John Boulton – 310 Sqn


John Eric Boulton was a English career RAF flying instructor who was seconded to the newly formed 310 (Czechoslovak) Squadron in July 1940. His task was to re-train the Czechoslovak pilots to fly British Hurricane fighter aircraft as quickly as possible so that they could fight in the Battle of Britain.

John Eric Boulton was born on the 24th of November, 1919, at Bosham near Chichester, the third child, and only son of Charles and Annie Boulton. He attended a secondary school in Lewes, and then Hastings Grammar School. He left school at sixteen, apparently set on joining the RAF. His older half sister had married a man called Freddie Fox-Barrett who had taken a short-service commission in the RAF, and apparently John very much admired him.

He was, of course, far too young yet for the RAF, so his father’s old colonel in the Sussex Yeomanry, Colonel Powell-Edwards, managed to find him a job in London with the Buick car company, where he could learn something about high performance engines, while waiting to be old enough for the RAF.

Just over a year later, in the autumn of 1937, at the earliest possible age, John was allowed by the RAF to enrol in the de Havilland School of Flying at Hatfield for a course of “ab initio” instruction, being taught to fly using Tiger Moths. He met there several of the people who were to go with him to No.2 Flying Training School at Brize Norton. This school had recently come to Brize Norton from Digby, and John’s course, No.35, was the first to form there.

Hatfield

John was quite easily the youngest member of his course; this and his youthful good looks earning him the nickname of “Boy” Boulton, even, according to one or two, “Pretty Boy” Boulton. The commanding officer of the school, Group Captain Franks L.Robinson, DSO, MC, DFC, ADC, thought highly of John. When he passed with a Special Distinction, the star performer of his course, Robinson wanted him back at Brize Norton as a Flying Instructor.

Course 35

There were at Brize Norton at this time two types of training. You could train for fighters, using the Hawker Hart, a twin-seater, all metal monocoque bi-plane, and its variants, or you could train for multi-engine aircraft using the Airspeed Oxford. John trained on Harts, although he had “air experience” flights in the Oxfords, eventually being qualified to fly them both.

However, first of all he had to obtain some experience on one of the squadrons, so he went to 29 Squadron at Debden for a couple of months, during which time his squadron – and he – took part in the enormous armoured combined exercises of the Mobile Division on Salisbury Plain. He then went to the Central Flying School, which was then at Upavon, to do the Flying Instructors’ Course. When he had completed this he returned to Brize Norton in late December, 1938, as a very junior Flying Instructor. It is worth bearing in mind that he was still only nineteen.

For the next eighteen months his life was taken up with the busy routine of a Service Flying Training School, trying to get as many pilots ready in as short a time as possible for the conflict which was looming ahead. The only intriguing detail about his life at this time is the two occasions on which he was promoted to Acting Flight Lieutenant for short periods. I cannot find out from anybody who was there what was the reason for this.

Like many of his colleagues he enjoyed driving, and owned a Wolseley motor car. During off-duty periods they used to drive all over the country round, making expeditions to places like Minster Lovell and Oxford, and rowing on the Thames. There used to be, as one of his friends put it, quite a lot of “drinking and wenching”. There are photographs of an occasion when he and a friend hired a couple of aircraft from the civilian airfield at Witney in order to take up for a joyride two nurses from the nearby hospital.

With the outbreak of war the pace quickened quite considerably. The training course was quickly reduced in length and made much more intensive. John and his colleagues trained many of the pilots who went on to fight in France and in the Battle of Britain. David Bell-Salter, Jack Rose and “Cocky” Dundas are three of the names that come readily to mind. As well as the pace hotting up, there was a change of aircraft. The Harts were pensioned off and in their place came the tremendously noisy North American Harvards. There were problems with these at first, especially with night flying training, because the pilots were not used to gyroscopic instruments and did not give them time to settle down before taking off. Several pupils were killed when they banked straight into the ground off a turn. The problem was finally solved by a Sergeant Instructor called Walter West who worked out what must have been happening.

