The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. J K Haire
John Keatinge Haire was a typical 20 year old Battle of Britain pilot, keen to engage the enemy but young in service and experience, which ultimately led to his untimely death over the Isle of Wight on 6th November 1940. His Hurricane was damaged and burning fiercely from combat with the Luftwaffe when he made an instant decision to stay with his aircraft until the last moment, hoping to miss the small village below.
He had been in this same situation over the island only ten days previously, and had got away with it, landing safely on the beach. Unfortunately, this time he had miscalculated, and by thinking of others first he was too low when he finally jumped off the wing, his parachute not having time to deploy properly. Sgt. Haire crashed into a ploughed field near Arreton Village, staying alive just long enough for the local vicar, the Reverend Burbidge, who rushed to his aid, to give him a final blessing.
Born on 25th September 1920, John Haire (who was later given the nickname 'Bunny' by his RAF colleagues) was one of three children to Sidney and Nora Haire of 122 Earlswood Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland. After leaving school, John joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service qualifying as a clerk on 23rd November 1938.
As any 18 year old would, he wanted a bit more excitement than filling out paperwork and John enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve during the summer of 1939. John was sent to No. 1 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) at Hatfield, Herts on the 4th December to begin his flying training. Along with other students he stayed at 'digs' called 'Oaken Gates' in St Albans Road, Hatfield, whilst attending the No. 2 War Course attached to 'A' Flight (Haire is seated centre below).
Further flying courses throughout 1940 were undertaken by Sgt. Haire until he was finally posted to an operational squadron.
On 11th September, John was posted to 'A' flight of 145 Squadron, flying Hurricanes from RAF Dyce near Aberdeen.
The 17th September had a gale blowing most of the day according to the Operational Record Book and John flew his first patrol from 1545 to 1615 hrs. His second and third patrols were on 20th September for two hours between 1440 and 1640 but no enemy aircraft were sighted. His fourth patrol for 1 hour was on the 21st.
On 8th October the squadron moved south to RAF Tangmere in Sussex, and Sgt. Haire made another 10 patrols in the month, each lasting about one hour, but with no sight of the enemy. Wednesday 23rd October started with bad weather, and poor visibility, but several patrols were still carried out by 145 Squadron. It would be a day to remember for Sgt. Haire, for at the end of it he was awarded a part share in the probable destruction of a Ju88.
At 1637 hrs Sgt. Haire, flying as Red 2, along with P/O Robert Yule as Red 1, were ordered to patrol Beachy Head, Sussex at 16000ft above the clouds. The Operational Record Book and Combat Report for that day describes the combat thus;-
At 1710 at 15,000 feet they sighted a Ju88 coming out of a cloud and heading in a NW direction. Both of them climbed into the sun intending to make a beam attack, but the Ju88 turned east and dived steeply, with black smoke coming from an engine.
P/O Yule attacked from astern firing four short bursts of 960 rounds from 350 to 200yds. Sgt. Haire then attacked and fired two short bursts of 400 rounds at between 250 to 150 yards range. Incendiary bullets were seen to enter the fuselage and return fire came from the upper and rear gun positions, but this ceased during the attack. The Ju88 released its bombs and disappeared into thick cloud as white smoke was seen coming from its port engine.
P/O Yule also noted additionally in his combat report (below) that the enemy aircraft had standard camouflage of dark green on top with light blue underneath with yellow roundels around the crosses on the fuselage.
Three Ju88's from KG77 were recorded as being lost on this day, it is probable that Haire and Yule's victim was Ju88A-1 (no. 3151) that crashed near Neuilly Hospital, France, Feldwebel (Sgt.) Kissel being killed with two NCO's also being wounded.
On Friday 25th October the weather improved and several patrols were carried out, Haire taking part in two of them. At 0920 the whole squadron was ordered to 'patrol base' at 10,000ft with 213 Squadron, landing at 1100 without any interceptions. At 1125 the squadron was up again patrolling in the vicinity of Dungeness and Tenterden in Kent, all aircraft returning safely at 1300, except P/O Yule and the Belgian P/O Baudouin de Hemptinne, whose engine cut out forcing him down onto the golf course at Haywards Heath, West Sussex.
