“I could smell death at 1,000 feet”

News Article / November 1, 2013

By Joanna Calder

Flight Lieutenant John Colton died on May 14, 2013, in Sherbrooke, Quebec, at the age of 90.  He was a true Canadian hero: a Typhoon pilot who flew with the Royal Air Force in some of the hottest spots of the Second World War.  The following article was published on the Royal Canadian Air Force’s website in autumn 2012 after Flight Lieutenant Colton spoke to members of the Air Staff in Ottawa.

During Veterans Week, it’s appropriate we pause to remember our valiant sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen – people such as John Colton – who served the cause of freedom.

Flight Lieutenant (retired) John Colton, age 89, from Sherbrooke, Quebec, is a survivor.

He was only 19 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in January 1942, and 20 when he received his wings and went overseas for further training.  Flying single-seat Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers with Number 137 Squadron, Royal Air Force, during the Second World War, he carried out 104 operational sorties.  It was an extraordinary feat, considering that Typhoon pilots flew an average of only 17 sorties before being shot down or reported as missing.

He was discharged at the end of the war with the rank of flying officer, but rejoined in 1949.  He served until 1956 as an auxiliary air pilot controller and retired in the rank of flight lieutenant.

His wartime missions were unbelievably dangerous, and he lost many comrades. Nevertheless, he generally talks about his war matter-of-factly, with gentle humour, although occasionally the depth of his emotions breaks through.

He appears to be at peace with his experiences, and he has also come to peace with individual Germans against whom he fought nearly 70 years ago.

John Colton was a special guest in autumn 2012 at a gathering of military and civilian personnel who work in the Air Force Staff at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.

Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, presented Flight Lieutenant Colton with a unique certificate of recognition that read, in part: “For outstanding service to Canada in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Typhoon fighter-bomber pilot in Europe during the Second World War.  Through your bravery, courage, skill and audacity, you survived 104 combat missions and served as an inspiration to your fellow aviators during combat.  Today, you are the ultimate role model for contemporary airmen and airwomen in the modern Royal Canadian Air Force.”

Flight Lieutenant Colton then took to the podium and, despite having only one lung that left him occasionally struggling for breath, he held the audience spellbound as he talked about his experiences.

Flying the Typhoon

“[The Typhoon had] 24 cylinders, 2,400 horsepower, 48 sparkplugs,” he said.   “It was started with a cartridge machine, with cartridges just like a shotgun shell, made like a Smith and Wesson revolver.  You had six shells in there; you fired one and the exhaust from the firing would flip the engine over once or twice.  If it didn’t start, you’d try it again.

“Meanwhile, there would be an aircraftsman on the ground with a fire extinguisher, because they usually caught on fire.”

The Typhoon was an imperfect machine, and Flight Lieutenant Colton remembers one particular flaw vividly.

“The take-off on a Hawker Typhoon was my most harrowing experience.  They told you before your first flight, ‘Well, it’s going to go to the right a little bit, so just watch it.’  And you’d think, ‘Well, it can’t be that bad.  They wouldn’t ask us to fly something that would be hazardous like that.’

“So you’d get in, full left rudder, you’d go down the runway and all of a sudden you’d start to wander to the right.  The next thing you know, you can’t control it any more.  It’s going 30 degrees to the runway and you see a hangar coming up.  You’d manage to get over the hangar – barely!

“It was quite an aircraft to take off the ground, but once you managed that it was a beautiful airplane to fly.”

Attacking E-boats

From their base at Manston, on the southeast coast of England, 137 Squadron kept the English Channel safe for Allied shipping.

“We used to go out every morning.  During the night, the German torpedo boats [Schnellboot or E-boats] would be up in the Channel, attacking British convoys.  But in the morning at 4:30, they were going back home; so we were up in the air at 4, waiting for them.  We left quite a few of them swimming.”

Years later, Flight Lieutenant Colton met someone who had served on the E-boats.

“I was sitting in the Army, Navy and Air Force mess in Sherbrooke one day and this fellow sits down at the table and we’re having a beer, and I noticed he had a bit of an accent, which was German, I thought.

“So I asked him, ‘Were you in the German Forces?’  He said, ‘Yes, I was in the Navy.’  I said, ‘Oh, what were you doing?’  He says, ‘I was on an E-boat.’”  I said, ‘Oh, where?’  He says, ‘In the Channel.’  I said, ‘Well, so was I.’

“He says, ‘You were the one that was shooting at us all the time.’  And I says, ‘You shot back, too!’

“So he and I became very good friends … and we always sat down and had a beer together and talked about our experiences.”

The Falaise Gap

“I wasn’t involved in the actual D-Day landing, but our squadron was called upon to protect the left flank of the invasion fleet.  We finally got to Normandy on the 13th of August [1944] and we got right involved with the Battle of Falaise.”

