Last Canadian Battle of Britain pilot “slips the surly bonds of earth”

News Article / September 9, 2019

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The 79th anniversary of the Battle of Britain  will be observed on Sunday, September 15, 2019.
A national ceremony will be held at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario,
and local ceremonies will take place across Canada.

Squadron Leader (retired) John Stewart Hart “slipped the surly bonds of earth” on June 18, 2019, less than three months before his 103rd birthday. He was Canada’s last surviving Battle of Britain pilot.

On the third Sunday of each September, members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as the Royal Air Force and other air forces that fought in the Battle of Britain, pause to remember pilots and groundcrew such as John Stewart Hart who risked everything during the summer of 1940 to fend off the German Luftwaffe.

Their valour and their sacrifices prevented Hitler’s planned invasion of Great Britain and placed the Allies on the path that would culminate, five years later, in Allied victory and the successful liberation of Europe.

John Hart recalls his role in the Battle of Britain

By Holly Bridges

John Hart was born in Sackville, New Brunswick, on September 11, 1916, and learned to fly at the Halifax Flying Club in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In January 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) on a short service commission and, in 1940, arrived at No. 7 Operational Training Unit in England, where the 24-year-old quickly found himself flying Westland Lysanders.

After a few postings in other parts of the country, including No. 614 Squadron and No. 613 Squadron, Flying Officer Hart was transferred from No. 54 Squadron to No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron in Scotland. No. 602 was a robust fighter squadron that soon moved to Westhampnett, an emergency landing strip built on a satellite airfield at RAF Tangmere in southeastern England to fend off the German Luftwaffe. The airfield was being prepared for the Battle of Britain.

Build-up to the Battle of Britain

To fully understand the contribution of Flying Officer Hart and other Battle of Britain aircrew and groundcrew, it is important to put the pending battle into context.

Hitler’s military machine had overrun Europe with shocking speed. The Battle of France, which included the invasion of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, began on May 10, 1940; Poland, Denmark and Norway had already fallen.

By June, France had fallen and the Allies had been forced off the continent. A few days later, Winston Churchill, the newly-elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, warned the British House of Commons about the dire situation facing the Allies:

“The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. … Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”

Hitler now planned to launch a full-scale invasion of Great Britain. To succeed, he needed to dominate the airspace over the English Channel and southeast England; the Luftwaffe was given the task of eliminating the Royal Air Force “to such an extent that it [would] be incapable of putting up any sustained opposition to the invading troops”.

Flying Officer Hart braces himself for duty

In preparation for the momentous battle ahead, Flying Officer Hart moved from flying the Lysander to the Supermarine Spitfire at No. 54 Squadron, a conversion course that took only a week. By today’s standards, where military aircrews are given months to learn a new airframe, the course was a mere flash in time.

From the moment he finished his course, he was hooked on Spitfires.

“The Spitfire is a beautiful aircraft to fly,” he said. “It’s very responsive. You just have to think what you want to do, and it goes. You don’t have to fight it or pull it or yank it around. It just moves with you. You become a part of it. Beautiful to look at. Beautiful to fly.”

What Flying Officer Hart perhaps did not realize is that the airfield he was posted to, Westhampnett at Royal Air Force Station Tangmere, and other airfields like it – Kenley, Croydon, Biggin Hill, West Malling, Horchurch, Hawkinge, Gravesend, Manston, Rochford, North Weald, Martlesham Heath, Stapleford Tawney, Debden and Northolt – would see the fiercest action during the Battle of Britain.

It was a dangerous posting, to say the least.

Many of the pilots, or “The Few” as Sir Winston Churchill would later call the fighter pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, took the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks in this vital airspace over the English Channel and southeast England. Many lost their lives in fiery crashes over the tranquil British countryside, including Flying Officer Hart’s fellow Canadian pilot and boyhood friend Alex Trueman, also from Sackville. Flying Officer Trueman, who served with the Royal Air Force’s 253 Squadron, was shot down and killed on September 4, 1940, but even the loss of his friend didn’t stop Flying Officer Hart from soldiering on. He never allowed fear to get the better of him.

“You didn’t have time to be scared,” he said. “You’re thinking about what’s going on.”

Despite being shot at over the English Channel by a twin-engine Junkers Ju 88 multirole aircraft on September 30, 1940, Flying Officer Hart managed to land his Spitfire safely. “I was only about 20 miles [32 kilometres] out at 20,000 feet [6,096 metres] when I got shot,” he recalled. On October 10, 1940, he shared in the probable destruction of a Junkers Ju88 and on October 29 he claimed a Messerschmitt Me109 (also known as the Bf109) destroyed. Shortly after the conclusion of the Battle of Britain, on November 13, he shared in the destruction of a Junkers Ju88.

