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Wing Commander John Milne Checketts NZ/403602 RNZAF

Born 20th February 1912 - Died 21st April 2006 Age 94

Flying the latest version of the Spitfire with No 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron, Checketts had already gained some success against the formidable Focke Wulf 190 fighter when he was appointed in July 1943 to command No 485 (NZ) Squadron, also equipped with the Spitfire Mark IX and flying from Biggin Hill.

Within two weeks of assuming command he had shot down four fighters and damaged two others during combat over northern France.

(Webmaster notes: Flying Spitfire Vb BM259 hit and damaged by enemy aircraft - forced to bale out over the English Channel - rescued within an hour)

Over St Pol on August 09th he led a section of his squadron against eight Messerschmitt Bf 109s. He destroyed three of them and damaged another as it escaped. The other three New Zealand pilots in the section destroyed one each, and only one enemy fighter escaped unscathed. Following this action Checketts was awarded the DFC.

Over the next three weeks he destroyed three more FW 190s and probably a fourth. On September 6th his squadron provided high cover for a force of USAAF Marauders bombing marshalling yards at Cambrai. Twenty FW 190s attacked the Spitfires from above. Checketts shot one down but was then attacked by several others, which set his aircraft on fire.

(Webmaster notes: Flying Spitfire IX EN572 shot down near Cayeux)

Burned and wounded in the legs and arms, he struggled to bale out and landed in a field full of French farm workers who immediately rushed to his aid. A boy took him on the back of his bicycle to a hiding place deep in a wood. Badly burned about the face and barely able to walk, he lost consciousness.

When he came to, a French farmer escorted him as they crawled through a cordon of Germans. He was taken to a safe house where he met another fighter pilot. Initially Checketts was unable to walk but the farmer's wife nursed him back to health before members of the Resistance moved him between houses.

With a group of 11 other evaders he was taken via Paris to the Brittany coast, where a lobster boat transferred them to a waiting Royal Navy launch, which brought them to Devon. He arrived back at Biggin Hill seven weeks after he had been shot down.

Checketts was rested from operations and posted to the Central Gunnery School as an instructor. Shortly afterwards, he was awarded the DSO for his "courage, fortitude and exceptional keenness and fighting spirit, which had proved a source of inspiration to all".

John Milne Checketts was born on February 12 1912 at Invercargill on New Zealand's South Island. He was educated at Invercargill South School, and Southland Technical College, where he studied Engineering. He undertook an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic, developing a passion for motorcycles which never left him. As a youth he was a keen motorcycle scrambler in addition to being a fine shot.

Though he was anxious to fly when the war broke out, the RNZAF would not accept him until he had undertaken further education, and he finally entered the service in October 1940.

After training as a pilot he sailed for England and, once he had completed further training on the Spitfire, he was commissioned and joined No 485 (NZ) Squadron. During the next six months he damaged at least three enemy aircraft, but would not submit claims.

On May 4 1942 an FW 190 hit Checketts's Spitfire and he was forced to bale out over the English Channel, having been wounded in the leg. He was rescued by an RAF air-sea rescue launch, commenting that the Channel "was bloody cold and I could never have survived the night".

After completing a period as a gunnery instructor he joined No 611 at Biggin Hill and was soon made a flight commander. He damaged a number of enemy fighters but would still not make a positive claim. Finally, on May 30, he shot down an FW 190.

In later life Checketts commented on his first confirmed victory: "the pilot didn't bale out and it upset me considerably. He was somebody's boy with a mother and a father, but I also thought it could easily have been me. After that I didn't let it worry me because it was him or me." Within two weeks of this first success, he left to command No 485 Squadron.

Following his successful escape from the Germans in France and his rest tour as an instructor, Checketts returned to operations. After a brief period as the commanding officer of No 1 Squadron flying Typhoons he was promoted to wing commander in No 142 Spitfire Wing, based on the south coast.

He led the wing during the Normandy landings in June 1944, when he damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Within days, the wing was engaged against the new menace of the V-1 flying bomb, and Checketts shot down two of them in the first three days as they crossed Kent.

On August 1 he shot down another German fighter. His wing provided cover for the Arnhem airborne landings, when he damaged another Bf 109, his final success. He was credited with destroying at least 14 enemy fighters and sharing in the destruction of another in addition to the two flying bombs. He probably destroyed two other aircraft and damaged eight.

As well as his British decorations, he was awarded the US Silver Star and the Polish Cross of Valour.

In October 1944 Checketts had completed more than 400 operational sorties when he was made responsible for developing tactics at the Central Fighter Establishment. He returned to New Zealand in September 1945 and transferred to the RNZAF. Over the next few years he was based initially at Wigram before moving to Fiji to command the RNZAF base and No 5 (Flying Boat) Squadron. He returned to England to complete the RAF Staff College Course before spending a year on the RAF staff in Germany.

On his return to New Zealand in April 1951 he commanded the Vampire jet fighter Wing at Ohakea, then moved to a flying training school at Taieri, near Dunedin, where he also acted as the ADC to the Governor General, General Bernard Freyberg, VC. He finally retired from the RNZAF in March 1955.

Checketts established his own crop-spraying firm, using Tiger Moths and Piper Cubs, until demand dropped in 1958. He then became a salesman of agricultural chemicals until 1963. After working with the Otago Acclimatisation Society for a number of years he moved to Christchurch and joined the North Canterbury Acclimatisation Society, finally retiring in 1982.

He took a great interest in conservation, and received a citation from the Nature Conservation Council for bringing the effects of water pollution to public awareness.

After his retirement he became involved with the RNZAF Museum at Wigram and helped restore Tiger Moth aircraft for display flying. An airworthy Spitfire in the New Zealand Alpine Fighter Collection carries his wartime markings, J-MC.

To those who knew him in later life Checketts was an unassuming man who never considered his war service as anything special. His experience evading the Germans in France left him with a deep affection for the French.

Johnny Checketts died at his home in New Zealand on April 21st. His wife, Natalie Mary (née Grover predeceased him in December 2000 age 78. He is survived by two sons - Chris and Davey and a daughter Mary-Jane.

Buried at St Peter's Anglican Churchyard in Christchurch City, Canterbury, New Zealand.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 10 April 2021, 14:00