Battle of Britain profile of courage: Pilot Officer John Blandford Latta

Biography / August 12, 2015

By Major William March

242 Squadron, Royal Air Force

John Blandford Latta was a salmon fisherman on the West Coast of Canada, complete with his own trawler, when he decided to take a crack at becoming a flyer in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1939.

He was no stranger to military life, being the son of Lieutenant-Colonel William S. Latta, a Canadian Expeditionary Force veteran who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order three times during the First World War. Although he had served in his father’s old militia unit, 1st Battalion, Canadian Scottish Regiment, from 1930 to 1933, it was the exciting world of aviation that inspired the young Canadian to apply to an RAF recruiting ad. Assisted by the advice and support of Royal Navy Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs, who had retired in British Columbia, Mr. Latta found himself accompanying six other “Bigg’s Boys” on board a ship heading to England in January 1939.

The 24-year-old went through the usual battery of interviews and tests before arriving at No. 4 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School in Brough, Yorkshire, on March 6, 1939, as a probationary Pilot Officer. Latta received his wings on April 12, and proceeded to No. 12 Flying Training School on May 13 for instruction on more advanced aircraft. Fate then took a hand in his next posting; Canada and England had just agreed that, for political and public relations purposes, an RAF squadron would be designed as “Canadian” and manned as far as possible by aircrew from the Dominion. No. 242 “Canadian” Squadron was formed at Church Fenton, Yorkshire, on October 30, 1939, and Latta, posted in on November 6, became one of its first members.

A newly established squadron with a large proportion of pilots fresh from flying schools spends most of its time training, and so it was for No. 242. A variety of aircraft were used on the unit until it received the first of its Hurricane fighters in March 1940. Training, however, ended in May 1940 when elements of the squadron were sent to France to bolster Allied defences. As German forces advanced, forcing Allied armies back to toward Dunkirk, No. 242 became more heavily engaged. On May 29, Latta scored his first victory when he downed a Messerschmitt 109, and by the middle of June he claimed three more German fighters. In a letter home on June 1, 1940, Latta summed up the situation:

“…still alive and kicking but pretty tired as we have been going from daylight till dark for some time now. We have been doing our best to protect the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force] during their embarkation from Dunkirk, and it certainly hasn’t been any picnic. The squadron bag is about thirty enemy machines now, and I have got three sure ones myself. Naturally, we haven’t got off scot-free ourselves, but our losses haven’t been too bad.”

In fact, after about 30 days of combat the squadron had lost 11 aircraft, resulting in the deaths of three pilots, two wounded and six missing (one subsequently reported as being a prisoner). After the squadron was withdrawn to RAF Coltishal on June 18 to refit and rebuild, No. 242’s new commanding officer, RAF Squadron Leader Douglas Bader found a group of tired and demoralized personnel. By sheer force of will, and by relying on experienced people such as Latta, No. 242 absorbed its replacements, trained and was ready for another “go at Jerry” by July 9.

During the opening months of the Battle of Britain, Latta and the rest of No. 242 came to grips with the enemy only rarely. Still, he claimed a Heinkel (He 111) bomber on July 10, 1940, the “official” first day of the Battle of Britain. He was not able to add to his score until August 21, when he and two of his squadron mates each claimed 1/3 of a Dornier (Do) 17. As Latta wrote to his family:

“Three of us jumped one yesterday…and I guess he never knew what hit him. All three caught him at the same time, one from above, one from dead astern, and myself from below. We only put a five second burst each into him, but he practically blew up. I must have hit his loaded bomb rack. The only damage to one of our fellows was a dint to his wing from a piece of flying debris.”

Throughout the month of September, Latta was in combat on a regular basis as the Germans turned their attention to London and other cities. Often these engagements involved hundreds of aircraft on both sides, and in the melee the risk of collision was almost as high as the danger of being shot down by enemy fire. Latta added to his score with a Messerschmitt 109 on the 9th and a second on the 15th. Up to this point, he had only had to contend with minor damage to his aircraft, but this changed on September 27, 1940, when the squadron was scrambled to engage a large body of enemy aircraft. The adrenalin may have still been pumping through his veins when he wrote:

“That keyed-up feeling does not seem to allow one to concentrate on writing. I was very fortunate in this last ‘do’ we had on the 27th September, we ran into 40 or 50 M.E. 109’s and when the smoke of battle sort of cleared away I found I had added two more planes to my bag. Both the poor blighters practically blew up in mid air. The gas tanks on the 109’s are situated right behind the pilot and I must have got incendiary ammunition into those tanks both times. The poor sods didn’t have a chance of getting out… I collected a burst or so along the bottom of my plane, but apart from knocking a few bits off one wing and a few pieces out of my tail plane not much damage was done.”

Although there would be further patrols during the Battle of Britain, these would be the last victories claimed by Latta. Promoted to Pilot Officer on November 6, 1940, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross two days later for his accomplishments to date and for demonstrating “the utmost coolness in the midst of fierce combat.” Unfortunately, Pilot Officer Latta did not survive the war. The 27-year-old went missing in action during an offensive patrol on January 12, 1941 and his body was never recovered. His name is listed on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, England.

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