Alexandra Kent knew as a child that her father John 'Johnny' Kent was a celebrated Battle of Britain pilot and successful test pilot. But it wasn't until many years later, after his death, that a chance discovery in a book on No. 303 Squadron led her on a quest to learn more about the impact that being an 'ace' fighter pilot in wartime had upon him.
Alexandra's discoveries add a personal element to the new version of her father's autobiography "One of the Few: a story of personal challenge through the Battle of Britain and Beyond" (The History Press 2016). A portion of the proceeds of the book will be donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which assisted Johnny in his later years.
In this blog, we learn more about Johnny and his Battle of Britain service with No. 303 Squadron.
Canadian born John Kent qualified as a commercial pilot whilst still a teenager and joined the RAF in 1935. Serving initially as a test pilot at Farnborough, by 1940 he was flying Spitfires in the Fall of France.
After Dunkirk, he returned to Britain and transitioned to flying Hawker Hurricanes. On 2 August 1940, he was appointed a Flight Commander of "A" Flight of the newly formed No. 303 Squadron, which was based at RAF Northolt.
At this stage, No. 303 Squadron was an unknown quantity and it was not yet operational. There was also the problem of language and Johnny wrote in his memoirs, "All I knew about the Polish Air Force was that it had only lasted about three days against the Luftwaffe and I had no reason to suppose that they would shine any more brightly operating from England."
However, the squadron proved to be formed of highly experienced, battle-hardened Polish flyers who had gone to great lengths to reach Britain and continue the battle against the Nazis. Johnny began learning Polish phrases and joining the Poles for pints at the local pub and profound mutual respect soon developed between him and his men.
Declared operational on 31 August 1940 and already with a victory to their score, No. 303 Squadron became a powerful force in the Battle of Britain. In the next six weeks, the squadron claimed 126 victories with very few pilots killed. Although the squadron joined the Battle several weeks after it had begun, No. 303 became the most successful Battle of Britain squadron.
Johnny scored several victories during his time with No. 303 Squadron and remarkably led nine Hurricanes in a dogfight over London on 15 September 1940 – a day we now remember as Battle of Britain Day. These nine RAF pilots took on a larger force of German raiders and claimed nine victories. By the end of the day, the squadron had claimed an additional six victories.
Johnny later said, "Of course you don't run into Huns every day of the week, but when you do go up to meet him you feel so good that you think you could take on the entire German Air Force single-handed."
Yet as Alexandra learned decades later, such conflict took an emotional toll. She writes in the book's introduction:
"By mid-September 1940, my father has by now had his baptism of fire in the air and, together with his peers, is quickly developing new emotional coping strategies. Understatement was used to deal with the horrific maiming or annihilation of colleagues. On losing one of his pilots, he writes breezily in his diary:
'Sgt. Wojtowicz was found today near Biggin Hill. It appears that he had a terrific fight with a tremendous number of Me 109's and managed to shoot down two of them before they got him. Damn fine show. It was a bloody shame that they got him though [sic] he was a very fine type.'"
Alexandra continues, "In order to be victorious against an external enemy, I believe men like my father had first to vanquish the foe within – their own sensibilities, their inherent frailties, their terror and their tenderness. As a commander of some of the most ruthless and expert pilots of the time, my father had to be not only competent in this but also exemplary."
Indeed, Johnny himself said of the Poles under his command, "They were so brave that you didn't dare to show a sign of fear even if your heart was in your mouth."
In October, No. 303 Squadron was transferred out of battle and Johnny was moved to No. 92 Squadron. He later returned to RAF Northolt after his promotion to Wing Leader and led four squadrons forming the Polish Wing.
Johnny served through the rest of the war and retired as a Group Captain in 1956. In his later years he was aided by the RAF Benevolent Fund and he died in 1985 at the age of 71.
Johnny was highly decorated for his service, honoured with the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, Air Force Cross, and the War Order of Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military honour. But perhaps most touching is the respect given by his Polish comrades who adopted their Canadian leader as one of their own, calling him 'Kentski' or 'Kentowski' and welcoming him as their equal in battle.
For more information
"One of the Few: a story of personal challenge through the Battle of Britain and Beyond" (The History Press 2016) by John Kent and Alexandra Kent is for sale at: www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/one-of-the-few/9780750968201
Or contact the History Press, 01256 302692, firstname.lastname@example.org
50% of the royalties from the book will go to the RAF Benevolent Fund.
Alexandra will be at the RAF Museum in Hendon on 17 September 2016 for a book signing and screening of Tomasz Magierski's documentary film '303'. For ticket information, please visit the RAF Museum website.