Air Commodore John Leslie Whitworth, CB, DSO, DFC & Bar (10 January 1912 – 13 November 1974) was a Royal Air Force pilot in the 1930s and a commander during and after the Second World War. He was educated at Oundle School in Northamptonshire.
By Kind Permission of ” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed November 28, 2019, Available at URL: https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/2174.
Born in Sutton Coldfield in 1921, John volunteered for RAF air crew in 1940 but wasn’t called up until 1941. He was pilot trained in Britain, gaining his wings in early 1942, and after operational training on Wellingtons joined 37 Squadron at Abu Sueir, Egypt in July 1942.
Commissioned in December 1942, he completed 37 operations; many to Tobruk. John survived two very hazardous incidents. The first when an engine failure led to an emergency night landing in the desert. Fortunately the crew suffered only cuts and bruises. Remembering the incident in a 2016 interview, John said:
“We got a fair bit of the way back but we gradually sank, sank, sank down as we were getting back towards the lines and we just flew into the ground… [You] don’t jump out in the desert in a parachute… I suppose this was about 2 o’clock in the morning, and we walked all through the night across the desert… dawn came up and we kept walking and it got hotter and hotter, but we still walked… Suddenly we looked and there coming down the sand was a truck… We dropped down on the ground in a little huddle… What can we do? There’s nowhere to run. We mustn’t get separated. We’ve just got to give up. I mean, the fella got out and he’d got a machine gun… and the captain said, ‘If anyone’s got to give up it’s my responsibility.’”
As none of the crew recognised the truck’s design, it was assumed to be German, so the captain tied the handkerchief to his pistol and walked towards the truck with his hands up.
“I see it so clearly in my mind” said John, “this chap standing in the truck and just watching him come. And all of sudden [the captain] started yelling and jumping: ‘He’s British, he’s British, he’s British!’”
The allied truck had been out searching for crashed aircraft and any other vehicles they could salvage for spares.
A week later, John was one of only three survivors of the same six-man crew when a South African Boston crash-landed into the dispersal area at Abu-Sueir where two squadrons of bomb-laden Wellingtons were preparing for take-off. John’s aircraft, with several of the crew already on board, was the first to be hit. As John was about to climb into the cockpit he noticed something strange:
“I don’t know what it was, something about the aircraft… obviously not running properly… and it was in trouble… I was right by the ladder, instead of climbing up I just watched it… and he came down and touched the end of the runway, bounced, and completely lost it and headed straight for us… All I could do was scream something to the others. I could do nothing, and I ran… there was this a terrific petrol explosion behind us”.
All five aircraft lined up for take-off were fully loaded with 500lb bombs, and as they collided John and another man dived into a nearby slip trench.
“We lay down and the first bomb went off… I suppose I was thirty or forty yards from where it blew up. Blew it to bits, a piece of geodetic [airframe] landed on an airmen in front of me and pow! We rolled over and over. I said, ‘We’ve got to run.’ The two of us just scampered off as hard as we could go… For the rest of the night this aircraft and the others caught fire and five blew up and a number of others were damaged… and of course the whole airfield was chaos… Eight, eight aircrew in that collision, two survived. Our rear gunner, he got out of the rear cockpit somehow or other. He was injured. I never saw him again. That was the only [other] survivor out of eight; now there was luck for you, and I hadn’t got a scratch”.
When his tour ended, John returned home in early 1943 and became an instructor on Wellingtons. Following the death of a close friend, shot down during the battle of Arnhem, John volunteered for a second operational tour and joined 8 Group (Path Finder Force) on de Havilland Mosquitoes in September 1944.
Flying out of Cambridgeshire with 142 and then 162 Squadron, John was part of the Light Night Striking Force used both for bombing and for diversionary raids to draw German fighters away from the main force. He soon had another near miss over Hamburg, when a piece of flak struck the aircraft between him and his navigator, a Canadian named Bill Tulloch:
“A piece of shrapnel came through the nose of the aircraft, went between us and thudded in behind, and a bit of perspex from it flicked my navigator’s eyebrow and, of course, we got a blooming hole in the front” said John.
With a 300mph wind coming in through the hole, John attempted to assess his navigator’s injury:
“I turned and he pulled his mask down and, of course at twenty-five thousand feet you bleed quite profusely. Oh God… blood all down here and… he pulled his mask off… It was horrible but it was only a nick. [The shrapnel] had gone through, missed him and missed me at eye level”.
Partnered by the same navigator John, completed 50 sorties to Europe, including 21 to Berlin. In 1945 John and Bill were awarded the DFC.
On completion of this tour, John joined Transport Command as a ferry pilot. He was posted to India and Burma for the build-up of ‘Tiger Force’ and the proposed invasion of Malaya and Singapore, but the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 halted this plan. After a few months in administrative roles he returned home and was demobbed in May 1946.
Returning to Sutton Coldfield, John married Audrey Girling in 1950 and joined his brother-in-law in building up a substantial manufacturing works in steel fabrications in Birmingham. He played golf for Warwickshire nearly 100 times, winning numerous championships including English Senior Open amateur championship in 1982 and Midland Senior in 1985.
A member of the RAF Association, the Aircrew and Pathfinder Associations, he felt uneasy that there was a reluctance after the war to give Bomber Command the credit it deserved. He was therefore a strong supporter of both the Bomber Command Memorial and the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln.
John joined as member at Walmley Golf Club in 1937 based in Sutton Coldfield as a junior member.
Walmley Champion in 1939, 1968, 1973 and 1975
Warwickshire Amateur Strokeplay Champion in 1959
Warwickshire County Matchplay Champion in 1958 and 1963
Warwickshire County Captain in 1957, 1964 and 1965.
Midlands Counties Senior Champion in 1985 – The Leicestershire – Gross 69
English Seniors over 70s Champion in 1993
English Seniors Men’s Champion (Lindrick) 1982
British Seniors Amateur Champion in 1987