P/O Yule crash landed his Hurricane Y3926 at Burwash, East Sussex after combat (which he initially reported taking place with Spitfires), suffering a bullet in his left leg, which was later identified on extraction as of German manufacture.
The next day, the 26th, was very cloudy and again the whole squadron were on patrol, this time from Selsey Bill to Winchester, but no enemy aircraft were spotted.
Sunday 27th October would be another memorable day for Sgt. Haire. It started off as a fine sunny day, and the whole of the squadron were ordered to patrol in company with 213 Squadron, at 15000 feet, taking a line from Mayfield to Tenterden in Kent. They eventually climbed to 31000 feet but no enemy aircraft were seen and they landed back at Tangmere at 1220.
At 1630 eleven aircraft from 145 took-off to patrol East of the Isle of Wight as Southampton and Portsmouth had been bombed. By 1715 the squadron were fully engaged in dogfights with Me109's over the Island, P/O Jean Offenburg, a Belgian pilot, being one of the first to report shooting down one of the Messerschmitts along with P/O Alexis Jottard, five miles South of Bembridge, only to be a victim himself by the return fire from the same Me109.
Sgt. Jack Weber flying Hurricane V7592 was shot down in the Solent and was rescued unhurt by a passing Motor Torpedo Boat, whilst Sgt. Haire acting as a 'weaver' (that is, flying above and behind the main body of the squadron in order to protect from a surprise rear attack) was shot down over Bembridge, crash landing on the beach, the whole action being witnessed by Coastguard Leonard Rowe, who wrote a letter to John's parent's on 15th April 1941:
Dear Mr Haire,
I was greatly touched by your letter of 10th. My thoughts were with you at the time of your great loss of your gallant son. It was sad news to my wife and me to hear of John (which he became to us), whose end came so close to his short stay with us. I refused to believe it for a time because he had written that he had been granted a week's leave and it was only 10 days after he went from here.
John came into our lives in exactly the same manner as he came to the end. It was about 5 o'clock on the Sunday afternoon with a battle close overhead; we saw a plane circle to make for its base with smoke coming from its engine and eight miles of water to cross.
About 30ft high he made a sharp left hand turn over a 20ft high cliff and landed just in the water. I lost no time in getting to him, but I was relieved when I got to the cliff edge to see him getting on to the wing of his aeroplane. When I got him ashore he asked me to go with him to get the wireless and other small things ashore and not until then could I persuade him it was time to have a bath and some food.
I was determined they would not send him back to his base that night before he had got a bath, dry clothes, food and a good sleep. My wife dried out his clothes out ready for the next morning and mothered him during his brief stay with us. We talked very little, only of his home in Belfast and his rides on his motor bike along with another chum. He was a fine lad, not at any time did he think of himself and was afraid of being a trouble to others. For our part we have been proud to have been of service and grateful to one of them who have gallantly given their lives to save our homes. God bless them.
John Haire was taken to Leonard Rowe's house, called Beachclose, at Firelands, Bembridge where he met Leonard Rowe's wife and two children David and Muriel aged 10 and 11yrs.
Sgt. Haire recounted to Leonard Rowe the moment his aircraft was hit -
When halfway over I decided to go back over the island, with smoke and steam coming from the engine I made ready to land. I looked over the side and saw houses in front of me. I made up my mind to crash on the shore or just in the sea.
In 1993 Muriel Chatfield (nee Rowe) was still living in the same house and she recounted the day she met Sgt. Haire -
There was an air-raid on Portsmouth with the sirens going, I was in the house with my mother, my father was in the bath, and my younger brother David was standing on the coal-bunker watching the planes. Suddenly a plane with smoke pouring out of it appeared over the tree tops, veered off and crashed out of sight on the beach.
My father rushed down the stairs, out and across the fields bare footed, but he was a very good runner. He scrambled down the low cliff and on seeing the pilot struggling to get out of the cockpit waded out to the plane which was in about 6-8ft of water.
