Obituary: Jimmy Johnston DFC, Flight Lieutenant

BORN: 15 August, 1922, in Aberdeen. Died: 11 May, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 91.

Jimmy Johnston. Picture: Contributed
Jimmy Johnston. Picture: Contributed

Jimmy Johnston was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his outstanding service as a fighter and reconnaissance pilot in the Second World War, surviving a remarkable 84 operational trips.

The achievements of Johnston were all the more impressive for a former mill worker who left school at 14 and suffered severe asthma. He later said asthma attacks had frightened him more than air combat.

It is fitting for the former flight commander of a Glasgow squadron that his former aircraft, Spitfire LA198, today hangs famously on permanent display in the city’s Kelvingrove Art ­Gallery and Museum.

His subsequent progression to flying fast jets must have seemed far from Johnston’s mind when he enlisted in the RAF aged 18 and trained on Tiger Moth biplanes at Sywell in Northamptonshire. By 19 he had earned his “wings” and mustered as a sergeant pilot.

Assessed with exceptional vision, he was selected as a night fighter pilot and posted to the newly-formed 157 Squadron, where he flew the de Havilland Mosquito. His role was to protect bomber streams over enemy territory, intercept German aircraft and attack ground targets, including fighter planes.

He flew photo reconnaissance Spitfires with 681 Squadron in the Far East then switched to Mosquitos in the same role with 684 Squadron. His operational flying included an experimental test to find out if the adhesives used in the construction of the “Mossie” would hold up in the tropical heat.

Between 1943 and 1944 he served with 543, 681 and 684 squadrons, gathering intelligence on Japanese troop and supply columns in Burma and Thailand. His Mosquito was stripped of armaments to boost its speed and range and he completed round-trips of up to 2,000 miles in six or seven hours, often under fire from the ground and in intense temperatures.

On one mission, through a break in the cloud he spotted a Japanese naval warship with an escort of destroyers. He returned to base and immediately volunteered to return to photograph it on behalf of the Royal Navy. Shortly after this, in 1944, he was awarded the DFC for his numerous achievements.

Johnston, who received a personal letter of congratulation from King George VI after his decoration, also claimed the distinction of being the first to fly non-stop from Britain to India. On one flight over Mount Everest he had a narrow escape when his Mosquito engines coughed but recovered in the thin air. He also qualified as a flying instructor on Airspeed Oxfords.

James Aden Johnston was born in Jute Street, Aberdeen, on 15 August, 1922. He suffered from asthma, which he later described as more terrifying than any of his wartime escapades, but the condition went into remission after his father took him out for long walks.

He attended Causewayend and Sunnybank schools, leaving at 14 to work in woollen manufacturing at Berryden Mills. His first taste of RAF uniform came at this time when he joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps and showed, in the words of his commanding officer, “character and ability of the highest order”.

Johnston left the RAF in 1946 and joined the Ordnance Survey. As chief surveyor for the west of Scotland he mapped not only towns and villages but vast estates, along with their “cleared” villages.

However, he was not out of “the light blue” for long and in 1948 became a reservist with No 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force; the first auxiliary squadron to fly Spitfires and the unit that had seen the first action of the Second World War, when it helped shoot down four enemy aircraft.

In the Battle of Britain, the squadron destroyed ten German Luftwaffe planes without loss and by May 1945 the tally was 150. Johnston was one of the last flight commanders with 602, flying Spitfires, Harvard trainers and Vampire and Meteor jets for ten years.

He walked away from two serious crashes. In 1948, engine failure forced him to land in a field near Glenboig, Lanarkshire. The undercarriage was torn off but when the blazing Spitfire came to a halt he leapt from the cockpit and put out the flames with a fire extinguisher. A passing fire engine crashed through a gate and got stuck in mud and when the farmer demanded who would pay for the damage, Johnston replied in his native Doric: “Nae me.” Meanwhile, rescue teams were scouring the Forth Bridge area after his Mayday call reporting a forced landing “near Coatbridge” was misheard.

Another close shave the following year saw him save Spitfire LA198 at Horsham St Faith, Norfolk, when the engine failed during his take-off run and the aircraft went into a ground loop which was overcome by his quick reactions and skill. Flown by his Glasgow squadron between 1947 and 1949, it was probably the last British Spitfire to fly. LA198 featured in the 1969 film, the Battle of Britain, and now hangs on permanent display at Kelvingrove museum.

In 1951, he trained full-time with 602 at RAF Leuchars for three months in case of call-up for the Korean War, forming a Scottish Wing commanded by Group Captain WG Duncan Smith, father of the politician Iain Duncan Smith. He was awarded the Air Efficiency medal for service in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

After retiring from the Civil Service in 1986, he was presented with the Imperial Service Medal. He met the Queen and Prince Philip twice, the first time being at the disbandment of the RAuxAF in 1957 and the second in 2006, when LA198 went on display.

A highly capable, obliging and pleasantly disposed man, one hobby was building house extensions for neighbours. He also enjoyed holidays by Loch Fyne and was last year awarded the coveted first ticket for the RAF Leuchars Air Show. The essence of an officer and gentleman to his air force colleagues, he often spoke about the waste of war but the bond between aircrew whose lives depended on each other.

His wife Margaret predeceased him in 2007. He is survived by their four children Ronald, Evie, Margo and Jamie, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.