John’s fitter was a man called Eddie Tumber, who still remembers the occasions when John took him up in the Harvard, quite unofficially, to do air tests. There is a tree planted at Duxford in John’s memory, given by Eddie Tumber.

In June of 1940, after the fall of France people of all different nationalities started arriving in England hoping for a chance to carry on the war against Hitler. Among them was a contingent of Czechoslovakian Airmen. They had had a particularly harrowing time. They had been forbidden to fight when Hitler walked into Czechoslovakia in 1938. They had escaped to Poland with the intention of fighting there, but that country collapsed around them. They then escaped to France, joined the Foreign Legion and waited; but no sooner had they been allowed to join the French Air Force and start fighting than that country collapsed, too. They arrived in England in a rather cynical mood, but still extremely anxious to carry the war to the Germans.

Their arrival coincided with an increase of the pressure on Britain; in particular with the near approach of the great air battle which Dowding had perfectly accurately foreseen would come.

They arrived by various means, some of the first arriving by ship at Falmouth, others by a longer route to Liverpool. They were sent first to Bridgenorth and then to Cosford for the preliminary sorting out. However, for a group of about twenty five officer pilots and about 180 ground crewmen, the process was accelerated and these were sent to Duxford, the home of 19 Squadron. The intention was to form a Czech Fighter Squadron with 100% reserves of pilots. This squadron became 310 (Czechoslovak) Squadron. It began to form on July 10th, 1940, with the arrival of the two British Flight Commanders, Jerrard Jefferies and Gordon Sinclair. Soon afterwards, according to the Squadron’s Diary, the Squadron Commander, Douglas Blackwood, arrived.

F/O John Boulton, F/O Jerrard Jefries, F/Lt Gordon Sinclair.

After only a very short time Blackwood requested the presence of a Flying Instructor, who was to bring with him a Miles Master – then the standard trainer for Hurricanes and Spitfires. This Flying Instructor was John Boulton. (It is a strange detail that, according to the Squadron Diary, John arrived before Douglas Blackwood.)

There were two problems that had to be solved. The first was the language problem. Several of the Czechs could speak French, some quite well, but none of them could speak a word of English. A start was made by engaging F/O Ladislav Češek, a Briton of Czech origin, as an interpreter to assist in overcoming the language barrier and employing a Mr Louis de Glehn from Cambridge to come to the airfield once a week to give English lessons to the Czechs.

The second problem was one to do with the aircraft. In France they had been flying Curtiss Fighters, Dewoitines and Morane-Saulniers, none of which had the high performance of the Hurricanes with which 310 Squadron was to be equipped. Also, several of the controls either functioned slightly differently, or else operated in the reverse direction. Two which gave considerable trouble were the throttle lever and the undercarriage selector. It was by no means unknown for pilots who had flown French aircraft to land their nice new English aircraft on their bellies. And one can imagine the chaos that would be caused by a pilot coming into land and “cutting” the throttle only to find his engine immediately going to full power.

Alexander ‘Sasha’ Hess’s recalls this time in his book’Byli jsme v Bitvě o Anglii’.

Alexander ‘Sasha’ Hess

In the meantime we were training on the new machines. First machines were Tutor and Master, F/O Boulton was patient and careful instructor on them, he was learning Czech at the time. We tried to penetrate as soon as possible and thoroughly into the mysteries of the language of Shakespeare: many of us chose as teachers the WAAFs, for us men it was both pleasant and useful. We can give first hand testimony about the diligence and good work of these English women.

There was also a problem, rather lesser, of Czechs who were so mad keen to get at the Germans that they lied about their flying experience. John apparently used to tell of a man who he took up in the dual control Master and then invited to fly the thing. It was only then that the man admitted that he was only an air gunner and had no idea of how to actually pilot an aircraft.

So, there were two jobs to be done, and both needed to be done against the clock. Firstly they had to select the first sixteen pilots who would be sufficiently competent for the squadron to be declared operational. Secondly, having selected them, they had to give them sufficient experience on their new aircraft to enable them both to survive and to shoot down Germans when they started fighting. These jobs were handled jointly by John Boulton, the Squadron Commander and the two Flight Commanders.