Although the tide was coming in, the pilot insisted on returning to get his radio.
After a meal and a change of clothes my father took John Haire to the Coastguard Station so that his squadron could be contacted and report the state of his aircraft (by this time it was completely submerged). While here John explained that he had hoped to land the plane in the field at Forelands, but realised he didn't have room because of the houses, so made the decision to crash-land on the beach. After spending the night with us he was collected by the police the next day and returned to his station. My mother had dried his clothing but he had to borrow a pair of shoes as his flying boots were still soaked with sea-water.
His plane was towed away the next day by a local tractor and the RAF recovery team, who had great difficulty as it had been covered by two tides and had settled into the sand.
Sgt. Haire's Hurricane V6888 was in fact salvaged by the RAF and became an instructional airframe No 2333M.
After rejoining his squadron at Tangmere, Sgt. Haire was sent on a week's leave on 28th October, spending it with his sister Helen in Huntingdon where she was engaged on war work. John Haire returned to duty on Monday 4th November but didn't fly again until Wednesday 6th which was to be his last sortie.
Although the Battle of Britain was now over (according to the Air Ministry definition it ended on 31st October) the situation continued unchanged with Me109's flying high level 'Frei Jagd' (free roaming fighter ops) over the south-east in company with Messerschmitt 110's.
The morning of the 6th was quiet, and it was not until the early afternoon that an incoming raid was reported heading towards Southampton. Almost immediately, 602 and 145 were scrambled to engage the Me109's, from Major Helmut Wick's JG2 'Richthofen' squadron, that were now between the Isle of Wight and Shoreham, Sussex.
The pilots of 602 succeeded in shooting down four of the Me109's straight away with no losses but 145 were not so fortunate. Sgt. Jack Weber was shot down but landed safely at Duxmore. However Sgt. Haire, who was again acting as a 'weaver', was shot down and killed whilst attempting to bale out too low from his stricken Hurricane V6627.
The ARP Post near Arreton Village reported seeing an aircraft engulfed in flames over Perreton Farm (then part of the Heasley Manor Farm Estate) and informed the Home Guard who rushed to the scene. George Calloway was in the ARP post at the time and witnessed the events which he noted in his day-log, and which he recalled in March 1992 and May 2011 (on a further visit to the crash site when he was aged 92.).
The Hurricane was on fire having been attacked by Messerschmitts, and looked like it was going to crash on the houses of Arreton. Instead of baling out the pilot stayed in the aircraft and steered it away into open fields. Only then did he attempt to bale out, standing on the wing before jumping, however he had left it too late for his parachute to open fully and he fell to the ground.
I rushed into the field with others including the Rev. Edward Burbidge to try to help the pilot. Sadly he died as the vicar was saying prayers over him. We used the farm gate to carry his body out of the field.
That same night Reverend Burbidge composed a letter to Squadron Leader AH Boyd, the Commanding Officer at Tangmere.
I understand that a pilot named Haire who crashed and was killed near here about 3pm today came from your command. I managed to reach the spot just before he died. He had apparently jumped when near the ground as he was lying some distance from his plane. He never regained consciousness but I was able to say a commendatory prayer and give him the Blessing as he died. The men around joined in the Lord's Prayer. We cannot but feel grateful to him for bringing his machine down clear of our village. Perhaps it may be of some comfort to his relatives if you could pass some of this on.
Five days later Squadron Leader Boyd wrote to Sgt. Haire's parents in Belfast.
Dear Mr Haire,
I am writing to express my deepest sympathy in the loss of your son. During the time he was in this squadron he proved himself to be a valuable pilot and carried out some exceptionally fine work.
As you know, he was shot down previously but this never altered either his courage or determination, and I feel that I have lost a most useful member of my Squadron. It may be of some consolation to know that he lost his life in a successful attempt to save his machine from crashing on a village and thus saved the lives of others. I enclose a letter from the vicar of this village near where he crashed which shows that his last act was to save the lives of others.
