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 fiancé 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