John Arthur Houlton, known as Johnnie, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 23 September 1922. After beginning work as a public service cadet, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force. His first instruction was at Harewood, followed by further training at Woodbourne. Having qualified for his 'Wings', he embarked for England in December 1941. 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.
Following a refresher course, he was posted to No. 485 (N.Z.) Squadron at Kenley in June 1942, but in the following month he volunteered for Malta. He was duly embarked in the carrier H.M.S. Furious and flew a Spitfire off her to the besieged island on 11 August.
His log book records notable incidents during operations, such as the entry for 11 July: “1 locomotive destroyed 1 damaged. Left pitot head and port light [of his aircraft] in a tree.”
Malta sojourn - No. 185 Squadron
- first blood
In early August Johnnie 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 sunk; also 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers, and 10 of 14 merchantmen.” (17 August 1942). The siege conditions on Malta took their toll on Johnnie who, in October, spent “3I weeks in dock, dermatitis + tonsillitis + sandfly fever”. As he later observed in Spitfire Strikes:
“Fresh water was in short supply and there was no hot water at all; which made hygiene a myth … while we were half-starved, the mosquitos, sand flies, bed bugs and fleas fed very well.”
Cleared for operations by late October, he was selected with three other pilots to bomb Gela aerodrome in Sicily on 28 November, their Spitfires being fitted with suitable bomb racks. On returning from the raid, eight Ju. 52 transports were spotted heading for North Africa, Johnnie takes up the story:
“I attacked in turn each of the three aircraft on the left of the formation, starting with the rear one. As the 20mm. guns fired only one round, I had to do the best I could with the four .303 machine-guns - and was surprised by the amount of return fire from the formation. At least some of the aircraft had upper gun turrets, and it also appeared that some irate passengers were using automatic weapons through the windows. The first Ju. 52 dropped below the formation and turned towards Sicily, and the next two were still descending steeply towards the sea when the Me. 109 escort came diving down, and I ducked into a handy cloud. About one week later a telephone call from Headquarters advised that 'Y' Service had confirmed at least one Ju. 52 crashing into the sea'”
German records that later came to light established the loss of three Ju. 52s from this flight.
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. Johnnie 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).
No. 485 Squadron - successive Spitfire strikes - D-Day's first 'kill'
Commissioned Pilot Officer in August 1943, Johnnie gained his first victory over St. Pol on the 27th, when he downed a Fw. 190. He pursued his prey for 30 miles, descending from 27,000 feet to deck level, where the Fw. 190 caught a power line and smashed into the ground. It had been a terrifying encounter, Johnnie, having nearly blacked out after a new aircraft elevator modification sent his Spitfire in a succession of tight turns:
“I was virtually cemented in position, as it was physically impossible to lift hands, feet or head against that amount of 'g' (force), and we just kept careering around in a steep, left-hand descending turn; like winding down a giant, corkscrewing spiral“
Two or three weeks later - on 16 September - he took a half-share in another Fw. 190 over Beaumont-le-Roger and damaged a 109. Once again, the pilot of the Fw. 190 proved a worthy opponent, the pair of them leaving vapour trails that resembled 'a crazy pattern of irregular white arcs and angles' in their wake - 'the amount of g we were both pulling in the turns was dragging hard, my own vision hovering between grey-out and black-out.' Johnnie continues:
“As his turn rate momentarily slackened at the stall in a steep turn, I managed to pull through his flight path to fire a short burst which produced a flurry of bright strikes on the wing-root. As the 190 pilot flicked away into an opposite turn he flew right into Bert's line of fire, and a short burst smashed the aircraft down into the woods with a great shower of debris“
The Squadron was now ordered to Scotland for a rest, but it resumed operations out of Hornchurch in February 1944, as part of 2nd Tactical Air Force (T.A.F.).
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. The propeller of his aircraft - ML407/OU-V - 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.
From Johnnie Houlton's
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.
His aircraft of this period - Spitfire IXb ML407 OU-V - has subsequently been converted to a two-seater and refurbished. He was consequently awarded the D.F.C.