We must remember that all these Czech pilots were very experienced pilots and also that most of them had had a great deal of combat experience in France, and some had also fought in Poland. They were also rather older than the average British pilot – their flying training and general military training took much longer. Indeed, the Czech Squadron Commander who double-banked Douglas Blackwood – a man called Alexander Hess, who had fought as an artilleryman in the Austrian army in the First World War, became the oldest pilot to actually fly in action in the Battle of Britain, being forty four years old.

310 Sqn

The squadron was finally declared operational on the 17th of August, and went into action for the first time the next day. John Boulton should have now gone back to Brize Norton to resume his life there as a Flying Instructor. However, he had grown to like his Czech pupils, and they had grown very fond of him. (One thing that especially touched them was that he was taking the trouble to learn their language – as he said “so that they should not think they were the only ones having difficulty with all the learning”).

He applied for permission to accompany the squadron in action. One ought to explain that he was never officially a member of the squadron, being only “attached” to it. However, Douglas Blackwood, after some persuasion was able to get permission for John to fly with the squadron. He flew with them operationally only on seven occasions. Again one needs to remember that, although he was a very experienced pilot indeed, he had had no operational experience before this time. Fairly soon the squadron suffered its first casualty – Jarda Štěrbáček – who had been a particular friend of John’s. This confirmed him in his determination to fight with the squadron. In the huge air battle in the afternoon of September the 7th he shot down a Heinkel 111 onto the Goodwin Sands. This was claimed by a pilot on another squadron – Sergeant Helcke of 504 Squadron – and the claim seems to have been awarded to him, but John was certain that it was his score.

310 Sqn, Duxford 1940.

On September the 9th there was another huge raid against London in the early evening. The Duxford Squadrons were scrambled to intercept them. While approaching the battle, squadrons still used to fly in tight formations of four sections of three, each section flying abreast and the four sections close behind each other. Gordon Sinclair was leading the squadron on this occasion. When they went into action he gave the order to break to starboard and go into line astern. As he did this he noticed the Me 109’s coming down on them from above, and broke in the opposite direction himself. John was flying Hurricane P3888 as port wingman of the first section and simply did not have any room to avoid the collision with Sinclair’s Hurricane P3888.

According to the versions given to me by eight or nine eyewitnesses, some in the air and some on the ground, both aircraft suffered damage to one wing and both then hit a German Me 110c 2N+EP, W. Nr. 3207 from 9/ZG76. One version has it that the whole lot then blew up in the air, but that cannot have happened. The version which most agree on is that the two Hurricanes came drifting down very slowly, rather like sycamore leaves, probably with Sinclair’s aircraft upside down, spiralling round and very close to each other, and each with one wing being bent up at right angles. The Me 110 had its tail section nearly severed and came straight down with both engines at full bore. It came to ground in the garden of “Kennicott” in Woodcote Park Avenue, Wallington. One of the crew, Feld/w Eduard Ostermüncher, got out and opened his parachute, very close to the ground. He was either killed when he hit the ground or else he was murdered by a pair of Canadian soldiers who were seen coming out of the field where his body lay and making remarks to the effect that they had finished him off. His body lay in the field for several days until someone could be found to take responsibility for it. The other German, Gefreiter Werner Zimmermann, died inside the aircraft.

The two Hurricanes were still spiralling down, having collided at about 20,000 feet. Gordon Sinclair had great difficulty in getting out of his aircraft as the wing had apparently jammed the cockpit canopy. It would seem that at some stage his aircraft flipped and he was thrown out. He parachuted down very slowly, taking about thirteen minutes to drift down into Coulsdon High Street at the feet of an Irish Guards Lieutenant with whom he had been at school. His aircraft came to rest upside down on a chicken run by the engine testing shed at the southern end of the smallholding allocated to No-55 Woodmansterne Lane, Wallington. At some stage it had parted company with its engine, which came down more to the north east, nearer the Woodcote Road.

