In telephone conversations in March and April 2004 and a meeting in June 2004 I talked with Wing Commander John Connell Freeborn DFC and Bar. John was a veteran of No. 74 ‘Tiger' Squadron (Spitfires), based at Hornchurch, where he served during Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and after. John's impressive career is described in his biography: A Tiger's Tale, by Bob Cossey (J&KHP, 2002). Our chats were wide-ranging and covered many colourful characters and events, but these brief notes relate directly to areas of my research.
I highly recommend A Tiger's Tale as supplementary reading to this. I've tried not to duplicate material where possible.
John had a poor opinion of the TR9D HF radio-telephone fitted to his Spitfire and confirmed its short range of around 30 miles and said he was out of contact beyond this. One sector controller, Ronnie Adams, used to joke “call us when you're out of range”. When out of contact with the sector station the squadron pretty much had to muddle through as best it could.
The TR9 set's reception was fairly awful. John said that 74 Squadron was reequipped with TR1133 VHF between Dunkirk and the beginning of the battle. With the new radio they never suffered the range problems suffered using HF. Communications with the TR1133 were crystal-clear.
John found the quality of controllers to be highly variable. Those who had been pilots, such as 74's Sqn. Ldr George ‘Sammy' Sampson and B Flight commander Charlie Meares were excellent controllers and trusted by the pilots. Another controller, former actor Ronnie Adams, was less trusted and John believes he got the Squadron into avoidable scrapes. On one occasion, John remembers, Adams sent a section of three aircraft off from Manston to face a raid of 240+.
When being vectored toward an enemy raid the squadron would fly at 240 mph – about 3 lbs of boost. The Spitfire was, of course, capable of 24 lbs of boost for climbs and when power was needed.
In general John found squadron could turn around in about 15-20 minutes following a sortie. He had nothing but praise for the riggers, fitters and armourers, who he found to be consummate professionals to a man, with very high standards of quality control, and never let the pilots down.
John found Hornchurch station to be very agreeable. However, Rochford satellite airfield was one of the worst billets (he recalls sleeping in the hangar) and Manston was "bloody awful". I asked about the Len Deighton claims of cowardice at Manston and he said he never saw any. One problem with being assigned to some of the forward stations was that when they returned to their billets at Hornchurch they sometimes found their kit had been stolen.
On asking about weather conditions, John pointed out that the band of altitudes the Luftwaffe usually flew at the skies were fairly clear with no visual obstructions. Once pilots had gotten above the clag, which could extend up to 10,000 feet, the summer days were generally clear.
On the subject of tactics John said that both he and Sailor Malan, as the best pilots in the squadron, pretty much worked out a new tactical scheme between them after Dunkirk. They abandoned the Fighting Area Attacks and the vic formations in favour of three sections of four aircraft, organised into loose pairs along similar lines to the German ‘Rotte'. This would be the formation they'd use for the rest of the Battle.
John was keen to point out a few home truths about dogfighting. "There's no such thing," he said, "and anyone who shoots you a line about shooting down two or three aircraft in a dogfight is talking rubbish. You'd shoot at one plane and then there'd be nothing around you and so you went home." John talked about one trick of his, half rolling when Me109s bunted downwards so as to avoid the engine cutting and to get into a good position behind them. He used this to good effect in an engagement with an Me109 over Dunkirk, resulting in the German crashing into a telegraph pole and then a farmhouse. He vividly recalls the farmer shaking his fist at him and hoped the farmhouse didn't have anyone inside.
On the subject of squadron tactics John recalled trying a number of things. 74 even tried the occasional head-on attack of the kind 111 Squadron was famous for. However, more often than not squadrons tried to scrape whatever kills they could, particularly when outnumbered (as was often against the big raids), and stragglers were often favourite targets.
Sailor Malan is one of the more famous Squadron leaders of the Battle. However, John's relationship with the South African, initially friendly on joining 74 Squadron, became strained following The Battle of Barking Creek. In this well-known incident, a series of mistakes lead to 74 Squadron shooting down two Hurricanes. John was the Pilot Officer who shot down and killed P/O Montague Hulton-Harrop – a tragic incident.
At the subsequent courts-martial (detailed in A Tiger's Tale) John was on trial with Paddy Byrne. He was surprised and hurt to discover that Malan had tried to cover himself against censure, claiming that he'd issued an order to break off the attack – an order that John and Paddy never recalled hearing. John and Paddy were cleared by the court, but from that point on John's friendship with Malan cooled and relations became frosty.
Still, professional standards were maintained. John was one of the best squadron pilots and in spite of there being two flight lieutenants above him in the Squadron hierarchy, Malan would often give him command as the more experienced and capable pilot. Malan would often take the first sortie of the day, then hand over the squadron to John while he stayed on the ground to do paperwork.
Malan seemed to have a dismissive attitude towards sergeant pilots in the squadron, despite the fact that the apprenticeship many of the sergeants had to serve made them some of the most experienced hands around. In general John found the sergeant pilots to be excellent men of the highest calibre.
John, photographed at his home in Southport, Lancs, in June 2004. He is standing next to his portrait, drawn by Cuthbert Orde. (Picture by lbw.)
Update: John Freeborn passed away on 28 August 2010. You can read his obituary HERE.
The Burning Blue copyright © Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, 2006. All rights reserved.