Squadron Leader John Hart, who has died aged 102, was the last surviving Canadian Battle of Britain pilot.
Squadron Leader John Hart, who has died aged 102, was the last surviving Canadian Battle of Britain pilot. He went on to serve on fighters in Burma and in Italy, where he won the DFC.
Hart arrived on No 602 Squadron on September 24 1940 when it was flying from Westhampnett near Chichester. Although the intensity of the fighting had eased somewhat, Hart and his colleagues were scrambled on a daily basis to intercept raids approaching the south coast.
On October 12, Hart’s Spitfire was seriously damaged during an engagement with Messerschmitt Bf 109s in fighting over the English Channel, but he was able to return safely.
During the afternoon he was again on patrol when his formation of three aircraft attacked a Junkers 88 south of Beachy Head. Their combined attacks resulted in the German bomber crashing into the sea.
After a few days of reduced activity, the Luftwaffe mounted a large-scale operation at midday on October 29. Five Spitfire and four Hurricane squadrons were scrambled. In the ensuing battle over Kent, 11 enemy fighters were shot down, one of them by Hart. This proved to be the last major action of the Battle of Britain.
John Stewart Hart was born on September 11 1916 in Sackville, New Brunswick. He attended Mount Allison University, having learnt to fly at the Halifax Flying Club. Growing bored of working with the fishing fleets on the east coast of Canada, he travelled to Britain and obtained a short service commission in the RAF in June 1939.
His flying training completed, he was posted to an Army co-operation squadron, but a serious car crash interrupted his progress. After recovering he trained on fighters before joining No 602 Squadron.
In November 1940 Hart shared in the destruction of a Junkers 88 bomber before joining No 91 Squadron. In October he was rested and spent almost a year as a fighter instructor before he left for India. In February 1943 he joined No 79 Squadron flying Hurricanes on ground attack operations in support of the Fourteenth Army.
Three months later he took command of No 67 Squadron in Burma flying escort to bomber formations and transport aircraft parachuting supplies to the ground forces. Hart continued to fly on operations until September 1944, when he left for Egypt to command an air gunnery school.
John Hart in Burma, where he commanded 67 Squadron flying escort to bombers
In March 1945 he joined No 112 Squadron based in Italy. After just two familiarisation sorties in the Mustang, he flew his first operation in the American-built fighter.
On March 3 he led a formation to attack the Carsara rail bridge, which carried one of the principal railway lines into Italy from Yugoslavia. The raid was a success and the railway line was cut. A second attack in the afternoon hit the bridge.
In April Hart assumed command of the squadron and, during the final weeks of the war, he led many ground-attack sorties.
On April 9 he was strafing gun positions near Bolognese when his aircraft was badly damaged. His wingman reported: “He flew home with a man-sized hole through the tailplane and a smack in the ammo bay.”
As the Germans retreated north of the River Po and towards the Austrian border, Hart and his pilots attacked their transport and the temporary pontoon ridges across the numerous river obstacles.
He led formations to attack the railway system and, on one sortie, 11 locomotives were successfully attacked. A few days later more were damaged. On May 2 he led an attack into Austria when five railway engines and three trucks were damaged.
The war in the Balkans continued into early May and Hart led patrols over the Istrian peninsula on the 3rd – two days later the squadron was stood down.
A few weeks later Hart was awarded the DFC, the citation highlighted his “skilful leadership, great determination and devotion to duty.”
Hart was released from the RAF in 1946 when he returned to Canada and settled in Vancouver where he became involved in real estate, specialising as an appraiser. He retired in 1976.
On his 100th birthday, the Royal Canadian Air Force celebrated his birthday with a fly-past over his home. Later in the day he took off in a Harvard wartime training aircraft. When asked how it flew, he replied: “It handled like a logging truck – nothing like the nimble Spitfire.”
With the passing of John Hart there are now just four survivors of “The Few”.
John Hart married his Scottish wife Joan in 1942; she died in 1977. He was married to his second wife Bette for 35 years; she also predeceased him. His three children survive him. John Hart, born September 11 1916, died June 18 2019
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