John Boulton’s aircraft, with him clearly visible inside slumped over the controls – either unconscious or dead – came down with smoke issuing from it and landed on top of some pig styes on Mr Bayley’s smallholding at No.53 Woodmansterne Road, Wallington, and exploded into flames. It burned fiercely for about an hour. Several people remember the fire brigade hoses across the road and the home guard shooting all the burned pigs, and also the body being removed from the wreckage. At the time, in accordance with what appears to have been an official British practice of trying to avoid admitting to British pilot casualties, it was given out that the dead man was a Czech airman.

Alexander ‘Sasha’ Hess’s recalls this day in his book’Byli jsme v Bitvě o Anglii’.

9th September, 1940, was a black day for us. Our young instructor F/O Boulton was killed, he had not been with us for long. As soon as we accepted him we lost him. But by the time we’ll learn to understand that every meeting is a beginning of a farewell … . Boulton was assigned to us with a few other British officers when our squadron was established. He was only a youngster, not quite 21, but we could not have had a better instructor. He did not even look his age of 20; at home we would have said a boy prior to his matriculation. But Boulton had experience and exceptional capability and his thousand flying hours spoke for themselves. He soon started to learn Czech. He took any opportunity and devoted to this task a lion’s share of his energy. He did not realise what his sincere endeavour meant to us.

Many of us were beside ourselves with joy when in the two seater training aircraft during the training flight we could hear “Do prava”, “Do leva”, and hear on the intercom the Czech jargon “Netahni tolik” (Don’t pull so much) and “potlaaaac” (push).

When we became operational it was mainly thanks to our golden boy Boulton. He taught us how to handle the British machines, he made us familiar with the peculiarities and new routines of the RAF aircraft mainly with our Hurricanes. We struggled with English so he joined us and started to learn Czech. “So you see, boys, you are not the only ones who are learning.”

The real fighting started and brought us success. We were taking off for defence and offence and returned happy with the satisfaction we could punish the aggressors. Boulton got fed up that in his position as instructor he could not participate directly in the fight. He enjoyed the successes of his pupils, but was nagged by the thought that enemy were getting away who he could have shot down himself. His post as an instructor was not enough for him. He wanted to do more and did everything possible in order to be assigned as an operational pilot in our squadron.

From one bitter fight our little Jarda Sterbacek did not return. Boulton walked silently onto the airfield, looked out and waited. We were very sad because Jarda was our first casualty. The face of young Boulton reflected our loss more than any. His eyes sunk deep in his face, lips were tight, he was grieving silently. I will never forget the expression in his child-blue eyes when he said in Czech “Jarda is missing”.

Soon afterwards he succeeded and became operational. In his first sortie he brought revenge for Jarda. His accurate shooting hit a Heinkel 111 and relieved by this victory his hostility towards the enemy. The Heinkel broke into many pieces. Ever since then Boulton’s eyes lost their youthful blue and took on the colour of steel.

9th September. A day of tough fighting when the sky turned into hell and the aircraft on the horizon turned into a devil’s pack. Boulton took off enthusiastically and passionately into the focus of the fighting. He attacked directly the centre of the enemy formation, unfortunately hitting a Dornier 215 heavy bomber. The whole German crew disappeared in the explosion that followed the collision, but in the flames and smoke disappeared our Boulton, too.

We could not believe that we would never see him. We walked with reverence around the place belonging to him among us. And this place, you young Englishman, we will always keep in our memories.

John was buried in Bandon Hill Cemetery on the 13th of September as an unidentified RAF Pilot; it was not until several days later that his identity discs were found at the site of the crash. One of the dead Germans, Feld/w Eduard Ostermüncher, was also buried at Bandon Hill, but he has since been removed to the German Cemetery at Cannock.

14th December. Once again President Dr Benes came. It was a feast not only for us Czechs but for the British staff of the station who took part in the parade. At this occasion President Benes awarded the Czech War Cross to our British colleagues, Wing Cdr Woodhall, Flt/Lts Sinclair and Jefferies and also in memory of F/O Boulton in the hands of the station commander with a request to give it to Boulton’s mother.

