17 September 2010

John Freeborn obituary

John Freeborn, the distinguished Battle of Britain ace Spitfire pilot from Headingley, died on August 28th.

He was a friend of my family's, and the first Yorkshireman I ever knew. Only years later after moving to Leeds did I come to realise that his blunt upfront approach, his relentless pisstaking, his outspokenness and generosity of spirit were in large part cultural.

I've tried to make sure that he gets his dues, and nudged the newspapers to see if they'd do obituaries. I've been quite surprised at the prominence he's been given, half a page in the Times, the same in the Telegraph, even one in the New York Times. The Southport Visiter, the local paper for the town where he died, devoted their entire first three pages to him.

I wrote a lengthy one myself, and when the Guardian and Yorkshire Post asked me to write their pieces, I split the material between them.

The Guardian - as is apparently commonplace with work submitted to them - then messed with the phrasing, editing not for length but seemingly just to make it look as if I can't write without lapsing into inelegance, and altered content and emphasis to make it look like I only half know what I'm talking about.

Still, I'm sure that for all the grandeur of international coverage, newspapers of record and whatnot, it's the Yorkshire Post that would have pleased John most. It was the newspaper that ran the recruitment adverts that made him join the RAF, it was his picture in that paper that his future wife cut out and kept as he flew his early missions. He never lost his Yorkshire accent or allegiance. Knowing this, I made my piece as Leedsy as I could.


John Connell Freeborn

A quintessential Yorkshireman, John Freeborn was blunt with a sparkling pugnacious humour, forthright and outspoken yet with a streak of conservatism, and fiercely proud of his roots. Right up to the end he would tell anyone who asked, and many more besides, that Yorkshire deployed more of his Battle of Britain comrades than any other county.

John joined the RAF in January 1938 and soon showed himself to be supremely talented. 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. He was just the sort of naturally adept pilot that would ensure the outgunned British would emerge victorious in the summer of 1940.

Whilst the Battle of Britain was fought by a disproportionate number of public school boys with their calm assured demeanour, the fighter squadrons were also exactly the place for a capable cocky grammar school lad like John. Even among such a justifiably lauded group as The Few, John Freeborn stood out as exceptionally skilled. Tenacious and tireless, he flew more operational hours in the Battle of Britain than any other pilot.

These days Middleton is a suburb of Leeds within the ring road, but in 1919 it was open agricultural land and the village where John Freeborn was born.

John's father was a manager for Yorkshire Penny Bank, and the family soon moved up to Headingley, with John earning a place at Leeds Grammar School on Moorland Road. Although a bright and confident pupil, he had an instinctive dislike for petty authority and left school at 16.

After joining the RAF, he flew up and treated the boys of the school to an aerobatic display before landing on the cricket pitch. He found it richly ironic that the same masters who had recently been beating and berating him were now fawning around, feting him to a new crop of pupils as an example of what could be achieved if they only obediently knuckled down to their schoolwork.

For all his plaudits, John's first taste of action was not a glorious one. On 6 September 1939, only three days into the war, he was scrambled to intercept incoming German planes off the Essex coast. Coming up behind the targets, he was given the order to fire. But these were no enemy planes; indeed, the whole report was a mistake. The only aircraft in the sky were British. Two Hurricanes were shot down. One pilot survived but another, Montague Hulton-Harrop, had been hit in the head by John's guns. Thus John became the first Spitfire pilot of the war to make a kill.

The ensuing court martial completely exonerated him, but the remorse for Hulton-Harrop’s death stayed with him for the rest of his life. In 2009 he told the BBC, "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".

He was soon back in action defending the Dunkirk evacuation, where he and the rest of 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron excelled. In their six days there they destroyed 19 German planes – two of them shot down by John - and a probable ten more, for only four losses. John's Spitfire was shot in the petrol tank, forcing him to crash-land in France. He escaped unharmed, spending several days making his way on foot to Calais to find a British plane to take him back to England.

But even those ferocious exploits pale next to the pivotal moment in the life of the man and his country that followed, the Battle of Britain. 74 Squadron flew relentlessly during this time. On one day alone, 11 August 1940, they flew into battle four times in eight hours, destroying 23 enemy aircraft – three by John - and damaging 14 more.

John’s accomplished flying made him not only an ace – a pilot who had downed five or more enemy planes - but an ace during the Battle itself, with seven confirmed kills. On 13 August 1940 John was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with an effusive citation.

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 S.E. of 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.

