(John Wilkinson was our featured speaker on September 12, 2015)
Flight Lieutenant John Wilkinson lives in Spearfish, South Dakota
In his own words
As the sun was setting, we circled over the Baltic coast and cruised inland at about 25,000 feet. Approaching the town of Schwerin we spotted about 30 aircraft at low level and headed down toward them. Then something curious happened. We saw explosions around the airfield and town, so two of our number assumed that they were RAF Typhoons attacking the area and climbed back up to our cruising altitude and headed home. But Tony and I continued on down to further investigate.
As we got low enough to positively identify the aircraft we realized they were Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. We assumed, incredibly, that they had spotted us and were dropping their loads in preparation for a fight. Diving down from our cruising altitude, we had built up some excess speed. I picked out the highest FW-190 flying quite slowly, so I had to lose speed rapidly using my propeller in fine pitch as a brake and fish tailing as hard as I could to avoid overshooting him and becoming a target for him. I was very close to him when I opened fire, without a thought for the round object under his belly. But I soon found out as I fired with cannons and fifty-caliber machine guns.
The round thing was a bomb and there was an almighty explosion. I ducked down for maximum protection from my bulletproof windshield and large engine. Although the outside air was very cold, I could feel the fiery heat on my neck between my collar and leather helmet. I could see flaming fuel and wreckage engulfing my Spitfire. It was time to take stock of the condition of my aircraft. I was still flying and attempted to gain more defensive altitude, but I was obviously very badly damaged. So I called for a homing to take the most direct route back to base. The radio-direction-finding personnel were on the ball and got it to me immediately just before the Germans, who were listening in, jammed the radio.
My propeller was damaged because the vibration was almost enough to pull the engine out. I climbed using as much power as I dared to and I was wallowing, telling me that my tail was badly damaged also. Since I had about 100 miles to travel, my biggest concern, beside the possibility of being picked off by an FW-190, was the huge radiator under each wing. If either one of them was holed and leaked my glycol and oil, I would not make it home. I watched the temperature and oil pressure gauges very closely and to my relief, the needles remained at their normal settings.
Before getting too low on approach to the airfield I tested my flaps and undercarriage. Both were still functioning. So with the crash crew standing by I came in fast in order to retain control until my wheels were safely on the ground.
After climbing out of the cockpit, it was then discovered that one blade of my propeller had been split off long ways. Paint was burned off the wings, and the fuselage and part of the controlling surfaces of the tail were missing, plus various holes and dents in wings and fuselage.
But most remarkable of all was that nothing entered the huge radiator and oil cooler air scoops under each wing, even though the narrow cowling edges of the scoops were riddled with holes. Make no mistake: The hand of the Lord was indeed upon me.
A further note: Tony got entangled with a group of FW-190s, popped into cloud, spun out and went home. He did, however, note that an FW-190 was destroyed on the ground by the debris from my FW-190.
On a wing and a prayer: World War II Royal Air Force pilot recalls his flyboy past
“The hand of the Lord was indeed upon me. In the time I was in, I had six complete engine failures. The hand of the Lord was with me. On every one, I got down and never had to bail out or crash in a field,” said 92-year-old John Wilkinson, recalling his storied flyboy past on the coasts of England and territories of Europe.
While a teenage Wilkinson found no redeeming qualities in the spoils of World War II, volunteering to fight in England’s Royal Air Force nurtured this fighter pilot’s passion for flying and dog fighting that still shines through to this day.
“Much can be said about the futility of war, but when one’s homeland is attacked and freedom is in jeopardy, those who can must spring to arms,” Wilkinson said. “In my case, I became a Royal Air Force fighter pilot and served with 41 Squadron.”
Wilkinson, just 18 years old in 1941 when he enlisted to join English forces and volunteered for flight training, further explained his reason for signing up to join the war effort.
“I had watched the Battle of Britain from the ground and prior to that, I’d had a little trip in a plane at an airshow that fascinated me,” Wilkinson said. “After watching the Battle of Britain, I went and volunteered.”
Flight training was more abbreviated than it is today.
“I went through ground training in Cambridge, England, and we were given 10 hours instruction time in these biplanes. It was a Tiger Moth. I soloed in eight hours. Today, they require many more. That showed that I had the potential to be a Royal Air Force pilot, so I was sent to a disbursal place up in Canada. We were loaded into the hull of a freighter, and we were so important to the war effort then, that we were escorted by no less than three destroyers,” Wilkinson recalled.
From there, it was on to St. John’s, Canada and later to Florida.
“I did my flight training, total hours 200,” Wilkinson said. “I was trained in a PT-17. The next stage was in the AT-6. I loved those planes. Like the PT-17s, you could really throw them around.”
Wilkinson successfully managed an eight-point slow roll, which was his final exam.
“It is very tricky because you stop at each point, but when you’re virtually hanging on the propeller, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. At graduation, I was given the honor of best flying cadet, and I have a solid silver bracelet with the information on it.”
There were 35 in Wilkinson’s group. That was 1942.
Eventually, Wilkinson was sent up to the north of England to start flying his plane of choice.
“The first time I got into a Spitfire, I just loved it. They were magnificent machines,” he said.
