A week later, John was one of only three survivors of the same six-man crew when a South African Boston crash-landed into the dispersal area at Abu-Sueir where two squadrons of bomb-laden Wellingtons were preparing for take-off. John’s aircraft, with several of the crew already on board, was the first to be hit. As John was about to climb into the cockpit he noticed something strange:
“I don’t know what it was, something about the aircraft… obviously not running properly… and it was in trouble… I was right by the ladder, instead of climbing up I just watched it… and he came down and touched the end of the runway, bounced, and completely lost it and headed straight for us… All I could do was scream something to the others. [I] could do nothing, and I ran… there was this a terrific petrol explosion behind us”.
All five aircraft lined up for take-off were fully loaded with 500lb bombs, and as they collided John and another man dived into a nearby slip trench.
“[We] lay down and the first bomb went off… I suppose I was thirty or forty yards from where it blew up. Blew it to bits, a piece of geodetic [airframe] landed on an airmen in front of me and pow! We rolled over and over. I said, ‘We’ve got to run.’ The two of us just scampered off as hard as we could go… For the rest of the night this aircraft and the others caught fire and five blew up and a number of others were damaged… and of course the whole airfield was chaos… Eight, eight aircrew in that collision, two survived. Our rear gunner, he got out of the rear cockpit somehow or other. He was injured. I never saw him again. That was the only [other] survivor out of eight; now there was luck for you, and I hadn’t got a scratch”.
When his tour ended, John returned home in early 1943 and became an instructor on Wellingtons. Following the death of a close friend, shot down during the battle of Arnhem, John volunteered for a second operational tour and joined 8 Group (Path Finder Force) on de Havilland Mosquitoes in September 1944.
Flying out of Cambridgeshire with 142 and then 162 Squadron, John was part of the Light Night Striking Force used both for bombing and for diversionary raids to draw German fighters away from the main force. He soon had another near miss over Hamburg, when a piece of flak struck the aircraft between him and his navigator, a Canadian named Bill Tulloch:
“A piece of shrapnel came through the nose of the aircraft, went between us and thudded in behind, and a bit of perspex from it flicked my navigator’s eyebrow and, of course, we got a blooming hole in the front” said John.
With a 300mph wind coming in through the hole, John attempted to assess his navigator’s injury:
“I turned and he pulled his mask down and, of course at twenty-five thousand feet you bleed quite profusely. Oh God… blood all down here and… he pulled his mask off… It was horrible but it was only a nick. [The shrapnel] had gone through, missed him and missed me at eye level”.
Partnered by the same navigator John, completed 50 sorties to Europe, including 21 to Berlin. In 1945 John and Bill were awarded the DFC.
On completion of this tour, John joined Transport Command as a ferry pilot. He was posted to India and Burma for the build-up of ‘Tiger Force’ and the proposed invasion of Malaya and Singapore, but the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 halted this plan. After a few months in administrative roles he returned home and was demobbed in May 1946.
Returning to Sutton Coldfield, John married Audrey Girling in 1950 and joined his brother-in-law in building up a substantial manufacturing works in steel fabrications in Birmingham. He played golf for Warwickshire nearly 100 times, winning numerous championships including English Senior Open amateur championship in 1982 and Midland Senior in 1985.
A member of the RAF Association, the Aircrew and Pathfinder Associations, he felt uneasy that there was a reluctance after the war to give Bomber Command the credit it deserved. He was therefore a strong supporter of both the Bomber Command Memorial and the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln.
John Leslie Whitworth DFC died in Harrogate on 14 June 2019. He is survived by his two sons and four grandchildren.