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The Airmen's Stories - S/Ldr. J H Hill


Group Captain (Squadron Leader during the Battle) Johnnie Hill, who has died aged 85, was mistaken for a German spy after bailing out over France. In May 1940 Hill took charge of No 504, a Hurricane squadron whose previous commander had been shot down and killed in the defence of France. Soon
afterwards the squadron's airfield near Lille was overrun; but not before Hill had taken 12 Hurricanes into the air. But suddenly 50 enemy fighters swooped out of the sun. Cannon shells hammered into Hill's engine, rattling the armour-plating and smashing away large pieces of the cowling. At 28,000 ft the engine stopped, and with his tail shot off, Hill, wounded in the knee, opened the hood and bailed out. But as he floated down towards a field of stubble he was peppered with shotgun pellets. Below he could see three French peasants shooting at him from behind a hedge. On landing Hill flattened himself under his parachute while his assailants continued to let loose. As they approached he pulled down his flying overall to reveal an RAF uniform calling out "Je suis Anglais". Apologising, the peasants carried him to the roadside where he was picked up by a passing French Air Force corporal. A little way on the car was stopped by a British Army vehicle containing an elderly major, a sergeant and five privates.

Hill blessed his good fortune until the major ordered: "Put your hands up. You're Fifth Column".
"Look, Major" remonstrated Hill "I'm an RAF squadron leader. Don't be so bloody silly." This only enraged the officer who drew his revolver as the soldiers levelled their rifles. Hill slowly raised his hands and offered to produce his identity card. But as he reached into his breast pocket the soldiers opened fire shattering the French corporal's shoulder. Hill rolled out of the car into a ditch but the major's action had convinced the French peasants that Hill, as they had first thought, was a German spy. They fell upon him in the ditch beating him with pitchfork handles, their wives kicking him with clogs. Soon Hill last consciousness. When he came round, his head was in the lap of a French Air Force commandant whom he recognised. The shamefaced peasants sought to make amends a second time, proffering wine, flowers and honey. The commandant placed Hill under arrest for his own protection. This was just as well, because the Army again attempted to apprehend him. An English subaltern pulled up in a truck saying he had orders from his colonel to arrest the German spy. Fortunately, the French commandant would have none of it and drove him off. Hill then boarded an ambulance train at Lille but, when it was dive-bombed, the driver and fireman abandoned their cab. Hill and a fellow RAF officer took charge of the train and drove it 10 miles to Boulogne.

When Hill finally reached Dover he boarded another ambulance train before deciding to telephone his wife. The doors of the train were locked but he managed to climb through a window onto the platform. There he found that he only had French francs and so asked the train driver for change. He was promptly arrested again on suspicion of being an enemy agent.

John Hamar Hill was born on December 28 1912 and educated at Dover College. He was given a short service commission in 1932 and the next year joined No 19, a Bristol Bulldog fighter squadron based at Duxford.

Shortly before the outbreak of war Hill was sent to France with orders to prepare Boos, an airfield near Rouen, to receive Nos 85 and 87, two Hurricane squadrons. This was easier said than done. At Boos, Hill was confronted by an uncooperative French general who could not see the point of readying the base since the country was not yet at war. The area was divided into French and British sectors. The Western Front was quiet during the so-called "phoney war" of the autumn and winter of 1939. "If I required any sorties in the French area" Hill later recalled "I would contact my opposite number. However, if I telephoned during lunch, I invariably got the response that the French pilots would be pleased to go up for me - as soon as they had finished their meal".

After recovering from his injuries in France, Hill assumed command of No 222 (Natal) Squadron at Kirton-in-Lindsey, Yorkshire, in July 1940. On August 29th , with the Battle of Britain reaching a climax, Hill and his Spitfires were ordered south to Hornchurch where the next day he damaged a Me109. But 222 Squadron lost 18 aircraft and a number of pilots in the next 48 hours. On September 1st Hill shot down a Me109 and two days later a Me110. He led the squadron through the rest of the battle until in November it was ordered to Coltishall to rest. In January 1941 Hill was appointed chief flying instructor at No 57 Operational Training Unit, Hawarden, near Chester.

In July 1942 he was posted to New Zealand for air staff duties, including a spell in the Solomon Islands, and not until 1945 did he return to a post at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. In 1948 he joined the staff of the British Air Attache in Paris, qualifying meanwhile as a Vampire jet pilot. Staff appointments and station commands followed.

He retired in 1960 after 28 years having been mentioned in despatches in 1942 and appointed CBE in 1946.

Hill was later a successful executive of the Society of British Aerospace Companies, specialising in export sales. He was valued as a VIP co-ordinator at the Farnborough Air Show.

His wife, Nonie, predeceased him; he is survived by their son.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph

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