Battle of Britain profile of courage: Squadron Leader James Arthur “Johnnie” Walker

Biography / August 26, 2015

By Major William March

111 Squadron, Royal Air Force

James Arthur Walker grew up in the very small town of Gleichen, Alberta, about 80 kilometres east of Calgary. A typical prairie boy used to long, cold winters and short, hot summers, Walker decided at 20 to pursue a flying career with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Signing up for a short-service commission in March 1938, he found himself reporting to No. 2 Flying Training School at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, England, on May 21.

A period of instruction followed for Probationary Pilot Officer Walker on Hart, Audax and Fury aircraft. The young Canadian proved to be an excellent pilot and upon graduation he was posted to No. 111 Squadron at RAF Northolt, in the London borough of Hillingdon, on December 17, 1938.

Walker arrived at No. 111 Squadron just as the unit was being re-equipped with Hawker Hurricane Mark I fighter aircraft. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he logged quite a few hours on the Hurricane before he found himself in action against the German Luftwaffe in May 1940. German forces were in the process of over-running Allied armies in France and Belgium, and 111 Squadron was one of the units tasked to fly defensive missions covering the retreat. On May 18, Pilot Officer Walker destroyed a Henschel 126 observation aircraft and shared in the destruction of a Heinkel 111 bomber. Often flying multiple sorties per day, it seemed as if there was no way to stem the German tide, on the ground or in the air, but Walker was game to try, and claimed a Messerschmitt Bf-109 destroyed at the end of the month.

With the defeated Allied forces congregated at the French port of Dunkirk, the battle between the two opposing air forces reached a crescendo. The Luftwaffe was determined to prevent the escape of the remnants of the British and French armies, while the RAF was equally determined to stop the air attacks. By the time the sea-borne evacuation of more than 330,000 troops by military vessels and by the “little ships of Dunkirk”, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, lifeboats and pleasure craft, had ended in mid-June (Operation Dynamo was the name given to the main effort between May 27 and June 4), Walker had claimed an additional Bf-109 and a Dornier Do-17 bomber.

For Walker and 111 Squadron there was no break in combat between Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. Operating from RAF Croydon on the outskirts of London, the unit was in the thick of things throughout the remainder of June and into July. Although Walker flew many times during this period, he did not increase his score until August 13, when he destroyed a Do-17. One can only wonder if he employed the tactics that his squadron was becoming known for. The front end of German bombers, housing the pilots and bombardier and often enclosed in shatter-resistant Plexiglas, was an obvious weak point, but to take advantage of it meant pressing home a high-speed, head-on attack. This was a hazardous undertaking in the extreme and not for the faint of heart.

On August 16, Walker scored his sixth victory while in the midst of a massive dogfight involving multiple RAF squadrons attacking a large formation of German bombers and escorting fighters. Spying a Bf-109 pursuing a Hurricane, Walker quickly positioned himself behind the German aircraft, closed to within a few hundred yards, and blew it out of the sky. Five Luftwaffe fighters then pounced on the Canadian, who managed to hold them at bay with violent evasive manoeuvers. Four of the attackers broke off seeking other prey, but the fifth hung on scoring several times on Walker’s aircraft.  With his windscreen partially covered in oil, Walker managed to reverse positions with the Bf-109 but, given his reduced visibility, he decided to head for home, diving away from the fight.

By the end of August, the squadron had been “fought out” and was sent to a quiet sector to lick its wounds and recuperate. Newly-promoted Flying Officer Walker was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on September 6, 1940. The citation accompanying the award noted that he “…had shown himself to be a keen and steady pilot and has displayed magnificent courage in the face of superior numbers of enemy aircraft.” It was a fitting recognition of a job well done.

A grizzled veteran at 22, Walker survived the Battle of Britain but, like so many of his contemporaries, he did not survive the war. He served with other units in England and the Middle East, sharing in the probable destruction of one Junkers 88 in January 1941 and damaging a second in March of that year. In 1943, Squadron Leader Walker was selected to command No. 31 (Transport) Squadron in the Far East.

On February 8, 1944, his squadron was operating Dakota aircraft out of Agartala, India, and was engaged in a supply run when they were attacked by Japanese Zero fighters. According to Flying Officer Andy Russel, a fellow Canadian from Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Squadron Leader Walker had given explicit instructions on what to do in case of an attack – get as low as possible to the ground and scatter in all directions. His squadron followed his instructions but he remained at altitude, providing a tempting target for the Japanese pilots while he allowed his men to escape. It was a one-sided fight and eventually his Dakota aircraft was shot down with everyone on board killed.

Flight Lieutenant Walker`s body was never recovered. He is commemorated on Column 432 of the Singapore Memorial, in Kranji War Cemetery, 14 miles north of the city of Singapore, Malaya. He was 25.

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