John "Paddy" Hemingway - The Last of The Few

In a speech during the Battle of Britain in August 1940, Winston Churchill paid tribute to the pilots of the Royal Air Force, famously saying, 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few'. Now aged 104, Group Captain John Allman "Paddy" Hemingway (pictured above) is the only surviving pilot of the 2,937 who helped to win the Battle of Britain. His story completes a trilogy of tales which follows those of Douglas "Dogsbody" Bader and William "Billy" Fiske whose bravery is beyond belief and matched only by their modesty.

Hemingway - one of just 36 Irishmen who flew during the Battle of Britain

Hemingway was born in Dublin on 17 July 1919, and was accepted to serve in the Royal Air Force on 7 March 1938. He began flight training in Brough, East Riding of Yorkshire, and was awarded his wings on 7 March 1939, aged 19, just a few months before the outbreak of WWII, following which he was in service with No.85 Squadron RAF in France. On 11 May 1940, he was forced to make a crash landing near Maastricht after his plane was damaged, and walked for three days to get to a British base. On 15 May, the British Army brought him to Lille-Seclin and he returned to England two days later... just as the Battle of Britain was about to commence.

Hemingway (left) with members of 85 Squadron

On August 18 – dubbed ‘The Hardest Day’ – John was shot down in Hurricane V7249 following a skirmish with a Junkers Ju 88 near the Thames estuary. He managed to bail and landed in the sea. Luckily, the crew of a Lightship had seen the Hurricane gliding overhead before he bailed, and a lifeboat was sent to rescue him. After 2 hours of searching, the crew gave up hope of finding him alive and began to return to shore, only to suddenly hear a noise that led them to him. He was pulled aboard and returned to his Squadron.

85 Squadron scramble - "Paddy" (2nd right) famously flew in shirt sleeves 

At 3pm on August 26, 1940, Paddy was again shot down, this time over the Essex marshes. He managed to bail out and was found by the local Home Guard. By 10.30pm he was back with his fellow men of 85 Squadron, ready to fight another day, but his Hawker Hurricane fighter plane number P3966 had hit the marshes at over 300mph, burying itself almost 40ft into the soggy sea bog close to Pitsea. 

Artist's impression of Hemingway's Hurricane being shot down

For almost 80 years P3966 lay buried — only a dip in the earth giving a clue as to what lay beneath, then, in 2019, a team finally pulled out the remains of P3966, including the control column — still set in the “fire” position that Paddy had engaged to shoot at a German Dornier Do 215 light bomber that would bring him down.

Some of the remains of P3966, including the control column

In a hangar at Elmsett Airfield in Suffolk, P3966 is being slowly restored from scratch, by a team of highly skilled engineers from Hawker Restorations. After almost a year of painstaking work, the ­fuselage, wings and ­cockpit are now taking shape. As many of the original parts as possible will be retained — including bullet-riddled armour and the manufacturer’s plate with the registration number. 

The Hawker Hurricane P3966 registration plate

Incredibly, after nearly 80 years in the marsh mud, one of the plane’s eight Browning .303 machine guns was still in working order when removed, and had to be deactivated. Paddy's son Brian, has paid a close interest to the restoration of the fighter plane and was recently photographed alongside the rebuild.

Brian Hemingway holding one of the 8 Browning machine guns

Although Hemingway survived the Battle of Britain, it was not the end of his adventure, as war continued to rage and he continued to fly. On 13 May, 1941, he was shot down for a third time, and his parachute failed to open properly, but incredibly, he landed on a large dung heap in the garden of the poet Walter de la Mare in London, which luckily broke his fall and saved his life. In recognition of his bravery, on 29 July 1942, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the King, but the RAF flight he took to London to receive the award crashed during take off - naturally, he survived.

Hemingway (2nd left) and his Squadron

Towards the end of the war, Hemingway was posted to Italy with the RAF's 43 Squadron. On 23 April 1945, he was flying a routine reconnaissance mission with three other pilots over German occupied Ferrara, when his Spitfire Mk IX was attacked by anti-aircraft fire. He managed to bail out but his parachute ripped the skin off his legs as he was tumbling through the air. He managed to land alive, behind enemy lines. 

Hemingway falls behind enemy lines

Hemingway somehow managed to stumble across a farmhouse and was luckily able to take refuge with the owners, who swapped his uniform for peasant clothes and allowed their young daughter (who Hemingway recalls was 7-8 years old) to take him through woodland paths avoiding German military posts and leading him to safety. Miraculously, the identity of the young girl has recently been revealed.

Lina Volpi with a photograph of her mother, Carla Fabbri

After a public appeal in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, the girl who was his saviour has now been identified as Carla Fabbri, a resident of Copparo, near Ferrara. Fabbri died ten years ago, aged 77, but her daughter, Lina Volpi, learnt of the appeal, and recalled the stories that her mother had told her of the great adventure when she was a child. Archaeologists of the Air, a local aviation society which led the appeal and also runs a museum in Copparo, checked the location of Fabbri’s former home against a flight report detailing the co-ordinates of Hemingway’s crash, as well as maps showing where fragments from a Spitfire, thought to be his, were found in Coccanile, about a mile away, in 2017. 

Group Captain John "Paddy" Hemingway - the last of the few

Volpi said she now hoped to visit Hemingway at his nursing home in Dublin and hear his own account of the story. “It would be a privilege and the most important thing in my life to meet him,” she said. There is no doubt he'd be delighted to meet her, but he also has an ambition of his own - to live to (at least) 106 years of age and see his Hawker Hurricane P3966 fly again. We sincerely hope that he does.

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