War stories don’t come much better than those of Ray Johnson, a 95-year-old whose lifetime spent in Grantham belies just how much of the world he has seen, and the extraordinary experiences he has lived through.
This is because the Huntingtower Road resident was once an armourer in the 152 (Hyderabad) Spitfire Squadron, famed for its success in many campaigns throughout the Second World War.
Indeed, few could boast the kind of wartime record Ray has in his possession, having signed up in July 1939 and served not only in the Battle of Britain, but also in the Bay of Biscay, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Arakan and Manipur, to name just a few, before being part of the first squadron to re-enter Burma in 1944. “We were one of the most travelled RAF squadrons in the war. Is it any wonder, with all this travel and change of scenery, I hadn’t given much thought to leave?” says Ray.
However, when he chose to join the RAF he had no idea he would be part of the same squadron throughout the war, nor of the adventures it would take him on. His first day though, might have given him an indication of what was in store.
“I was posted to No2 Flying Training School at Brize Norton, and on reporting to the armourment section was told to pick up the Lewis gun and pan of ammo. I would be taken to a gun pit on a blister hangar on the other side of the aerodrome, and was to stay there until I was relieved,” Ray remembers.
“When I enquired what I was to do, the Flt Sgt told me that if an enemy aircraft came over I was to ‘shoot the b*****d down’. This I thought was wonderful, to be given the defence of the RAF Brize Norton after being in the airforce for such a short time!”
After passing his amourment course in Wales, it was in January 1940 that Ray was posted to the 152 Squadron, who were equipped with the now iconic Spitfires, and stationed at Acklington.
As part of the ground crew, it was Ray’s job to ensure that the planes were armed and ready for battle, and he relates how you never knew when helping to strap in the pilots, whether you would be seeing them again.
In July, the Squadron moved to Warmwell near Weymouth for what became known as the Battle of Britain. “I flew there in a Handley Page Harrow, seated on a pile of full Spitfire ammo boxes,” adds Ray.
Of course the RAF’s defence of the country has gone down in history as a pivotal moment of the war, with the 152 Squadron credited with taking down 59 enemy aircraft. Yet Ray is keen to highlight that this was only the beginning of the Second World War story for him and his comrades in the 152.
After several relocations all around the UK, they discovered that they were being sent overseas, and in October 1942 boarded a ship on the Clyde to take part in ‘Operation Torch’ – the landings in North Africa.
“The squadron had become a completely mobile and self-contained unit, with its own motor transport, medical stores, etc. It was capable of moving at one hour’s notice, and did so many times over the next three years,” explains Ray.
He then found himself in Malta, a country which has since bestowed upon him The Malta George Cross Fiftieth Anniversary Medal, to add to his many decorations.
From there, the 152 covered the initial stages of the Sicilian Landings, known as ‘Operation Husky’. They then left Europe and travelled across Asia, finding themselves based at RAF Tulihal, in Manipur, India.
While the air battles relentlessly continued, there was also time to have a laugh amongst the close-knit squadron.
“At Tulihal the C.O. was prevailed upon to allow a ‘hooch run’ to Calcutta. So an officer and myself flew in the Havard over the mountains, and the Ganges Delta to Calcutta, minus the ‘chutes and anything else that would take up gin space,” Ray remembers with a smile.
He adds that they had filled the plane with so much gin ‘if we had been hit then we would have gone up like a great firework’.
Another happy memory takes Ray from hooch, to pooch, as he recalls the beloved white bull terrier that was adopted by the squadron. Named Pooch, the dog’s original owner was Flt Lt Ernie McNab, a Canadian on exchange duties with the RAF, who let the hound remain with the 152 when he returned to his native country.
As such, Pooch became a much-loved companion during their time in Cornwall, East Anglia and Northern Ireland, although he wasn’t able to join them when they went abroad. Another tale from a fellow member of the unit relates the touching reunion between pooch and a favourite squaddie. Ray believes that for his impact on the 152’s morale, Pooch himself deserved some kind of doggy decoration. “The DFC – Doggy Flying Cross,” he suggests.
These stories and more are all told in papers, photos and records Ray has meticulously gathered over the years, including some intriguing documents marked ‘secret’, alongside accounts he has written himself in descriptive detail, painting a vivid picture of his life with the 152.
I was privileged enough to be able to read through these, and could see straight away that they were worthy of a book. In fact they have already inspired one, ‘The Birth of the Black Panthers’, written by Bill Smith in memory of his brother Len Smith, who painted the squadron’s distinctive black leaping panther emblem over their plane’s roundels.
Of course, alongside the beauty described in Ray’s memoirs, such as the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kanchenjunga which he took in during a his first period of leave in 33 months, there are also the dark moments, including being drenched for days on end in Gibraltar, or developing jaundice.
Even as back home the nation was celebrating on May 8, 1945, Ray and the 152 were still in Burma where it was ‘business as usual’ at an airstrip codenamed ‘Maidavale’ near Magwe and Yenan Yaung oilfields. Although the invasion there was ultimately a success, by the end of it they had lost 40 per cent of the squadron.
No wonder then that those six years have remained at the forefront of Ray’s memories, and on being released from service in December 1945, he returned to Grantham where he has remained ever since, spending 47 happy years of marriage with his late wife, Joan.
A true inspiration to us all, we salute you Ray.