We were honoured to have the opportunity to sit down for a personal chat with Vaughan veteran John Thompson, a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Thompson, in his nineties, is an active community member. He is also depicted in a number of historical images being showcased for Service and Sacrifice: Vaughan’s Contribution to Two World Wars, an exhibition on display now until Nov. 27 in the Vaughan City Hall atrium.
Read on to learn more about his service and experience.
Q: What was your rank?
By the end of the war I was a Flying Officer, but I started at the bottom — I was an aircraftman second class* (AC2) and you went from there all through the ranks until you were commissioned. I got my commission oversees and then you rise up the ranks from there. There were many people below me and above me. I was in the middle.
*Note: “An aircraftman (AC) or aircraftwoman (ACW) is the lowest rank in the Royal Air Force. Service personnel entered as aircraftman second class (AC2) and could theoretically rise to the rank of warrant officer.” Source: Life in the ground crews.
Q: How many years did you serve?
I enlisted in 1941 and I was discharged in 1945.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Woodbridge. I was born on the main street of Woodbridge.
Q: And where do you live now?
Q: Do you have any siblings?
I have two brothers; my one brother died very young and my other brother lives in Brampton. I also have one sister and she lives in Woodbridge, too. And she’s 91.
I also have three daughters: Nancy, Joanne and Judy. Judy lives in California, Nancy lives right next door to me and Joanna is in Barrie.
Q: Did you like school when you were growing up?
Well, I can’t say that I disliked it – I just wasn’t a good student. In fact I often wonder if the war hadn’t come along what I would have done with myself.
Q: What activities did you enjoy as a teenager?
Well I was into sports. I played a lot of hockey, football and baseball. When I was between 16 and 18 years old everything in the papers was about the Battle of Britain. I read about spitfires* and hurricanes* and I wanted to fly one.
*Note: “Undoubtedly one of the most important military aircraft of all time, Mk1 Spitfires entered Royal Air Force service in August 1938. Its fragile, almost dainty appearance belied a superior performance and hard-hitting firepower that made it a formidable opponent in aerial combat. The Hurricane was a robust aircraft and a stable gun platform, well able to absorb a huge amount of battle damage that would have downed the Spitfire. For its time it was an extremely advanced aircraft – a metal and fabric-skinned monoplane with retractable undercarriage, enclosed cockpit and eight gun armament. The first Hurricanes entered service in December 1937.” Source: Royal Air Force.
Q: What, then, was your motivation for joining the air force?
When I was 16, the Battle of Britain fighter pilots were my heroes and I wanted to be a fighter pilot. So I enlisted when I turned 18. All I could think about around that time was flying a fighter aircraft and taking part in the war.
Q: When you finally enlisted, what feelings did you experience? Were you nervous? Excited?
Excited is the word. I was excited. I mean, thousands went down to enlist, but only a few were picked, and if you got picked for pilot training that meant you were head and shoulders above the rest of them. So I guess I had more talent than I thought. The Air Force thought I was worth training and it turned out they were right.
Q: Where did you receive your training?
I got my wings in Canada. I went overseas at the end of 1942 and then I went through advanced training in England and then I instructed for about seven months. That’s when I went from being an ordinary pilot – a good pilot – to above average. It served me well and I went to the squadron*.
*Note: “The squadron is the basic fighting unit of the Royal Air Force. Although the shape and composition will vary depending of their role, squadrons are generally organized in a similar way.” Source: Royal Air Force.
Q: Did you have any special skills that helped you through your training?
I don’t think so. I was co-ordinated. Playing sports helped. I had most of what they called a senior matriculation*. I spent five years in high school. I had a complete junior matriculation* and quite a bit of my senior matric. Other than that, flying to me was just a piece of cake.
*Note: Junior matriculation: “a certificate awarded to students who have successfully completed the ordinary course at a Canadian high school.” Senior matriculation: “a certificate awarded to a high school graduate in Canada for successfully completing at a high school a year of additional studies chiefly of college grade.” Source: merriam-webster.com.
Q: Did you make any friends during that time?
Yes, but understand that a flying fighter didn’t make many friends because when they were gone, they were gone. They just disappeared. They didn’t come back. Now in the army the guys joined up, they were in the same unit, they trained together, they went oversees together and you made friends. But I was posted at many different stations, I’d meet 25 to 30 guys who were on course with me and I’d never see them again. You didn’t try to form any bonds, you knew people, but you didn’t make any great friendships. I made more since I was discharged from the air force.
We have an organization now called Typhoon Pilots, and when I first joined it we had over 50 people at the very first meeting. But at the last meeting we had, there was only six. I mean, they’re not all dead, but age has certainly taken its toll. But with respect to the guys that I knew and flew with in the same aircraft, that’s the only “bond” we really had.
Q: What was your most frightening experience?
I had a lot of them. Nothing in particular sticks in my mind, but I mean, when you’re flying in that typhoon* when it’s seven tonnes and full of gasoline – high-octane gas – every takeoff was an experience. And every landing was an experience. A flight didn’t count as a combat flight unless you were shot at or shot your guns off. So every time we went out, we either got shot at or shot at something. I had a couple of typhoons that I crashed, but nothing bad — I was never hurt.
*Note: “A multi-role combat aircraft, the typhoon was capable of being deployed in the full spectrum of air operations, from air policing, to peace support, through to high intensity conflict.” Source: Royal Air Force.
Q: Did you ever think that you wouldn’t survive?
I think that if you thought that way maybe you wouldn’t have survived. Your attitude had to be positive, and I kept saying they couldn’t get to me and that’s the way it was. My motto was, when in doubt, attack!
Q: When you were oversees did you do a lot of writing?
Not as much as I should have. My father was postmaster, in charge of the post office in Woodbridge. And in those days everyone had to go to the post office to get their mail. Every letter that came through, even the ones I wrote to my girlfriend, my father would say, “Now you read me that letter, I want to know about it.” And my girlfriend would go through it with him.
But everything that we sent home was censored. Some of the letters were just a bunch of black marks. They didn’t want you to tell where you were, what you were flying or what you were doing, I suppose for security reasons. I didn’t really feel compelled to tell them what I was experiencing; it was more about telling them I was okay.
Q: So you’re married?
Oh yeah. I’ve been married to the same woman for 66 years. And I had three daughters. And I had a female cat and dog so I know all about females! *laughing*
Q: How did you meet her?
Well it’s funny, she moved in next door in 1941 and we were just friends and I don’t think we even had a date that I can remember. But after the war, when I came home, she was there, and it all came together. There was a spark there, and the spark continued and we still like being together.
Q: What are your hobbies now? What do you enjoy doing?
I don’t have any real hobbies. I’m a bit of a TV addict — well, not an addict. But I like to watch nature programs or history programs. But I have been connected with a senior’s non-profit housing organization for a number of years through the Legion. And any extra time I have I devote to that organization. I’m the president. And I have been for God knows how long. I can’t get rid of the position!
Q: Any final thoughts?
You know, I never think about the past in a bad way, I’m pretty upbeat about everything.