By the time that was published, he’d destroyed at least four more German aircraft. The Yorkshire Post was also moved to stirring sentiments, saying

this young man belongs to a great company of others who like him posses the stuff, the initiative, that will smash their regimented opponents. It is not beside the point that this particular one bears the name of Freeborn. So are they all free born – and they know and cherish the fact

Even this was not the pinnacle. After continuing on frontline flying until the end of 1940, in February 1941 he was awarded a second DFC.

Following the intensity of the Battle of Britain, John - like many other pilots - was moved to less confrontational duties, training new aircrew. On one occasion a faulty Spitfire had been landed by a trainee at Ringway airfield in Manchester and John was dispatched to collect it. Although it was to be returned south-west to Hawarden near Chester, John chose to come north-east via Headingley.

He flew low over his parents’ Broomfield Crescent home emulating boyhood stories of he’d heard of First World War German aces’ aerobatting, and treated his fiancĂ© Rita’s house to a similarly flamboyant display before landing at Yeadon. Unsurprisingly, this irregular use of aircraft did not go unnoticed by Training Command and, not for the first time, John was reprimanded.

Rita had been engaged to a cousin of John’s but broke it off after seeing a picture of John in the Yorkshire Post that she cut out and kept. He was to spend 1942 away from her, though. Following America’s entry into the war at the end of 1941, John’s expertise meant he was posted there to train pilots and test-pilot new aircraft.

In 1943 he was back in the UK, and back flying Spitfires. This time he was with 602 Squadron escorting bombing raids on German installations on the European coast. In June of that year he belatedly got a command, flying escort missions with 118 Squadron.

He was soon was promoted again to become the RAF's youngest Wing Commander and spent the first six months of 1944 commanding 286 Wing, one of the largest in the RAF, based at Grottaglie in the extreme south-east of Italy. This was a period of frenetic activity, attacking German installations and convoys in the Balkans and defending Allied ones in Italy.

After the end of the war he stayed on in the RAF for a few months, but felt that the service was by this time ‘run by nincompoops’ and so left the Air force with honour and distinction in 1946. In his eight years, he had flown 42 different aircraft.

Back in civilian life - or rather, in it for the first time - John qualified as a driving instructor, but took a position with Tetley Walker as Regional Director for their Minster Minerals soft drinks brand. It is perhaps a mercy for the people of Leeds that he didn’t try to rekindle his earlier career as a tram driver that had lasted all of 30 seconds until he derailed a vehicle outside the Swinegate depot.

He took early retirement to care for Rita in her time of declining health. After Rita’s death in 1979, John found new happiness with his second wife Peta, whom he married in 1983 and lived with in Spain. Peta died in 2001, and latterly John had lived in England again.

A continuing, seemingly resurgent, historical interest in the Battle of Britain kept John in demand as an interviewee and event guest. Always ready to hold forth with iconoclastic opinions, he frequently denigrated several of the great heroes he flew with such as Sailor Malan and the ‘self-opinionated fool’ Douglas Bader.

However, whilst he would often regale people stories of his time in action, he had always shied away from formally committing it to record. His consideration for the relatives of Montague Hulton-Harrop played certainly some part in this.

He relented ten years ago and talked at length to war historian Bob Cossey who produced a biography, A Tiger’s Tale. This led to John co-writing a subsequent book with Chris Yeoman, Tiger Cub, which he regarded as the definitive version of his time in 74 Squadron.

John Connell Freeborn DFC*, fighter pilot
Born Middleton, Leeds, 1 December 1919
Died Southport, Merseyside, 28 August 2010
Survived by one daughter, Julia

1 September 2010

Trams and Air Raids in the 21st Century

I've just discovered Phill Davison's superb photosets of urban exploration.

One has vintage photos of Leeds' tram system, and the remnant bits of kit that still lie around the city. It's city-wide, but here's a bit of Leeds 6 with the old tram depot in St Chad's Road, Headingley, and the site as it is today.

He's also been inside air raid shelters all over the city, including the one under Woodhouse Moor by the top of Brudenell Road. The struts sticking out of the wall were for benches, the brick thing on the left held a heater.

He's also spotted an air raid shelter vent still labelled in the pavement outside Boots in Headingley.

Fabulous stuff, unauthorised and trespassy, but captivating to anyone with a sense of curiosity and the slightest element of poetry in their hearts. There are over a dozen explorations with concise yet well researched captions that set your mind racing.

25 August 2010

John Freeborn's Spitfire over Headingley

Headingley's Battle of Britain pilot John Freeborn married his wife Rita during the war. They were together until her death in 1980.