By early 1941, he was serving with 91 Squadron at Hawkinge, England, but he returned to 602 “City of Glasgow” Squadron and then went to an operational training unit as an instructor. He commanded 67 Squadron in Burma from May to July 1943 and 112 Squadron in Italy from April to August 1945. He also served in No. 614 Squadron, No. 613 Squadron and No. 54 Squadron.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on June 22, 1945, while serving with 112 Squadron. His citation reads:

“This officer has participated in a large number of varied sorties, including many attacks on heavily defended targets such as road and rail bridges, gun positions, strong points and mechanical transport. Throughout he has displayed skillful leadership, great determination and devotion to duty. In April 1945, Squadron Leader Hart took part in an armed reconnaissance during which eleven locomotives were successfully attacked. Some days later Squadron Leader Hart participated in another sortie during which a number of locomotives and trucks were most effectively attacked. This officer has invariably displayed the greatest keenness and has set a fine example to all.”

It was a time when ordinary Canadians such as Flying Officer Hart and thousands of others were called upon to do extraordinary things to win their battles and help secure the peace and freedom we enjoy today. Yet, to hear him describe it, his role in helping Allied air forces beat back the Luftwaffe and win the Battle of Britain was nothing remarkable.

“I know I have it [the Battle of Britain medal] with a star on it, but I really didn’t have that much to do with it,” he said modestly. “You were posted to a squadron and you did your job.”

How many kills was he responsible for during the Battle?

“Not as many as I would have liked,” he said matter-of-factly.

RCAF pays tribute to Squadron Leader John Hart with flyby

By Joanna Calder

Squadron Leader (retired) John Stewart Hart celebrated his 100th birthday on September 11, 2016.  To honour this remarkable milestone, the Royal Canadian Air Force conducted a flyby in his honour over his home in Naramata, British Columbia, on Battle of Britain Sunday, September 18, 2016.

Two CF-188 Hornet fighters from 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron, located at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, made the pass over Squadron Leader Hart’s home at 2 p.m.

“Upon the completion of the flypast, Mr. Hart and his family joined us at the airplanes at the [Penticton Regional] Airport for a tour,” said Lieutenant-Colonel William Radiff, commanding officer of 409 Squadron. “All of his family, save Mr. Hart, got into the airplane to see what it is like. There were four generations of Harts at the airplane; very inspiring. Mr. Hart was quite surprised at the small size of the wing of the Hornet [and said] that he would love to try it out.

“Last Sunday, on his 100th birthday, he went for a flight in the back of a Harvard,” Lieutenant-Colonel Radiff continued. “In true fighter pilot fashion, when asked how it was to fly, [he] stated that it was handled like a logging truck – nothing like the nimble Spitfire! “

“It’s truly a privilege for 409 Squadron to be able to mark the 100th birthday of Squadron Leader Hart and honour his service in that historic conflict,” Lieutenant-Colonel Radiff told the Penticton Western News.

Squadron Leader Hart was modest about both his age and his accomplishments during the Battle of Britain.

"I just happened to be born in Sackville, [New Brunswick] 100 years ago, happened to be accepted to the RAF in 1939 and ended up flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, and I survived," he said.

"I would like to take this recognition and dedicate it to those who fought and died and to those who survived, that we do not forget them."

Lieutenant-General Mike Hood, then-commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, praised the former of Battle Britain pilot.

“Canada’s Air Force has changed in many ways over the years since you answered the call to service during the Second World War,” he wrote in a letter to Squadron Leader Hart on the occasion of his 100th birthday. “But the qualities that never change are the devotion and courage of the people who so proudly serve this country. You laid the solid foundation of duty, honour and dedication to Canada on which we continue to build.

“On behalf of the airmen and airwomen of the Royal Canadian Air Force, I thank you for your service in the RAF and extend my best wishes for the future.”

Squadron Leader Hart’s obituary

“John passed away June 18, 2019, nearing his 103rd birthday. He is survived by his three children, two grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Having lived through the many changes and experiences over the past century he decided it was time to slip the surly bonds of the earth.

“Born and raised in Sackville, New Brunswick, he tired of the fishing fleets and Mount Allison University. In 1938 John obtained his flying license in Halifax [Nova Scotia], jumped a freighter for England and joined the Royal Air Force. When WWII, began he was assigned to fighter squadron and flew Spitfires through the Battle of Britain. In 1942 he was sent to Burma to fly Hurricanes and later was moved to North Africa. From there he led his Mustang squadron through Italy eventually flying as far as Vienna toward the culmination of the war.

“John left the RAF in 1946 and, having married Joan in Scotland in 1942, he returned to Canada with his young son and set out to build a life and family in Vancouver. Joan was lost to cancer in 1977. He then married Bette who died after another 35 years of marriage.

“John carried many talents and many conflicts through his life but survived, fully aware of his surroundings, to be one of last four of "THE FEW". Many thanks to those who reintroduced him to the love of flying in the final years of his life, and a big thank-you to the lovely ladies who so affectionately supported him at his home in Naramata.”

Published in Okanagan Valley Newspaper Group on August 9, 2019.

Editor’s note: Squadron Leader Hart became the last surviving Canadian-born Battle of Britain pilot when Squadron Leader Percy Beake passed away on June 25, 2016, in Bath, England. He was 99. Squadron Leader Beake was born in Montreal in 1917 to British parents who returned to Great Britain eight years after his birth.

More than 100 Canadian pilots served in the Battle of Britain; 23 lost their lives in the conflict and another 35 or so died later in the war. In other words, fewer than half of the Canadian Battle of Britain pilots returned home after the war.


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