On the very same evening the Second World War was declared, on September 3, 1939, John ‘Paddy’ Hemingway was awoken in the officer’s mess and ordered to get his aircraft ready for action. As the then 20-year-old sprinted across the runway of RAF Debden in Essex towards his Hurricane, he remembers coming to the sudden and startling realisation that he must learn to cope “entirely on my own, no matter the circumstances”.
It was a survival mechanism that served Hemingway well, not least during the Battle of Britain which started the following summer, on July 10, 1940, and where for almost four long months he and his fellow airmen operated as the last line of defence against the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s near total domination of Europe.
Soon to turn 101 and still sporting the neat moustache he grew at the start of the war for a bet to lampoon the Nazi leader, Group Captain Hemingway is now once more alone – the very last of ‘The Few’ anointed by prime minister Winston Churchill to have flown in the Battle of Britain and who changed the course of the war.
Back in May, it was announced on the morning of the 80th anniversary of VE Day that John Hemingway was now the last surviving of the nearly 3,000 airmen who flew in the Battle of Britain, following the death of 101-year-old air gunner Terry Clark.
Speaking to the Telegraph in the first newspaper interview he and his family have agreed to since then, Hemingway admits it is an unwanted honour bestowed upon him and one that has drawn him closer to the ghosts of his fallen comrades. “During the war, all my closest friends were killed and my memories and thoughts about them I have always regarded as a private affair,” he says. “But being the last of the Battle of Britain veterans has made me think of those times 80 years ago.”
In recent years John Hemingway has lived in a care home in his native Dublin. His wife, Bridget, died in 1998 and he has three children and seven grandchildren. In spite of his remarkable wartime service which saw him shot down four times (twice within a fortnight in the Battle of Britain) and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Hemingway has always preferred to keep out of the limelight and gives few interviews.
So much so that in 2018 he was erroneously included in a list of deceased pilots, and only reinstated after his son spotted the error. “I was lucky to survive the war, and good health has kept me going,” he says. Luck, when you delve into Hemingway’s wartime logbook, is not even the half of it.
Privately educated and raised in a wealthy Dublin neighbourhood, the young John Hemingway’s family had designs on him being a surgeon. However, a fear of blood put paid to that particular dream and propelled him towards an occupation where he would, in time, still see plenty shed.
In 1937, his father took him over to London for an interview with the RAF and the following year he was granted a short service commission. After completing his fighter pilot training, in December 1938, Hemingway was posted to 85 Squadron at RAF Debden, to fly Hurricanes. Following the outbreak of war, the squadron was almost immediately posted to France, tasked primarily with patrolling the Channel and protecting shipping from attacks.
That winter, Hemingway recalls, they were visited by both King George VI and Neville Chamberlain, but by the following May as the German forces stormed through Europe, the fighting became fierce. On May 10, Hemingway recalls shooting down his first enemy aircraft (a Heinkel HE 111 bomber) during one of four sorties flown that day. The following day, he was shot down over Belgium. He eventually made it back to British lines by following a caravan of Belgian refugees.
In total, he says, 85 Squadron returned to England with only three Hurricanes in working order, 11 pilots killed or missing and a further six wounded. The squadron reformed back in Britain under the command of Peter Townsend (who would later become the lover of Princess Margaret).
When the Battle of Britain commenced on July 10, as Luftwaffe aircraft launched attacks on shipping convoys off England’s south east coast, Hemingway recalls his instructions were to ignore German fighters and focus all their efforts instead on the bomber squadrons.
After 80 years, the weeks and months that followed have turned largely into a blur, punctuated by snatched recollections of moments of extreme stress and sorrow. Hemingway recalls the noxious smell and intensifying heat of a burning cockpit after being shot by an enemy plane, and the sheer exhaustion of flying back to back sorties. And he remembers the empty places at the breakfast table. “Fate was not democratic,” he says. “New pilots with just a few hours in Hurricanes did not have the instincts of us more experienced pilots and were very vulnerable in combat. For that reason, many did not last long.”
One name that stands out is a fellow 85 Squadron veteran from the Battle of France, Dickie Lee, who was killed on August 18 – the same day Hemingway was shot down over the English Channel – in a Luftwaffe all-out assault which became known as ‘The Hardest Day’. Hemingway admits the memory of his friend still deeply affects him.
When he recalls being behind the controls of a Hurricane – the aircraft which scored the highest number of RAF victories during the Battle of Britain – the old fighter pilot instincts come quickly to the fore. Hemingway would only carry 14 seconds worth of ammunition which he would fire in clinically precise bursts to inflict maximum damage. Such were the extreme G-forces he endured as he threw the aircraft around during dog fights that he would sometimes black out.
He always flew in shirtsleeves to move more freely, and would always assiduously check the cockpit hood to ensure it could be hauled back if he needed to bail out. If it stuck, he says, you would be burned alive.
“The Hurricane could take a lot of punishment,” he says. “You could be shot up on one sortie and your ground crew could patch up the damage and get you back in the air that same day.”
Towards the end of August, the Squadron’s tactics changed to flying at bomber squadrons directly head on – something which led to Hemingway being once more shot down over the Thames estuary. Knowing that enemy aircraft were targeting parachutes, he waited until he was in the clouds at 8,000ft before deploying his. The landing took days to recover from.
By September, 85 Squadron had sustained such heavy losses that John Hemingway was one of just seven pilots still fully active. Peter Townsend was wounded in hospital and numerous flight commanders and their deputies had been killed.
The squadron was withdrawn from operational duties and tasked instead with training new pilots, though John Hemingway would have one more brush with death. In 1945, as a squadron leader in Italy, he was shot down in a Spitfire. He was saved by a group of Italian partisans who disguised him in peasant’s clothing allowing him to escape back to British lines.
Following the war, Hemingway stayed in the RAF until 1969, retiring as a Group Captain. He has lived quietly and peacefully since then. Next week, when he turns 101, the care home will throw a small birthday celebration.
Even reaching such a milestone, John Hemingway is keen to deflect attention away from himself. It is the same with being the last of The Few. If it shines a spotlight on the sacrifice of others, he says, that will be enough for him.
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