Wing Commander John Freeborn DFC & Bar
Wing Commander John Freeborn D.F.C. Bar
Born: December 1st 1919 Middleton, Yorkshire. Died: August 28th 2010 Age 90
One of the RAF
’s leading fighter ‘aces’ in the Battle of Britain, during which he flew more operational hours than any other pilot.
Freeborn had already seen much action before the Battle. Flying Spitfires with 74 (Tiger) Squadron, he was heavily engaged in the air fighting during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk in May 1940.
Over a six-day period, the squadron accounted for 19 enemy aircraft, two shot down by Freeborn. On one occasion his Spitfire was badly damaged and he crash-landed on the beach near Calais but managed to get a lift home in a returning aircraft.On July 10, the opening day of the Battle, Freeborn shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Deal. For the next few weeks he flew continuously and his successes mounted.
On August 11 he flew four missions in eight hours and was credited with shooting down three fighters and probably a fourth. Two days later he shot down a Dornier bomber, and later in the day learnt that he had been awarded the DFC for his “high courage and exceptional abilities as a leader”.
He was appointed a flight commander and by the end of the Battle on October 31 had been credited with shooting down at least seven aircraft in addition to his earlier successes over Dunkirk.
No 74 Squadron remained in the front line, and by the end of November Freeborn had been with the squadron longer than any other Battle of Britain pilot. In December he shot down two more Bf 109s and damaged others.
Then, in early 1941, Fighter Command went on the offensive, with Freeborn flying sweeps over northern France. At the end of February he was awarded a Bar to his DFC, the citation confirming that he had destroyed 12 enemy aircraft and damaged others. He was rested in June, having served on No 74 Squadron for almost three years.
John Connell Freeborn was born at Middleton, Yorkshire, on December 1 1919, and educated at Leeds Grammar School. He joined the RAF in March 1938 and, after training as a pilot, joined No 74 Squadron to fly Gauntlet biplane fighters before the squadron was re-equipped with the Spitfire.
John second from left with other 74 Squadron pilots.
On September 6 1939 Freeborn was at the centre of a tragic “friendly fire” incident when ground controllers plotting incoming aircraft scrambled the Spitfires of No 74 Squadron from Hornchurch in Essex. Due to a series of misunderstandings, the squadron commander ordered his pilots to attack. In fact the detected aircraft were returning Hurricanes that had been scrambled against a “phantom raid”.
Freeborn shot down the Hurricane of Pilot Officer Montague Hulton-Harrop, who was killed. A second Hurricane was shot down by another pilot of No 74 Squadron.
The two pilots were court-martialled but acquitted of any liability or blame, despite their squadron commander testifying against them. The ‘Battle of Barking Creek’, as this incident was later to become known, led to a complete review of Fighter Command’s plotting system.
After his long period with No 74 Squadron, Freeborn instructed new pilots on fighter tactics before taking up a post in the United States as a flying instructor. He also tested the latest American fighters.
He returned to operational flying in 1943, when he flew Spitfires with No 602 Squadron, providing fighter escort to RAF bombers attacking shipping and port installations. On June 1 he was given command of No 118 Squadron, flying in a similar role.
Freeborn was promoted to become one of the RAF’s youngest wing commanders and spent the first six months of 1944 commanding 286 Wing, flying operations from southern Italy in support of the Allied armies.
Waiting to scramble John second from right with other pilots.
This was a period of intense activity, as the RAF
attacked German installations and convoys in the Balkans and provided defence for Allied convoys in Italian waters. He returned to Britain in late 1944 and left the RAF
After qualifying as a driving instructor, Freeborn was invited to join Tetley Walker as regional director for their Minster soft drinks brand. He took early retirement, and in the early 1980s moved to Spain. In 2000 he came back to Britain, settling in north Wales.
Self-confident to the point of bloody-mindedness, Freeborn was always happy to express his opinions. As an 18-year old he had once informed his CO that he could outfly him, and his brushes with authority made for a colourful life both in the RAF
and elsewhere. He never lost his affection for his native Yorkshire, nor for a pint of Tadcaster ale .
Although he had been cleared of any blame for the death of Montague Hulton-Harrop in 1939, the death of a fellow fighter pilot in such circumstances was always in his thoughts. Shortly before his death Freeborn admitted: ‘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.’
Freeborn’s life story was the subject of “A Tiger’s Tale,” written by Bob Cossey and published in 2002. His autobiography, Tiger Club, co-written with Christopher Yeoman, came out last year.
John Freeborn died on August 28. He married, in 1941, Rita Fielder. She died in 1979, and he married, secondly, Peta in 1983. She predeceased him in 2001, and he is survived by a daughter from his first marriage.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.