Battle of Britain profile of courage: Canadian John Hart recalls his role in the Battle

Biography / September 17, 2015

By Holly Bridges

John Stewart Hart is believed to be the last surviving Canadian Battle of Britain pilot living in Canada. He was interviewed recently about his experiences during the Battle, the only one of the Second World War to be fought and won entirely in the air. Flying Officer Hart’s participation, and that of all Canadian, British and Allied aircrew and groundcrew, earned a hard-fought victory.

John Hart was born in Sackville, New Brunswick in September 1916. He studied at Mount Allison Academy in Sackville beginning in 1931 and entered Mount Allison University in 1936. He did not complete his degree but instead earned his pilot's license from the Halifax Flying Club in the summer of 1938. That fall, he went to England and in January 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) on a short service commission. In 1940, he 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 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 began on May 10, 1940, with the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium; 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, spoke in 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 British 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, Hart was hooked on Spitfires.

“The Spitfire is a beautiful aircraft to fly,” he says from his home in British Columbia. “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 Hart perhaps did not realize is that the airfield he was posted to, Westhampnett at RAF 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 Canadian, British and other Allied 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 Hart’s fellow Canadian pilot and boyhood friend Alex Trueman, also from Sackville. Trueman died in a crash in the early days of the Battle of Britain, yet even the loss of his friend didn’t stop Hart from soldiering on. He never allowed fear to get the better of him.

“You didn’t have time to be scared,” he says. “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, 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 recalls.

He would also encounter enemy fire later in the war, in Italy and India, but managed to land his aircraft safely in both instances.

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 says 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.” Once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot.

He went on to command 67 Squadron in Burma from May to July 1943 and 112 Squadron in Italy from April to August 1945.

Squadron Leader Hart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on June 22, 1945, and was released from the RAF in 1946.

With files from the Mount Allison University Archives.

Editor’s note: According to the Battle of Britain Monument organization in England, the only other surviving Canadian Battle of Britain pilot, Percy Harold Beake, lives in Bristol, England. His family had emigrated from Bristol to Canada before the Second World War.

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