Mr Bayley moved away some years later and started a pig farm at Bookham near Leatherhead, where his son still lives. Mr Jeff Beadle now has No-53, Woodmansterne Lane, and allowed me and Messrs Colin Brown and Colin Pratley to come down the other day to investigate the site – largely to prove which site was which. At the end of Mr Beadle’s greenhouses, where he said the pig styes used to be, we found several exploded .303 cartridges, one or two unmelted solid bullets, three or four lumps of melted aluminium, bits of exploded engine casing, and a brass stopcock of the type fitted to Hurricanes. We have therefore proved two points: first the exact location of John’s crash, second that the aircraft must have burned very fiercely. We still have to confirm, by finding just one piece, the exact place at which Sinclair’s aircraft came down.

Personnel from No.49 Maintenance Unit, based at Faygate near Horsham, inspected the crash sites on the 15th of September. Sinclair’s aircraft, R4084, was cleared away on the 17th of September and John Boulton’s, V7412, on the 22nd of September. It appears that most of the MellO, 3207.2N+EP, is still there underneath the garden of “Kennicott”. The bodies of John Boulton and the two Germans were recovered and buried. Gordon Sinclair retired from the RAF as a Wing Commander in 1957, and died in June 2005.

Another recollection from Alexander ‘Sasha’ Hess’s book’Byli jsme v Bitvě o Anglii’.

14th December. Once again President Dr Benes came. It was a feast not only for us Czechs but for the British staff of the station who took part in the parade. At this occasion President Benes awarded the Czech War Cross to our British colleagues, Wing Cdr Woodhall, Flt/Lts Sinclair and Jefferies and also in memory of F/O Boulton in the hands of the station commander with a request to give it to Boulton’s mother.

In England, he is commemorated, along with the other 2936 Battle of Britain pilots, on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the National Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent:

He is also commemorated on the London Battle of Britain Memorial and also in the church at Henley in Arden..

Henley in Arden

The esteem that the Czech pilots of 310 Sqn held for John Boulton can be gauged from this extract from ‘Wings in Exile by Bohus Beneš :

AN ENGLISH COMRADE.

Today, alas! we can do no more than remember you. Your twenty-one years were little enough for a Flying Instructor, but your brilliant skill, which we all recognised when you, on our arrival from France, first began to prepare us for flying on British machines, and your thousands of hours of flying experience showed us how well you had been chosen.

We sympathise with your gloom over the fact that you were not permitted to take active part in the systematic destruction of the German Luftwaffe, when they shot down the pupils that you had trained, and we rejoiced with you when the order came that appointed you to the fighting ranks of the First Czechoslovak Fighter Squadron.

We so well remember your every-day “Nazdar-Evzen”, your cheerful smile, clouded over in the moment when you told us, in Czech, “Jarda’s missing”. You had no need to tell us you would avenge him, we knew you too well, and we knew your fighting quality.

We never knew how you went . We came back out of that roaring whirl of aircraft, machine-gun fire, smoke and shell-bursts one by one. We waited for you all that evening – September 9th. And the next day – and the next.

You never came back. We will avenge you, J.Boulton. We remember how you yourself avenged the death of the first of our comrades to fall in Great Britain; we saw you, in your first air battle, shoot to pieces a Heinkel 111 “in payment for Jarda”.

The six Germans that we shot down in the fight in which you fell are the first instalment of the price we shall exact for your young life. You gave it for those same ideals which are graven on our own hearts in letters of burning flame.

THE PILOTS OF THE FIRST CZECHOSLOVAK FIGHER SQUADRON IN GREAT BRITAIN.

© Ben Chamberlain




This entry was posted in 310 Sqd, Biography. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to John Boulton – 310 Sqn

  1. czechsix says:

    Very interesting story, and thanks for posting that up. Interestingly enough, it verifies something I remember my Dad telling me, many years ago, that he trained a bit on Tigermoths. Until now, I haven’t had any independent verification of that. Dad was in the 311th and PRU, by the way.

  2. Chris Lock says:

    Thank you for posting this. It brought tears to my eyes. Such an incredible story of shared comradeship over fdark adversity. Lest we forget.

Please leave your comment on this article.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s