The Battle of the Falaise Gap was a pivotal battle in the invasion of Normandy.  Germany’s Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army were penned up at Falaise and the Allies closed in.

“The Germans … were surrounded on both sides by the Americans, the Brits and Canadian ground forces, and they closed the gap, and this army couldn’t get out because Hitler refused to let them retreat.

“And we went in and did our duty with that army – with rockets and 20-millimetre cannon.

“It was the most disastrous operation I ever flew on,” he said sombrely.

When the nine-day battle was over, 10,000 German troops lay dead and more than 4 000 tanks, artillery pieces and motor vehicles were abandoned and burnt.

Flight Lieutenant Colton’s voice broke as he continued to speak about the horrific operation.  “And unfortunately the Germans used a lot of horses for their hauling their materiel and all of them were unfortunately killed, also.

“A few days later, I flew over the area at 1,000 feet and you could smell the odour of death. I could smell death at 1,000 feet.

“It was so intense that the army …had to use bulldozers to clear the way to get through.

“It was my most horrible experience I saw while in the air force.”

Market Garden

Flight Lieutenant Colton patrolled the front line in Normandy, and spoke about the dangers he and his fellow pilots faced every day when they were given a target to attack.

“We had a very high percentage of losses because we would start our dive at 6,000 feet … go down and we’re getting up to close to 600 miles per hour before we’d release our rockets and pull out.

“But going down we had the 88-millimetre [anti-aircraft guns firing at us] at five or six thousand feet, then 37-millimetre, 20-millimetre, nine-millimetre.  Then coming out it was nine, 20, 37 and 88.

“So they didn’t have too hard a time picking off the boys.

“We would come out at a little over 600 miles per hour [and pull] up.  Of course, we’d black out for two or three seconds and you’re going straight up.  But we’d get back to base.  The airframe mechanic comes up to me and he says, ‘You know the rivets are pulled in the wings here.  What happened?’

“This happened quite often – the rivets would come loose from the G-force.

“The other operation I flew in was Market Garden.”

Operation Market Garden, fought from September 17 to 25, 1944, was famously portrayed in the film “A Bridge Too Far”.  By dropping paratroopers from gliders to seize and hold key bridges on the route of advance, the Allies planned to break through German lines and end the war quickly.  Resistance was stronger than anticipated, and the Allies could not hold the last bridge at Arnhem.

“This was supposed to shorten the war by four or five months,” explained Flight Lieutenant Colton.  “But it didn’t work because the Germans had some forces on rest in that area [at Arnhem].  When the troops landed, coming down in parachutes, they were picking them off as they came down.

“The flak that we experienced there … you’ve heard the expression, it was so thick you could walk on it almost.  It was just black, and we suffered quite a few losses on that operation.

“In fact, we were told … anyone [who] comes back maybe hasn’t done their job.  This was part of our briefing, trying to emphasize how serious it was.  Of course, quite some of us came back.

“I’m here anyway!”

The Ardennes and Bodenplatte

“Then we got involved with the Americans at the Ardennes, when the Germans broke through the American lines.  And our biggest problem there was the American Thunderbolts and Mustangs.  They didn’t know anything about aircraft recognition and they thought we were Focke-Wulf 190s!  So we lost a few boys there too.  But it all went well; we managed to help them out.

“Then came Bodenplatte.”

Operation Bodenplatte [Baseplate] was an effort by the German Air Force to destroy Allied aerodromes and regain air superiority.  This would allow the German ground forces to regain the advantage and continue their advance.  The operation was delayed because of bad weather, and the Luftwaffe attacked several locations on the first clear day.

Flight Lieutenant Colton was at Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, where three Spitfire squadrons and eight Typhoon squadrons of the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force were located.  The losses suffered at Eindhoven were considerable and that attack was considered a Luftwaffe success, although overall the operation failed to achieve its objective.

“This was the first of January 1945, and of course this is the morning after New Year’s Eve – and boy, did we have a party that New Year’s Eve!” he said.

In fact, Operation Bodenplatte became known – with the black humour typical of combat operations – as “The Hangover Raid”.

“I’m on the second flight that morning and my chum who bunked with me, he was on the first trip.

“So he’s gone.  And I’m just getting ready to go out to the flight shack.  And all of a sudden I hear vrrrm … [Outside there were Messerschmitt] 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s and they were buzzing; they were shooting at everything.  Finally, it was over in about 15 minutes.  We took a lot of collateral damage.  There were rockets going off, bombs going off, 20 millimetres [cannon] going off.  They [hit] the ammunition dump.

“Fortunately, I didn’t get off on my second flight, because we didn’t have too many airplanes left.  But my friend who went on the first flight, he was just coming back in.