Bob Cossey's biography of John, A Tiger's Tale, tells of John's 1941 mock attacks over Leeds to impress Rita and his parents in a Spitfire.

That John decided to come from Manchester airfield to Hawarden (south-west of Manchester near Chester) via Leeds (considerably north-east of Manchester) says much about the cocky grammar-school boy's attitude:

Rita had been engaged to John's cousin, but that relationship came to an end once she had seen a photo of John in the Yorkshire Post which she cut out and kept. The love affair began when John took a Master and colleague down to Ringway (Manchester) where a pupil had landed a Spitfire with a problem and the aircraft needed collecting and flying back to Hawarden [airfield near Chester where John was training pilots].

John's return in the Spitfire was via Headingley where he put on something of an aerobatic display over his parents' home - he was remembering stories he had read of World War One German aces who would be prone to aerobatting to entertain those on the ground!

A low level pass over the rooftops of Headingley as a farewell gesture had people diving for cover - was this the Luftwaffe on a bombing run?

John regularly announced by beating up Rita's house then landing at Yeadon when he came home for a weekend's leave. She always knew when he was about! But his unauthorised antics were inevitably brought to the attention of AOC Training Command - John was on the carpet once again!

28 November 2009

Suffragette rally news report

Here's the report that went with the previously posted pictures.

Leeds Mercury, Monday July 27, 1908.

Great Crowd on Woodhouse Moor

There was a great gathering on Woodhouse Moor yesterday afternoon, when the Suffragettes held a demonstration. how many assembled one must not be betrayed into venturing to estimate, and so it may be left as many thousands. The weather was favourable, and the public prepared to make the best of it.

A procession was formed and proceeded to the Moor, headed by bands playing stirring airs. On the Moor were arranged ten conveyances by way of platforms, and from these prominent members of the cause held forth more or less strenuously.

The speakers included such well-known adherents as Mrs Pankhurst, Miss Annie Kenney, Miss Mary Gawthorpe, Mrs Pethick Lawrence, Miss Gladys Keevil, Mrs Baines, Miss Adela Pankhurst, and Mrs Drummond. The crowd was undoubtedly swelled by many who went out of curiosity and a desire to see if there were any disturbance. A band performance was in progress also, and on the skirts of the demonstration the Salvation Army and others made the most of the opportunity by holding meetings.


there was no serious disturbance. Here and there one or two noisy spirits elbowed their way into the crowd and ventured upon an occasional interruption. In one instance, too, a man proceeded from reviling the Suffragettes to reviling women in general, with the result that he was made to beat a speedy retreat by means of chaff, mingled with the more substantial persuasion of sods.

Miss Gladys Keevil, a young lady with a winning smile and a most becoming hat, exerted a distinct influence upon her hearers. She admitted that some of the doings of the Suffragettes had not been quite lady-like, but she pleaded that they had done nothing unwomanly.


There were some things that only women could do. Men, she said, were actually debating in the House of Commons as to whether a mother should have her young child with her in bed or in a cot by her side.

"Why," she said, with a smile, "the stupidest woman knows more about children and their training than the wisest of men."

They did not want the Liberal party to be deprived of power, because they looked to the Liberals to give them the vote. What they were doing was to shake the party, just as a mother might shake a naughty child.

Mrs Pankhurst was as clever as usual in dealing with questions. The adult suffragist meets with scant consideration at her hands. One such was told that if he was sincere he would not use his vote until his wife got one. They were not going to wait until everybody could have the vote. Man wanted woman to pull some more chestnuts out of the fire for him.

As for a programme, said Mrs Pankhurst, they were political dark horses, and they were not going to declare any political programme until they could vote on one.


"Are there not more women than men?" asked a fearful male, trembling as before the wrath to come.

"There are more men born than women," said Mrs Pankhurst, triumphantly, "but fewer survive. It seems to me you men want mothering." And the abashed man looked as if he did.

A resolution advocating "Voted for Women" was put, and carried by a huge majority. At Mrs Pankhurst's platform, for instance, there were but three hands, and one stick with a hat upon it, held up in opposition.

18 November 2009

Suffragette rally photos

As I've mentioned before, on 26 July 1908 100,000 people attended a suffragette demonstration on Woodhouse Moor, organised by the Womens Social and Political Union.

Their northern organiser was Woodhouse-born Mary Gawthorpe, although I'm told that the Yorkshire end of things was often done by Adela Pankhurst. Adela was the youngest of the Pankhurst daughters, and seems to have suffered some kind of burnout soon after, emigrating to Australia and not seeing her family again.

