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John Freeborn

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John Freeborn

John Connell Freeborn
File:John Freeborn.jpg
Squadron Leader John Freeborn, c. 1944
Birth name John Connell Freeborn
Born (1919-12-01)1 December 1919
Middleton, Yorkshire
Died 28 August 2010(2010-08-28) (aged 90)
Southport, Merseyside
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1938–1946
Rank Wing Commander

No. 74 Squadron RAF

No. 602 Squadron RAF
Commands held

No. 118 Squadron RAF

286 Wing

World War II

Awards Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Other work

Regional Director for their Minster Minerals soft drinks


Wing Commander John Connell Freeborn, DFC* (1 December 1919 – 28 August 2010) was a World War II RAF pilot. He was not only an ace but also held the distinction of having flown more operational hours than any other RAF pilot during the Battle of Britain.

Early life

He was born in Middleton, these days a suburb of Leeds within the city's ring-road, then an area of open farmland.

His father Harold was a branch manager with the Yorkshire Penny Bank (now Yorkshire Bank), and he was something of a disciplinarian at home. Freeborn remembered that his mother Jean (née Connell) was a stern woman, saying 'I never saw her smile'. He had five siblings, two sisters and three brothers.[1]

They moved to Headingley when Freeborn was still an infant.[2] He later attended Leeds Grammar School and, although a bright and confident pupil, his dislike of petty authority made him glad to leave as soon as possible.[3]

Later, during the war, he borrowed a Gloster Gauntlet and flew up to revisit his alma mater, giving an aerobatic display before landing on the school cricket pitch. Freeborn described the irony of having the masters who, only a few years earlier, had berated and beat him telling a new crop of pupils what a shining example he was.[4]

He joined the RAF on a short service commission in January 1938. In training, he was flying solo after only 4 hours 20 minutes logged flight time, a little over half the average; his accuracy at firing whilst in the air was more than twice the average.[5] Commissioned as an acting pilot officer on probation on 26 March 1938[6] he initially flew Gloster Gauntlets, but in October 1938 he joined 74 Squadron, and from February 1939 flew Spitfires.

In July 1939 Freeborn was one of the 74 Squadron pilots to fly Spitfires to France to celebrate Bastille Day with the French Air Force.[7]

The Second World War

The Battle of Barking Creek

On 6 September 1939 he took part in an action later to be called the Battle of Barking Creek - a tragic misunderstanding during which two No. 56 Squadron Hurricanes were intercepted and shot down by aircraft from 74 Squadron, thereby becoming the first aircraft destroyed by a Spitfire. John shot down the aircraft of Pilot Officer Montague Hulton-Harrop who did not survive, becoming the first RAF pilot to die in World War II.

Freeborn felt that his Commanding Officer, Sailor Malan, tried to evade responsibility for the attack.[8] At the ensuing court martial, Malan testified for the prosecution against his own pilots, stating that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken proper heed of vital communications.[8] During the trial, Freeborn's counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, called Malan 'a bare-faced liar!'.[9]

Though the court exonerated Freeborn completely, he regretted the death of Hulton-Harrop for the rest of his life. In 2009 he said, "I think about him nearly every day. I always have done... I've had a good life, and he should have had a good life too."[10]

Whilst their working relationship continued to be professional and exceptionally effective, the case left a strained personal relationship between Freeborn and Malan. It is noteworthy that Malan did not recommend Freeborn for either of his subsequent medals.[11] On Malan's departure in March 1941, Freeborn was not given command despite being eminently capable and far more experienced than the man who did take over.


Confirmed in his rank of pilot officer on 17 January 1940,[12] his first taste of enemy action was over Dunkirk covering the British Expeditionary Force's escape. 74 Squadron was there for six days from 21–27 May 1940. During that time they scored 19 confirmed kills—two of them Freeborn's—and 10 probable kills, with only four losses.[13]

During one action his engine was hit by return fire from a Junkers Ju 88 and crash-landed in France. Evading the advancing German troops, at one point pinned down by machine-gun fire hiding in a cemetery, he walked for several days to Calais,[14] where a Blenheim took him back to England.[15]

The Battle of Britain

Freeborn fought throughout the Battle of Britain as part of 74 Squadron. On 10 July he claimed a Bf 109 of JG 51 and on 24 July shared a Do-17 'unconfirmed'. Another Bf 109 was claimed on 28 July. On 11 August 1940, the squadron flew into battle four times in eight hours, destroying 23 enemy aircraft, three by Freeborn (2 Bf 110s and a Bf 109) and damaging 14 more.[16] That evening, back at base in Hornchurch, Winston Churchill congratulated the squadron and their ground crew.[17] On 13 August he claimed a Dornier Do 17, but was shot down again, although he wasn't hurt.[15] Freeborn's accomplished flying made him an ace during the Battle of Britain, with seven confirmed kills and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 13 August 1940 and promoted to command a flight on 28 August. His DFC citation said:[18]

This officer has taken part in nearly all offensive patrols carried out by his squadron since the commencement of the war, including operations over the Low Countries and Dunkirk, and, more recently, engagements over the Channel and southeastern England. During this period of intensive air warfare he has destroyed four enemy aircraft. His high courage and exceptional abilities as a leader have materially contributed to the notable successes and high standard of efficiency maintained by his squadron.

Freeborn's portrait was drawn by war artist Cuthbert Orde in August 1940 and on 3 September he was promoted to flying officer.[19] He claimed another Do 17 on 11 September and a share in a JG 27 Bf 109 on 17 November. By the end of November he had been with his squadron longer than any other Battle of Britain pilot and had flown more operational hours.[15] Three Bf 109s (and one shared) were claimed on 5 December.

