For me at least, an important and particularly enjoyable aspect of every aircraft modeling project is the research into the details of both the machine and the man (or men) who flew it. Consequently, as a Spitfire aficionado, I was most pleased when I received ‘Johnnie’ Johnson’s autobiography, which recounts the personal story of the top scoring Allied fighter pilot of the Second World War. First published in 1956 (this edition was published in 2010), Johnson provides a gripping, first person account of his path through the war, distinctively told in terms of individual epochs rather than linear time. As such, it does not read like a chronological documentary, instead providing the modern reader a uniquely individual perspective of major historical events as they appeared to the eyes of a participant for whom the future outcome was anything but certain. Johnson begins his story in 1938 with the Volunteer Reserve and then follows with the Battle of Britain, sweeps across the English Channel and over France, Dieppe, his first Canadian wing, Normandy, Paris, Brussels, Arnhem, and finally ends with operations across the Rhine into Germany and the Third Reich itself.
Throughout this journey, as historical events unfold, the reader is treated to Johnson’s hard-earned insights and visible maturation from novice pilot to combat-proven wing leader. For example, in the opening chapters, there is Johnson’s description of his personal experience of spatial disorientation and his moment by moment effort to stave off panic when, as a solo student pilot in a Miles Mentor, he inadvertently transitioned from night visual into instrument flight conditions. In the classic “I learned about flying from that” story format, he was saved both by his ability to suppress his emotions and a good bit of luck in spotting the glimmer of the airfield lights (“the flare path”) on the base of a cloud. Then there is Johnson as the wide-eyed replacement pilot who joined 19 Squadron in the waning days of the Battle of Britain, buying beers for experienced pilots in exchange for their stories of combat, all in the hopes of gleaning potentially lifesaving insights. Later, he was afforded the opportunity to learn on the wing of the ace Douglas Bader―another larger than life persona who lost both his legs in a crash prior to the war―right up to the time when Bader was shot down and captured.
Subsequent chapters lead the reader through what can only be described as a Darwinian selection process by which Johnson relatively quickly rises to the position of wing leader. Throughout, Johnson takes the time to provide mini-vignettes of squadron mates and important acquaintances. However, most of these subplots are relatively short lived, as person after person is dropped from Johnson’s narrative because of capture and/or death. And Johnson is not immune to the effects of this culling. He humbly describes his own manifestations of combat fatigue, which he attributed as the cause for his temporary transfer from the position of operational wing leader to a ground staff job. But the book is not all high drama. Interspersed are numerous antidotes, told in the typical British style of humor, such as the exchange of bombs for beer barrels on the Spitfire’s bomb rack to allow cross-Channel beer runs after the Allies secured a beachhead in France.
While the focus of Johnson’s story is primarily a personal recounting of his life in war―to specifically include many harrowing accounts of deadly dogfights―the author dedicates a fair bit of several chapters to explaining the mechanics of aerial combat. He details the roles and responsibilities of pilots and ground controllers within the complex infrastructure of detection, command, and control that was used to such good effect during the air battle over Britain. He also provides a layman’s primer on the evolution of British and German fighter formations, the associated impact on aerial tactics, and the ramifications in terms of the likelihood for success in battle. Additionally, Johnson does not hold back on critiquing senior officers, particularly with regard to his judgment of the lack of utility of risky low level fighter raids (“rhubarbs”) over occupied Europe.
Although the name Spitfire conjures up visions of epic dogfights between British and German fighter planes above France and England during the summer of 1940, Johnson was a relatively late arrival to the Battle of Britain. Consequently, readers looking for an accounting of the early carnage―when the RAF persevered in the face of overwhelming odds and manpower and equipment shortages―will need to turn elsewhere. Nonetheless, the description of Spitfire operations after the Battle of Britain is a lesser known story, but one no less filled with danger and drama. It was also interesting to observe how the British and U.S. experiences diverged because of the relatively “short legs” of the Spitfire versus other Allied fighter aircraft. This was aptly illustrated by Johnson’s first flight over Germany not occurring until the very end of the war.
Even though Johnson’s autobiography has been published in several prior editions, the story remains quite compelling and should be considered a must read for any Spitfire enthusiast. The story is engaging and, despite its length of 320 pages, the book is a relatively quick read. I highly recommend Wing Leader, and I would like to thank IPMS/USA and Specialty Press for the opportunity to review this book. Wing Leader can be ordered by calling Specialty Press at 1-800-895-4585 or by visiting www.specialtypress.com. Now I just need to find a 1:72 scale beer barrel aftermarket detail set for that Spitfire diorama!