Another letter was written to Haires parents on the same day by a local farmer, George Moody, who witnessed the events and had also rushed to the scene -
Several planes were fighting overhead and one came circling down out of a clear blue sky over the farm. Smoke seemed to be coming from one side of the machine and the pilot, after going round twice, turned into the wind as if to land.
Almost at once, however, flames poured out from the front of the plane and it made a dive to earth, the pilot baling out at once. I dashed in my car to the field, but unfortunately could do nothing.
The plane was blazing and the ammunition going off, while a short distance away lay the pilot. I took his helmet off but could do nothing for him. I was very struck by the peaceful and calm expression on the face of the gallant boy. He was untouched by fire and to my inexperienced eye seemed to be asleep. His parachute was ineffective because he was so low when he baled out. I am a farmer and unused to letter writing but I would like to express my deepest sympathy to the parents of this very gallant gentleman, may God rest his brave soul.
Happily this is not the end - it cannot be; such dauntless courage and bravery could never be finished. His spirit somewhere lives on and will never die.
A book written in 1941 called 'Helmut Wick - Das Leben Eines Fliegerhelden' by Joseph Grabler describes the events of 6th November 1940 from the German perspective. Maybe Helmut Wick was suffering from battle fatigue when he related the events of the day -
Today we had a terrific time again. We met a heap of Hurricanes which fly lower than we do. I am just getting ready to attack when I notice something above me and I immediately shout over the intercom 'Attention - Spitfires above us'. But they were so far away that I could begin the attack on the Hurricanes. They were just turning away from their original course and that sealed their fate. Almost simultaneously the four of us fired at their formation. One went on my account, the rest of the Hurricanes pulled up to a higher altitude. During this manoeuvre I once again caught the one on the right hand outside. He was done for immediately and went straight down. I wasn't sure if I was unwell or if my nerves were about to break but when the second Englishman went down I just wanted to go home. As we began for home I see below me three Spitfires. I am the first to see them and attack, already the first one falls.
It can now be seen that according to the RAF losses for that day, eight aircraft were shot down, no Spitfires being lost, so it must be concluded that the 'Spitfire' shot down by Wick on his way home was, in fact, a Hurricane and it is probable that this was Sgt. Haire. (The other two 'kills' being Sgt. Hubert Adair from 213 and P/O James Tillett from 238 Squadron). Most Luftwaffe pilots liked having the 'kudos' of shooting down a Spitfire rather than a Hurricane.
Major Wick was to lose his own life over the same Island some twenty two days later when he was shot down in a dogfight over The Needles by F/Lt. John Dundas DFC* of 609 Squadron. Almost immediately Dundas was attacked by Wick's No 2 and shot down into the sea, his body never to be found.
This was the second occasion in a dogfight that John Haire had steered his crippled aircraft away from residential housing.
Always thinking of others even during the height of battle, this young fighter pilot could have taken to his parachute straight away, but that would have meant probable death or serious injury to the people below as his unmanned Hurricane fell onto the houses in the village of Arreton. He would pay the final price for this gallant act.
Sgt. John Haire's recovered body was returned to Ireland and was laid to rest at Belfast (Dundonald) Cemetery in Section D4 Grave 102. He was just 20 years old.
Had he survived a little longer and become a more experienced pilot, he may well have been decorated with a gallantry medal, to sit alongside the 1939/45 Star, with Battle of Britain bar, an Air Crew Europe Star, and the War Medal that were sent to his father in a nondescript Air Ministry cardboard box (below).
John had an elder brother, Sidney Sedgewick Haire, who had joined the Army and served as a Major with the Indian Army Ordnance Corps attached to 161 Motor Brigade in Egypt. He was killed in action aged 28 years on 23rd July 1942 and is buried at the main cemetery in El Alamein, Row XXVII plot A 22.
His mother, Nora Julie died on the 20th August 1960, and all three are remembered on John's headstone. Their father Sidney Hume Haire died on the 6th June 1974.
(c) Simon Muggleton March 2017
On 12th September 2019 a memorial was unveiled by the Battle of Britain Historical Society at Haire's crash site.
Above: an address by John Pulfer of the Society.