Later war

He received a second Distinguished Flying Cross in February 1941. The citation said:[20]

This officer has continuously engaged in operations since the beginning of the war. He has destroyed at least twelve enemy aircraft and damaged many more. He is a keen and courageous leader.

In June 1941 he was posted to No 57 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at RAF Hawarden, training pilots from overseas to fly Spitfires.[21]

On 3 September, he was promoted to war substantive flight lieutenant.[22]

Following American entry into the war at the end of 1941, Freeborn was posted to the United States. He trained pilots at bases in Alabama, then moved on to test piloting new aircraft, including the P-47 Thunderbolt (which he hated), the P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, B-17 Flying Fortress and A-20 Havoc.[23]

In December 1942 he returned to the UK and served as a flight commander with 602 Squadron flying Spitfires. He flew escort operations to bombers attacking German shipping and installations on the French and Dutch coasts.[24]

In June 1943 he joined 118 Squadron as commanding officer, again flying Spitfires.[25] This only lasted three months before the squadron moved to Scotland for less-confrontational patrolling and training duties.[26]

On 1 January 1944, he was promoted to the temporary rank of squadron leader (seniority from 1 July 1943).[27] He was promoted to war substantive squadron leader on 30 April.[28]

In June 1944 Freeborn was promoted to become the RAF's youngest Wing Commander Flying,[29] commanding 286 Wing based at Grottaglie in southern Italy. This was a period of frenetic activity, attacking German installations and convoys in the Balkans and defending Allied ones in Italy.[30]

In December 1944 he was posted to RAF Netheravon. Believing the post-war RAF to be 'run by nincompoops,' he resigned with honour and distinction in 1946.[31] He had flown 42 different aircraft in his eight years.[32]

Freeborn was always an outspoken and forthright man, and never held back from expressing his opinion even when it was as iconoclastic as disliking Sailor Malan. He also had somewhat hostile views about another of the pre-eminent war heroes he flew with, Douglas Bader, telling one author "He was not universally popular with his comrades, he made me sick. I’ve never met such a self-opinionated fool in all my life."[33]

After the War

Freeborn qualified as a driving instructor, but soon joined Tetley Walker to serve as Regional Director for their Minster Minerals soft drinks brand.[35] He took early retirement and in the early 1980s he moved to Spain, but later returned to the UK.

Although popular as an interviewee and event guest, for many years he shied away from committing his story to more lasting record. He relented to talk at length to military historian Bob Cossey, which led to the biography of his military career, A Tiger's Tale, in 2002. This, in turn, gave rise to Tiger Cub, Freeborn's own account of his time in 74 Squadron, which he co-authored with Christopher Yeoman and published in 2009.

He died peacefully in Southport and Formby Hospital on 28 August 2010.[36]

Personal life

John married Rita Fielder in early 1944[37] (she broke off her previous engagement to John's cousin after seeing a picture of John in the Yorkshire Post,[38]) and they had one daughter, Julia. Rita died in 1979.[39] John married his second wife, Margaret Ena (known as Peta) Thomas, in 1983.[40] She died in 2001.[41]

Combat record

Date Flying Location Kills Probables Damaged
22 May 40 Spitfire I 10m N Calais 1 * Junkers Ju 88
27 May 40 Spitfire I 5m from Dunkirk 1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
10 July 40 Spitfire I 2m E Deal, Kent 1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
28 July 40 Spitfire I Dover 1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
11 Aug 40 Spitfire I Dover;
30m E Harwich;
off Margate
2 * Messerschmitt Bf 110
1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
13 Aug 40 Spitfire I Thames Estuary off Birchington 1 * Dornier Do 17
11 Sept 40 Spitfire I SE London 1 * Dornier Do 17
14 Sept 40 Spitfire I Lowestoft 0.3 * Heinkel He 111
17 Nov 40 Spitfire II Nr Brighton 0.5 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
5 Dec 40 Spitfire II 10-15m off Dungeness;
10m Boulogne;
Nr Dover
2.5 * Messerschmitt Bf 109 1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
5 Feb 41 Spitfire II P7366 S Dover 0.25 * Dornier Do 17
4 Mar 41 Spitfire II 15m N Dunkirk 0.5 * Messerschmitt Bf 109
TOTAL 11 kills, 2 shared 1 probable 5 damaged

An additional 3.3 unconfirmed kills are attributed to him:

  • 21 May 1940, 1 * Junkers Ju 88, near Dunkirk
  • 24 May 1940, 1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109, near Dunkirk
  • 27 May 1940, 1 * Messerschmitt Bf 109, near Dunkirk
  • 24 July 1940, 0.3 * Messerschmitt Bf 109, off Dover

(Source for all combat record: Aces High - A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces in World War II)




  • Tiger Cub - The Story of John Freeborn DFC* (John Freeborn & Christopher Yeoman) ISBN 978-1-84884-023-2
  • A Tiger's Tale: The Story of Battle of Britain Fighter Ace Wg. Cdr. John Connell Freeborn (Bob Cossey) ISBN 978-1-900511-64-3
  • Aces High - A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces in World War II (Christopher Shores and Clive Williams), 1994. ISBN 978-1-898697-00-8
  • Fighter Boys: Saving Britain 1940 (Patrick Bishop) ISBN 978-0-7531-9915-2

External links

  • Spitfire pilot John Freeborn's story, The One Show, BBC 3 September 2009
  • North Weald Airfield History: Battle of Barking Creek
  • The South East Echo Archive: John Freeborn
  • Interview with Air & Space magazine, 2004
  • 74 Squadron Association


  • Daily Telegraph
  • Yorkshire Post
  • The Times
  • The Scotsman
  • The Guardian
  • New York Times
  • Washington Post
  • Southport Visiter
  • Trouw (in Dutch)

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