Air Vice-Marshal John Howe was a tenacious, straight-talking South African, who, inspired by stories of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, overcame his fear of heights and went on to become one of Britain’s top combat pilots, as well as commanding an elite strike force in Germany at the height of the Cold War.
Born into a devoutly Christian family in South Africa in 1930, John Frederick George Howe was the eldest of two sons to George, a printing works manager, and Mary, a housewife. They had emigrated from Britain after the First World War.
Howe was educated at St. Andrew’s College, Grahamstown and was gifted academically as well a talented sportsman, representing the school at rugby, cricket and shooting. Aged 17, to the annoyance of his parents, he left school and joined the South African Airforce, attending the Voortrekker Hoogte military college in Pretoria, where he got his wings two years later. Learning initially in Tiger Moths, he showed natural ability and quickly progressed to Harvards and Spitfire IXs.
Aged 21, a little over a year after his graduation, he was posted to No. 2 Squadron SAAF, “The Flying Cheetahs,” and deployed to Korea to fly low-level combat missions, South Africa’s contribution as part of a combined United Nations force.
On his first tour, while, in June 1951 Howe was charged with defending a ridge northwest of Kaesong in Korea where soldiers of the combined UN force were facing an onslaught by North Korean and Chinese troops. With heavy UN casualties, Howe, flying Mustang fighter-bombers, flew through intense ground fire to deliver repeated attacks on the enemy.
He was one of four pilots decorated for bravery for their actions that day; his citation records that he demonstrated “intrepid aggressiveness” and “aeronautical skill” in pressing home attacks that killed more than 200 enemy troops.
“Looking back on it,” he recalled years later, “the whole bombing thing was horrendous. We would attack anything, absolutely anything that moved beyond the bomb line – horses, oxen, cattle, farmers, tractors, individuals… We were ruthless.”
His tour completed, Howe volunteered for an extension but was turned down and so volunteered to be a forward air controller and joined the US Army, again showing bravery in battle for which he was awarded the American DFC and Air Medal. Upon returning to South Africa, Howe resigned from the SAAF, disillusioned by the onset of apartheid and, in 1954, travelled to Britain to join the RAF. While attending the Central Fighter Establishment at West Raynham in Norfolk, he met his future wife, Annabelle, the daughter of Norfolk farmer and aviator Cecil Gowing.
He flew Hawker Hunter jets and again volunteered, as a forward air controller to direct aircraft on to targets in the area, in the landing at Port Said with 40 Commando in 1956 during the ill-fated Suez campaign.
Soon after his marriage in March 1961, Howe was given command of 74 “Tiger” Squadron at RAF Coltishall based in Norfolk, the RAF’s first Lightning Squadron, which he later described as the “greatest flying thrill of his life”. The Lightning represented a huge step forward for the RAF, the first genuinely supersonic aircraft that it possessed.
With his determined and truly indomitable character, Howe had high expectations and worked himself, and men under his command, hard and successfully brought the first squadron into service without losing a single aircraft.
During his near-two years in command, he also led the Tigers’ RAF aerobatic team with displays at events including the Farnborough and Paris air shows.
A succession of postings at home and abroad followed, including command of the first McDonnell Douglas Phantom jet at Coningsby, Lincolnshire. According to Howe the highlight of his career was his appointment as station commander at RAF Gütersloh in West Germany, the home of two Lightning squadrons, from 1973-75. This was a frontline command at the height of the Cold War, a few minutes flying time from Warsaw Pact forces.
His final role was as commandant general of the RAF Regiment and RAF Provost Marshal and Director General Security. He also served as the 16th Commandant of the Royal Observer Corps,. He was appointed CB (1985) and CBE (1978).
Fellow South African, pilot Eric Keevey, summed-up what made Howe the complete combat pilot. “John was somebody who was always willing to take a risk without being reckless, coupled with the skill to carry it off,” he said. “It is a fairly rare combination.”
Retiring in November 1985, Howe, known locally as the “supersonic shepherd”, helped his wife run her late father’s sheep farm at Rackheath, Norfolk, before completely retiring nearly 20 years later.
He continued his passions of rugby and skiing, becoming a vice president of North Walsham Rugby Club and establishing the International Combined Services Ski Association, which saw the army, navy and Royal Air Force competing all over the world. A biography, Upward and Onward, by Bob Cossey, was published in 2009. Howe is survived by his wife and three daughters.