“He’d flown as spare on that first operation.  And when they got to the bomb line, nobody had dropped out so he was coming back.  As he was landing, a 190 got behind him and shot him up and killed him right on the ground there.

“He was a good friend.

“Talking about seeing good friends go – we flew an operation one day, and we were flying two aircraft, probably 200 feet, 300 feet apart.  There were a lot of 88- millimetre [anti-aircraft] guns being fired.

“We were about 6,000-7,000 feet [up] and one exploded right beside my number two.  And then all of a sudden, I see him going down like this.  And for some reason or other he got on the radio … [and] he said, ‘I often wondered how this was going to feel.’  He said, ‘I can’t move.’

“And I figured he must have been hit in the back with the shrapnel, in the spine, and he was paralyzed.  He went right into the ground.  And this fellow’s probably 300 feet from you and you can’t go and help him.  It’s agonizing when you figure you can’t go and help him.”

Flight Lieutenant Colton paused to gather his thoughts, visibly still shaken by his experience so many years ago.

Making peace with the past…and remembering

Many years later, in the 1980s, Flight Lieutenant Colton was at an air show in Sherbrooke, Quebec, when he had another chance encounter with an old enemy.

“There was a demonstration being given by a glider pilot.  And they’d mentioned that he flew in a Focke-Wulf 190 for the German air force during the war.  And I’d had a few experiences with them, so I said to myself, ‘I’d like to meet this chap.’

“So, he come down; we finally met and the first thing he said to me is, ‘Where were you the first of January 1945?’ I said, ‘I was in Eindhoven.’  He said, ‘So was I.’

“So for a few seconds it got tense,” Flight Lieutenant Colton said wryly.

“And I thought of my friend on the runway who didn’t come back.  And so finally we said, ‘Well, let’s go have a beer’.  And we talked every January first at 9:15 in the morning.  He would phone me from Toronto and say, ‘John, I’m back’.  His name was Oscar Boesch [and] we became good friends.

“Oscar died unfortunately, in June last year.  But it just went to show that we were both pilots doing a job we were asked to do.  No feeling of revenge or one pilot against another.  It was an aircraft against an aircraft [and] once we got together, we were all friends, you know.

“To sum up my operations, when things got so bad over Germany, when we were doing low level shooting of anything that moved – that was our instruction, anything that moved on the other side of the line, you attack it – Hitler come out with a directive to the German forces and civilian population that no Typhoon pilot was to be taken alive.  He was to be shot, or pitch-forked, to death.  So that was the extent of damage we were doing to the Germans at that time.

“So that’s a brief summary of what happened.  I’m hoping not too many of you are asleep!  I’m running out of [air] and I’m below ‘bull low’ right now.

“But I would like to end [my remarks] by saying that what we did in the mess every night, when nobody came back, when some pilot didn’t come back, we respected him.

“We picked up a glass.  We said, ‘Here’s to absent friends.’

“Lest we forget.”

The Hawker Typhoon

By Brigadier-General (retired) Terry Leversedge

The Hawker Typhoon was originally designed as interceptor but suffered from poor high-altitude performance.  However, at low level, it was a superb aircraft.  Its strength and firepower made it an ideal fighter-bomber and soon became the standard ground support aircraft of the Royal Air Force’s Second Tactical Air Force.  Three Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons – 438, 439 and 440 – flew the Typhoon in Second Tactical Air Force during the Second World War.  In Canadian service, it was renowned for its ground-attack abilities.  Despite being flown by Canadian squadrons, the Typhoon was never officially “on strength” with the RCAF.

Manufacturer:  Hawker Aircraft Company
Crew:  one pilot
Powerplant:  one 2,180 horsepower Napier Sabre IIA in-line piston engine
Maximum speed:  405 miles per hour (652 kilometres per hour)
Cruising speed:  254 miles per hour (409 kilometres per hour)
Service ceiling:  34,000 feet (10,363 metres)
Range:  510 miles (821 kilometres) with weapons load
Empty weight:  8,800 pounds (3,992 kilograms)
Gross weight:  11,400 pounds (5,171 kilograms)
Wingspan:  41 feet 7 inches (12.67 metres)
Length:  31 feet 11 inches (9.73 metres)
Height:  15 feet 4 inches (4.67 metres)
Wing area:  279 square feet (25.92 square metres)
Armament:  four 20 millimetre cannon plus provisions for 8 x 60 pound (27 kilogram) rockets or two 1,000 pound (454 kilogram) bombs

Editor’s note: Flight Lieutenant Colton’s comments about meeting the man who served on the E-Boat have been supplemented using his own words from an interview recorded for the Memory Project.  The Memory Project Archives is an initiative of the Historica-Dominion Institute and is made possible with funding from Canadian Heritage.

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