John Arthur Houlton, known as Johnnie, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 23 September 1922. He was a Public Service cadet before joining the RNZAF in June 1941. His first instruction was at Harewood, followed by further training at Woodbourne. By May of 1942 he was undergoing further training in England, prior to being posted to No. 485 Squadron on June 7, flying Spitfire VBs out of Kenley.
His log book records notable incidents during operations, such as the entry for 11 July: “1 locomotive destroyed 1 damaged. Left [the] pitot head and port light [of his aircraft] in a tree.”
In early August he transferred to No. 185 Squadron, joining in time for their hazardous trip to Malta on H.M.S. Furious during Operation Pedestal. His log book records the cost of this vital attempt to bring supplies to the beleaguered island: “H.M.S. Eagle (AC/C) sunk, also 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers, and 10 of 14 merchantmen.” (17 August, 1942). The siege conditions on Malta took their toll on Houlton who, in October, spent “3I weeks in dock, dermatitis + tonsillitis + sandfly fever”. However, 28 November saw him claim one Ju 52 damaged and another probable (post-war research in German loss records shows that these could well be amongst the three they lost that day).
In December 1942, Johnnie Houlton was posted back to Britain to join a Search and Rescue Squadron being formed in Scotland. However, a request to return to operations saw him posted to 602 Squadron at the end of January 1943. Three weeks later he was given permission to rejoin 485 Squadron. There he flew sweeps and bomber-escorts, and when the Squadron moved to Biggin Hill on 1 July 1943 and exchanged its MK V Spitfires for MK IX’s, the tempo rapidly increased. Houlton was commissioned in mid-August 1943 and claimed his first confirmed ‘kill’ (FW 190; 27 August), one share (FW 190; 16 September), and a further one damaged (Me 109 on the same day).
Later in the year the Squadron moved to Scotland for a rest before returning to Hornchurch at the end of February 1944 to resume operations. In March, 485 became part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force to provide direct support to the Allied ground forces during the invasion of Europe. The squadron Spitfires were modified to carry a 500 lb bomb under the fuselage and during the six weeks prior to D-Day Johnnie Houlton flew eleven dive-bombing sorties. On one trip his bomb hung up and he defied orders and landed safely back at base instead of heading out to sea and baling out. He received reprimands from both squadron and airfield commanders.
By June 1944 the squadron was based at Selsey, the closest airfield to the Normandy beaches. On D-Day the squadron was detailed to carry out four patrols starting at first light. ML407/OU-V’s propeller was damaged before the first patrol due to a run in with a desk an Operations officer had moved out onto the airfield (it was repaired in time for afternoon patrol).
Johnnie Houlton’s historic achievement as first Allied pilot to shoot down an enemy on D-Day is best told in his own words:
In mid-afternoon [of D-Day] I led Blue Section during the third patrol of the day. South of Omaha beach, below a shallow, broken layer of cumulus, I glimpsed a Ju. 88 above cloud diving away fast to the south. Climbing at full throttle I saw the enemy aircraft enter a large isolated cloud above the main layer, and when it reappeared on the other side I was closing rapidly.
Our aircraft were equipped with the gyro gunsight which eliminated the snap calculations and guesswork required to hit a target aircraft - especially one in a reasonably straight flight path; and it also enabled the guns to be used accurately at a far greater range than before. I was well aware, however, that most pilots were sceptical of the new instrument and preferred to use the conventional type of sight, which was still incorporated on the screen of the new sight. Normally one would open fire at ranges below 250 yards; but I adjusted the gyro sight on to the target at 500 yards with a deflection angle of 45-degrees, positioned the aiming dot on the right-hand engine of the enemy aircraft, and fired a three-second burst. The engine disintegrated, fire broke out, two crew members bailed out and the aircraft dived steeply to crash on a roadway, blowing apart on impact.
Supreme Headquarters nominated the Ju. 88 as the first enemy aircraft to be shot down since the invasion began, putting 485 (N.Z.) Squadron at the top of the scoreboard for D-Day. Some days before the invasion I had casually suggested we should run a sweepstake for the first pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft after the invasion began, and I duly collected a few shillings from the pool. When we later had time to unwind and celebrate, my modest winnings were well short of the cost of the party.from the book 'Spitfire Strikes' by Johnnie Houlton
Almost immediately he shared another Junkers with the rest of his section. This success continued in further beach patrols on 8th and 12th, when he shot down an Me.109 each day. On the 29th he damaged a further one - his last success of the year (his aircraft of this period - Spitfire IXb ML407 OU-V - has subsequently been converted to a two-seater and refurbished).
In July Johnnie Houlton was temporarily attached to the Ministry of Aircraft Production to lecture at aircraft-component factories and was awarded the DFC. He rejoined 485 in August 1944 and moved across on the 31st to its new base at Carpiquet, near Caen, Normandy. April 1945 saw him transferred to No. 274 Squadron, flying Tempests out of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and Quakenbrück, Germany. On 3 May he claimed his - and his squadron’s - final ‘kill’: a Do.219 south west of Kiel. He was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader in July 1945, by which time he had the official score of seven enemy aircraft destroyed and four damaged.
After the war, Johnnie Houlton returned to New Zealand and worked as a charter pilot. During the 50th anniversary celebrations of D-Day he flew his old aircraft once again - it and he having been the subject of a television documentary eight years previously.
John Arthur Houlton, DFC, died in Whangaparaoa, New Zealand, on 16 April 1996 aged 73.
‘War doesn't determine who is right. War determines who is left.’ ~ often attributed to Bertrand Russell
Medals and Campaign Stars:
- The Distinguished Flying Cross
- The 1939 - 1945 Star
- The Air Crew Europe Star
- The France/Germany Clasp
- The Africa Star
- The Defence Medal
- The War Medal 1939 - 45
- The New Zealand War Service Medal
Hornchurch, November 1943 (left to right):
Corran Ashworth, Johnnie Houlton, Ian Strachan, Jack Yeatman, Al Stead
‘War is a stupid pastime. It really is. I’m talking about the human cost, in human terms.
Men that go away, and the women and children are left behind. That’s the real cost of war.’
~ Johnnie Houlton, TV3 20/20 Documentary, New Zealand, 1994
On 28 April 1944 Jackie Moggridge (Born Dolores Theresa Sorour), ATA pilot, flew ML407 to 485 (NZ) Sqdn based at RAF Selsey.
Fifty years later, Jackie took the controls of ML407 to once again 'deliver' the Spitfire to Johnnie Houlton and two of his crew.