When stationed at a base in Southern Scotland, Wilkinson flew Hurricanes and Spitfires.
“For our training, the instructor and us would get in one each and dogfight. Then we’d switch planes,” Wilkinson said. “I just loved dogfighting. In fact, I never was defeated in a dogfight. When it came to the real thing, I’d just finish them off real quick. It was there I developed my particular style of fighting. When I was flying a Hurricane, I put everything into it in a fight. I have a picture there where I was pulled from the cockpit back to the tail shoe and the side of the Hurricane was ripped off. No problem. Those things never bothered me, anyway.”
From that base, Wilkinson went to a base where he was flying different versions of Spitfires and some other planes.
“This is where I first flew the Spitfire Mark XIV. That is a magnificent machine. 2,050 horsepower and big, five-bladed prop and you always took off slightly tail down or your propeller would hit the ground. They were so powerful, you could climb at 8,000 feet a minute,” Wilkinson said.
After serving at many bases across Europe, Wilkinson found himself engaged in larger scale battle at Diest, Belgium.
“That was when the real fighting began for me,” he said. “That was when we started attacking ground targets. My particular squadron was active in sort of a freelance way, looking for targets of opportunity, and we would fight with any aircraft we could find. At one time, there were eight of us and 15 (Germans) tumbling around in the sky. As soon as the battle was joined, I went into a steep turn to pick out somebody to shoot down, and I saw this one guy coming at me firing his guns, so I whipped around and very quickly shot him down. None of our guys had so much as a bullet hole in their machines. Our days, then, were mostly looking for trucks, trains, anything we could destroy to hamper their ability to wage war.”
Wilkinson’s modus operandi to seek and destroy targets of opportunity.
“It was just the squadron commander and me who could get started that day, due to cold weather,” Wilkinson recalled. “We were flying in open battle formation and we were having a pretty good time. I mean, we were finding quite a few things to destroy, when I spotted this staff car. They saw me coming and ran off into a field, and I destroyed their car. I went around to kill them because they’re the ones running the war. That’s the only time I went after personnel and pilots in the air I shot down.”
Another stop-off point of service was Celle, Germany, home to the hideous Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
“Oh, those poor people,” Wilkinson said. “It was horrific. You can’t tell me it didn’t happen. Because I’ve seen it.”
He also could have done without many more of the scenes he had a front row seat to bear witness to.
“You were watching this carnage below going on when we were flying high to protect the bombers,” Wilkinson said. “One time, I saw this truck, and I went down and fired at it and wasn’t satisfied. I went round to do it again and saw two guys dragging another one into a ditch. When I fired, it was the most huge explosion I could ever expect to see, the kind you see in the movies, and I had to pull up hard to get away. When we got back, we decided it had to be a truckload of land mines I had blown up.”
Wilkinson emphasized that a definite difficulty of combat was the loss of fellow flyers, who grew to be close friends and comrades.
“You never really knew who would be next and that was difficult to lose friends,” Wilkinson said. “You also never knew if you were going to be next.”
After World War II ended in Europe, Wilkinson’s Royal Air Force Squadron, flying Spitfire XIVs were detailed to fly to Denmark for defensive purposes.
“For two or three days before the war ended, some German aircraft approached with wheels and flaps down to indicate surrender. Nevertheless, the day the war ended came quite suddenly for us and the next day we flew to Copenhagen, Denmark where we were greeted as conquering heroes,” Wilkinson recalled.
Today, Wilkinson lives in Spearfish, where just last year he was treated to the controls of a Cessna while fellow aeronautics buffs allowed him to indulge his desire to do a few loops and rolls in the western South Dakota skies.
He arrived in Spearfish by way of his wife Joyce, who now resides in Edgewood Vista and her children Marysia and David McDowell. The Wilkinsons formerly resided in California and Washington, following John’s retirement from 3M, where he was a computer engineer.
In talking with Wilkinson and after perusing his self-penned memoir titled “The Life & Times of a WWII Royal Air Force Spitfire Pilot, it is readily apparent that he is proud of his service to his country.
“We truly fulfilled our official squadron motto ‘Seek and Destroy,’ but all was approached as calmly, coolly and logically as can be under dailythreat of death or worse, for months on end,” Wilkinson said.
Written by Jaci Conrad Pearson for Black Hills Pioneer, 11-11-14
Photo: John Wilkinson displays the original goggles he flew with throughout his flight training and in combat in World War II. Photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson
YouTube video clip: "John on the Hunt" in Spitfire, combat over Germany, April 1945. John Wilkinson flying a Spitfire over Germany in 1945. The video was taken from the wing mounted camera that is only active while firing.
Did some women fly Spitfires too? "92-year-old Air Transport Auxiliary veteran Joy Lofthouse returns to the skies in a Spitfire 70 years on from the end of World War 2. Seven decades after her last flight in the iconic plane, Joy described the experience as “lovely: it was perfect”, making her feel "quite young.” The ATA made an enormous contribution to the war effort by taking over from service pilots the task of ferrying Royal Air Force and Royal Navy warplanes between factories, maintenance units and front-line squadrons."
Photo by Duke Doering, 9-12-15 shows Brad, RAF Spitfire pilot John Wilkenson, and A-20 attack bomber pilot Hilary Cole: