RAF pilot John C. Freeborn dies at 90; shot down fellow British pilots in WWII
Early on the morning of Sept. 6, 1939, Royal Air Force fighter pilot John C. Freeborn received word from his commanding officer: Get to your Spitfire, on the double. A German air raid is inbound.
Through what he later called "heavy, heavy mist," Mr. Freeborn took off from Hornchurch, near London, and pressed the throttle to intercept enemy planes heading for the British coast.
It was the first week of World War II, and Mr. Freeborn, a 19-year-old grammar school dropout, was eager to get to the fight.
Soon after taking off, he and another squadron mate, Paddy Byrne, came up behind two enemy planes.
Under direct orders, the British pilots fired off their machine guns and watched as both aircraft in front of them spiraled to the ground.
When Mr. Freeborn returned to base he expected to be swarmed with congratulations -- he was the first British pilot to record a "kill" in the war.
Instead, he and Byrne were placed under arrest. The supposed German fighters they had downed were actually two British Hurricanes dispatched from a base not far from Hornchurch. No German planes were attacking that day.
One of the downed pilots, dropped by Byrne's guns, survived the attack. The other, Pilot Officer Montague Hulton-Harrop, was killed by Mr. Freeborn, becoming the first RAF casualty of the war.
Mr. Freeborn, who died Aug. 28 at the age of 90 in Southport, England, went on to become one of the most highly decorated British airmen of World War II.
He flew more combat hours in the Battle of Britain during the summer of 1940 than any other RAF pilot.
Recording at least a dozen confirmed kills, Mr. Freeborn twice received Britain's Distinguished Flying Cross.
For all of his accomplishments, he never shook the remorse he felt about killing a countryman that morning in 1939. In recent years, he had visited Hulton-Harrop's grave.
"I think about him nearly every day, I always have done," Mr. Freeborn told the BBC last year. "I've had a good life, and he should have had a good life, too."
Mr. Freeborn and Byrne were court-martialed for the incident, accused by their flight leader, Adolph "Sailor" Malan, of disobeying a last-minute order to hold their fire. Both were acquitted, and Hulton-Harrop's friendly-fire death was attributed to a breakdown of communication.
Mr. Freeborn later said the friendly-fire death toll would have been higher if not for another squadron pilot who intervened.
"He got in the way, and I was shouting at him to get out of the bloody way, to either shoot or let me shoot," Mr. Freeborn said in a 2004 interview with Gavin Mortimer that appeared last week in the Smithsonian's Air and Space magazine. "But then he said, 'It's one of ours.' When the adrenaline is running, you don't realize these things at the time."
John Connell Freeborn was born Dec. 1, 1919, in Middleton, a small suburb of Leeds, England. He left grammar school at 16 and joined the RAF in 1938, where he made 14 shillings a week and shot pheasant in his spare time. He later visited his classmates after flight school by landing his plane on a nearby cricket pitch.
After his success in the Battle of Britain, Mr. Freeborn was sent to the United States to train American pilots and test prototype aircraft. During that time, he reportedly befriended Hollywood starlet Betty Grable and had a brief romance with her.
He finished the war in Europe as one of the youngest wing commanders in the RAF and separated from the service in 1946.
As a civilian, Mr. Freeborn worked as the regional director for a soft-drink distributorship. He retired early to care for his wife, Rita, who died in 1980.
His second wife, Peta, died in 2001. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage.
In the 2004 interview with Mortimer, Mr. Freeborn recalled his first enemy kill, a German Messerschmitt 109.
"I rolled, went through some cloud, and came out behind him," Mr. Freeborn said. "I gave him a squirt or two, and down he went straight into the cottage of an old farmer who was out plowing his fields. And I can see to this day the farmer standing there shaking his fist at me."