But anyway, on Monday 27 July 1908 the demonstration was reported in the local press. The Yorkshire Post took a snooty Daily Telegraph-esque tone, but the Leeds Mercury had a larger and wittier article, and some photos too.

I'll type up the prose and post it here soon, but here's the photos to be getting on with.

Leeds Mercury photos of Mrs Pethick Lawrence speaking at the Suffragette rally

To see a larger version, click here.

Suffragette Demonstration.
Local suffragettes, reinforced by some of the leaders of the movement, demonstrated in Leeds yesterday in favour of "Votes for Women". After a procession from the Leeds Town Hall, speeches were delivered from several platforms on Woodhouse Moor, and in the photograph Mrs Pethick Lawrence is seen advocating the cause with some earnestness.

= = = = =

Leeds Mercury photos of Suffragette rally

To see a larger version, click here.

A Scene on Woodhouse Moor.
On Woodhouse Moor a crowd of some dimensions had gathered to approve or gratify their curiosity. Our photograph shows Miss Adela Pankhurst addressing a crowd from one platform. The insets are - (1) Mrs P Lawrence, (2) Miss Keevil, (3) Mrs Pankhurst, and (4) Miss Kenney.

12 October 2009

52 Harold Mount photos

The house Henry Rollins lived and worked in is a back-to-back terrace of the sort that was very common in Leeds but largely demolished in the 1960s and 70s.

front door of 52 Harold Mount, Leeds

52 Harold Mount, Leeds

52 Harold Mount, Leeds, viewed from the end of the street

28 September 2009

John Freeborn, 27 Broomfield Crescent

WW1 and WW2 hold particular attention historically. Not only were ordinary people conscripted en masse but literacy was newly widespread, so they could communicate what they experienced. For the first time it wasn’t just the preserve of the upper classes and official historians.

In 1940 nations had fallen to the Nazis all across Europe, and Britain, standing alone without American support at that time, faced imminent invasion. The German air force and army were far superior to the British. We were expecting invasion, road signs had been taken down so the invaders wouldn’t easily find their way around. One of the great unsung stories, the British Resistance, were readied. The coin was flipped and it came down in its edge, teetering.

The Battle of Britain – aircraft fighting over the skies of Southern and Eastern England flown by young men, mostly in their late teens and early twenties - decided it.

Once Battle of Britain was over, invasion wasn’t going to happen, the US and Soviet Union came in, the Nazis were eventually going to lose, fate was sealed. The defeat of the Nazis - and beyond that government fascism in Europe and the disintegration of its deep-rooted militarism - begins there.

But at that point in mid-1940, the Nazis were still very much on the ascendant. Not only was it ordinary people fighting but in this case it wasn’t a mass action, it came down to a very small band of people, so few that you read a list of their names. That makes it a unique event in history.

Churchill nailed it at the time. For all the evil deeds in his career before the war and the abhorrence of many of his views, his clarity in the build-up to war and during wartime was crucial. He clearly saw, in the immediate aftermath, what had happened in the Battle of Britain. ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.

Twenty year old John Freeborn, of 27 Broomfield Crescent, Leeds 6, flew more operational hours in the Battle of Britain than any other pilot. Even among such an elite and respected band as The Few, John Freeborn stood out.

Born in 1919 in Middleton - an area that was then open farmland rather than today's housing estates near the ring road - the family moved to Broomfield Crescent when John was a boy. To this day he's a proud Northerner and frequently asserts that Yorkshire supplied more pilots to the Battle of Britain than any other county.

He attended Leeds Grammar School beside Woodhouse Moor on the corner of Moorland Road and Clarendon Road (the building is now the University of Leeds Business School). Once he was an air ace he came back to the school in and did a display of aerobatics before landing on the cricket pitch. It amused him that in a few short years the masters had gone from thrashing the crap out of him to fawning over him at lunch.

John was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice. For the first one, in recognition of his service during the Battle of Britain, his parents accompanied him to the investiture. The first biography of him, A Tiger's Tale: The Story of Battle of Britain Fighter Ace Wg. Cdr. John Connell Freeborn, has pictures of the invitation.

Invitation to Mr and Mrs Freeborn for the investiture of John's DFC

Here's John with his mother Jean in Leeds shortly after receiving his DFC.

John and Jean Freeborn, 1940

Most of his comrades have died, but John is one of the few of The Few who is still alive. He has co-authored a new biography, Tiger Cub: The Story of John Freeborn DFC*.