World War II: Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson

Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson. Photograph Source: Public Domain

"Johnnie" Johnson - Early Life & Career:

Born on March 9, 1915, James Edgar "Johnnie" Johnson was the son of Alfred Johnson, a Leicestershire policeman. An avid outdoorsman, Johnson was raised locally and attended Loughborough Grammar School. His career at Loughborough came to an abrupt end when he was expelled for swimming in the school pool with a girl. Attending the University of Nottingham, Johnson studied civil engineering and graduated in 1937. The following year he broke his collar bone while playing for Chingford Rugby Club. In the wake of the injury, the bone was improperly set and healed incorrectly.

Entering the Military:

Possessing an interest in aviation, Johnson applied for entry into the Royal Auxiliary Air Force but was rejected based on his injury. Still eager to serve, he joined the Leicestershire Yeomanry. With tensions with Germany increasing in late 1938 as a result of the Munich Crisis, the Royal Air Force reduced its entry standards and Johnson was able to gain admission into the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. After undergoing basic training on weekends, he was called up in August 1939 and sent to Cambridge for flight training. His flying education was completed at 7 Operational Training Unit, RAF Hawarden in Wales.

The Nagging Injury:

During the course of training, Johnson found that his shoulder caused him great pain while flying. This proved particularly true when flying high-performance aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire. The injury was further exacerbated following a crash during training in which Johnson's Spitfire did a ground loop. Though he tried various types of padding on his shoulder, he continued to find that he would lose feeling in his right arm while flying. Briefly posted to No. 19 Squadron, he soon received a transfer to No. 616 Squadron at Coltishall.

Reporting his shoulder problems to the medic he was soon given a choice between reassignment as a training pilot or undergoing surgery to reset his collar bone. Immediately opting for the latter, he was removed from flight status and sent to the RAF Hospital at Rauceby. As a result of this operation, Johnson missed the Battle of Britain. Returning to No. 616 Squadron in December 1940, he began regular flight operations and aided in downing a German aircraft the following month. Moving with the squadron to Tangmere in early 1941, he began to see more action.

A Rising Star:

Quickly proving himself a skilled pilot, he was invited to fly in Wing Commander Douglas Bader's section. Gaining experience, he scored his first kill, a Messerschmitt Bf 109 on June 26. Taking part in the fighter sweeps over Western Europe that summer, he was present when Bader was shot down on August 9. Scoring his fifth kill and becoming an ace in September, Johnson received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and made flight commander. Over the next several months he continued to perform admirably and earned a bar for his DFC in July 1942.

An Established Ace:

In August 1942, Johnson received command of No. 610 Squadron and led it over Dieppe during Operation Jubilee. In the course of the fighting, he downed a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Continuing to add to his total, Johnson was promoted to acting Wing Commander in March 1943 and given command of the Canadian Wing at Kenley. Despite being English-born, Johnson quickly gained the Canadians' trust through his leadership in the air. The unit proved exceptionally effective under his guidance and he personally downed fourteen German fighters between April and September.

For his achievements in early 1943, Johnson received the Distinguish Service Order (DSO) in June. A slew of additional kills earned him a bar for the DSO that September. Removed from flight operations for six months at the end of September, Johnson's total numbered 25 kills and he held the official rank of Squadron Leader. Assigned to No. 11 Group Headquarters, he performed administrative duties until March 1944 when he was placed in command of No. 144 (RCAF) Wing. Scoring his 28th kill on May 5, he became the highest-scoring British ace still actively flying.

Top Scorer:

Continuing to fly through 1944, Johnson kept adding to his tally. Scoring his 33rd kill on June 30, he passed Group Captain Adolph "Sailor" Malan as the top-scoring British pilot against the Luftwaffe. Given command of No. 127 Wing in August, he downed two Fw 190s on the 21st. Johnson's final victory of World War II came on September 27 over Nijmegen when he destroyed a Bf 109. During the course of the war, Johnson flew 515 sorties and shot down 34 German aircraft. He shared in seven additional kills which added 3.5 to his total. In addition, he had three probables, ten damaged, and one destroyed on the ground.


In the final weeks of the war, his men patrolled the skies over Kiel and Berlin. With the end of the conflict, Johnson was the RAF's second highest-scoring pilot of the war behind Squadron Leader Marmaduke Pattle who had been killed in 1941. With the end of the war, Johnson was given a permanent commission in the RAF first as a squadron leader and then as a wing commander. After service at the Central Fighter Establishment, he was sent to the United States to gain experience in jet fighter operations. Flying the F-86 Sabre and F-80 Shooting Star, he saw service in the Korean War with the US Air Force.

Returning to the RAF in 1952, he served as Air Officer Commanding at RAF Wildenrath in Germany. Two years later he began a three-year tour as Deputy Director, Operations at the Air Ministry. After a term as Air Officer Commanding, RAF Cottesmore (1957-1960), he was promoted to air commodore. Promoted to air vice marshal in 1963, Johnson's final active duty command was as Air Officer Commanding, Air Forces Middle East. Retiring in 1966, Johnson worked in business for the remainder of his professional life as well as served as Deputy Lieutenant for the County of Leicestershire in 1967. Writing several books about his career and flying, Johnson died of cancer on January 30, 2001.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).