John "Paddy" Hemmingway, the last of the 36 Irish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, and the only remaining RAF veteran of the Battle of France, celebrates his 100th birthday today.
Born in Dublin in 1919, he applied for the British Royal Air Force in 1938 as an Irish volunteer. He began training in England in 1939.
On completion of flight school, Pilot Officer Hemmingway was posted to No 85 Squadron in Debden, flying Hurricanes.
When war broke out his squadron was sent to Rouen, France, to provide support for the British Expeditionary Force. On May 11th, 1940, days after the Battle of France commenced, he downed a German Dornier Do 77 light bomber. On the same day he himself was brought down by anti-aircraft fire, but landed safely.
He flew air support missions over Dunkirk during the evacuation.
Hemmingway was on the front line during the Battle of Britain and was shot down twice in Aug, 1940. The 1st time while intercepting Junkers Ju 88s, about 32km off the SE coast of England. He was rescued by a rowboat after 2 hours in the water. The 2nd time was over Kent, England, during an attack on Dornier bombers, when his plane was damaged by tail gunners and he bailed over Pitsea marshes. His Hurricane plummeted from 5,000m and was buried in the soft soil. Earlier this year, it was uncovered by archaeologists, with the firing mechanism still working, and set to "fire". By Sep, 1940, Squadron 85 had lost 11 pilots and had to be withdrawn. John was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in July, 41.
He worked as a flight controller during the Normandy invasion. In Sep 44 he was posted to Italy as the leader of Squadron 43, flying Spitfires. He was shot down for a 4th time when his plane was hit by ground fire and he had to bail out behind enemy lines. He was cared for by Partisans and guided by a young girl back past German positions to the Allied lines.
After the war he served as a staff officer in the Middle East, as station commander of RAF Leconfield, and then as senior officer at NATO HQ in France.
John retired in 1969 and lives in Dublin.
Bhreithlá Sona ✊
Credit: Irish Times