going back knowing that the Dutch family that had helped him to escape had been killed.

After 174 Squadron he was posted to 175 Squadron and flew Tempests. During this period he flew over Belsen. He said you could smell it at 500 feet. When he returned to the airfield he tried to wash the taste out of his mouth with rum and toothpaste. He was courts martialled due to an incident that took place on the day of the ceasefire. He was in the air and spotted a German staff car with a German officer trying to escape. He strafed the car killing the officer. This however was after the ceasefire had occurred.

He left the RAF after the war and went to work for BAC. This was a desk job which he hated. He left and went back into the RAF. He was posted to Sylt in Germany. Later in his career he flew Vulcan bombers from RAF Finningley. He was involved in the Cuban missile crisis. He was also selected to take part in an  exercise called Skyshield. This took place in 1960 and was repeated in 1962. Vulcan bombers were used to imitate Russian bombers to try and get through America’s defences. These operations were classified until 1996. Chris flew one of the few Vulcan bombers that got through. Chris was courts-martialled a second time after damaging a Vulcan whilst carrying out humps and bumps. He was docked a days pay. He finally left the RAF in the mid 1960s. During his last year he did not fly. He was in charge of ground radar at RAF St Mawgan. During his posting at RAF St Mawgan, he fell in love with the area and settle down in Cornwall. He bought and operated out of Padstow, a fishing boat named after his daughter “Shirley Ann” . His son Alan helped crew the boat.

During a house move unfortunately his medals and two of his logbooks were stolen from his car. His family still have his remaining logbooks.


There may still be operational flights still to be uncovered, indeed Chris House may have flown ‘W’ on more than her final flight with 174, other pilots may also have flown her as there were several large gaps in Frank’s log book. Perhaps there were no operations during this time or Frank may have been rested for a few days and ‘W’ was taken out by others. We would welcome any leads on other 174 Squadron records which may supply more detail. Please use the contact section of the website if you think you may have any information.

 

 

 

 

 

Chris House in a Spitfire in North Africa

RB396’s Last Flight – 1st April 1945

On the 1st April 1945, Flight Lieutenant Chris House walked out to the Hawker Typhoon he would be flying on ops that day. XP-W was painted on her side and ‘Sheila’ on her nose. She was four months old and she had been damaged and repaired over 18 times. As Chris walked out that spring …

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