Two days later, west of Caen, he shot down a 109 which crashed into a wood - 'Just before crashing an object came away but not a parachute' (his combat report refers). He promptly followed up this victory by destroying another 109 in a combat on the 11th, the enemy aircraft catching fire, breaking up and crashing in a cornfield. On this occasion, however, 'At the height of about 600 feet, the pilot was thrown clear and his parachute opened'.
His final encounter over Normandy took place on the 29th, when he damaged a 109 south of Caen.
In late July 1944, Johnnie was sent on temporary detachment to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, undertaking a tour to introduce the new Gyro gunsight that his squadron had helped to develop. Relieved to return to operations with 485 Squadron in August 1944 - now part of 2nd T.A.F's 135 Wing - he flew to an advanced airfield in France on the last day of the month. Further sorties ensued, but Johnnie was finally 'rested' and attended the Fighter Leaders' School and the Central Gunnery School, prior to spending a couple of months as an instructor at a Spitfire O.T.U.
No. 274 Squadron -
one final burst
He returned to operations in 135 Wing in Holland in the spring of 1945, when he joined No. 274 Squadron, a Tempest unit, as a Flight Commander. And it was in this capacity that he claimed his last victory, a Do. 217 shot down south-west of Kiel:
“One week before Germany capitulated, however, a Dornier bomber flew right underneath me at zero feet, heading in the general direction of Norway. A two-second burst from the four 20mm. guns brought an end to the attempted escape, which meant I had accounted for the last - as well as the first - of the enemy aircraft destroyed by 135 Wing of the R.A.F. 2nd Tactical Air Force.“
Johnnie Houlton was promoted to Squadron Leader in July 1945 and returned to New Zealand at the war's end.
The latter years
From 1952-55, Johnnie flew with 41 (T.) Squadron, R.N.Z.A.F. and for the next 10 years he flew on aerial photographic, charter, subsidiary and agricultural operations. In 1965, with Don Hutton, he formed the Agricultural Pilots' Association of New Zealand, with the object of eliminating an excessive rate of avoidable accidents and stabilising pilots' conditions of work. From 1976-83, Johnnie was in charge of the New Zealand Defence Department's Field Station on Great Barrier Reef.
Johnnie returned to the U.K. in 1985, shortly after the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of the Normandy landings, a very special trip for he was re-united with his D-Day Spitfire - ML 407 OU-V - and his surviving ground crew; a memorable flight in the converted two-seater followed and the plain-speaking Johnnie enthralled a wide audience in subsequent interviews. The 'V' of OU-V stood for 'Vicky', 'the girl I met after returning from Malta, who all the 485 boys were a little in love with, and who became my wife.'
“In July 1985 I was able to fly again in ML 407, in England, during the filming of "The Perfect Lady", the Spitfire commemorative film produced by T.V.S. This was a very moving experience, made even more memorable by the fact that my old aircraft again carried the markings and insignia of OU-V, precisely as they were in May of 1944“ (2nd T.A.F. Spitfire - The Story of Spitfire ML 407, refers).
Undoubtedly a trade-mark 'Kiwi' fighter pilot of the very best kind - full of guts and forthright in opinion - the gallant squadron leader settled at Whangaparaoa, north of Auckland. He died there in April 1996.
‘War doesn't determine who is right. War determines who is left.’
~ often attributed to Bertrand Russell
Medals and Campaign Stars:
Be sure to read Johnnie Houlton‘s excellent autobiography
Photo from Johnnie Houlton’s book ‘Spitfire Strikes’
Hornchurch, November 1943 (left to right):
His best friend from early in his training, F/O Corran Ashworth
(visiting during his R & R),
Johnnie, Ian Strachan, Jack Yeatman, Al Stead
Photo from Johnnie Houlton’s book ‘Spitfire Strikes’
Photo from Ultimate Warbird Flights
On 28 April 1944 Jackie Moggridge
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 and two of his crew.
© Jackie Humphrey
Carolyn Grace (left) took Johnnie’s daughter Jackie
Humphrey for a flight in ML407 in July 2014
‘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